“Chastity, Purity, Integrity: Orthodox Anthropology and Secular Culture in the 21st Century”
Holy Trinity Seminary, Jordanville, New York, USA, March 7-9, 2019
“Speaking the Truth in Love: A Conference Addressing Sexuality and the Human Being”
St. Tikhon’s Seminary, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, USA, November 7-9, 2019
Questions of gender and sexuality present many challenges for the Church in today’s society. Two conferences were held in the United States in 2019 to discuss these issues from an Orthodox standpoint. They were organized by Professors David and Mary Ford of St. Tikhon’s Seminary (Orthodox Church of America) and Fr. Alexander Webster, Dean of Holy Trinity Seminary (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) with the assistance of Alfred Siewers (Associate Professor of English, Bucknell University) and David Bradshaw (Professor of Philosophy, University of Kentucky). They were designed to be mutually complementary and to present a wide range of perspectives from Orthodox clergy and scholars of many different backgrounds and forms of expertise.
The first conference, “Chastity, Purity, Integrity: Orthodox Anthropology and Secular Culture in the 21st Century,” was held at Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, March 7-9, 2019. Audio recordings of the talks are available here and video here. The following is a list of the speakers and their topics.
The conference opened with a welcome from Bishop Luke of Syracuse (ROCOR) followed by a keynote address by Bishop Irenei of Richmond and Western Europe (ROCOR) titled “The Disappearance of Man: The Rise of Personism and the Crisis of Modern Anthropology.”
The first session, “Orthodox Anthropology,” featured the following scholars: Mark Cherry (Professor of Philosophy, St. Edward’s University), “Will the Next Generation Be Orthodox? Confronting Secular Ethics and Secular Culture”; Bruce Foltz (Professor of Philosophy emeritus, Eckerd College), “The Gnosticism of Modernity and the Quest for Radical Autonomy”; Gaelan Gilbert (Visiting Professor of Humanities, University of Saint Katherine), “Gnosis, Techne, Hedone: Secular Assumptions of the Transgender Movement”; and Alfred Siewers (Associate Professor of English, Bucknell University), “On Not Essentializing the Passions.” The second session, “The Mystery of Male and Female,” featured Mary Ford (Associate Professor of New Testament, St. Tikhon’s Seminary), “Reflections on Hierarchy and the Mystery of Male and Female”; Edith Humphrey (Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), “The Mystery of Male and Female, Masculine and Feminine”; and Timothy Patitsas (Assistant Professor of Ethics, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology), “Shame, Gender, and the Marriage of Priests.” The final session of the day was a roundtable on “Nurturing Christian Purity and Chastity among Young People Today” featuring Fr. David Pratt (Associate Teaching Professor of Philosophy, Georgetown University), David Ford (Professor of Church History, St. Tikhon’s Seminary), and the author and commentator Frederica Mathewes-Green.
The next day began with a session on “The Relevance of Orthodox Teachings on Purity and Chastity to 21st-century America” featuring Fr. Chad Hatfield (President, St. Vladimir’s Seminary), “Schmemann and Secularism”; Fr. Peter Heers (Headmaster, Three Hierarchs Academy), “The Orthodox Ethos”; Fr. John Parker (Dean, St. Tikhon’s Seminary), “Know Catechism, Know Chastity; No Catechism, No Chastity”; and David Bradshaw, “Orthodoxy and the Beauty of Chastity.” This was followed by a second keynote address, “On the Benedict Option and Orthodox Anthropology” by the popular author and journalist, Rod Dreher. The next session, “Engaging American Society with the Moral Teachings of the Church,” included Fr. Hans Jacobse (St. Peter the Apostle Antiochian Orthodox Church), “The Link between Creativity and Sexual Sobriety in Discovering Masculine Self-Identity: Toward an Orthodox Praxis of Healing Young Men” and Fr. Alexander Webster (Dean, Holy Trinity Seminary), “Benedict, Constantine, and Prophecy: Three Options for the Coming Storm.”
The conference ended with an open discussion and an opportunity to visit the Russian History Museum located at the seminary.
The second conference, entitled “Speaking the Truth in Love: A Conference Addressing Sexuality and the Human Being,” was held at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, PA, November 7-9, 2019. Audio recordings of the talks are available here.
The conference began with a welcome by Fr. John Parker (Dean, St. Tikhon’s Seminary) and a keynote address by Archbishop Michael of New York and New Jersey (OCA), “Trusting Our Tradition in Facing Modern Challenges.”
The first session, “Body and Soul, Male and Female in Orthodox Anthropology,” featured Harry Boosalis (Professor of Dogmatic Theology, St. Tikhon’s Seminary), “The Human Body: An Orthodox Perspective”; Jordan Parro (PhD student in Theology, Boston College), “Male and Female in St. Maximos the Confessor”; and Ben Cabe (author at Conciliar Post), “Sexlessness of the Soul and the Gendered Resurrection of the Body.” The second session, “Apologetics, Part One,” featured Frederica Mathewes-Green, “Pro-life Apologetics”; Natasha Frasch (Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Orthodox Church, OCA), “Speaking to My Own Generation about the Life of the Unborn”; Andrew Kern (President, Circe Institute), “Inspiring a Vision of Sexual Purity in Our Youth—in the Home and at School”; and Gary Jenkins (Professor of History and Director, St. Basil Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture, Eastern University), “Teaching about Sexual Purity on the College Campus.” The day ended with a keynote address by Ryan Nash, MD (Director, Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, Ohio State University), “Competing Concepts of Health Regarding Sex, Eroticism, and Gender.”
The next day offered two more sessions. The first, “Apologetics, Part Two,” included Ana Iltis (Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Bioethics, Health, and Society, Wake Forest University), “An Orthodox Approach to Gender Dysphoria”; Fr. John Oliver (St. Elizabeth Antiochian Orthodox Church), “Creed and Coexistence: Living Our Beliefs in the Marketplace of Ideas”; Fr. Herman Majkrzak (St. Tikhon’s Monastery), “’The Wrong Side of History’? Christians as Co-Judges with Christ in the Evaluation of Culture and History”; and Gary Cattell (campus minister, Pennsylvania State University), “Preaching about Sexual Purity on the College Campus.” The final session, “How to Live in Purity of Mind and Body,” included Alfred Siewers, “Sobornost and Society: Finding Freedom for Purity amid a Materialistic Culture”; Fr. Sergius Bowyer (Abbot, St. Tikhon’s Monastery), “Dealing with Impure logismoi“; and Herman Middleton (creator, Protecting Veil), “My Brother Is My Life: The Parish’s Role in the Cultivation of Chastity.” The day ended with a discussion led by Fr. John Parker followed by Vespers in the monastery church.
Obviously such a large number and variety of papers cannot be discussed individually. However, a few common themes may be noted. One recurrent theme was the distinctive resources that Orthodoxy has to offer, through the richness of its liturgical and ascetic tradition, in combating the sexual degradation of modern culture. The papers by Cherry, Pratt, D. Ford, Mathewes-Green, Parker, Bradshaw, Jacobse, Archbishop Michael, Frasch, Kern, Oliver, Catell, Bowyer, and Middleton all touched upon this in some way. Bradshaw, for example, discussed the Akathist Hymn as a kind of school of chastity and repentance. Fr. Jacobse described his work in helping young men overcome addiction to pornography through spiritual and ascetic disciplines. Kern presented the innate human desire for theosis as a framework for giving structure and direction to education. Fr. Oliver discussed “deaths of despair” and how Orthodoxy offers an antidote to despair through the warfare against the passions. Frasch and Mathewes-Green described, from different perspectives, the causes leading women to seek abortions and the form that an Orthodox engagement with them should take.
Another group of papers dealt with the difference between male and female and its implications for ethical life. The papers by M. Ford, Humphrey, Patitsas, Boosalis, Parro, Cabe, Nash, and Iltis all dealt with this theme. Ford, for example, discussed the proper understanding of hierarchy in relation to male and female and how hierarchy should not be seen as oppressive, but as providing opportunities for love and service. Humphrey discussed the relationship between the two related but distinct polarities of male/female and masculine/feminine, particularly as presented in the work of Paul Evdokimov and C. S. Lewis. Patitsas described the types or stages of shame and how men and women have different callings in relation to each. Nash and Iltis dealt with contemporary transgenderism and the intrinsic difficulties in the concept of sex reassignment.
A third group of papers attempted in various ways to understand the underlying dynamics of modern culture, especially (although not solely) in relation to sex and gender. The papers by Bishop Irenei, Foltz, Gilbert, Siewers, Hatfield, Heers, Dreher, Webster, Jenkins, and Majkrzak all shared this approach. Both Foltz and Gilbert identified an underlying strand of Gnosticism in modern attitudes toward the body and sexuality. Dreher described an interlocking set of crises in modern culture and how they have led to the condition sometimes known as “liquid modernity,” in which community is dissolved and identity becomes a matter of individual construction. Siewers drew on the work of Julia Kristeva to diagnose as characteristic of modernity a kind of isolated hyper-identity fixed through individual choice. Jenkins discussed the role of the courtly love movement and its implicit dualism in shaping distinctively western forms of eroticism. Fr. Majkrzak presented some fundamentals of an Orthodox view of history in contrast to secular views that tend to think of history as inevitably moving toward greater moral enlightenment.
The revised and expanded papers from both conferences are currently in press. Those from the Holy Trinity conference will be published as Healing Humanity: Confronting Our Moral Crisis (Holy Trinity Publications) edited by Fr. Alexander Webster, David Ford, and Alfred Siewers. Those from the St. Tikhon’s conference will be published as Speaking the Truth in Love: Sexuality and the Human Being (St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press) edited by David Ford and Alfred Siewers.
In closing let me offer a few observations about what I see as the value of these conferences. To address issues of gender and sexuality from within Orthodoxy means looking in one of two directions. The first is outward, seeking to bring the riches of Orthodoxy to bear on issues and problems that confront society at large; the other is inward, seeking to help those within the Church navigate a rapidly changing world. Although these two projects can overlap, they are distinct and each is necessary and important.
There was much in these conferences that offered a valuable beginning on both projects. The various critiques of modern sexual culture, along with historical diagnoses of its roots and attempts to offer a more positive vision of gender and sexuality, are all efforts that should be of broad interest well beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy. There is hardly a tradition or community in the world today that is not confronting these issues in some way. To the extent that Orthodoxy has something distinctive to contribute to the discussion, it is our duty to bring it forth for the benefit of all. Many of the papers provided a model of how to do this in a way that combines learning with charity and grace.
Looking inward to the Church presents a different sort of challenge. Here there is a need for pastoral wisdom to work in tandem with medical, psychological, and legal expertise to provide practical guidance in facing an enormous range of challenges—from that of raising children in our sexualized culture to fighting the ravages of abortion, divorce, and pornography. Again there was much in these conferences that provides a helpful beginning. Even so, here especially there remains much more to be done. It must be frankly admitted that, the more the culture at large leaves behind any vestige of traditional Christian sexual ethics, the more Orthodoxy itself comes to seem like an anomaly in the modern world. There is probably not a parish in the United States that has not lost some members due to disaffection with Orthodox teaching on matters of gender and sexuality. That was hardly the case fifty or more years ago, when our teaching was largely indistinguishable from that of other churches. This is not a reason to change our teaching, but it is a reason to meet people where they are, listen to their stories, and help them understand the real value and meaning of an Orthodox approach to these matters. The more the culture at large changes around us, the more pressing this need becomes.
Professor of Philosophy, University of Kentucky