The Secular Impulse

I recently had a fascinating email exchange with a Facebook friend, Kevin Allen, who also hosts a show on Ancient Faith Radio. Below, with his permission, I have reprinted a portion of that exchange.

From Kevin
I have not had any Orthodox Christian give me a coherent and persuasive response to the question of how Christians can support any party platform that supports social policy positions on abortion and same-sex marriage which are in direct conflict to those of our Assembly of Canonical Bishops. The best answer I have heard - which does not hold water for me - is that we are not a theocracy and therefore should not try to impose Christian values on society at large. This appears to me to be an "upstairs-downstairs" view that is inconsistent with Orthodox views of church-state. if you are able to articulate an answer other than a version of the "separation of church and state" (which many Orthodox do not accept as an Orthodox pov; nor do I) I would be interested in hearing it. I believe we Orthodox can disagree on economic policy, welfare, labor unions, taxes, war and foreign affairs without being accused of "bad faith"; however, I find it very hard to understand how we can disagree on basic moral principles that are embedded in our biblical and canonical tradition which form the core of Christian values - like abortion, free-distributioin of contraceptives (abortifacient or not) and same - sex marriage. These, it seems to me, are beyond mere matters of "personal opinion" for professing Christians and are as you know positions our hierarchs oppose. So we are dealing with biblical, canonical and episcopal authority issues on these. I look forward to hearing the argument.

My Response
You are right: simply asserting "separation of Church and State" is a simplistic argument. At the same time, positing some kind of 'symphonia' of the two is also simplistic, and has not been borne out in historical reality. A closer look at history reveals that the Church functions best--is truest to the Gospel--when it exists in a creative tension (not harmony) with the State. The moment that tension is resolved--either by complete separation (as we see here in Canada) or collapse into each other (as we see happening in Russia)--the results can be catastrophic.

Certainly no Christian worth his or her salt could approve of the act of abortion, although it must be said that in earlier times, the beginning of life was not a precisely defined as we define it now. Our scientific knowledge has put us in some awkward ethical positions. For instance, the spontaneous abortion of newly-fertilized ova is a natural process that is always occurring in the female body. Are we to mourn these abortions as murders, begging God's forgiveness for the woman whose body committed these murders? Christians in antiquity did not face such dilemmas because they considered a woman pregnant when it was publicly evident that she was so, which would probably be at the end of the first trimester... I am NOT saying that life does not begin at conception; I am simply saying that we face some contemporary ethical and pastoral concerns that cannot be addressed simply repeating and applying the age-old strictures concerning abortion. We need a contemporary Orthodox engagement with this issue taking into account current scientific knowledge.

As you know, contraception is a grey area in the Orthodox Church. We do not simply shun all contraception because for us, procreation is not the primary purpose of marriage. This may be argued, but it is not black and white. While abortifacient methods of contraception are to be rejected, I think we can at the very least agree to disagree on the others.

Concerning same-sex marriage, I agree that Christian marriage is the union of a man and woman, though the rationale for this is very far from being clearly articulated. Arguments so far are simply not adequate and don't hold up. In addition, there are some serious complexities here that cannot be 'disapparated' with a simple sweep of the legislative magic wand. This brings me to the larger underlying issue behind all these questions.

The history of Christendom since the Incarnation may be viewed as a progressive unveiling of the fundamental pathology of the human race in relation to God. "If I had not come and spoken to them," the Lord says, "they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin." The Lord exposed sin: althought He bridged the gap of separation between God and man, His people nevertheless rejected Him. Thus He exposed the essential hardness of the human heart, a heart that is bent on turning away from God and making a god of itself and idols of others.

In short, the Incarnation both exposed and catalyzed the secular impulse, which I would understand as the impulse to separate oneself and exist apart from God. In a religious State, this secular impulse is concealed and (at least theoretically) contained within a fence of strictures, laws, prohibitions, etc. Nevertheless, the religious State is a fundamentally hypocritical proposition, as the Lord Himself demonstrated in His exposure of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

In the Incarnation, the religious State is no longer possible. On the one hand, you are progressively united to God in Christ at the deepest ontological level--a union that therefore cannot be legislated into existence, since 'by works of the law shall no man be justified.' On the other hand, you are progressively exposed as a secular being, committed to separation from God and the exaltation of your own ego. There is no in between. If a 'Jewish nation' could be envisioned (if not actually realized), a 'Christian nation' cannot be envisioned at all, let alone practised--not if we are to remain true to the radically personal nature of the God's union with us.

As I said, the history of Christendom may be seen as the progressive exposure of this basic duality. Attempts have been made over the past two thousand years to co-opt into empire-building efforts: Byzantium, Charlemagne, Tsarist Russia, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Britain and even the United States. Societies both in East and West have tried to make "Christian nations," and the result has been failure all around. Yes, the Byzantine Empire was a failure, if a glorious and enduring one... There was no 'Golden Age' of Orthodoxy; to think otherwise is merely naive, in my opinion.

The secular movement, particularly in the West but increasingly gaining momentum in the East, is simply the clearest possible political expression of a deeper secular impulse in the heart of every fallen human being. While we as Christians must vote according to our consciences, therefore, our focus as political and social beings should less be on attempting yet another project in religious empire-building, but rather in those social and political efforts that will most effectively kindle in the hearts of our fellow human beings the desire to turn back to God and heal the secular divide within their souls.

In my view, the best way to end abortion is to work towards creating a fertile public space (call it a womb) in which a person considering such an action would be able to recognize it for what it is--an affirmation of the power of the self against God--and would have the freedom to make a life-giving, godly choice. Our task is to nurture the hearts of our neighbours through our love and prayer--our living testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ--to where they can embrace union with God, without resorting to legislation on the matter. Our goal is to render legislation both for and against abortion (not to mention legislation on many other moral issues) irrelevant, null and void. I am not simply repeating the old adage "you cannot legislate morality." I am saying that we cannot focus on legislating the human heart; that is the old way, the way of the law, not the way of the Gospel.

Our contemporary political scene is fallen humanity, writ large in legal print. In response, Orthodox Christians must act politically and socially, but as we strive to act in those ways, we must recognize that the solution does not begin with legislation, but with the transformation of each person. Such transformation is God's initiative, first and foremost, but we can certainly act in the private and public spheres as midwives, cooperating with Him so that He might deliver that which He conceived in the Incarnation--each and every one of us as His divine-human children and heirs of His Kingdom.


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