Ethics after Christendom: Toward an Ecclesial Christian Ethic
reviewed by Allyne Smith
With the publication of his first book, Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics, Vigen Guroian established himself as an important figure in theological ethics. This, his second book in ethics, will no doubt increase both his significance and his readership, especially among non-Orthodox. Guroian clearly knows not only his native Armenian and the related Byzantine traditions, but also contemporary Protestant and Roman Catholic ethics. Literary references abound, from George MacDonald to William Faulkner and Walker Percy.
Ethics after Christendom is divided into three parts. The first considers the possibility and character of post-Constantinian Christian ethics. Although less critical of Constantinianism (understood as “the historic accommodation of the churches to state and secular order”) than his colleagues Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, Guroian does agree that Christendom is dead and gone in America. In light of this, the number one item on the agenda for Christian ethicists and theologians is to explore “what constitutes an appropriate ecclesiology and modus vivendi for the churches after Christendom.”
In the first chapter, Guroian examines two recent suggestions for post-Christendom ethics: Gilbert Meilaender’s proposal of St. Augustine as a model for our times and David Schindler’s particular view of natural law. While clearly sympathetic to both, Guroian instead turns to St. John Chrysostom, as Chrysostom’s thought both “addresses forcefully the cultural pole of Christian ethics” and “is capable of redirecting us as well to the ecclesial location of Christian ethics.”
In the next chapter he continues the argument by identifying his own proposal for the proper locus of Christian ethics, namely, the Church’s liturgy—chiefly the Eucharist. Following the Orthodox tradition, Guroian sees the Eucharist as chiefly eschatological; the focus is future-oriented toward the kingdom, rather than looking backward to Golgotha. Accordingly, Christian ethics does not attend first of all to the consequences of a given act, rather to its conformity to life in the kingdom to come.
This theme extends into the third chapter, a delightful look at the role of Scripture in Orthodox ethics. Guroian insists upon the liturgical and ecclesial context for the Christian reading of the Bible. Transcending both “Western textualism and individualism,” he rejects the notion that Scripture and Tradition are opposed to each other, which becomes even more objectionable when both are “subject to interpretation by an autonomous intellect.” Understood in the context of the Church and its life of worship, Scripture is not seen as merely a handbook for making ethical decisions. Instead, it “must be allowed to define what is normative for how Christians behave, to serve as the image of what they as a community are to be.” As Guroian concludes:
For example, he examines the Byzantine practice of singing the Beatitudes in the liturgy every Sunday, a practice in which they “are experienced as both moral imperative and eschatological promise,” and the question of surrogacy in light of the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis.
In part two Guroian offers critical reflections on some mistaken avenues for Christian ethics. In one chapter Guroian surveys the movement in America for “public theology,” a kind of civil religion in which Christian ethics would be done in dialogue with the secular forces and institutions. This he rejects as offering, at best, “a desolate halfway house between Christendom and secularism.” The last chapter turns to his ancestral homeland of Armenia where the principal temptation for the Church following the collapse of the former Soviet Union is a rising nationalism. Here he turns West for guidance in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who also faced the problem of a national church under Nazism, finding there “a theology that fathoms profoundly the complexities of Christian existence and the challenges that [the churches] face after Christendom.”
Part three of Ethics contains three chapters addressing applied ethical issues selected both for their intrinsic importance and for the relevance of approaching them from an ecclesial point of view. The first of these is “Family and Christian Virtue: Reflections on the Ecclesial Vision of John Chrysostom” [which appeared in Touchstone, Spring 1993]. While many conservative Christians in America seem primarily concerned with the family as a sociological unit, Guroian argues instead for the family as an ecclesial unit, a domestic church and an outpost of the kingdom of God. The family is important not because it is a training ground for good citizens of America, but because it is called to be a school for citizens of the kingdom of God. The Christian family, like the Eucharist, is eschatological in nature; for Christians, it is a matter of salvation, not sociology.
In a day when ecological ethics is increasingly given over to “green” politics and Gaia worship, it is refreshing to see the way that Guroian’s chapter on environmental ethics situates that area of concern in the Church. The chapter’s epigram, taken from the Orthodox spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, captures Guroian’s theme well: “Everything I saw aroused in me love and thankfulness to God; people, trees, plants, animals were all my kind, for I saw in all of them the reflection of the Name of Jesus Christ.” By drawing upon motifs such as the human being as priest of creation, baptism, and liturgical blessings, he reminds us that a vigorous ecological ethic lies at the heart of the Orthodox understanding of redemption. By linking it inextricably with ecclesiology, Guroian successfully argues that ecological ethics is a necessity that traditional Christians cannot afford to leave to the pantheistic fringe in the churches.
The last chapter addresses care for the dying, and death and euthanasia from the perspective of the Orthodox liturgical tradition. Beginning with the 1991 case of Baby Rena, an 18-month-old infant dying of heart disease and AIDS, Guroian adroitly examines the Byzantine rite of unction (anointing with oil for healing) and the Armenian rite for the burial of a layman to argue against the body-and-spirit dualism that informs much of American Christian thinking on life and death.
Ethics after Christendom is an important work that is a must for any serious Christian concerned with ethics. It is also a great pleasure to read: a delightful bonus in a field already well supplied with it share of wearisome texts.
Fr. Allyne Smith is an Orthodox priest and doctoral candidate in theology living in Bristol, Indiana.
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