"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).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

H. Tristram Engelhardt and Orthodox Ethics

Apart from the Greek Orthodox theologian Stanley Harakas, and the Armenian Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian, there are too few Eastern Christians today grappling with the ethical issues, especially the bioethical issues, that confront us so frequently. While I lament this lack of attention in some ways, I am not entirely depressed by it insofar as I think far too much of what passes for "bioethics" must be regarded with a skeptical, if not hostile, eye. (As Stanley Hauerwas has said, bioethics as a discipline began when theologians lost their faith but wanted to keep their cushy academic jobs, and so began to push for intellectual respectability.) The bloated eminence of ethics as a "discipline" is a sign of deep cultural corruption and deep deception insofar as many assume that "ethics" is something only to be entrusted to, and performed by, certain "experts" who are supposedly "objective" in their assessment of these issues. One of the many problems with this approach is that it smuggles in all kinds of ideological assumptions. In saying this, of course, I am reflecting what Alasdair MacIntyre has taught us generally in his After Virtue (UND Press, 1984) and more particularly in his article  "Does Applied Ethics Rest on a Mistake?" The Monist 67 (1984): 498-513. 

One who has learned much from both Hauerwas and MacIntyre, and who shares their skepticism about much of what the so-called modern world takes for granted, is an Orthodox scholar too little known today: H. Tristram Engelhardt. Engelhardt teaches at Rice University and holds a doctorate in philosophy and also an MD.

Like MacIntyre and Hauerwas, Engelhardt is given to wonderful bon mots that go off like bombs in the face of the bien-pensants: "I am of the firm conviction that, save for God’s mercy, those who willfully engage in much that a peaceable, fully secular state will permit (e.g., euthanasia and direct abortion on demand) stand in danger of hell’s eternal fires. As a Texan, I puzzle whether these are kindled with mesquite, live oak, or trash cedar. Being schooled in theology, I know that this is a question to be answered only on the Last Day by the Almighty." A new book has been published to discuss more deeply some of Engelhardt's ideas:

At the Roots of Christian Bioethics: Critical Essays on the Thought of H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.  http://www.scrivenerpublishing.com/cart/title.php?id=81 

This welcome volume will be reviewed at length in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2011. 


  1. Fr. John Breck has been writing about bioethics a great deal. For instance, "Stages on Life's Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics" (SVS Press, 2005) by John and Lyn Breck and "The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics" (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1998) by John Breck alone. It seems he has written a number of articles on the topic as well that can be referenced here:


    I also remember seeing a number of short, popular articles on the topic published through the OCA (its website and/or its newsletter).

    Fr. John is Chair of the Medical-Ethics Commission, Orthodox Church in America (1996-present)and President, Association Orthodoxe d'Etudes Bio-éthiques (France) (1998-present). He is also Professor of Patristic Exegesis and Bioethics, St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, Paris, France and the former Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St Vladimir's Seminary in NY.

  2. I'd forgotten about Breck. So thanks very much for your reminder.


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