Secular morality versus Orthodox morality: Part 1

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Secular morality versus Orthodox morality: Part 1

Introduction

Living in the world as I do, I often think about the contrast between Orthodox morals and the morals of our non-Orthodox peers, but in particular about the morals of the most secularized of our fellow humans (I live in a city in the US Northeast, which includes some of the most liberal communities in this country and in the world). Of course, we all know about how our morals differ from those of the world, but in this thread I want to talk about the ways in which contemporary secular morality approximates Orthodox teaching. It is, I believe, in the areas where our morality seems similar to, while not being the same as, secular mores that we are in more danger of temptation and falls, so that’s why I want to raise the topic now.

The Roman Catholic author Piers Paul Read wrote a novel called “The Misogynist” in which the main character, an agnostic lawyer of Protestant background called Jomier, lists what he calls “the seven deadly sins of the secular state”:

Racism

Misogyny

Homophobia

Elitism

Smoking

Obesity

Religious belief

Taking this list as a crude summary of what secular society considers immoral, I think it’s worth considering how it corresponds to Orthodox teaching on what constitutes immorality.

To start with, it should be obvious that the secular “deadly sins” are relatively superficial bad qualities (to the extent they are even bad qualities, about which more later). It is quite possible to be free of them, while still being a slave to the true deadly sins of envy, anger, lust, greed, gluttony, sloth and pride. Moreover, one can be a saint and still be accused of these secular “sins”, because the “sinfulness” of them lies only in the failure to conform to outward conventions of behavior; they are not concerned with the passions of the soul. In short, secular morality is merely a shallow and distorted mirror image of true morality. Its knowledge of good and evil can only comprehend the outer image of a man, not his innermost being. Acknowledging this fundamental difference, we can proceed to considering each “sin” in turn.

 

Racism

In secular usage, “racism” actually covers two things. One is discrimination against members of other races for no other reason than race. Another involves acknowledging any differences between the races other than skin color or other superficial physical attributes. Logically, one can dispassionately acknowledge more deep-seated differences, such as intelligence, without supporting blanket discrimination, but in practice most people find it hard to keep the two apart in their minds, so political correctness opposes both types of “racism”.

What is the Orthodox position? In one sense, the Church agrees with the secular world on this matter. Baptism is available to all members of the human race, regardless of skin color or anything else. The only criterion is having the true faith. And if we believe that salvation is available to all races, it follows that we think of all races as equally human and equally images of Christ. There can be no room for thinking of other races as sub-human or in any way incapable of apprehending the Truth (note that the ability to use one’s reason to acknowledge Truth does not depend on the relatively minor variation in intellectual acuity that we can plainly see among different people).

However, the Church does not say that all races are equal in every way. Inequality is an essential presupposition of social hierarchy, which has never been condemned by the Church and indeed has been part of Her understanding of Christian political and social order (more about this below in the section on misogyny). In addition, the Church certainly has among Her saints those who acknowledge the possibility of the collective moral responsibility of nations. The collective Jewish responsibility for Our Lord’s Crucifixion is one famous example, but in fact every nation can be considered to have a collective responsibility before God. Many have been those luminaries of the Church who saw the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to have been Divine punishment for the heresy of Uniatism on the part of the Greeks, or the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 by Freemasonry and revolutionary thought on the part of the Russians. St Paul himself spoke about how every nation had been “permitted” to go her own way on the path of idolatry, but now with the coming of Christ and the Gospel, that excuse has been taken away.

It is these kinds of collective judgments that bring upon some of the Fathers the charges of racism and especially anti-Semitism. But the charge is, as we expect, superficial. Races, like families, exist in reality, and whenever we declare ourselves to be members of a certain group, we bring upon ourselves a liability for either praise or censure, depending on the actions of the group as a whole. It is true that only the individual has the power of exercising free will, but it is possible for individual wills to be aggregated and directed towards a course of action, and individuals within the group have the choice of either supporting or opposing that action. Thus with Our Lord, every individual Jew had and still has the opportunity to either approve or condemn that act. If they do not condemn it, then they are liable to be charged with condoning it; there can be no middle ground, apart from involuntary ignorance. This is what the Fathers recognize when they judge the unconverted Jews. But you would never find one of them arguing that the mere fact of birth bars any of them from repenting and accepting the True Faith and Holy Baptism.

Misogyny

What is misogyny? Simply put, it is hatred of women. Like racism, the secular world conceives of this hatred in two ways: as blanket discrimination against women, and as acknowledgment of any significant psychological differences between the sexes. As with racism, so with misogyny we can begin by affirming that the Church is just as opposed to the hatred of women as our secular friends. The greatest creature is, of course, a woman, the Theotokos. Every Father has taught that women are just as capable of attaining virtue as men are. There is no teaching that men will be greater than women in Heaven simply by virtue of being men.

Nevertheless, the Church also affirms that men and women are not equal in every respect, and that the natural social order gives men and women different ranks and responsibilities. The priesthood and episcopacy are open only to men, and married men, not women, are called to be the heads of their own households. Often coupled with this is an acknowledgment that, while women are as capable of virtue as men, they typically face different spiritual challenges associated with their different psychological makeup, often attributed to the different role Adam and Eve played in the Fall. The Fathers particularly note that Eve was the first to obey the serpent, followed by her husband, and that from this women have inherited fallen conditions different from those of men. The secular world finds it easy to scoff at these traditions as nothing more than primitive superstitions reflecting the bigotries of pre-modern patriarchal societies. Surely men and women are psychologically equal, even if they are physically unequal? How is it reasonable to believe that men are innately more equipped to lead than women?

In fact, we can counter these objections by pointing out that even modern science now acknowledges innate psychological differences between men and women (usually couched in Darwinian, evolutionary terms, of course). These differences don’t lie so much in intelligence (although men and women have different cognitive strengths and weaknesses) as in other psychological drives and desires. Women admire men who are strong and brave, and despise those who are weak and cowardly. Does this not suggest that men are called by nature to lead? But in addition we should point out that the Church has never conceived of male headship as a kind of tyranny. St John Chrysostom admonishes husbands to rule their wives with love and persuasion, not harsh words and beatings; women, for their part, should love and obey their husbands, not nag and defy them. As with everything, the Church conceives of our duties in terms of the obligations of love, not assertion of legal rights. The husband does not have the right to rule his wife, but rather the obligation to protect her, but in order to protect, he must control with love and courage. With this understanding of manly duties, it is easier to see how the obligation of the wife to support her husband has nothing to do with hatred of the female sex.