Category Archives: Fordham-Exeter Bridging Voices Project

Eastern Orthodox Identity and “Aggressive Liberalism”: Non-Theological Aspects of the Confrontation

by Dmitry Uzlaner

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

angry mob

I am not a theologian, and I am not going to speak as a theologian. I am scholar of religion. And my perspective is that of an outside observer. It is the perspective of a person who has been studying contemporary Orthodoxy (in Russia) for many years—with special focus on religious conservatism in its different manifestations.

In the discourse of contemporary Orthodoxy (Russian), one of the most important topics in recent years has been the struggle with what is called in this rhetoric “aggressive liberalism” or “aggressive secularism.” “Aggressive liberalism” is a multidimensional concept, but the most threatening part of it which is often mentioned as an evidence of why liberalism is dangerous is “sexual diversity,” in particular non-traditional sexual relations, same-sex marriages, feminism, etc. It seems that Church’s vision of itself is structured around this confrontation, around this feeling of being attacked by an aggressive ideological enemy imposing some alien values and practices. Continue reading

Christian Teaching on Sexual Morality

by Richard Swinburne

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

Moral principles are principles about which actions are morally good or bad, and which among good actions are morally obligatory and which among bad actions are obligatory not to do (=wrong).  A moral obligation is an obligation to someone else, and we wrong that someone if we fail to perform the obligation. To wrong God is to sin. There is a longstanding controversy among Christian philosophers as to whether the fundamental moral principles are necessary truths about the moral natures of different kinds of action, or whether they are made true by the will of God. I recommend the former view, which was the view of, among others, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus; it’s simply part of the nature of helping those in trouble that it’s a good action, and simply part of the nature of torture that it is wrong to torture someone. God just sees that these things are so and from time to time tells us this. Actions which are good in all possible circumstances are intrinsically good, and actions which are obligatory in all possible circumstances are intrinsically obligatory. It is intrinsically obligatory to keep our just promises (that is, promises which we had the right to make), and it follows that adultery and divorce without the consent of the other spouse are intrinsically wrong.

I now suggest that if we are given a gift by some benefactor on the condition that we use it for a certain purpose or do not use it at all (that is, he commands us not to use it for any other purpose), it is intrinsically obligatory not to use it for any other purpose. God is our creator; and everything we are and have is a gift from God, except those few gifts given to us by others, principally our parents, whose ability to give their gifts is itself a gift from God. Hence it is a derived moral principle that it is wrong to use any God’s gifts for a purpose other than the one for which God gave it. Our sexual organs are a gift from God. Hence it would be sinful to use them in a way forbidden by him. Continue reading

Meeting Michelle: Pastoral and Theological Reflections on a Transgender Inmate

by Fr. Richard René

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

In 2016, the maximum-security prison where I was working as a chaplain received a transgender inmate named Michelle, who is serving a life sentence for rape and murder in his late teens, when he identified as “Michael.”

Not surprisingly, Michelle’s arrival had a significant impact on the institutional staff. Many felt helpless and uncertain as to how to engage with her on any level. Others simply viewed her as a “piece of garbage,” the personification of evil and degeneracy. As an Orthodox priest serving in this secular context, I was not immune to the challenge that her presence posed. For instance, policy prohibited me from refusing to use her chosen name and gender pronouns. Beyond wanting to keep my job, I complied for two reasons. First, I could not engage with her pastorally if I could not speak to her, and she would not speak with me unless I addressed her by the name she had chosen.

More than that, though, I have called this person Michelle and used feminine pronouns (even in this context) because I believe there is something essentially mysterious about her identity, which may well be tied to transgenderism. Continue reading

Why We Need Nature

by David Bradshaw

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

Here is a little thought experiment. Suppose a pill is invented that enables you to eat whatever you want without getting fat. It is cheap, does not require a prescription, and has no bad side-effects. For good measure, let us suppose that it maintains muscle tone as well, so it lets you stay in shape without needing to exercise.

Would you take the pill?

If you answered yes, and you are Orthodox, then I would urge you to think again. Surely nothing is more antithetical to Orthodox ascetic and spiritual teaching than to think that we can off-load the problem of maintaining self-discipline onto a pill. If anything, Orthodoxy adds hard challenges that are not physically necessary. We “afflict ourselves” with fasts, vigils, and long prayers in ways that are decidedly contrary to the ethos of the world around us. We do so because we recognize that a spirit of self-denial is essential to the spiritual life. If we cannot forego a little food for the sake of Christ, we are not likely to be able to overcome the subtler temptations that come at us every day. Continue reading