Orthodox Life I

Eastern Christian understanding of ethics and the person

Information and Readings for Auditors

This course was offered in the 2023 Winter (January to April) term. After the first class (recorded in person), the classes were held online by Zoom.

Course Syllabus

Required Texts

The following required book is not available online through the University of Toronto library and thus must be purchased. Print and ebook versions are readily available from any good bookseller.

  • Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Baker Academic, 2018)

Course Introduction and Rationale

The following introductory essay to this course was written by Professor Richard Schneider, founder of the Orthodox Christian Studies programme at Trinity College and the first instructor of this course. Prof Schneider reposed in the Lord in November 2022. Memory eternal!

Eastern Orthodox 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, Orthodox Christian theology has only one primary purpose — the divinisation of life itself — and the Orthodox 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 every human being on their 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 every human 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 without, for every person is called to holiness — whose life must be carried on in their own world and time. Each holy person attends to their own holy dialogue with God and extends it outward into behaviour and relationships and decisions and management which witness that holiness in the contemporary world. 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 everyone’s 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 (Ephesians 1:9-10). All Christians, even monastics, are expected to approach life in the world with decisiveness, “discerning the spirits” (1 John 4:1, cf. 1 Corinthians 12:10, 1 Thessalonians 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 judgements 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 recognised life-in-the-world as “messy” and complex, requiring constant judgement 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 Christian living — and as examined and reviewed in a graduate Orthodox Christian studies programme — a sound and effective basis upon which to ground the constant judgement 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 neighbours if we understand nothing of their 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 Orthodox Christians with their strong appeal to tradition. The 20th and 21st centuries have thrust into the centre 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 course — together with its companion course, Orthodox Life II: Eastern Christian Understanding of Ethics, Society, and the World, offered in alternate years — 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 Orthodox 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 Orthodox Christians, oikonomia plays a major role in preaching, in ethics, in the correction of sinners, even in canon law; yet the parameters of “economic” judgement 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 “economic” decision to be reached?

Preliminary Activity (Optional)

Scene Setting: Tom Stoppard’s Darkside Radio Play

This preliminary activity is entirely optional. For those who wish to do it, it’s intended to be a bit of fun but also helpful in setting the scene for our course. 

Almost fifty years ago, on 1 March 1973, Pink Floyd released their iconic album, The Dark Side of the Moon. Ten years ago, to commemorate the album’s 40th anniversary, and incorporating its music, lyrics, and themes (described as “multi-layered, existential meditations on fear, madness, greed, and the elusive passage of time”), renowned Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter (and Academy Award-winner) Tom Stoppard created a radio play for BBC Radio 2 called Darkside. 

Darkside is under an hour long, yet this radio play remarkably encapsulates many of the themes of our course, and from a stance that is broadly analogous to our own theological method and bearing. It certainly critiques what we will set out to critique; depending on your interpretation, it holds up possibilities and hopes were we will also seek to find them.

Enjoy, as you like!

Download the screenplay >

Listen to the radio play on YouTube (see video on the right)

Read an article by Tom Stoppard about his approach in writing the play >

Feel free to use the discussion forum below to comment or ask questions about the play and its themes, or even just to identify the film (“flickers”) quotations by the Fat Man.

For an added bit of fun, here are some trivia questions to ponder:

  1. Find the allusion to Saint Bede the Venerable in Darkside.
  2. What is the connection between Pink Floyd and Trinity College, Toronto? (This has nothing to do with the radio play, but it’s an interesting bit of trivia.)

Week 1: Introduction to the Course and Ethics


  • Course overview, syllabus, resources, expectations
  • Universal ethics of modernity:
    • deontological: religious, natural law, rational (categorical imperative)
    • consequential: utilitarian, situational
  • Subversive ethics of postmodernity
  • Ecclesial ethics — a postmodern retrieval of the premodern

Required Readings

Further (Optional) Readings

Week 2: Narrative Theology and Ecclesial/Teleological Ethics


  • The narrative turn of postcritical theology and retrieval of virtue
  • Teleology’s relativisation (contextualisation) of other ethical models
  • Ethics as theology
  • Theology as narrative
  • Narrative as drama
  • Drama as improvisation
  • Forming habits

Required Readings

  • Joseph Woodill, “Virtue Ethics and Its Suitability for Orthodox Christianity,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 41.1 (1997): 61-75
  • Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), pp. 3-65
    • if you find yourself struggling to read all of the assigned chapters from Wells for this week and next (130 pages in all), focus on pp. 3-37 and the following shortcut article (but do please catch up on the reading in the subsequent weeks): Samuel Wells, “Improvisation in the Theatre as a Model for Christian Ethics,” from Faithful Performances: Enacting Christian Tradition (London: Routledge, 2016), pp. 147-165

Further (Optional) Readings

  • Demetrios Harper, “The Analogy of Love: The Maximinian Conception of Virtue,” in The Analogy of Love: St Maximus the Confessor and the Foundations of Ethics (Yonkers, NY: SVS Press, 2019), pp. 203-269
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Nature of the Virtues,” in The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 11, No. 2 (April 1981), pp. 27-34

Commentary on Tom Stoppard's Darkside (Optional)

After the second class, those who were interested stayed to hear annotations and commentary on the radio play Darkside by Tom Stoppard which encapsulates many of the topics and to a surprising extent the overall trajectory of the course.

Further information about St Bede’s account of the conversion of King Edwin >

Week 3: Teleological Ethics as Improvised Drama


  • Ethics as improvisation:
    • Assessing status
    • Accepting and blocking
    • Questioning givens
    • Incorporating gifts
    • Reincorporating the lost

Required Readings

  • Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), pp. 67-132

Further (Optional) Readings

Week 4: Ecclesial Discernment within Living Tradition


  • Scripture and discernment: enacted narrative, improvisation and a Midrashic hermeneutic 
  • Welcoming of the gentiles as an act of ecclesial discernment within living tradition
  • Historical case study: slavery and civil rights

Required Readings

  • Study closely at least one of the four case studies in the final section (“Reaping,” pp135-189) of Wells as this will be the format of your own case studies in the coming weeks: 
    • A Threatening Offer: Human Evil
    • A Threatening Offer: Flawed Creation
    • A Promising Offer: Perfectible Bodies
    • A Promising Offer: Unlimited Food
  • Acts of the Apostles chapters 10 to 15

Further (Optional) Readings

  • Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996)

Downloadable template for case study analysis >

Questions to Ponder — Applying the Ecclesial/Teleological/Improvisation Model of Christian Ethics

  • Given that slavery coexists (and often thrives) under Christianity until the 19th century, what might have been the discernment process for overturning such a long and traditional ethical view?
  • In other words, after being justified for almost 2,000 years as a Biblical teaching, how did slavery become unconscionable? How did abolitionism and the upholding of basic human rights become “what the gospel was about all along”?
  • In what ways does this parallel the discernment of the church vis-à-vis the welcoming of the gentiles (Acts 10-15)? 
  • Are there are any further lessons for the church in its discernment today? (In what ways are the arguments advanced “from the Bible” by pro-slavery advocates below reminiscent of moral debates in our time?)
  • Reflect on how improvisation skills (forming habits, assessing status, accepting and blocking, questioning givens, incorporating gifts, reincorporating the lost) can help to frame and carry the story of God forward in this context.

A Few Pro-Slavery Biblical Arguments (from Bible-believing Christians of the 19th Century)

Richmond Enquirer (1820): “In the divine Scriptures, slavery is a constant unrebuked practice, by the examples furnished by the patriarchs of Israel, men admitted to direct intercourse with Heaven and under the visible protection of Jehovah. Abraham was a most faithful, obedient, humane, just, disinterested, righteous man, a spotless patriarch who constantly obeyed the voice of God—kept his charge, his commandments, his statutes, and his laws, and moreover found such acceptance with him as to be admitted to familiar conferences with Jehovah. Yet, among the deeds of Abraham is found the transaction of buying bondsmen for money. However, not the least intimation is given by any of the inspired writers that Abraham’s conduct in making such bargains—or afterwards as a slaveholder—was even in the most distant manner discountenanced by any private admonition or public suggestion of God’s displeasure for such contract or acquisition. This silence proved that the usage of buying and holding menials to involuntary service was never by them judged any violation of the statutes of Jehovah. For how it is possible for a sincere believer to imagine, that consistently with the ideas that faithful Christians cherish concerning the essential rectitude of God in whom abides the plenitude of justice, that he would specially style himself the God of Abraham—dignify him with the appelation of friend—deign to declare that in his seed he would bless all nations; affirm that Abraham had obeyed his voice—kept his charge, his commandments, his statues, and his laws—without exception—or that the blessed Redeemer would have commended the works of Abraham without any restriction —if Abraham’s moral conduct in becoming a slave holder had been deemed repugnant to any precept or clause in the code of the Supreme Lawgiver?”

Richmond Enquirer (1823): “Onesimus was the slave to Philemon; he ran away from his master and fled to Rome where he was converted by St. Paul. However, this conversion changed nothing; St. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. All the sophistry in the world cannot get rid of this decisive example. Christianity robs no man of his rights, and Onesimus was the property of his master, under the laws of his country, which must be obeyed, if not contrary to the laws of God.”

Monticello, Mississippi, Southern Journal (September 1846): “Slavery is the appropriate condition of the negro. ‘A servant of servants, shall he be’ (Genesis 9:25). That prophecy will be fulfilled in spite of all the abolition societies of the world. In a state of freedom, and power, a negro is the most indolent, brutal and cruel of any race upon earth. They lack the mind to direct their physical power to any useful purpose. We are as justifiable in reducing their physical powers to a useful end, as we are in compelling the brute creation to submit to our control. Mind must always govern matter. It is according to the fitness of things. The truth is, the negro is really happier under a good master, than when in a state of freedom. As Christians we must rejoice that they have been rescued from their idol worship, and brought to a land where true religion prevails. By the way, here is another abominable supplement to the Bible which these abolitionists have devised. Oh! No. The Bible according to their belief, is far too low a standard for them to prescribe to us. They are so very religious, that they virtually accuse God himself of an outrageous evil, in saying to the Israelites that they might hold their fellow men in slavery which He distinctly did. Not the first argument can be drawn from the Bible to support the abolitionists in their creed, for it so happens that the New Testament corresponds to the Old Testament in this particular. Although slavery was as common in the time of Jesus Christ as it is now in Mississippi, yet he never says to his hearers — slavery is an evil, and you must therefore abolish it. Nay, when St. Paul converted a runaway slave to Christianity, he sent him back to his master, and emphatically told him to be obedient — One of our modern abolitionists would have hid him and told him that he ought not to obey his master.”

Richmond Enquirer (1819): “Since Roman slavery existed at that time and he said nothing against it, Christ obviously accepted the institution of slavery. Indeed, he even healed the slave of the Roman centurion without speaking one word about freedom (Luke 7:1-10). Moreover, he actually gave slavery a sort of sanction by using it in a parable. If domestic slavery had been deemed by Jesus Christ the atrocious crime which it is now represented to be, could it have been passed over without censure? Would the doctrines of salvation have been illustrated by a reference to it, direct and unequivocal?—should we not have been told, not that the rich man, but that the slaveholders, could not enter the kingdom of heaven?”

Richard Nisbet (1730-1803), “Slavery Not Forbidden by Scripture” pamphlet: “Christ’s general maxims of charity and benevolence cannot be regarded as proofs against slavery. If the custom had been held in abhorrence by Christ and his disciples, they would, no doubt, have preached against it in direct terms. They were remarkable for the boldness of their discourses, and intrepidity of conduct.”

Reverend Richard Furman (1755-1825): “If slaveholding had been considered evil, then Christ or the Apostles would not have tolerated it for a moment in the Christian Church. But they had let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insisted on the relative duties. In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions. Slavery is not a sin, a Moral Evil. For God never did, and never will authorize men to commit Sin.”

Reverend James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862): “The parties in the conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders. They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground — Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake.”

Senator William Smith of South Carolina (1820): “I would not be astonished to find that Northerners are attempting a new version of the Old and New Testaments, a new model to suit the policy of the times. They would throw off such parts as were uncongenial to their interests, and leave the residue to God. They have already given the Scriptures an implied construction, as different from its literal sense, as they had that of the Constitution of the United States.”

Week 5: Human Life, Personhood, Transformation, and Flourishing (Theosis)


  • Meaning of human life and personhood
  • Growth, development, transformation in human life
  • The telos of human flourishing: theosis
  • Means of human enhancement and perfectibility
  • Challenges brought by scientific advancement: genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, cloning
  • Case study: transhumanism


Case Study: Transhumanism

Follow-up reading:

Week 6: Bioethics of Life, Health and Wellbeing, Ageing, and Death


  • Meaning of life (βίος and ζωή)
  • Defining life’s beginning and end
  • Personhood in relation to life
  • Health, fitness, and wellbeing as goals (teloi)
  • Hygiene and appearance
  • Ageing
  • “A Christian ending to our life”
  • Abortion
  • Case study: assisted suicide (MAiD = “Medical Assistance in Dying”)


Case Study: Assisted Suicide

Optional supplemental reading

Notes >

Article referred to: