“It seems to me that Orthodoxy sometimes stumbled on the threshold of “ethical speech”. We are used to speaking of high Orthodox spirituality, we have had a moral theology for centuries, but “ethics” seems to be a rather secular discipline, too human to embrace the abyss of the heart where the drama of humankind in search of salvation plays out. “It goes without saying, Father Sergei Bulgakov wrote in his book ‘Orthodoxy’, that Orthodoxy does not have independent ethics which appears as the gift par excellence of Protestantism”.
In the twentieth century however, amid the great social upheavals of almost cosmic scale, the Orthodox Church had to face challenges that the ascetic and spiritual practice developed in its centuries-old tradition did not foresee. How to behave in the face of unexpected, unusual, and often disguised persecutions? Where are the limits of a possible compromise? Which choice is more “ethical” in the Christian sense: to emigrate in order to safeguard the purity of Orthodoxy, or to stay put and adapt to the new rules while obeying the lie?
No textbook of moral theology gives a ready-made answer. Today, we have a community of sister churches with the same moral theology, the same spirituality, and the same canons, but based on different, if not opposite ethical choices. Thus, remaining a bit on the sidelines of the magisterial path of orthodox faith, ethics has burst into the midst of so many unforeseen pitfalls that history prepared for it.
And yet, the appearance of bioethics found us a little better informed. In this field at least, divisions as painful as in the case of political turmoil are not expected. Faced with the problems imposed by the choice between life as a gift offered, and death imposed on the weaker as a refusal, Orthodox thought comes out of its closed dogmatic, canonical and liturgical space, to address the world that confronts us. As decisions in this field are much more nuanced and less usual, they claim special knowledge and intellectual efforts.
In Scripture and in Tradition, we actually have a solid theological foundation able to provide answers required in the main issues related to bioethics. But before giving answers, we have to understand the problems from within, spiritually. We need to fathom what’s initially at stake, something we have not yet done enough.
The real problem is that the articulations of modern bioethics may be far from its hidden agenda. By what criterion can we understand and judge it? “We have the mind of Christ,” Saint Paul said. What does this mean, “the mind of Christ” (νοῦν Χριστοῦ – 1 Cоr 2:16)? According to von Balthasar, The Gnostic Centuries is Saint Maximus the Confessor’s major work. And according to Vladimir Lossky, it summarizes the whole patristic thought. In it, Maximus states that “our mind does not apprehend the naked Word, but the Word incarnate indeed, in a multiplicity of verbal forms” (Chapter on Theology 2:60). To have the mind of Christ is, in my opinion, Saint Maximus continues, to think in His way and of Him in all situations.” (Chapters on Knowledge, Second Century 2:83, in Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings, New York: Paulist Press, 1985, p.165). What is Christ’s mind about human life? How to translate it into human behavior, especially when it is about the beginning or the end of human life?
To prepare this paper, I read discussions on the difference between embryo and pre-embryo, on gradual fertilization, on the precise moment when the human soul “falls” into the accumulation of fertilized cells, etc. Science went very far in the detailed study of the beginning of biological life, but in the light of the mind of Christ interpreted in the spirit of Saint Maximus, I dare to suggest that life itself begins in “the mind of the Lord”. The mind of Christ, full of love, precedes the life of the human being barely conceived, better still: the mind of Christ is life itself. “In Him was life”, Saint John said, speaking of the Word. It is not a beautiful metaphor. This phrase is more than concrete: in Him, in the Word, in the active mind of the Word is the beginning of each human life. I believe that this life was thought and desired before being conceived, that every life is projected by the love of God before its appearance in the desire of the father and the bosom of the mother. In the Old Testament, as the late Sergei Averintsev once told me, God loves with His viscera. His visceral and uterine love is the origin of life.
It is easy to translate this “mystical” language into a more modern and understandable discourse: our cells with their genes have their innate programs and when the sperm enters the egg, both cells create the third unpredictable program that develops autonomously. This third program contains the future personality which for God is ready, but not predestined.
God is the one who forms this personality program. He gives it from the beginning. I believe that is the reason why Saint Basil the Great said, “With us there is no nice enquiry as to the fetus being formed or unformed” (Letter 188 to Amphilochius, concerning the Canons). And after the enormous advance made in the field of the biological origin of life, the Orthodox Church insists on its completeness from the very beginning to the end. Each barely conceived being is a creature of God who, from the very beginning, physically and spiritually carries in itself a sort of “dialogue” between its own life and its divine Source. In my opinion, Psalm 138:9, often quoted in the context of the defense of life, contains something more than just praise and poetry of creation. First of all, it is about the innate memory of our primordial bond with the One who wanted us to be born. It is revealed in the poem of the awakened and revealed memory. David, the brilliant poet, confesses that the love and “reflection” of God precedes every existence. And that this existence embodies His very mind. That the mind of Christ is implanted in our being and that we are called to discover and live it. “O Lord, You test me and know me; You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thoughts from afar; You search out my path and my portion. And you foresee all my ways.” The poet starts from his adult life and goes back to his own origin, where he finds himself under the divine gaze or action in the process of his own birth, of the “project” of God: “You fashioned me, and placed Your hands on me”. We see how the mind of Christ, of Saint Paul and Saint Maximus, meditates and dialogues with the “Thou” of God, this “Thou” that is given to us from the moment of conception. He “remembers” us, He manifests us and makes us live. We thank Him. “I will give thanks to You, For I am fearfully and wondrously made; Marvelous are Your works.”
But is it really ethics? Yes, but not as a discipline among others, rather as a starting point of any Orthodox discourse on the origin of life, naturally sacred from the beginning to the end. This sacredness is not a slogan nor a solemn declaration. It is rooted in three elements of faith: memory, gratitude, response. It is memory that discovers our identity in the very source of life. It is gratitude that awakens in me the awareness of the prodigy that I am, of being conceived, planned, and given freedom by the mind of Christ. It is response to the love of God hidden in our creation, in the very fact of living, that “gives birth” to faith in us. This faith lived as communion with the One who created us also engenders the ethics of the reception of His creatures. Let it be clear: for a long time now, ethics, Orthodox or not, has no longer be able to promulgate “decrees” on the good behavior of the faithful who are less and less faithful to the precepts. Our task is rather to awaken awareness in people, to bring them to the sources of our existence coming from the hands of God.
To condemn abortion is a simple and obvious thing. The real ethical problem for Orthodoxy is when, how and under what conditions we can welcome the Lord into fledgling life. When a single girl, a woman abandoned and without means, a very poor family already having children, even a woman raped or with a disabled fetus, face the inevitable decision to abort or not, then it will be necessary to see what words our faith will find in such situations. The arguments of the unshakeable and harsh law, with its bans and punishments, are likely to go unheeded. In this case, our law must become an ethics of attentive reflection on the Word of God, on awakened memory, on trust. “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me” Jesus said (Mk 9:37). Those who receive Jesus by receiving a child, whoever he/she may be, approach His holiness and His voluntary sacrifice. Those who are not able to receive the unwanted child, in extreme circumstances, are worthy rather of compassion, not of canonical measures. In my opinion, true Orthodox ethics in regards to conceived or fledgling life must be ethics of spiritual welcome, with all the possible deprivations and inevitable sufferings that come from that decision.
The same law can also be applied to inevitable death in the case of terminal illness. As we know, Orthodoxy is against euthanasia, but it does not support either the so-called “therapeutic harassment”. That is good, but not enough. The blessing on someone who comes into the world goes hand in hand with the blessing on someone who leaves it. Living faith invites us not only to accept our departure, but also to bless it. What does this mean? First, we have to understand that the end of life is a spiritual event that must be lived in its Christian dimension as an action. It is often the most important in our existence. Life vanishes and the stone walls we built during our earthly journey begin to crumble. In times of trials, the Lord can finally enter the world of our “self,” into its sanctuary that we do not even know. In Sophiology of Death, Father Sergei Bulgakov describes his shocking experience of dying. Here is my abridged translation:
“Where was my mind that would never disappear? Where was the problem that I was always trying to fathom? All this was as extinct, had ceased to exist. I was empty, my mind was powerless. My existence had become impoverished, had simplified into a simple bodily being reduced to the sole possibility of suffering. Did I feel God’s closeness? Yes, I did, as nothing was taking me away from God, except bodily suffering. The proximity of God was trembling. This familiarity was full of awe and holy, as with Job. But it was not a happy one, because it was filled with only one feeling: why have You forsaken me? But beside that, what I did not know before, what became for me a true spiritual event that will forever remain a revelation for me: not death itself, but the fact of dying with God and in God. I was in the process of dying and Christ was dying with me and in me.”
This testimony of the Christian death that Father Bulgakov managed to go through speaks more volume than any theology of human kenosis when life goes away. We empty ourselves, we fall into physical misery, and the misery of the soul which opens to the presence and love of Christ. Death is the moment of the overwhelming opening of our whole being, when our very suffering “invites” Christ who comes to fill it in. It is obvious that suffering must not be imposed on, when there are ways to relieve it, but when we become its prisoner, the only way to get free from suffering is to open up to the torment of the Cross; to share it, to let Christ fill our body and our soul. For this reason, our whole life must be a preparation for death, that is to say, the education of our soul for this meeting that gets prolonged throughout eternity. For death, like birth and even conception, are two privileged moments, two encounters with the Source of Life given to us.”
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