Held at Holy Trinity Seminary (Russian Orthodox Church Abroad) March 7 - 9 2019, scholarly and pastoral perspectives were shared with the goal of articulating the application of Orthodox Tradition and apologetics to current needs, in the face of current social trends regarding sex, body, and human nature. Included in these videos are talks by:
Bishop Irenei of Richmond and Western Europe (ROCOR), holds masters and doctoral degrees in Patristic Studies and Church History from the University of Oxford.
Dr. Mark J. Cherry is the Dr. Patricia A. Hayes Professor in Applied Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
Dr. Bruce Seraphim Foltz is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Rdr. Alfred Kentigern Paul Siewers, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University and currently the William E. Simon Research Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton.
Dr. Mary Ford is Associate Professor of New Testament at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, PA, where she has taught for almost 30 years.
Dr. Edith Mary Humphrey is the William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Dr. Timothy Patitsas has been Assistant Professor of Orthodox Christian Ethics at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts since 2005.
Archpriest David Pratt, Ph.D., is the Orthodox Christian Chaplaincy Director and Associate Teaching Professor in the Philosophy Department at Georgetown University.
Dr. David Ford is Professor of Church History at St. Tikhon’s Seminary.
Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and over 700 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal.
Archpriest Chad Hatfield is the President of St. Vladimir’s Seminary.
Archpriest Peter Heers, D.Th., is the Headmaster of Three Hierarchs Academy in Florence, Arizona.
Archpriest John E. Parker III is Dean of St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Seminary.
Dr. David Bradshaw is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative and author of The Benedict Option.
Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster, Ph.D., is Dean and Professor of Moral Theology at Holy Trinity Seminary (ROCOR) in Jordanville, New York.
Fr. Johannes Jacobse, a native of Holland, edits the websites Orthodoxy Today and Another City, and is founder and president of the American Orthodox Institute.
Your Grace, reverend clergy, brothers and sisters, thank you for this opportunity. In this brief reflection, I want to sketch out a few overarching background ideas, including a little bit about why we even have trouble discussing this topic in our culture; why there’s so much strong emotion, especially misunderstandings about hierarchy, equality, discrimination; and then some ways to think about a few aspects of this topic.
I’d like to begin by quoting the well-known sociologist, René Girard, when he says:
All discourses on exclusion, discrimination, racism, etc., remain superficial as long as they don’t address the religious foundations of the problems that besiege our society.
So one problem we have in our culture is of course not starting from the revelation of Jesus Christ, as Bishop Irenei said. One key we learn from his revelation is that everything is created by or through the Logos, and this was commonly understood to mean that not only everything only exists in participation with God, through the logoi, but also that everything is a kind of communication from God, we could say, that all of reality has a meaning beyond itself, partly because it points to God and/or spiritual realities and/or makes him or them present in some way. Some people talk about that as being iconic or the world as sacrament.
In the past it was often said that God gave humanity two books: holy Scripture and the book of the world, or nature, material reality. St. Paul, for example, Romans 1:20, says, “For the invisible things of him are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being clearly understood by the things that are made.” So we find this clearly in the New Testament, and St. Basil the Great elaborates on this, saying,
You will finally discover that the world was not conceived by chance and without reason, but for a very useful end and for the great advantage of all beings, since it is really a school whereby reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training-ground by which they learn to know God, since by the sight of the visible and sensible things the mind is led to the contemplation of invisible things.
St. Maximus the Confessor, skipping a few centuries, says, “To those who have eyes to see, all the invisible world is mysteriously presented in symbols of the visible world.” Then skipping closer to our own time, from the 20th century, St. Nikolai of Ziča compares those who don’t see the spiritual meanings of the material world to children who know the letters of the alphabet but who don’t know how to read. It’s a great analogy.
Furthermore, St. Maximus even says elsewhere that traces of God’s own majesty are intermingled with spiritual things. These traces of God’s majesty are able to transport the human mind which uses them as a vehicle. Thus it is not just human imagination or human projections of itself making God after our own images, but God has created reality so that, through the visible creation, people can really know him, know about him, and can know what the spiritual laws or patterns or realities that we should align ourselves with are, and how they work, how reality really works.
So material reality teaches us about spiritual realities if we know how to read it. In a secular worldview like that of our culture, the material world, of course, does not participate in or communicate or point to any other reality. Rather, in that view, the way material things are is the result of random chance and doesn’t communicate anything beyond its own random physical existence. It has no meaning, in other words, and that obviously implies the world cannot be a book. Everything is the result of random chance, and that also means that God is not the good God who loves mankind and does everything for our benefit, as St. John Chrysostom and the whole Tradition say, and which I think could rightly be said to be the foundational belief of traditional Christianity.
It seems to me to be essential for many reasons to make clear to people in our culture what the true alternative to secularism is, as well as why this secular and as many have said basically a kind of Gnostic, dualistic view is wrong and damaging in many ways. It seems to me in light of all this that we as Orthodox Christians need to say our bodies, which are always male or female, that these material forms are meaningful. Our maleness or femaleness is an inseparable part of who we are, and this communicates something important about underlying spiritual laws or patterns of reality, as St. Paul indicates when he makes the famous analogy between the relationship between a man and woman in marriage and Christ and the Church.
So why has it become so important to secular people, and sadly many Christians as well, that being male or female not be an important, fixed part of our identity? so much so that all the science showing that it is an important, fixed part of our identity is ignored, such as that even isolated human cells, grown in cultures in a lab, respond differently to medicines depending on whether they’re taken from males or females.
There is more to this than the secular rejection of traditional beliefs that I just mentioned, however, though that’s part of it. Richard Weaver suggests, I think rightly, that “surmounting all specific beliefs is an intuitive feeling about the imminent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred for verification.” People who want to say that being male or female is not a fixed, important part of who we are and does not reveal spiritual realities and all that goes with that new thinking, such as the normalization of homosexual behavior and so on, have accepted at least some key aspects of what some call a post-modernist view of the world. For post-modernists, this intuitive feeling about the imminent nature of reality, the key perception woven through so many areas of understanding is that at the heart of reality is conflict, that much of reality, including the relationship between the self and other (with a small and capital O), is set up as binary opposites in a hierarchy in which you always have an oppressor and the oppressed, and these must be in ongoing conflict and struggle until the oppressed overcomes the oppressor through revolution or softer legal means. Then a synthesis is supposed to occur, or one could say equality is achieved.
In this view, inequality and difference leads to hierarchy which is always oppressive, always leading to and necessitating conflict and rebellion by the oppressed. This underlying principle has been used to frame the relationship between humanity and God, from Karl Marx choosing Prometheus as an ideal model instead of Christ, to Marxists pitting the bourgeoisie against the workers, to Simone de Beauvoir, the mother of radical feminism, pitting men in an oppressive hierarchy over and against women, to more recently Judith Butler’s attempts not only to eliminate the oppression which de Beauvoir assumes is always present between men and women, but also the conflict or inequality or hierarchy between the oppressive heterosexuals and the oppressed homosexuals and trans-people, by eliminating or at least radically altering the language that describes them in an effort to eliminate the realities which the language describes, because she and many others believe that language creates reality in a kind of a modern version of late medieval nominalism.
This intuition about conflict and oppression being at the heart of reality has also been used as an alternative to Christianity’s understanding of the Fall, the alienation and unhappiness that most people feel, indeed, most of the problems of the world, are said to be the result of different kinds of inequality and oppression, such as an oppression by an economic system or by white people or by men or by heterosexuals or even the idea of natural and unnatural. As others have pointed out, as soon as you have any differences, especially fixed differences like we’re saying being male or female are, then you will have inequality and some kind of hierarchy. So the idea that differences or distinctions always lead to inequality is true, and the idea that inequality always leads to some kind of hierarchy is also true. But this entire post-modern way of looking at the world, this meta-narrative that claims to deconstruct and be against all meta-narratives, hangs on the belief and a key falsehood: that any and every kind of hierarchy is always oppressive and thus bad. Therefore, since hierarchy is always oppressive and bad, the only good system, they would say, especially for historically oppressed groups, is one in which everyone is equal, not in the sense of equal under the law or equally valued because made in the image of God, but equal in the sense of the same or at least interchangeable.
This understanding has led to what some call equalitarianism, which is believed to be the solution to end all oppression. And oppression especially from any hierarchical system seems to be what must be avoided at all costs in this view, even to the point of the heavily funded, praised, and promoted Judith Butler saying that male and female, father and mother, are not words that reflect and point to realities, but those words have created those realities. Remember, “language creates reality.” And those realities have been and always are oppressive, so the words must be radically changed, or better, eliminated, in order to destroy the oppressive realities.
This kind of thinking is the real reason people are being told to use whatever pronoun the other person wants, and all that other politically correct linguistic changes that are being demanded. There’s a lot to say about this, but just to mention this negative and false understanding of hierarchy, at least partly if not largely, comes from a Marxist reading of the philosopher Hegel and his understanding of the key inherent pattern of history and reality as binaries in conflict, like the oppressor-oppressed, master-slave relationship, which necessitates the struggle of the oppressed to get free from the oppressors. So that’s, in a nutshell, the key inherent pattern for history or reality that is picked up from everyone from Marx to Judith Butler.
Perhaps Hegel’s thought and its deep resonance with Marx and many others at least partly goes back to the Protestant Reformers like Luther, seeing so much of reality in terms of conflicting binaries—Scripture, not Tradition; grace, not works; and so on—and the rejection of many key antinomies of the faith: binaries that seem to be mutually incompatible but actually are both true. This goes right back to the Incarnation and the fact that Christ is both truly God and man and, as St. Gregory Palamas said, the antinomy is the criterion of Orthodoxy.
So Marx and the others believe that the key pattern for history and reality is hierarchies or inequalities that always result in oppression—and who wants oppression? So those influenced by Marx in post-modernism insist that we should try and eliminate oppression by either eliminating differences or neutralizing differences, by claiming that both elements in the binaries are equally good or equally interchangeable, essentially the same. So we have multiculturalism, the truth is relative, you have your truth I have my truth, and all that sort of thing.
In this view, oppression doesn’t come primarily from human sin, but from the way things are set up, by people and by the dictatorship of nature. Again, there’s a connection back to Luther and the Reformers. The problems in the Church are not primarily from human sin; they come from the institution of the Church, from the way things are set up: something external to people is the main problem. So that has to be changed or destroyed and a new system set up, and then everything will be fine, which is not to say that some systems aren’t better than others—certainly they are—but it’s a question of putting the focus in the wrong place.
The post-modernists have the same basic thought: the primary problem is not human sin, to be solved by repentance, by the ascetic and sacramental life of the Church and so on; the primary problem, the cause of oppression, is the way things are set up currently, only this time it’s not just the Church as an institution; it’s how society as a whole has been set up, and even how reality is set up, including being male or female. So it’s critical, I think, to take a very brief look at hierarchy as understood within our tradition and at the fact that as St. Nikolai of Ziča, in an incredibly brilliant sermon on the parable of the talents, says,
God creates inequality; men grumble at it. Are men wiser than God? When God creates inequality, it means that inequality is wiser and better than equality. God creates inequality for man’s good, but man cannot see good in their inequality. God creates inequality out of love, that is aroused and sustained by inequality, but man can see no love in it.
So God’s intention in creating inequalities is to arouse and sustain love. Inequalities provide opportunities to show love, to give and to serve others in need, and when this doesn’t happen, again, the root problem is sin, not inequality. That’s why everything will not automatically become better if we have some different system, some supposedly perfect system, or only if we change what’s external to the human heart. Jesus Christ, the Creator of this world, who, as Chrysostom says, does everything for our benefit, confirms that inequalities and hierarchies are built into reality. It’s a utopian fantasy to imagine we can get rid of differences or that we should try, or inequalities or hierarchies. You’re fighting against reality, and if you try to do that, as one doctor said in another context, that is hell.
We ought to add that the reason hierarchy can easily be believed by so many to be so negative is because of sin, because of oppressive or what the Lord calls Gentile hierarchies, like he describes in Matthew 20:25, when he says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them, yet it shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant,” and so on. It says that the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. So Christ reveals the pattern for hierarchy that God intended. This is the necessary pattern to follow to eliminate oppression, to promote harmony and human flourishing.
We cannot avoid hierarchy, and Christ reveals the only way of having hierarchy that will really work long-term to eliminate oppression, and that is for those in the higher positions to be inspired to voluntarily serve out of love those who are lower. It’s important for our discussion in a traditional Christian context that hierarchy is not understood to be a kind of one-way structure, those in the higher dominating the lower. Christ himself made that very clear in his words and actions, but rather as Bishop Golitzin, in his book about St. Dionysius’ works explains: it’s the point in the cycle of love in which the descent of God’s dynamis or energies into creation becomes the ascent of the creation into God. Hierarchy is thus meant to be a cycle of love in which the higher gives beneficent love to the lower, and the lower gives grateful love back to the higher, in a kind of dance or harmony of love, starting with God in his relationship to his creation. And the purpose of hierarchy is the unity of all, or the communion of all in God. So proper hierarchy leads to union and a kind of conciliarity or a kind of equality, we could even say, as the pattern seen in the holy Trinity, which is both hierarchical and conciliar.
We see this view of hierarchy reflected throughout the Divine Liturgy as well. The clergy say, “Peace be to you all”; the laity reply, “And to thy spirit.” Until the primary purpose of the liturgy is reached, when the priest often literally comes down and gives holy Communion to the faithful, serving the people, so that all are united in Christ, in a union without confusion, without any loss of hierarchy and difference. The key point is not about which role you play in this cosmic harmonious dance. The point is union with Christ and with all the members of his body, and that’s possible from any point in the hierarchy, whether one is an illiterate peasant woman or a patriarch. Hierarchy, thus, is intended to be not about power, but about enabling this harmonious dance, reflecting or in alignment with the way the cosmos was intended to function, as Christ reveals and we see in many places in Scripture. For example, in Genesis God creates. He separates and distinguishes light and dark, heaven and earth, animals and people, Adam and Eve or male and female—many binaries, you could say—in order to ultimately unify them in a harmonious union without confusion, returning all to communion with God. St. Nikolai concludes his homily on inequality by saying:
Thus inequality is placed in the very foundations of the created world. We must rejoice in this inequality and not rebel against it, for it is placed there by love, not by hatred, and by understanding, not by folly. Human life is not made ugly by the absence of equality, but by the absence of love and spiritual understanding in men. Let us have more divine love and spiritual understanding of life, and we shall see that twice as much inequality would in no way lessen the blessedness given to men.
So this is the key pattern Christ reveals. Christian hierarchy means voluntary loving service of the higher to the lower, with the lower responding by giving back grateful love in order for all to be united in a union without confusion. So the solution to battle oppressive hierarchy isn’t no hierarchy, as our culture is claiming; that’s a utopian fantasy. The solution is good, healthy, loving hierarchy, as revealed by Christ, just like the solution to toxic masculinity or femininity is good, healthy masculinity or femininity.
To conclude, we can align ourselves with reality as God created it to be, as it has been most fully revealed in and by Jesus Christ, or we can try to make our own better, easier version or path to the highest good and best flourishing, but we have been given examples of the do-it-my-way approach many times in Scripture, and we should take note that it didn’t work well for anyone, from Adam and Eve to Judas. We’ve also seen many examples in recent history of the horrors that Marxist-inspired efforts to force a better system on whole nations has led to. It seems we need to spell out and represent in a truer, fuller way, both in theory and in practice, a true Christian understanding of hierarchy and other related areas such as obedience, in order to have a better understanding of the mystery of male and female that can effectively reach with the truth the many people caught up in today’s post-modern worldview with its completely false understanding of the key patterns inherent in reality. Thank you. [Applause]