My dear friends, today’s moral choices can often present a rather bewildering façade to all Orthodox Christians who are trying their best to practice their faith while discerning the things that are happening around them in the best possible manner. It is often a temptation to fall into certain modes of thought which may prove societally acceptable while yet actually going against the interdictates of our faith. I make no pretenses to infallibility in some of the things that I am going to talk about, but I do hope that it will at least provoke some deeper thought and, more importantly, a deeper realization of the very real encumbrances upon the practice of our faith that are facing us today.
Scottish sociologist and philosopher Robert Morrison McIver, who died in  after a longtime career at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research, Center for the Synthesis of Leftist thought, said the following:
What, then, is the relation of law to morality? Law cannot prescribe morality. It can prescribe only external actions, and therefore it should prescribe only those actions whose mere fulfillment, from whatever motive, the state adjudges to be conducive to welfare. What actions are these? Obviously, such actions as promote the physical and social conditions requisite for the expression and development of free or moral personality. Law does not and cannot cover all the ground of morality. To turn all moral obligations into legal obligations would be to destroy morality. Happily, it is impossible. No code of law can envisage the myriad changing situations that determine moral obligations. Moreover, there must be one legal code for all, but moral codes vary as much as the individual characters of which they are the expression. To legislate against the moral codes of one’s fellows is a very grave act, requiring for its justification the most indubitable and universally admitted of social gains, for it is to steal their moral codes to suppress their characters.
This is, in a nutshell, the philosophical basis for what is now known to us as the theoretical impossibility of legislating morality, a clear and often intrusive vision of governmental interference in the lives of citizenry based on moral relativism. Many people have made the case, or at least attempted it, that the Constitution of the United States in fact subscribes to this sort of schema, that the very notion of American melting-pot existence precludes the establishment of any consistent body of law which can effectively consider the variances of moral progress found in the societal origins of any particular member.
This broadly democratic approach to the incorporation of multitudinous values under one societal umbrella is something many find attractive and desirable. It is also true that Christianity in particular was able to put the shackles on the rather uninhibited moral anarchy that was present in the early Roman empire. We find in the Church canons, the legislation promulgated by the Byzantine emperors, and stories from various and sundry saints of the time evidence of attitudes and attempts at checking the excesses of the age. Some were quite stringent compared to current-day standards. Adultery was even found to be an executable offense during the time of Justinian the Great, yet prostitution was tolerated under the idea that it was impossible to stop anyway, and some ways a by-product of the then-common practice of selling or abandoning unwanted children who eventually found themselves facing the world’s oldest profession or starvation.
John Moschus tells the story of a desperate Christian Arab woman who offered her body to Fr. Sisinius, a hermit who lived in a cave near the River Jordan at the end of the sixth century. When Sisinius asked her why she prostituted herself, her answer was, “Because I am hungry.” Even the Church of the so-called golden age was unable to find permanent solutions to a problem that plagued society almost as an inherent given among any civilized gathering.
Of course, it is not only the sexual aspect of morality that the Christian Church was able to influence and regulate. Many other areas were equally affected, down to the last element of what we would nowadays consider the last degree of elemental discrimination against our persons. There were some things that simply were considered basic ground rules of living according to the Christian Gospel, and though we really have little indication as to how the apostles and their successors would have fashioned worldly governance had they had the opportunity, we must give due credit to those who came long after them in the attempted structuring of society that at least took basic Christian morality into consideration when trying to cede society a sense of order and constraint against its baser instincts.
This is, of course, the role of the Church in general. While not even pretending to be able to solve the problem of immoral society, since people must be healed first, as they are the components of society, the Church nonetheless tries, through its representatives and influence whenever possible, to insist on certain standards which make healing probably. One cannot leave an infected wound lying in a bacteria-laden dish of mud and hope for relief. One must first remove the wound to a place of cleanliness and allow the medicinal properties of treatment to take effect.
This idea of Christian medicinal enlightenment caught on in Byzantium and even Europe, though an alien theological perspective to that of the Orthodox Church muted some of the more rational and sympathetic impulses in Western European countries, and far from being seen as an imposition, gave rise to the greatest advances the human race has ever seen in its recorded history. Sin was ever present, as always, mind you, but it was at least recognized, seen as an aberration, and even when tolerated in various guises for the sake of good order otherwise not attainable because of the impossibility of enforcement, the standards were still there. And from these standards human achievement and quality of living blossomed forth. This, of course, was not and is not the primary purpose of the Gospel. It is the heresy of the modern age to assume that obedience to the word of God and the Church results solely in material advantage or societal betterment, but it is also true that where the teachings of the Church are put into practice with the exception of certain rulers who decide to thwart or disrupt the normal influence of Christ’s saving instruction, the people as a whole benefit from it.
Christianity is a from-the-ground-up faith, starting with the healing of the human person and advancing to the healing of the human society. The more either partakes, the better both are, and betterment occurs according to the degree of participation. Since the time of the Enlightenment, which wasn’t as bad a time as some have indicated, there still occurred and exaltation of man as an autonomous being apart from the Creator, and ever since then an increasing divergence from the ideas of the Church and deviation from her transformative moral teachings has taken place. Slowly, the chipping away at ideas that for years were part and parcel of the moral fabric of societal existence in many countries touched by the light of Christ, this new spirit, one that too often called evil “good” and good “evil,” began its assumptive ascent into the garden gates of a once-Christianized, though still fallen, populace, ever ready to sample once again the forbidden fruit.
Today that tasty treat that so led to our unoriginal undoing is now couched in the equally enticing notion of individual rights, a concept actually quite noble in itself, yet as all other concepts subject to abuse if overdrawn and given properties that actually infringe on the rights, equally guaranteed, of another. Robert Morrison McIver’s insistence on the legislation devoid of moral content is becoming a reality to sometimes disastrous effect. For his contention that morality, because of its divergent forms and facets that by necessity, according to him, cannot be legislated, only rings true on the principle of a zero-sum game. In other words, if we start with a blank slate and start with the consideration the entire moral or pseudo-moral dictates of all societies everywhere, and then try to build a codified form of law based on the aggregate compendium of these, we will indeed fail. But what [McIver] doesn’t see is that this very legislation that he so abhors is in fact already in effect—has been for over a thousand years, and was accepted as a logical inference from a philosophy—Christianity—that transformed a populace by a spiritual power that transcended the deficiencies of existing moral codes already in place.
The real purpose of any legislation is in fact to enshrine moral values and customs into the fabric of society. To say that you cannot legislate morality or, to repeat [McIver], that “to turn all moral obligations into legal obligations would be to destroy morality,” is in effect to neuter the very concept of legal obligation. One is forbidden from stealing because the concept of human relationships dictates that the human person is entitled to retain the things that belong to him and that a person contrarily attempting to assume those same things unto himself is in fact disrupting that relationship and denigrating his own person by the very act of covetousness. This is why God forbids it. Reducing the act of stealing to simply a question of orderly societal norms is to take away the increased depth of the commandment and its power to enrich the human person in growth and understanding by checking his passion and restoring his sense of self-sufficiency granted by the Creator.
Law, without morality, lacks the ability to not only govern man but to improve him. The moral relativism we find ourselves in today is based on the age-old idea regarding man’s improvement, an Enlightenment ideal that actually refers to man’s openness to newness of thought, acceptance of ideas and ideals outside of his immediate experience as equal in value to his own, precisely because they are foreign, and absenteeism of any kind of value judgment and especially that most-coveted of ideas—tolerance.
In the past, mankind, because of its God-given ability to discriminate among competing ideals and systems, based on evaluation of those ideals, selectively adopted those things that seemed amenable to its Christian standards and rejected those things that were opposed to it. The Gospel message and moral imperative of that message presented by the Savior in history as recorded in the sacred texts and passed along from generation to generation showed that, as it says in the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, that there are indeed two ways: the way of life and the way of death. These enumerations of God-revealed values and moral norms set the standard for the thriving of civilized citizenry which even those who were not willing to accept the truthfulness of the Gospel nevertheless benefited from. Even that founder of dialectical materialism, Ludwig Feuerbach, whose atheist beliefs essentially credited God as being created in man’s image, held fast to the premises of the excellent moral teaching found in Jesus Christ.
But as time has progressed, so has the current understanding of tolerance and discrimination. Today we are faced with a direct abandonment of those principles that have held society together for so long. Discrimination is no longer a positive word regarding the selection of excellent, but a foul assault on the ideas or practices of another simply because they are held ideas. Evaluation of these ideas is seen as the promulgation of hatred toward the individual bearing them instead of a critique of the ideas themselves. Tolerance is no longer meant as willingness to live with ideas and practices outside one’s own experience even if deviant in one’s assessment, but a forced acceptance of these very ideas as being normative and socially valid.
This last point in particular brings any sense of Christian affirmation to a dangerous and socially tenuous light. For a Christian cannot compromise the revelatory beliefs imparted to him or her by the Savior. It is indeed a curious reversal of fortune that the very forces seeking to impose this new tolerance has become itself intolerant and fascist in its approach to discriminatory activities. Hence, the woman uncomfortable with the idea of a man dressed as a woman sharing the same bathroom must give way in order to satisfy the man’s deviant sense of sexual identity. The fact that the man’s DNA will always and irrevocably testify to the fact that he is indeed male matters little. It’s how he feels that matters, and if the woman feels differently, she has to learn how to deal with it, accept it, and in the end, no doubt, love it. Whether an Orthodox Christian out of conscience finds it impossible to oppose the new laws of discriminatory tolerance will be a real test of faith and fortitude in the coming years.
Undergirding all of this is the final solution as regards to the God-inspired First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” it says in part. The exercise of religion, of course, is much more than that found in a house of worship. It is the very ideals that govern a person’s life, and this is a right that cannot be taken away. Though I am in sympathy with those who say, for instance, that a bakery refusing to service a gay clientele should probably not be in the baking business, the right of the individual, based on religious beliefs that conflict with the idea of such service should be respected as a matter of conscience. If it was a question of a monopoly of service that denied something to a gay citizen, the government has the duty to interfere, not in favor of the granting of the service, but in the prevention of such a monopoly, something that refers to the practice of business and services and thus avoids conflict with the person’s First Amendment protections.
The situation is conflicted, to be sure, but there are other choices to satisfy the simple problem of receiving a service. Unfortunately, too often the desire is instead to impinge upon Christian belief and pit rights of service against the rights of conscience. Many Orthodox Christians will undoubtedly disagree with this assessment, siding with those who feel that anti-discrimination based on an idea of equality of access is imperative to guarantee freedom to all citizens, and I certainly understand this idea. But this sort of blanket political ideal side-steps the very real threat of neutering any moral values found in the Christian faith for the sake of the supposed higher values of supposed equality for all, an equality that will eventually end up denying the Orthodox Christian any reasonable capacity for making value judgments of any kind when his or her faith is in conflict with the instructions of the state.
It is not hate, but love when a Christian points out deviant behavior in society. Indeed, that is part of our job to just as our Lord did. But today we are being asked to not just tolerate the questionable philosophies of others—Christianity has a long history of doing that—but of actually establishing this behavior as normative in society, something that makes the Lord’s words to the woman caught in adultery—“Go and sin no more”—as irrelevant. He did not condemn, and we should not either, but he also insisted that the sin be stopped, and so should we. This is not because of any altruistic reasons regarding the betterment of society, but simply because sin must be opposed wherever it is found. A Christian can do no other.
While the idea of everyone being allowed to do everything whenever they wish to do it might seem attractive and certainly easier, the narrow way of salvation must remain enshrined in every Christian heart. We must still make the tough moral choices that are going to ever more frequently appear before us, and we must retain the right given us not only by God but written in the Constitution to do so. We can accept all things in practice while even opposing them as bad for society, but we cannot be forced to give assent to all things and consequently be forced into practices that trample upon the dictates of our faith.
These are issues that are not going away any time soon, and it is incumbent upon all Orthodox Christians to give them prayerful consideration and to be aware of the challenges that are threatening the practice and dogmas of our faith and theology. This requires first and foremost as always an increased devotion to our God, to his Church, and to our own progress of our putting-on of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to hate none, love all, yet proclaim the truth when needed in a spirit of non-condemnation of the human person while insisting on the absolute uncompromised proclamation of God’s revealed truth and our determination to abide by it. May God bless our efforts in these difficult times of moral ambiguity, and may God bless each and every one of you.