Trinity College

Orthodox Life I: Eastern Christian Understanding of Ethics and the Person

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2020
Next Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2023

Eastern Christian theology is all-too-often thought of as having its primary concern for formal issues: dogmatics and doctrine, liturgy, iconography, and so on. But in fact, Eastern Christian theology has only one primary purpose – the divinization of life itself – and the East-Christian world-outlook embraces all those formal fields, not merely as intellectual resources for illuminating the Truth, but rather as necessary knowledge framing and making possible the life of the soul on its path to God. In this understanding, the primary reason for the gift of life – life which is the eschaton of Creation – is so all that lives within the framework of Creation can reveal, witness, incorporate within itself, the Holy.

This understanding is not to be perceived or grasped as an abstraction, a concept. It is not an idea found by intellection, nor is it a transcendental inner state of another-worldly kind. The holy life is a life of praxis, lived in the world, in the person’s own time, own circumstances, own society with its conditions and circumstances. For this reason, holiness cannot be defined or described by any single set of precepts or rules of behaviour; it consists entirely in a dialogue between God-who-is-Holy and persons – persons fully in the ecclesia and persons not; every person is called to holiness – whose life must be carried on in their own world and time; the holy person attends to his/her holy dialogue with God and extends it outward into behaviour and relationships and decisions and management which witness that holiness in the contemporary world. Eastern Christians are not called to “leave the world” or this present life; they are called to be saints within it. They are not called out of their culture; they are called to bless it. This is true for all; whether laity or clergy or monks all live in the world, and their life is a process of discovery of the true divine oikonomia which makes possible life-saving decisions within the frame of God’s plan for salvation (Eph 1:9-10). All Eastern Christians, even monastics, are expected to approach life in the world with decisiveness, “discerning the spirits” (1 John 4:1, cf. 1 Cor 12:10, 1 Th 5:21-2) and acting as good stewards of Creation and as saintly icons of morals and faith.

However, this very commitment to finding and revealing holiness in life carries within itself the seeds of a fundamental challenge: the holy life can only be experienced through encounter, engagement with the world as it is. Holiness may need to make judgments and value-based decisions about what is “real” in the world, but it can never deny that the world is real; the engagement of holy persons is carried on within society and the world-environment. But Life-experience has always recognized Life-in-the-world as “messy” and complex, requiring constant judgment and decision, often from a position of competing social goods or values. Life-in-the-world moves ever-onward through the unpredictable  turnings of war and peace, economic fluctuation, cultural shifts in values, births and deaths, illnesses and aging, elections, population movements and demographic shifts, coups-d’état and revolutions, environmental changes, shifts in scientific knowledge and philosophical discoveries, civil court decisions about “rights,” and even falling in love. Is Orthodox Tradition, as learned through Eastern Christian living and as examined and reviewed in the Orthodox/Eastern Christian Program, a sound – and effective -- basis upon which to ground the constant judgment and decision-making which Life-in-the-world requires? Is the dialogue with God which Eastern Christian theology provides sufficient to cope with the challenge of Life-in-the-World, or must a holy person incorporate into the dialogue something of the truths and values of the world?  Can we evaluate bioethics without a knowledge of science? Can we evaluate “spiritual growth” without an understanding of psychology? Can we love our neighbour if we understand nothing of his culture? Praxis is the conduct of a life through making decisions; does Orthodox knowledge and faith provide a sound basis for wise – and holy – deciding? What is the true relationship between what God needs of us and what social need places four-square before our eyes?

These questions are perennial, facing everyone who has ever tried to live in the world while walking with God. But our own time and our own place have made this situation even more difficult, for everyone but especially for Eastern Christians with their strong appeal to Tradition. The 20th and 21st centuries have thrust into the center of “reality” many issues of existentialism, pluralism of ethical values, relativity of cultures, and so on, all playing out against dramatic shifts in environment, biotechnology, religious pluralism, overcoming of old prejudices, and so on, all of which together dramatically shift the ground from under the feet of confident certitude – in fact, even challenging the possibility of certitude itself.  And the social and legal environment of Canadian and US culture and “secular” democracy, grounded in notions of rights, toleration, and separation of religion from the state, makes the grasp of proper decisions and the application of religious truths to the social dynamic even harder to sort out.

Students in this year-long course will have an opportunity, through discussions of many concrete issues of our times, to evaluate these profound issues of the problems of living in a social world and the deeper issue of what applicability their Eastern Christian knowledge has in providing a foundation for meaningful solutions to those Life-problems, and by what methods this knowledge might be made to work in ways that are respectful of the realities of the world.

In Orthodox Life I the course follows an opening overview of the dilemma of ethical decision-making with a set of problems which touch on personal self-recognition. In Orthodox Life II this will be followed by consideration of problems which stem from persons’ need to live in greater society and  in socio-political relationships. The central issue in both cases is the same: How can meaningful solutions be found for these key Life-problems which are at once practically useful and provide a true Christian witness? Scripture tells Orthodox Christians that there can be no compromise with the world; Orthodox praxis tells them that every life-decision engages oikonomia – merciful understanding of the problems of life in a way which keeps strict faith with Holy Tradition and also seeks a humanly possible, Anthropology-respecting, solution to a problem. For Eastern Christians, oikonomia plays a major role in preaching, in ethics, in the correction of sinners, even in canon law; yet the parameters of “oeconomic” judgment have yet to receive an adequate definition. Indeed, as said above, in the 21st century a single-valued definition may no longer even be possible – so how is an “oeconomic” decision to be reached?

Specific topics in Orthodox Life I

Among topics to be considered will be the following; in every case we will be discussing how an Orthodox believer with an educated grounding in The Orthodox Tradition would approach and defend stances on questions such as:

  • General ethics and epistemological issues: How does Eastern Christianity respond to the questions posed by “Situation Ethics” or the theology of moral Probablism? Is there a universal ethic, or are morals existentially personal? Can Orthodox Christians cope with a culture which firmly advocates plurality of truth, at least in dialogue? What is the Eastern stance on crime and retributive justice? In general, what is “justice” in Christian ethics? and what are “rights” (especially in secular democracies with separation of church and state)? How should abortion laws be regarded, and are they an issue of bioethics or of juridical ethics? What is the ethical Orthodox response to suffering?
  • How to use Tradition, Scripture, Canon Law, and Patristic Texts: Are “rules” the principles of Orthodox ethics? Does Orthodoxy know of timeless ethical norms? How?
  • Bioethics: What stand should Eastern Christians take with regard to the possibilities of biotechnology and its potential for human social engineering? What about end-of-life issues?  Genetic modification? Conception and pregnancy? Stem-cell research? Abortion of “hopelessly” deformed foetuses? And so on. What is “life”?
  • Women in society and the Church: How does the Orthodox Church epistemologically understand women’s place and role in the human race and in the social fabric?  Is the special question of ordination of women a theological, or a cultural issue?
  • Marriage and human sexuality: In Orthodox praxis there are many rules surrounding marriage and sexuality; what is the Anthropological grounding on which they are based? When approached from the viewpoint of Orthodox ethics and of love, should some of these rules or practices be regarded as theologoumena, and be open to further discussion? In particular, what should be said about divorce, death of a spouse, priestly marriage, same-sex attraction? What does the view of marriage and sexuality say about Orthodox Anthropology? And how does this affect Orthodox ethical stance on disparity of cult in Christian intermarriage?