Valerie: First, I'd like to thank you, Fr. Harakas, for taking the time to be interviewed and for having agreed to serve on the honorary board of the St. Nina Quarterly. Your serving on our honorary board is particularly appropriate given your field of expertise. Relatively few Orthodox theologians and scholars have chosen to go into the field of ethics. What led you to choose to study ethics?
Fr. Harakas: The contemporary concern for ethics comes out of a situation in which new questions and problems arise out of changing social and technological developments. There's always been, of course, a tradition of ethics in the Orthodox Church in spite of what certain theologians might say. I understand ethics as dealing with the "ought" questions: What ought I to do in a concrete situation? What is the appropriate and fitting thing to do? What does the Orthodox ethos require of us in terms of behavior? I think that's where the ethical issues are. This concern has - from the New Testament and the Didache and, for example, the writings of St. John Chrysostom - been an ongoing, continuous concern in the Orthodox Church's tradition. . . .
While exploring the discipline, I learned to take into consideration the philosophical traditions of the West, but also of ancient cultures - the philosophy of Platonism, Aristotelianism, etcetera. In the spirit of the Cappadocian Fathers, I came to the conclusion that these philosophical perspectives and their ethical teachings are little bits and pieces of what the whole is. I wrote about this at length in my introductory volume on ethics. But, these philosophical views are not adequate; that's the whole point. Any one of those ethical systems that have become dominant - utilitarianism, idealism, hedonism, relativism - whatever the philosophical approach, it has some truth to convey. But not the fullness of the Truth. The critical thing is that, for an Orthodox Christian, the ethical "oughts" come from the ultimate "Is" - Who is, of course, the Triune God as revealed in Jesus Christ and His Church.
That is precisely how the Orthodox Christian faith "does" its ethics. Its focus is on the revelatory Truth. Yes, it is true that it draws on the culture and all the rest of that, but it also rejects a lot of culture. So what's the criterion for accepting or rejecting? It's an understanding of the Christian faith.
V.K.: Your first book on ethics, Toward Transfigured Life, is being used as the ethics textbook in several seminaries, Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Would you elaborate on the methodology used.
Fr. H.: Most people are concerned only about what the faith says ought or ought not to be done. But ethical method is important, because it guides us to those practical ethical guidelines. I have a chapter in the book on a topic that was not to be found treated anywhere else in the Orthodox world at the time I wrote it. It is about ethical decision making. The approach is holistic and inclusive. Where do I find the sources for ethical decision making - both for content as well as value judgments? In the Tradition - in the spiritual and patristic tradition, the canons, the liturgical tradition. . . .
Emeritus Professor of Church History,
University of Chicago
V.K.: This issue of the Quarterly focuses on creation. Advances in science have given rise to certain ethical questions when considering life. For instance: What do we do with these issues of, "When does life begin?"; "When does life end?"; "What methods of beginning life are acceptable?" How fluid or flexible is your approach with some of these issues that are dealing with the nexus of ethics and technology?
Fr. H.: Of course, it's not important what I think. Whatever I say is significant only in so much as it reflects the Church's faith tradition. In this light, I think that every decision that is made is taken in a context, in a particular historical context so it cannot be avoided, and that, in many cases, the nature of the environment - the context in which something is taking place - will impact on how you articulate this even with very simple kinds of things.
Nevertheless, I would say that, in most cases, the value system of the Church is pretty stable, so that, though you will make various kinds of pastoral applications, the values and standards remain the same. We know that from our father confessor tradition that we must take into consideration who this person is, his/her educational level, the level of his/her spiritual development, etcetera. Then you seek to help the person grow from one level to another. As a father confessor you are not providing some sort of an absolute rule and clobbering them with it. You're helping to guide them toward God-likeness, theosis. In most cases, this is done on the basis of the received moral tradition. Theft is wrong, lying is wrong. Forgiveness is the Christian way. Kindness, justice, humility, mercy, and above all love, should govern our behavior.
However, the problem area is in deciding which of the criteria would be involved in a new situation. For instance, in vitro fertilization.
V.K.: I see some of the problems with in vitro fertilization. On the one had, you've got, "Be fruitful and multiply"; on the other hand, "Don't spill one's seed." A third issue is economic: is this the best use of the assets and resources available when there are people starving? There are a variety of issues that come into play that can seem mutually contradictory.
Fr. H.: Well, I wouldn't say that they are mutually contradictory. These are values that are all brought together to bear on a particular circumstance. It's nothing unusual; we do it all the time. It's like you're thinking of making a purchase of something, and it would be significant relative to your income - you do that all the time. You balance things and you finally say to yourself, "Well, I shouldn't buy it because . . . ," or, "I will buy it but I will . . . ." In other words, I think what you try to do is maximize how the values are embodied in a particular circumstance, knowing that in a human situation they all never can be maximized.
Nevertheless, there are still differences as to what are the operative criteria and how they are embodied in the tradition. We are using very abstract language, but in practice decision making is not abstract because it's embodied in all kinds of concrete teachings, experiences, and values. Now, let me give you an example on this particular issue, in vitro fertilization.
The Greek Fathers teach that we're fallen, the world is fallen, and we are called to fulfillment and perfection - that is what Christ's redemptive work of salvation was for. (That's why I called my first book Toward Transfigured Life.) Now, what are the things that transform? Well, there's faith, there's love, there's communion with God, and there is outreach to others; there's communion with God, and there's sharing in the redemptive work of Christ in the Church's sacramental life.
Now, in this case, we are talking about reproduction: How is the Church's understanding of this transfiguring? What are the vehicles for this? Ask yourself: Where are the kinds of values that are associated with reproduction located in the tradition? In marriage.
The sacrament of marriage, then, becomes a major value center for addressing the question of artificial insemination. One of the purposes of marriage is the procreation of children. It certainly is not the only one, and I never speak of it as the most important, because the tradition doesn't put them in a hierarchy. We see that in the sacrament of marriage itself, the Byzantine liturgy of marriage. There's no hierarchy of purposes for marriage. One time it says procreation of children; elsewhere it says the marriage is undefiled - it's talking about sex; another time it emphasizes the communion and mutuality of love between the spouses. They're all there, and if you go from one prayer to the next, you'll see that they're articulated in different orders. There is nothing that says there that one is first and the other second and another third.
So, now you say, "One of the purposes is the procreation of children. So, if there was a means to make this happen, or help it happen, what would be wrong with it?" Well, an argument that could be used, say, from the "old" Roman Catholic tradition would be, "It's artificial." But, that doesn't really make sense. Can only sex be "unartificial," while everything else in our lives can be artificial, that is technological? In class, I used to take my glasses off at this point and say, "I guess my glasses are sinful because they're technological." Is there something wrong with technology just because its technology? One of the things that I like to point out from eucharistic theology, especially in ecological discussions, is that bread does not fall off trees. Bread is a technological invention, as is wine. Both of those are not just nature. We're not offering fruits - actually according to the canons, we're not allowed to offer fruits with the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We offer what we have already mixed into our intellect, our artistic ability, our technology, as represented by this bread and wine.
So, to me, to be human is to be homo technicus in some way, though not totally. How does this apply to in vitro fertilization? If, somehow or another, husband and wife can be assisted in procreation - we don't stop elsewhere - the glasses were an example - this would help one of the purposes of marriage to be fulfilled. And that is good.
But, there is a caveat. The primary source for this argument is marriage. So, the endorsement of in vitro fertilization applies to spouses only. The introduction of third parties - sperm donors or surrogate mothers, whether they supply the ovum or not - violate the integrity of the union of body and soul of the married couple. So, you see, there are also limits to the use of in vitro fertilization.
V.K.: Both generally as an Orthodox theologian and more specifically as an Orthodox ethicist, what do you perceive to be the most pressing issues facing women in the Orthodox Church today? Also, do you believe these issues are situational or contextual - for instance, are the issues different for the Orthodox Churches in Western societies than they are for the Orthodox in Eastern Europe, or different again than those of the newly developing Orthodox Churches of sub-Saharan Africa?
Fr. H.: I'd say we have to be very nuanced on contextual ethics. Women, like men, are in varying and conflicting social situations. If you're educated, whether you're in the U.S.A., Thailand, Greece, or Uganda, you are in a privileged group. As such, you are asking questions and writing books, publishing magazines, involved in inquiry and dialogue. But if you are a woman without such privileges, especially in an economically undeveloped situation, you have no voice. The context is very different. . . .
The problem of equality between the sexes is still a shared problem regardless of where you are. As an Orthodox ethicist, I believe that the doctrinal teaching of the Church points us to a clear affirmation of the spiritual and ontological [of essence] equality of men and women. Some monastic fathers of the Church, however, have exaggerated the differences between men and women. Others, such as St. Gregory the Theologian have a balanced view that is more authentically Orthodox. . . .
Nevertheless, there is an unwillingness to allow women's talents to be fully utilized, especially when it is a question of competitive, sought-after positions. Judging the situation of women in Church life in Greece or Palestine - I think there are real differences there. There is no public recognition of women in Church life in such places. But women function influentially in different ways. Often it is not formal authority that women exercise. Nevertheless, their real authority may be exercised very powerfully. For instance, Fr. Thomas Hopko [dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary] told me a story about an experience he had when visiting Russia a few years ago when the country was still under Communist Soviet rule. He was at a Liturgy at a church outside Moscow, and a young man came up to the priest in the communion line. The priest refused to give him the Sacrament because he feared that the young man was endangering himself by being seen as a practicing Orthodox [by the secret police]. The young man told the priest not to worry, that he understood his fears but that he was not from around there. But the priest persisted in refusing the young man communion. After quite a number of "request and denial" exchanges took place, the old babushka women in the congregation demanded that the priest give the young man communion, crying loudly and with authority, "Go on, give it to him," so the priest finally did. These babushkas exercised power and authority far beyond their formal roles.
. . . The challenge for women is the challenge for men, too - to live the Christian life, growing in the image and likeness of God, becoming "who we are." What jobs we have are not as important as what kind of people we are becoming - holy persons in communion with God as members of the Body of Christ, His Church.
V.K.: Thank you again for taking the time to share some of your thoughts and feelings with me and the readers of the St. Nina Quarterly. The other editors and I are very pleased that you accepted to be a member of the Quarterly's Honorary Board. In closing, I'd like to ask you what your own hopes are for the St. Nina Quarterly?
Fr. H.: The St. Nina Quarterly offers an extremely important service to the English speaking Orthodox churches in this country and abroad. It seeks to articulate an authentic, realistic, Orthodox perspective on the life of the Orthodox Christian woman. It is a source of knowledge, inspiration, and guidance for contemporary Orthodox Christian women living on the threshold of the third millennium. I support the St. Nina Quarterly because it is a middle-of-the-road, sensible periodical that promotes realizable ideals and seeks to move its readers in the society in which we live, a journal which recognizes the tension between what we do and what we can do. It is not trying to transport us into another age and time, and it does not have a sectarian mentality. It is a wholesome Orthodox Christian periodical that deserves wide readership.