Searching for Social Ethics

by Regina Elsner

The International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) as the largest meeting of Orthodox theologians from all over the world was a remarkable event not only for the Orthodox world but also for a Catholic theologian engaged with Orthodox theology. As my own research focuses on (Russian) Orthodox socio-ethical thinking, and current issues of the good life of the community challenge Orthodox as well as Catholic theology, the program of IOTA was very promising.

IOTA has launched several working groups to structure the organization of the conference and of the future work of IOTA. Several groups are committed to ethical questions, and their order illustrates quite aptly the enigma of Orthodox social ethics. Most prominent, there is a Moral Theology and Theological Anthropology Group. Other sessions on ethical issues were organized by the groups on edcclesiology; Orthodoxy in the Public Square and Media; Political Theology; and Orthodoxy, Politics, and International Relations. Furthermore, the groups on education, science, women, missiology, and ecumenical dialogue tackle some aspects of the question, too.

Surprisingly, the topic of social ethics was not mentioned at any point. Does that mean that there is no systematic, fundamental dealing with the theological vision of the structures of modern human society? There were various approaches on issues like human rights, ecology, economics, international relations, discrimination, violence and so on, yet there is no group and no session on social ethics. Why is that so?

I was able to ask this question in the session on political theology, where some of the leading Orthodox thinkers in this field, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Pantelis Kalaitzidis, and Dmitrij Uzlaner, presented and discussed their work. The session was called “Orthodox Political Theology between Individualism and Communitarianism,” thus pointing to the wide and ambiguous field of interest. On the one hand, the critique of (post)modern individualism of the so-called Western world is one of the cornerstones of the Orthodox occupation with modernity. On the other hand, communitarian perspectives, which may find a sounding echo in Orthodox concepts of communion and sobornost’, are widely discredited by the experience of communist repressions in most Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe.

Traditional Orthodox theology provides a deep and elaborated approach to individual ethics, pointing to the crucial role of the person in transforming him- or herself on the way to theosis and by doing so transforming the world. This focus on the person could enter into a most fruitful dialogue with the discourse about dignity and responsibilities of the human being in the “West”—nevertheless, we mostly see a conscious withdrawal from this so-called “anthropocentric” discourse. On the other hand, the aspect of communion in the framework of engaging with society was not addressed for a long time. Social ethics has been mostly a topic of those engaged in ecumenical dialogues, although without bringing the results and discussions back to the theology of their own church.

As an example: In my search for an Orthodox approach to the issue of peace ethics, I found quite a huge amount of texts on war, and on the spiritual demands of soldiers and believers in times of warfare as an issue of moral ethics. Less attention is paid to the question of just war as a moral concept for the political ruler. Finally, only a marginal (by amount, not by content) number of texts deal with the concept of (just) peace, the conditions of peace, reconciliation and an Orthodox concept of social justice. Remarkably, most of them come as contribution for ecumenical conferences on peace, not at least from the Cold War period. Peace appears to be mostly a topic of the spiritual righteousness of the individual, whether a ruler or a simple believer. Yet our globalized reality shows us that social structures and circumstances exceed personal efforts and are crucial in achieving and maintaining peace. If we want to contribute to this discourse from a theological point of view, we need an intensive interdisciplinary analysis of and theological work on these social structures. So far, it was not clear where the Orthodox contribution would come from.

The  aforementioned session on political theology at IOTA pointed to the effort of political theology to be the Orthodox voice within the socio-ethical discourse. Political theology has experienced a unique rise within Orthodox theology during the last years, in Russia as well as in the USA and in other countries. Coming from a (German) Catholic tradition, it is impossible to hear about political theology and not to think of Carl Schmitt on the one hand, and Johann Baptist Metz and his school on the other hand. Political theology is a highly charged concept. Of course, it is not an exclusive term, but bearing the meaningful legacy of the term in mind, it seems to be crucial for any new attempt to relate it to its predecessors. In this sense, it is puzzling to recognize within the Orthodox discourse the amount of references to Schmitt, and to almost completely miss references to Metz, Moltmann, Sölle, Manemann, Niebuhr, or the liberation theology in the context of the global South. The reluctance in relation to the tradition of the “new” political theology might be evident in view of its connection to socialist and Marxist thoughts, although reflecting upon the Orthodox ideas of Christian socialism at the beginning of the 20th century are worthwhile. Yet the reception of Schmitt in view of the new rise of religious rhetoric in autocratic political regimes as in Russia is disturbing. In this sense, enforcing a critical evaluation of the legacy of the “first” and of the “new” political theology within Orthodox attempts to create its own approach seems to be highly required.

In the introduction of Political Theologies in Orthodox Christianity (Bloomsbury 2017), political theology is defined as “the ways theologians conceive of the relationship of the Church and the Church’s mission to bring about salvation in relation to the political sphere as a system of power and institutions.” Without questioning the necessity of a systematic attempt on this relationship, it becomes obvious that such an understanding of political theology does not answer to the search for social ethics described above. Of course, politics are connected and overlapping with society, yet it is not the same. Issues of social justice, peace, solidarity, media, ecology, and economy are not completely covered by discussing politics.

It may be symptomatic that the social area as the sphere between the individual and the state is missing in this description. Could it be that by developing a political theology, Orthodox theologians revive a symphonic tradition by addressing political elites more than society in socio-ethical issues? If so, the place of Orthodox theological social ethics will remain empty. Yet if it is the aim of the actors of Orthodox political theology to address society and to develop an in-depth-analysis of current social processes in order to find the fitting theological answers, it could be worth evaluating the relationship with social ethics. This could also mean to encourage a synthesis of all the diverse approaches which were present at IOTA. Developing an Orthodox understanding of social ethics could facilitate the theological dialogue on social ethics with other Christian theologies. It could also help to find a critical distance from the highly charged concept of political theology, which obviously demands more additional explanation than it enables a fruitful dialogue.

Regina Elsner is a Catholic theologian and, since September 2017, a researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS). Within the project ‘Morality instead of peace,’ she is investigating the dynamics of Russian Orthodox social ethics since the fall of the Soviet Union.

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.