"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).

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Orthodoxy and Human Rights

As a student of Alasdair MacIntyre, I retain something of his skepticism about the discourse of "human rights," though his skepticism pertains particularly to the supposed etymology of the term in the history of philosophy. As far as the substance of "rights" claims and their politics, he very perceptively argued in 1981 that "when claims invoking rights are matched against claims appealing to utility or when either or both are matched against claims based on some traditional concept of justice, it is not surprising that there is no rational way of deciding which type of claim is to be given priority or how one is to be weighted against the other" (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition, p.71). If you need proof of this, look around you--not least at debates over same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

Some Christians, the Catholic Church included, have embraced rights language rather strongly. Others have been more circumspect if not suspicious of this language, and not without good reason in some cases. Until recently, Eastern Christians have not engaged the area very much, though two recent books (the other one being noted here) look set to change that: A Brjning, ed., Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights (Peters, 2012), 387pp.

About this collection the publisher tells us:

Orthodox theology and the Orthodox Churches had, and continue to have an ambiguous relationship towards the concept of Human Rights: principal approval often stands alongside serious criticism. This is especially true for those Orthodox Churches which have their centre in a country of the former Soviet sphere. On the one hand, especially since the fall of Communism they enjoy religious freedom that forms a central element within the framework of Human Rights. On the other hand, the transformation process of the 1990s and the challenge of pluralism and globalization have all confronted them with aspects of freedom that could not but affect their stance towards the Human Rights concept in general. This also means, that doubts and reservations related to this concept came to the fore again, which had yet existed already decades before. These reservations focused on such issues as Church and secular society, Church and state, furthermore on the understanding of central terms such as "freedom", "dignity", "rights" - central also for an Orthodox anthropology, that needs to be reconciled with the partly differing approaches behind the Human Rights concept.
The chapters of this volume try and explore as much the philosophical and theological as the social, historical and practical aspects of this complex relationship. Based either on the discussion of differing theological concepts, or on empirical and concrete case studies respectively, they clearly show the tensions and fractures that do exist. On the other hand, in this way they also hint at possibilities to overcome these tensions, to continue a dialogue that already has begun, and to avoid the numerous misunderstandings between East and West which currently tend to form a hindrance to this dialogue at various points.
A detailed table of contents is here in PDF.

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