There is a troubling and fascinating debate going on right now that we should all be at least somewhat familiar with. It concerns our most fundamental vision of God, the world and ourselves. And it has divided Christian against Christian, and Christians against the secular, “post-modern” culture in which we live.
The debate has been expressed in clear and sharp terms in the periodical Christian Bioethics, edited by H. Tristram Engelhardt, a well-known Orthodox physician and bioethicist who teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas. In a recent issue, the debate heated up considerably. What are its main points?
In overly simplified terms, they are the following. Orthodox authors of several articles that have recently appeared in the journal argue that Roman Catholic ethicists and philosophers have unwittingly succumbed to the secular, post-modern mentality they seek to combat. This is because their chief emphasis, following the lead of Pope John Paul II, is upon the shaping of a philosophical—rather than a traditionally Orthodox spiritual/therapeutic—approach to issues such as abortion, end-of-life medical treatment, and a single-payer (i.e., government funded) health care system.
To the eyes of the Orthodox critics, Catholic calls for such noble causes as “social justice” and “a consistent life ethic” can lead to policies that in fact do more harm than good. An example is the tragedy of abortion. If the good end of universal health care is bought at the price of a government-imposed single-payer policy, then the government—under secularist pressure—will inevitably require as well that physicians and other health-care personnel accept the moral perspective of the secular society, a perspective “free of religious constraints.” Thus, under conditions of universal health-care funded by tax monies, physicians would be required, if not to perform abortions themselves, at least to refer patients to other professionals who will.
The same holds true for issues such as physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia and, we may presume, the procurement of vital organs from those not yet dead, including the poor, the marginalized, the mentally ill and the cloned. Moral norms will no longer be determined by traditional religious values and perspectives. They are already determined, and will continue to be so, by a perspective that is purely “immanent,” devoid of transcendent perspectives and values. Moral discourse, like today’s public education, will be shaped by a vision of reality that is totally foreign to the Gospel.
What distinguishes the Orthodox position from that of the secular world around us? In a word, it is its ascetic/spiritual/liturgical quest for holiness. God is holy, meaning “set apart,” manifesting from His very being qualities, attributes or virtues such as goodness, justice, righteousness, beauty, love. It is by virtue of the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, whom we receive at baptism and through the sacramental life of the Church, that the divine attributes can actually become our own. These attributes are forms of power: they radiate from God as “divine energies,“communicated by the Spirit with the purpose of leading each of us along the pathway of holiness that comes to its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God, in a true and eternal participation in God’s very life (referred to by Holy Tradition as theosis or “deification”).
Why should we be concerned with this debate? Because Orthodox values and Christian Tradition in general are threatened, more severely than ever, by the secularizing mentality of contemporary American society and Western culture in general. These pressures stem from a mentality that exalts hedonistic values of consumerism, pleasure, self-fulfillment and autonomy, while it denigrates traditional Christian values of self-sacrifice, ascetic struggle and worship of God.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann often pointed out that secularism is not a matter of unbelief, since many practicing Christians are profoundly secularized. Secularism is marked primarily by a rejection of worship, a refusal to acknowledge that God has created us not in the first instance as homo sapiens, but as homo adorans, persons whose ultimate purpose in life is to worship God: to offer praise, adoration, thanksgiving and supplication to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. It is only through worship—liturgical surrendering of our life and the world into the hands of God—that we can establish a firm basis for social justice, appropriate health-care, and other issues, including the question of national defense in an age of terrorism.
If I call attention to this debate, it’s because each of us is called to live in the “real world” around us, however great its pressures and however distorted its perspectives. We are called to be witnesses to God’s presence and purpose at home, at the office, in the shopping mall or in the hospital. It is there, in the little things and inconspicuous places of everyday life, that we live out our primary vocation to pray for the world, to live and die for the world’s salvation.
We are called to be holy. This does not mean that we isolate ourselves from the ambient culture, making ourselves “separate” in some physical or psychological sense. It means that we seek holiness in the midst of an unholy world, in the hope that through our faithfulness to God and our witness to Him who alone is holy, we might touch the lives of others around us and help restore the world to the One who is both its Creator and its Lord.