Christian Orthodox Obligations Versus Secular Human Rights

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Review: Leonard G. Friesen, Transcendent Love: Dostoevsky and the Search for a Global Ethic, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016, 240pp., $50.00

       In our climate of a possible ‘new cold war’, Immanuel Kant’s vision of an ethical commonwealth based on universally shared human reason appears more utopian than ever. However, Leonard G. Friesen in his new work Transcendent Love surveys the engagement of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, the 19th century’s Russian literary giant, with European human-rights based secularism, arguing that the alternative ethic that P03233Dostoevsky put forward with the “Orthodox Christ” has as much to contribute to our age as it did in his for forging a global ethic. Friesen enters into the field of global ethics that has, as Heather Widdows in Global Ethics: An Introduction points out, only emerged in the past few decades. Global ethics not only concerns itself with global issues such as the ‘war on terror’, global trade, or climate change, but also recognizes that given the interconnectedness of our society due to globalization and the aspirations of global governance, necessity compels us to create a global ethic to address issues that affect us globally. Introductions to moral philosophy such as Torbjörn Tännsjö’s Understanding Ethics and Kimberly Hutchings’ Global Ethics are quite euro-centric in perspective, which Friesen rightly challenges. In this way Friesen’s stands beside works like The Globalization of Ethics edited by William M. Sullivan that likewise sought to include non-European perspectives.

       For Friesen however contemporary global ethics are detrimentally marred by a radical individualism and a secular moral relativism. Friesen proposes that Dostoevsky’s context of 19th century Russia, being caught between the world powers Europe and Asia, offers a unique contribution for us by helping us break out of our common euro-centrism, as well as being a much needed antidote to our individualism and secular relativism by its communal nature and Orthodoxy respectively. While global ethical issues such as climate change are not addressed in depth, Friesen hopes that new framework for a global ethic found in the “Orthodox Christ” of Dostoevsky can give direction for such engagement—much like Patrick Riordan’s Global Ethics and Global Common Goods in seeking to bring the field of global ethics right back to foundational ethical issues of the ‘Good’ for direction. Despite being notoriously difficult to interpret in literary circles Friesen stands confidant with renowned Dostoevsky scholars such as Vladimir Soloviev in interpreting Dostoevsky as primarily an exponent of Russian Orthodoxy. Dostoevsky is read as such a writer who “…was determined to bridge the gap between the People (Russia’s famed narod, the peasantry)…” who carried the spirit of Orthodoxy and “…the empire’s Europeanized elite…” who were possessed by European secular individualism, as exemplified in his novel Demons, with the “Orthodox Christ.”

       Friesen begins by discussing the motifs of orphanhood and suicide prevalent across Dostoevsky’s work, framed in his novella “The Meek One”, to explore what Dostoevsky feared most for Russia. Viewing the ‘progressive’ thought of Russia’s 1840s liberal generation with suspicion, Dostoevsky saw in it a destructive secularism. “Dostoevsky deemed all moderns to be orphans…” left to complete destitution without God. Our ethical gaze was diminished from immortality and the future, unto this world and the present, leaving those who have the most material wealth to wield the most power, seeking to control us orphaned souls. As such, a variety of new ethical preferences such as ends over means, the individual over the community, and indifference over ethical distinctions are brought about. Dostoevsky depicts the Europeanized elite as thoroughly bored and depressed because of this, which results in searching for a life of new diversions ranging from idle chatter to sexual depravity such as pedophilia. Gambling, self-loathing, voyeuristic entertainment, and direct violence, all likewise stem from this indifference to a secular universe. Left to this destitution themselves, the felt need of the powerful to assert their “…rights even precede any particular content to those rights…” The People (narod) being weak are left so alone to scramble for their security that they might even sacrifice their freedom to inequitable conditions. “It seemed that Dostoevsky associated modernity with ethically sanctioned inequality.” If all ended in death “…in a profoundly meaningless world…” then “…it may be that the only truly meaningful act we can undertake is to kill ourselves”, thus suicide for Dostoevsky is the natural resultant of modernity’s orphanhood. Believing that secular Europeans were still searching for a transcendent ethical vision, Dostoevsky held out hope for their conversion. He does not spell out this conversion in propositional form though, but rather expresses it “…relationally, through an absolute embodied truth…” in the characters of his novels.

    From Dostoevsky’s fears we move to understanding his Russian Orthodox ethics, illustrated chiefly by repentance in his novel Crime and Punishment. Repentance, the beginning of this ethical vision, starts with not only a firm acknowledgement of our wrongs but remembrance of the Orthodox Biblical tradition, seen in Dostoevsky’s various references to the scripture, icons, San Damiano Crossand the sign of the cross all as an reinforcement of it. Dostoevsky asks his “…readers…to think of their future as a memory, for they could approach it by looking backward to the cross and the resurrection of Holy Week” thus recapturing their formally transcendent ethical horizon. Immortality and freedom, such as in his famed exploration of it in his novella Notes from Underground, are likewise essential for his ethical vision, for the vision must be freely embraced in full hope, rather than forced upon the People by coercion and without hope. The transcendence of the Orthodox Christ enables the People to have freedom beyond the brutal determinism of a secular universe and hope beyond the present. The Europeanized Russian elite did provide some lesser version of freedom—the freedom of a variety of equally bad choices as to which debauchery and distraction you wanted to pursue, but they offered nothing to replace the now lost transcendental horizon of Russian Orthodoxy.

     The Russian Orthodox ethic consists in an open invitation to all, especially those deemed ‘unrighteous’. However, both the illusions of moral progress, and a sense of superiority to the peasantry—need to be shown for the sham they are for repentance to begin. Dostoevsky’s common motif of kissing the earth illustrates that “…for Dostoevsky shame was an essential device by which Europeanized, individualized Russians would return to a new identity grounded in the interdependence of the People”, The notion of “joint responsibility” (krugovaia poruka) is prevalent throughout Russian history as shown in Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia and the Russians. Only after this could they move to embrace a life of unconditional, limitless, and personally active love, which flow out of their own sense of their responsibility to others “…even at the expense of their personal joy.” Dostoevsky’s saintly characters manifest this love in pity, the embrace of other people’s suffering, and in bearing collective responsibility. It follows from the last that if we commit a wrong against one person we commit a wrong against all people, resulting in the need for mutual forgiveness, as Christ has forgiven us. For all Russian Orthodox thought this vision, while utterly self-sacrificial, is sublimely beautiful as it develops us into the likeness of Christ like a living icon. Friesen argues then that Dostoevsky would challenge our secular moral relativism with a transcendent vision of the “Orthodox Christ”, as well as our radical individualism by this call to collective responsibility out of repentance.

      In his final section, Friesen looks at Dostoevsky’s speech given at the celebration of the monument to Alexander Pushkin, responding to critics who argued that the Orthodox Christ could not be universalized. Dostoevsky admires that whether Catholic France or Protestant Germany each had its own contribution to global ethical discourse in seeking to be a universal ethic. Europe however made a fatal flaw by forgetting the ideal of the Orthodox Christ. Any ethical vision “…built on a cocktail of atheism, science and liberalism [was] doomed to fail…” and was itself too provincial. For Dostoevsky the ideal of the Orthodox Christ was kept among the peasantry and not in the Europeanized elite, for Russia harbored within itself from its beginning as a nation the Orthodox faith which was always meant to be universal—therefore “…one could be fully Russian and fully universal at the same time.” Dostoevsky further warned that Europeanized Russians who had rejected the Orthodox Christ would seek to impose their ethic by a strong state apparatus that would do anything to reform or be rid of the ‘ignorant masses’—eerily prescient of the Soviet Union less than half a century later.

     Gradovsky is emblematic of the liberal detraction to Dostoevsky’s ethnic conservatism, arguing that a conversion on the part of the elites toward the People was insufficient. What was needed to dismantle an oppressive structure was a progressive movement to work within state structures on behalf of the People. Furthermore, how can it be said that the Russian people held a universal ethic, when they like any other people group were just as provincial as anyone else? Dostoevsky argued that while European liberals may talk of equality, in practice their structures depended on the same servile labor to maintain their lavish lifestyles as they decried in their political rulers—the 19th century Russian equivalent of the ‘limousine liberal’. As for the provincialism of the People, Dostoevsky argued that their exaltation as the bearers of the Orthodox Christ is hardly prideful as it is the exaltation of the ethic of humility itself! What could not have been appreciated however would be later postmodern detraction to Dostoevsky, and by extension Friesen as well, that universalism in and of itself is oppressive because its homogenous impulsive is coercive against any particular difference that it cannot subsume in itself. In the end however, Dostoevsky does not try to propositionally argue with Gradovsky, or much less postmodernism, but instead portrays these two opposing ethical visions in his last novel The Brothers Karamazov—Orthodox Christian communal obligations in Aloysha, the saintly protagonist and secular individual human rights in The Grand Inquisitor—and leaves his audience with the decision between them.

       “We are living out of Dostoevsky’s greatest fears…” as our age is the orphan child with nothing left but violence, and sanctioned inequality. For Friesen the task of forging a new global ethic is necessary given that, arguing in line with Immanuel Wallerstein, the European universalism embraced by Russia’s 19th century elite is of the same legacy that we in the 21st century are now struggling with and in many ways beginning to abandon due to the critiques of postmodernism and post-colonialism. Furthermore, many of the ethical views that Dostoevsky puts forward such as collective responsibility, find much resonance in other traditions such as First Nations peoples and Islam, which have likewise been left out of Euro-centric moral philosophy. Given the centrality of the continuity between modernity in the 19th century and our era for Friesen’s argument however, post-modernism should have been given a vital place of discussion instead of leaving the questions as to how Dostoevsky could address postmodernism and as to how postmodernism is related to the legacy of modernity, mute. For instance, what about animals, do they have rights? How would an ethic of collective responsibility speak to whether we have obligations to animals or not? Illustrating the difference between an ethic based on Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christ and contemporary secular human rights would more clearly have demonstrated Friesen’s argument for the value of Dostoevsky’s contribution. But perhaps such specifics would have missed Dostoevsky’s ethic entirely, which was that our active love is to be shown to all creatures concretely and not in the abstract. The true test of Dostoevsky’s ethic would seem to be whether, should it be lived out, we would find it insufficient and weak or as beautiful and joyous as he believed it to be.





Misunderstanding God(dess)

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            Recently in a casual theological conversation concerning the topic of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology, it was rightly pointed out that, often, because the Holy Spirit is referred to as an ‘it’, we subconsciously forget that the Holy Spirit is a personal being, not an impersonal force, and so we should  call the Holy Spirit ‘He/Him’. Those with the ‘ear to hear’ will know where this argumentation will lead Christian theology to inevitably, and indeed already has. If we wish to avoid impersonal pronouns when describing God, can we not use the pronoun ‘she’? The amount of opposition to this proposal from Christian women no less would surprise anyone not raised in or around Christian contexts.

            What will be argued here is that a very simple case can be made for using feminine pronouns/images when talking about God in Christian theological contexts on the basis of two very fundamental and basic ‘orthodox’ premises. It will be further be speculated upon as to why there is opposition to this, despite the obvious conclusion from basic ‘orthodox’ premises, and then finally some radical proposals for not only talking about ‘God’ but even specifically Jesus, with language that defies gender categorization will be proposed.

            Initial opposition to the proposal, which is usually disguised as a question, of using feminine language when talking about God, comes almost universally in two forms: (1) ‘Well that issue is not really important because the ultimate point is that God is beyond gender and beyond humanity! And should we not bask in God’s transcendence?’, or (2) ‘The Bible never talks about God as mother or in any feminine language and to stick to the tradition and Biblical principles we should use the pronouns and images it uses to talk about God, when we talk about God’.

            To deal with these in reverse order. One should not dismiss the second form of initial opposition as ‘too conservative’ or ‘too strict’, for one should not conceive the desire to stay with tradition or to stick to one’s roots as a perverted desire of people scared of change. Often going back to old tradition is a new change. Even more often, tradition contains some of the most radical proposals for social change and “progress” that can be implemented. Nor is changing tradition, though perceived as “progressive”, always moral which is the most important feature of good traditions. In fact what is more worrying than those who wish to stridently stick to tradition, are those who claim to do so but secretly mean stridently stick with the status quo. It is true as may reasonably be estimated, that in most Christian contexts,  primarily masculine language and images are used of God, but sadly those who claim to stick to the authority of the Christian Bible, are often those who know it the least. For while the feminine images of God are sparse in the Christian Bible, they are not wholly absent. The theme of God as a humanly motherly figure of comfort is well noted in Isaiah 49:15; 66:13, the later of which reads

As a mother comforts her child,
So I will comfort you;
You shall be comforted in Jerusalem

The reason ‘humanly’ is mentioned is because sometimes God herself is even compared to a female animal with the same theme of comfort and protection such as the eagle (Deut. 32:11-12;  Matt. 23:37). Bizarrely there is even an instance of God as a mother bear who violently devours those who stole her cubs (Hosea 13:8), in case one think that the female images are used only with respect to passivity or the like. Passages like these and more* should show that even if one wishes to appeal to the Bible or tradition for theological sanction for the use of not only female images and language but even animal images and language when talking about God, it can be found there.

            Speaking of God using animal images and language then nicely brings us to the second initial form of opposition to speaking of God using female pronouns and images, ‘Is it not somewhat idolatrous to speak of God using such human terms? Should we not focus then on God transcending gender?’ It is here where the subconscious prejudice, of which we shall delve into more, is most clearly seen. For here, the doctrine of God’s transcendence is used precisely as a shield to deny it.  If the doctrine of God’s transcendence is going be used to say that we should not speak of God as female, it should also be used to say that we should not speak of God as male either, and an ineffable God is not only useless but heretical to the entire Christian tradition. In other terms, it is precisely because of God’s transcendence of the binary of gender** that it should not matter what images and pronouns we use when talking about God, for we confess doctrinally that ultimately our language is an attempt to understand God in our terms whether male or female. Instead however, the doctrine of God’s transcendence of human gender is used to deny or push aside the suggestion that we can (or maybe even should, God forbid!) use feminine pronouns and images when talking about God, but leaves intact our ability to use masculine pronouns and images, as if it were not anthropomorphic, or human language by which to talk about God.

            We have seen then that even these two initial seemingly reasonable forms of opposition to using feminine pronouns and images when talking about God are not formidable enough, even by the ‘orthodox’ standards of Biblical usage and the doctrine of transcendence, to withstand. If you held to either of these, the following will appear harsh. Whether conscious or subconscious, the reflexive reaction of disapproval to feminine language and images being used of God can really only come from a notion of maleness as divine, and femaleness as not. As if God did not make females in her image too (Gen. 1:26-27). The struggle of much of the Christian tradition to deal with including the female in the character of the divine has well been exploited for controversy both legitimate and illegitimate. Briefly, a good legitimate good argument in this regard is that Catholicism on the whole arguably has been much better to women spiritually than Protestantism both for having the quasi-goddess cult of the Virgin Mary but also for the openness of some within its mystical and monastic traditions of depicting God as mother such as in Julian of Norwich. While protestantism, in a strong well-intentioned desire to eliminate idolatry in Christian practice, got rid of veneration of the Virgin Mary, and in its reformulation of the goodness of family and procreation radically reduced female authority in monastic and mystical contexts. If you are a man or woman who has felt the absence of a female descriptions of  the divine nature, this would be a good example of why your grievance is justified.

            In addition however to this legitimate concern for female expression, it must be fairly said, there is equally (and perhaps may be more so) illegitimate controversy raised by the lack of female pronouns and images when discussing God in the Christian tradition. In no way should re-emphasizing the female aspect of the divine be used to depict God ‘the father’ as a brutal patriarchal tyrant that needs to be eliminated, but from outside of the Christian tradition, the absence of a female descriptions of  the divine nature has been used to call for an embrace not just a ‘female’ God, which is just as blasphemous as the ‘male’ God discussed earlier, but even for another God such as mother earth or the like. Against such proposals not too thinly masked in James Cameron’s Avatar for instance, the Vatican rightly condemned such nature worship recognizing that Mother Nature can be as cruel and as enslaving as Father God. In addition as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out with respect to the film Zero Dark Thirty, it is quite possible to have violent oppressive societies that were in some sense ‘post-patriarchal’ and lead by feminine heroines.*** So then the appeal to describe God with female pronouns and images should not be construed to suggest that ‘Father’ God is oppressive and mean whereas ‘Mother’ earth is liberating and nice, when the standards for violence and oppressive, for comfort and care are not in anyway tied to gender constructions.

            Having then argued a very simple case for using feminine pronouns/images when talking about God in Christian theological contexts and suggesting reasonable speculations upon as to why there is opposition to this, we will end with talking about Jesus specifically. At the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College, there is on display Almuth Lutkenhaus’s sculpture of the “Crucified Woman”,


Initially, one may wonder whether such a depiction can be taken serious, for after all, ‘while its all well and good to talk about God as transcending gender binaries, surely Jesus was a man!’ Indeed so, but controversially it will be suggested that only in a Christian theological framework can Jesus, the Son of God be portrayed as a role model and ideal figure for revolutionary women, and that secular ideology in particular is completely unable to do so. Consider for a moment the proposition that Jesus was not god and was merely like any other man, most likely probably having sexual urges and desires, and the associated argument that Mary Magdalene was his wife of some sort. In secular contexts, the implications of this sort of argumentation for women were almost entirely missed. Would not, under this revised history of early Christianity which is total hog-wash historically speaking, women be merely  subordinated to the role of wife or secret mistress? In the desire to de-throne Christ, the result was even of devaluing women, not just in later centuries as the Church most certainly did, but within Jesus’ own ministry!

            Now, consider the opposite. If Jesus, as Christian ‘orthodoxy’ has always stated, was not only incarnationally 100% man, but also 100% God, and therefore of the same substance as God the ‘father’, therefore also transcending gender binary, would this not open up the possibility of understanding Jesus as divinely beyond gender? Could not women also, as women (unlike the Gospel of Thomas in 114), aspire to be conformed to the image of Christ? As Lutkenhaus has portrayed in her sculpture, Christ suffered as a human, not merely just as a man. It is not as if the role model for Christian men to aspire to is Christ, whereas for Christian women its the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. On the contrary, the image of Christ is the aspiration for all persons to aspire to. It is this issue, that is exact and precisely why, seemingly theoretical questions about referring to a non-gendered deity using female pronouns and images is so damn important. In leaving women out of the picture and description of the divine, we have not only misunderstood God(dess) but we have let the Christ of the new humanity be segregated to the male gender thereby leaving men and women who have felt the absence of the entirety of humanity in the image of God(dess) to be left to paganism and secularism for enslavement to ‘nature’ and oppressive patriarchs without recourse to refuge in the divine.


*Note for further research: Here is an excellent introductory article to the Biblical material: “Feminine Images for God: What Does the Bible Say?”- Dr. Margo G. Houts http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/970418/o1041897.htm 

**What it says in Christian theology to talk about God as a person and yet of no particular gender or sex should be an initial hint as to a theological engagement and response to transgender persons.

*** For more on this one should see Rosa Brooks piece, “Women Are from Mars too” http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/08/women_are_from_mars_too

Secularism’s Sexual Repressions: brief notes

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            Christopher Hitchens, in his now probably most famous work, god is not great (Emblem: 2007), indicts religion with “four irreducible objections” of which include that religious faith “…is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression…” (pg.4). It can be questioned whether Hitchens meant “the” as opposed to “a” result and/or cause but be that as it may, being a young man in his twenties, I would like personally to set the record straight that secular values and society, particularly in the North American context of the sexual liberation movement, have been equally repressive as religion when it comes to matters of sex, though of course for very different reasons. “Is not the problem that there’s rampant sex all over the place? What can possibly be your case that secularism is also sexually repressive?” is the objection raised. Some brief points:

            1) The anxiety over performance, technique, and pleasure- Secularism by trading the purpose of sex from love and procreation to almost a recreational activity for pleasure has unwittingly created more anxiety and worry about sex than ever before. Men worrying about the size of their penis, women worrying about pubic hair, parents worrying about keeping the ‘spice’ in their marriage, partners worrying about orgasms and whether they can ‘satisfy’ their partner, the worry whether one can measure up to one’s partner’s past experiences with others, the worry about becoming a sex addict, the worry over not having enough sex–all of this because now with sex as a sport their is the competition as to who is the best player and what makes them so good.

            2) The fear of becoming infected, pregnant or a pervert- Rampant numbers of partners, creates rampant amount of STDs and types of infections that now one has to live in constant fear of before having sex, or finding out after sex, “Was I infected with a fatal disease?”. In our world, the encouragement now is to get tested at the doctor’s before having sex with your partner. Such fear is sadly quite justified, but when both partners were presumably virgins no one had to fear death from sex. In addition to this, because sex is not for procreation, procreation could often be ‘accidental’. Understand that I’m not presenting a Pro-Roman-Catholic-No-Contraception-Ever argument but what is suggested is that now secularism has made children often the unwanted result of an activity, an economic burden unanticipated, rather than a bundle of joy in many cases. Finally, there is the fear of becoming a pervert. How has secularism changed this? Well by proposing that sexual attraction is entirely biological in nature, or almost entirely biological in nature, this creates almost a determinism when it comes to sexuality, and thus a fear that it will become uncontrollable. We see this in the anxieties of some as to whether they are gay or not, even when they are not. We also see it in grave fears of other sexual perversions. But it is because sexual choice, attraction, mating or whatever are seen as biologically determined, they are also things that control us, rather than us them, creating more fear and anxiety.

          Esquire  3) Lastly the great denigration of women as sexual objects- While many religious communities can also be rightfully accused of centering all of a women’s worth on the status of their virginity, secularism also has in many cases reduced a women’s worth to her sexuality. Recently, the editor of Esquire magazine, Alex Bilmes, made the quite honest confess that,

“We produce a men’s magazine and it has a male gaze… This is the controversial bit that people don’t like but I always tell the truth about it – the women we feature in the magazine are ornamental, that is how we see them…I could lie and say we are interested in their brains as well but on the whole we’re not, they are there to be a beautiful object, they’re objectified.” (i)

What was so shocking about this statement was not so much its content, though that too of course, but rather that he actually said it. Its has arguably been known for decades that this has been the case but no one dared to voice it in such a stark and blatant manner. The objectification of women’s bodies in patriarchal societies has of course been a terrible phenomenon over the course of many centuries but the justification for it in North American society is totally secular- the female body has become a commode in the capitalist market, as well as a tool for advertising. The objectification of the women’s body is now not as a baby machine to continue the ancestral lineage (as in more religiously oriented societies) but as sex products.

            These have been just some brief notes in need of further development, such as a definition of secularism and religiosity for our purposes. But I hope I’ve at least shown that sexual repression is hardly the sin of any one group, but is a problem of humanity and that secular society in these three forms has perpetuated its own forms of sexual repression.


(i) Waterlow, Lucy. “Women are ‘ornamental’ and should be viewed in same way as ‘cool cars’: Esquire editor sparks row as admits he is not interested in girls’ brains.” Mail Online, March 21, 2013. < http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2296968/Esquire-editor-Alex-Bilmes-sparks-sexism-row-admits-women-ornamental-viewed-way-cool-cars.html >

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