Why Are Orthodox Christians “Unethical”?


by Stephen Meawad

A quick glance at the modern field of ethics might convey a false reality—one in which Orthodox Christian are decades, if not centuries, behind the West in developing viable ethical frameworks. In fact, Orthodox Christians might often be hesitant or even reluctant to speak in terms of ethics, since the language of ethics challenges the integrity between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Yet, it seems that a critical tool by which Orthodox Christians are to witness in the West to the transformative power of Orthodox Christian life is by conceptually transliterating Orthodox praxis into Western ethical language. Becoming a vessel of this transliteration is no small task; it requires not only a faithful embodiment of one’s own tradition but also an awareness of and willingness to engage one’s surrounding context. The payoff, however, is well worth the toil; it would allow Orthodox Christians to make fundamental contributions to contemporary Western ethical discussions not just for the sake of joining the conversation but in order to offer a distinct means by which to navigate the myriad of difficulties in this broken, ever-mending, world.

Western and Eastern approaches to theology have had their pros and cons: systematization characteristic of the former has led to deep analyses of complex topics, but it has often fragmented otherwise composite topics that require interdependence for the most accurate assessment. On the other hand, non-fragmentation typical of the latter has preserved the holistic reality that characterizes the complexity of truths, but it has not always allowed for the same depth of analysis as that engaged in Western systematic theology. Perhaps because Orthodox Christianity is less fragmented into theological sub-disciplines, it has never subscribed itself to any particular ethics. However, in agreement with Joseph Woodill’s The Fellowship of Life: Virtue Ethics and Orthodox Christianity, I am suggesting virtue ethics as the most compatible form of ethics by which Orthodoxy can not only join the conversation but also fundamentally mitigate some issues within contemporary Western ethical frameworks.

The broad and relatively underdeveloped field of Orthodox Christian ethics is characterized most notably by three assertions inextricably linked. The first, alluded to above and observed by Orthodox ethicist Stanley Harakas, is the inherent integrative nature of Orthodox ethics. This perspective maintains that ethics cannot be separated from any other part of life but must be considered as part of a single fabric of life. Most important to this integrity is the unity between ethics or actions, on one hand, and faith or beliefs, on the other. For this reason, many Orthodox Christian ethicists will begin with or at least devote much attention to matters of theology proper (dogmatic theology, sacramental theology, etc.), rooted in Scripture and Patristic texts, when presenting ethical stances. The integration of theology and ethics is expected since Orthodox Christians conceive of ethics as resulting from the principle task of uniting with God—the second hallmark of Orthodox ethics.

God is the central orienting principle by which determinations surrounding good and evil, right and wrong, and virtue and vice are made. More than this, it is the active, dynamic, and unpredictable pursuit of God that dictates, and often convolutes, Orthodox Christian ethics. The centrality of this pursuit in Orthodox ethics is best understood through the concept of spiritual struggle—the third, and partially overlapping, characteristic of an Orthodox ethic. Spiritual struggle for the Orthodox Christian is persistent, sincere, and humble. It is a struggle that is persistent and does not relent despite the difficulties that will inevitably arise. Spiritual struggle does not submit to life’s obstacles but recognizes the value of a muscular ethic of exertion that is concomitantly synergistic and grace-enabled. It is sincere in its attempt to pursue God as a Being able and eager to be experienced and known, yet mysterious and unable to be fully grasped. It is a humble struggle in its communal model of discipleship to spiritual elders, in its fundamental ecclesiology, and in its submission to the other and to God Himself as the principle Guide on the journey and its very telos.

Because of these hallmarks of Orthodox Christian ethics—its theologically interdisciplinary integration, its orientation toward God as telos, and the emphasis on the struggle-laden, grace-filled nature of the pursuit of union with God—Orthodoxy experiences a unique relationship with virtue ethics. On one hand, virtue ethics seems to be the most fitting Western ethical model by which Orthodoxy can join contemporary discussions of ethics. Similar to the field of virtue ethics, Orthodoxy is concerned primarily with a holistic way of life that emphasizes the formation of agents and communities of character and virtue. The Patristic heritage that is so formative for Orthodox thought is very much concerned with the acquisition of virtue by means of habituation in goodness. In a two-way process, one is to become loving, pure, holy, generous, patient, etc. in order to makes good decisions, form good character, and to transform inner dispositions. Vice versa, one is to form good character and inner dispositions in order to perform the actions and acquire the habits necessary to grow in virtue. In this way, Orthodoxy’s compatibility with virtue ethics is glaring.

On the other hand, utilizing virtue ethics as the most fitting model requires a concomitant subversion of virtue. Certainly the acquisition of virtue in an Orthodox model is considered an excellency, and it could even be considered one of the teloi within the perpetual ascent to God. However, the acquisition of virtue is only an inherent excellence insofar as this acquisition is understood as participation in God and growth in union with Him. The principle and cyclical task of an Orthodox Christian ethic is to constantly (re)orient oneself to God in order to become like God through a perpetual process of knowing God, loving Him, and loving neighbor. In this process, the acquisition of virtue and the formation of good habits function as markers in the pursuit of God. In other words, a person can confirm that she is properly oriented to God if she is acquiring virtue on a path of positive moral transformation.

While it is possible that focusing on habituation in goodness and in virtuous actions as ends in themselves can and does lead people and communities to this knowledge of God, my assertion here is that virtue acquires its status as an excellency primarily within the confines of a grace-filled, salvific, temporarily struggle-laden, perpetual life with God. This life—eternal life—with God, which begins here and now and continues in the eschaton, is a life that is disinterested with one’s own righteousness, virtuosity, or goodness apart from God. It is a life that is critical of the value of virtue, and therefore of a model of virtue ethics whose purview does not extend beyond the scope of virtue. This is of the most direct contributions that an Orthodox ethical model makes to contemporary discussions. Virtue ethics provides a critical shift away from overemphases on rules, principles, and obligations and towards the transformation of people of goodness, virtue, and character. Yet, virtue is to be lauded and pursued through spiritual struggle primarily as a means to communion with God, at times, and as a result of this union, at other times. Thus, Orthodox Christians have an important ethical task in the West—to render intelligible and concrete, through dynamic embodiment, the transformative effects of the pursuit of the unlimited Paragon of Virtue—an ethic in its most robust sense.

Stephen Meawad holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA and is Adjunct Professor of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.