Category Archives: Ethics

The Soviet Genealogy of “Orthodox Morality”

by Regula Zwahlen

The term “Orthodox morality”—in combination with “traditional values”—is unquestionably a neologism. A passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals” gets right to the point of Aristotle Papanikolaou’s recent essay on Public Orthodoxy: “We need a critique of moral values, the value of these values is […] to be called into question—and for this purpose a knowledge is necessary of the conditions and circumstances out of which these values grew, and under which they experienced their evolution and their distortion.” One does not have to agree with Nietzsche’s conclusions in order to agree on the validity of his endeavor, especially if one aims, like Papanikolaou, to answer contemporary questions without threatening the internal coherency of the tradition. On that note, I would like to draw the attention to the fact that in Russia, the term “Orthodox morality” has not only a modern, but also a Soviet ring to it.

As for its “modern ring,” one of the commonplaces about Russian thought in general is its “concentration on ethical problems.” According to the Slavophile Alexei Khomiakov, “Russia should be either the most moral, that is the most Christian of all human societies, or nothing,” and the concept of ethics as the cornerstone of Russian mentality was shared by the “Westerners” and most Russian philosophers of the Silver Age. Russian literature is famous for treating moral questions, and Dostoevsky has been praised for having anticipated Nietzsche: “If God does not exist everything is permitted” Continue reading

Fasting and Ecological Awareness

by Chris Durante

During Lent, lay, clergy and monastic alike partake in fasting, and unlike other fasting periods, such as the nativity fast prior to Christmas, many modern Orthodox Christian laity do still partake in the Lenten fast, at least to some degree and for some extent of time. As the laity partake in this tradition, they ought to consider that for monks and nuns who engage in the practice of fasting throughout the year, fasting is not simply a matter of abstaining from food but is a spiritual exercise that is part and parcel of the quest to be Good and become more Divine-like. Despite the fact that not all persons are suited to monastic life, there are indeed lessons that laity can learn from the deeply psychological and moral dimensions of the monastic understanding of fasting as a spiritual practice.

Some of the most theologically developed discussions of fasting are to be found within the Philokalia, meaning “Lover of Goodness.” Within the four volumes of the Philokalia, we find a robust philosophy of fasting in which the psyche as well as the body must be involved in the spiritual pursuit of the good. Within these classic texts of Orthodox Christian spirituality, the idea that cultivating a state of psycho-spiritual  “watchfulness,” “wakefulness,” or “mindfulness” (called nepsis) is foundational for the cultivation of arete, or virtue. Within the Philokalia, nepsis is described as vigilantly guarding one’s heart and mind from evil, or vicious, thoughts such as: anger, jealousy, rage, despair, gluttony, greed, egoism and lust. It is the practice of nepsis that helps enable one to transform these pathoi, or pathological thoughts, into more reasonable desires and place them in the service of attaining the higher-order desire for the good. Continue reading

Searching for Social Ethics

by Regina Elsner

The International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) as the largest meeting of Orthodox theologians from all over the world was a remarkable event not only for the Orthodox world but also for a Catholic theologian engaged with Orthodox theology. As my own research focuses on (Russian) Orthodox socio-ethical thinking, and current issues of the good life of the community challenge Orthodox as well as Catholic theology, the program of IOTA was very promising.

IOTA has launched several working groups to structure the organization of the conference and of the future work of IOTA. Several groups are committed to ethical questions, and their order illustrates quite aptly the enigma of Orthodox social ethics. Most prominent, there is a Moral Theology and Theological Anthropology Group. Other sessions on ethical issues were organized by the groups on edcclesiology; Orthodoxy in the Public Square and Media; Political Theology; and Orthodoxy, Politics, and International Relations. Furthermore, the groups on education, science, women, missiology, and ecumenical dialogue tackle some aspects of the question, too.

Surprisingly, the topic of social ethics was not mentioned at any point. Does that mean that there is no systematic, fundamental dealing with the theological vision of the structures of modern human society? There were various approaches on issues like human rights, ecology, economics, international relations, discrimination, violence and so on, yet there is no group and no session on social ethics. Why is that so? Continue reading

Learning to Love: St. Maximus on the Virtues

by Emma Brown Dewhurst

When we try to be virtuous, what are we trying to do? People have different ideas about what the virtues are, and some virtues even seem to contradict each other. Some people consider justice to be a virtue, but, as St Isaac the Syrian points out in his Homily 51, isn’t mercy also a virtue, and how can you be merciful while trying to dispense justice? How do we decide which virtues we ought to live by and how they ought to be interpreted?

St Maximus the Confessor (580-662AD) answers a similar question put to him by a monk, in his Ascetic Life. The monk asks “And who, Father, can do all the commandments? There are so many.” Maximus responds:

This is the sign of our love for God, as the Lord Himself shows in the Gospels: He that loves me, He says, will keep my commandments. And what this commandment is, which if we keep we love Him, hear Him tell: This is my commandment, that you love one another. Do you see that this love for one another makes firm the love for God? (The Ascetic Life, 107; PG90 917A.)

This passage tells us something interesting. It tells us that all the ethical directives we’ve got, be they the commandments, the virtues, or any other parts of Scripture, all conform to love. They are all a kind of love. We are not being asked to do a hundred different things, we are being asked to do one thing, which is to love. Continue reading