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