"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights

The Orthodox scholar George Demacopoulos (some of whose publications I have noted on here over the years, and whom I interviewed about his book Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome) recently announced on Facebook that the "Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University has won a $250,000 grant from Leadership 100 to conduct a five-year scholarly study of the compatibility of Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights."

These are topics that George and his colleague Aristotle Papanikolaou have circled around for some time in some of their individual publications as well as co-edited collections from the excellent conferences they organize and host on a regular basis. See, e.g., Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine as well as the earlier and invaluable collection Orthodox Constructions of the West, which I discussed in detail starting here 

The news of this grant is welcome in a time when it has become increasingly fashionable to denounce the horrors of, and call for the total replacement of, modern liberalism, including its notions of human rights. Twenty years ago, in writing a thesis on Alasdair MacIntyre, I became very sympathetic to his splenetic dismissals of rights language, belief in which, he said, is at one with belief in witches and unicorns. Even more, of course, did MacIntyre set his face against the entire liberal project as having failed to do what it promised and instead having illicitly smuggled in (a favourite MacIntyre verb) a lot of premises and practices extraneous to it. I followed him very closely in thinking this, and still do to some extent.

I wrote at a time when the Radical Orthodoxy movement was going strong, and in fact I made inquiries with both John Milbank (when he was briefly at the University of Virginia) and Catherine Pickstock at Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge, about writing a dissertation on medieval voluntarist corruptions of authority, with the idea of building upon MacIntyre's claim that modern emotivism rests upon the obliteration of any coherent distinction between power and authority, and upon Radical Orthodoxy's claim (increasingly challenged) that the real bogeyman here is Scotus.

More recently, however, as a student of MacIntyre, I have followed him in tempering some of the criticisms of the liberal project precisely insofar as he has admitted to not knowing how to replace it, and has admitted to being aware of the acute problems that any such "replacement" would have to grapple with. Thus in his essay "Toleration and the Goods of Conflict," published in the 2006 collection Ethics and Politics, he said those calling for new forms of community after liberalism, or built on the ashes of liberalism, have yet adequately to engage in "rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.” Would that more recent authors had such humility and restraint.

Such restraint has not always been in plenteous supply among critics of liberalism, including Milbank and Pickstock who, as Eugene McCarraher noted in this splendid series of interviews, sometimes turned theology into a "blood sport" and treat “'modernity' and 'liberalism'...as though they were the spawn of Satan."

Such curdled denunciations are by no means limited to Western Christians. Eastern Christians, especially in the post-Soviet period and space, have often been even more reactionary in this regard, denouncing human rights and much else besides as threats to "holy Russia" and other places that do not exist.

More recently, however, some scholars have begun to reconsider matters, arguing that Orthodoxy is not necessarily hostile to rights language no matter how much certain of her apologists would like for this to be so. Thus we had the collection Orthodoxy Christianity and Human Rights published in 2012 under the editorship of A.Brüning and E. van der Zweerde.

In 2013, we saw the publication of The Russian Church and Human Rights by Kristina Stoeckl, whom I interviewed here about this important book.

This year--this month, in fact--we were promised another collection, Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe: A Dialogue between Theological Paradigms and Socio-Legal Pragmatics, but publication seems to have been delayed.

And soon, it would seem, thanks to Fordham's funding, we will have further treatments of these complex issues, which can only be welcomed.

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