The Orthodox Christian View Of Marriage

SayingAndUnsaying - [original thread]

Mmm, a lack of Biblical inerrancy is another refreshing change from my conversations with many Evangelicals.

Yeah, it's weird being a Christian on reddit and frequently being told that unless I believe in <zany fundamentalist notion> I'm not a 'real' Christian. This was the case even when I was still a (fairly liberal) Protestant. Used to be a lot worse, circa 2010. Like Scott recently wrote about, it's mellowed out a lot since then.

Truth is a difficult thing to talk about, since, as suggested before, human language and human minds can't approach it.

Permit me to hammer you with a block quote of which I'm inordinately fond:

In his summary of the patristic writings that he wrote in the Ninth Century, St. John of Damascus said, ‘God is not only beyond being, He’s beyond non-being.’ That we have to negate even the negations that we make about God. Because if we say that God does not exist like the creation exists, that concept would even be somehow contingent upon an idea of creation. But God, as Prophet Isaiah said [a] long time before Jesus, ‘God doesn’t have any comparisons.’ There’s nothing in Heaven and on Earth to compare with Him. As it was already revealed to the men and women of the old covenant, God is holy. Kadosha, holy. And ‘holy’ means not like anything else. It means completely different; completely other. Like there’s nothing you can say about God but just to contemplate His activities in silence. St. Gregory of Nyssa says, quoting Psalm 116, ‘If we dare to speak about God, then every man is a liar.’ ‘Cause whatever we say, we have to correct somehow. Even the great Englishman and great theological writer, John Henry Newman, who was a Church of England person who became a Roman Catholic, mainly because of the Church Fathers, he said that theology for a Christian is ‘saying and unsaying to a positive effect’. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware quoted that once. I loved it. He says that that’s the same thing that the Eastern Church Fathers say. Theology is saying and unsaying for a positive effect. For a good reason. Because you affirm something — in technical language, that’s called cataphatic — and then you negate it. That’s called apophatic. And so when you say anything about what God is or what God is like, you can say it! You can say ‘God exists, God is good, God is love’, but immediately you have to correct it and say, ‘not like being and not like goodness and not like love that we can capture with our mind. God is way beyond that.’

Nevertheless, He acts. He speaks. He shows Himself. As Gregory of Nyssa said way back in the Fourth Century, ‘His actions and operations,’ he said, ‘they descend even unto us.’

--Fr. Thomas Hopko

This doesn't preclude the Bible, including the factually inaccurate parts, from pointing to Truth beyond truth, as I wrote about in The Compression Problem. After all, God is a superintelligence. Obviously this ties heavily into your later questions about, e.g., Eden.

What is the current state of the conversation around homosexuality in Orthodox Christianity? I don't mean the official position, which is easy to look up in a moment, so much as the boots-on-the-ground experience. You're welcome to simply share your thoughts on it if you prefer.

This is of course an extremely complex topic in theory, let alone in practice, but I think I can give you an answer.

First, in theory: I've literally never seen a good explanation of the (Orthodox) Christian conception of marriage on the internet, only bits and pieces of it. The very short, bastardized explanation is that God has married Himself to humanity, and to creation, and that what makes marriage matrimony is that it's iconic of and mysteriously participates in that divine union. This relationship is implicitly gendered. You'll recall the bit about the husband taking the role of Christ and the woman taking the role of the Church, and we take this seriously. Marriage is partly seen as a focus for asceticism, wherein a man must put aside his own desires and live and (if necessary, literally) die for his wife and children, putting them first in all things, and the wife must be obedient even, and especially, when it's difficult and she'd rather be doing anything else. My priest likes to say that if a married man doesn't feel at least a little bit like he's dying inside he's probably doing it wrong. But then, we view... uh, let me just link this and skip several paragraphs.

A man and a woman married outside of the Church aren't really married by our definition because their relationship is not participating in the divine marriage to humanity, but we do at least recognize what they have as something with the potential to achieve that fullness.

Same-sex marriage, on the other hand, is an oxymoron. And just like people who marry bridges or walls, society going along with it degrades our shared conception of what marriage is. We're also super-freaking-anti-divorce, FWIW, for the same reasons.

But divorce is occasionally unavoidable. Ideally a divorced person would remain single, honoring the grace bestowed upon their union by God, but we recognize that it is sometimes best for divorced people and for the community to allow them to remarry. This is not done lightly and it's a really big deal. The ceremony for a second marriage is not celebratory, but fairly penitential.

There's so, so much more to be said about all this, and actually I'm working on writing an apologetic post for this sub explaining our position because after being exposed to Protestant nonsense surrounding the question just about everyone is understandably baffled.

But, in practice, Orthodoxy in the US is a strange beast, and Orthodox people fall into two major categories.

Ethnically Orthodox people are first-, second-, or third-generation immigrants who often view their church as an expat ethnic social club as much (or more than) as the people of Christ. Sometimes they can get confused as to why, e.g., a non-Greek person would possibly be interested in attending. Thankfully, sometimes they get it and go out of their way to be welcoming to guests, and de-emphasize the ethnic angle. This is good because otherwise their children, who can't speak the language anyway, tend to fall away from the faith. Anyhow, the social attitudes of this group seem mainly dictated by broader society, and IIRC something like half of US Orthodox people express support for gay marriage.

Protestant converts and their kids take it all much more seriously. If you go to an Orthodox parish in the US and it appears to be multi-generational and thriving, that's almost certainly a heavily convert parish. These are the people who were whole-heartedly seeking true Christianity and found it, and now that they have it they are not letting go. They're not the slightest bit interested in watering down something as vitally important as marriage, and watching their prior denominations disintegrate like wet paper is usually why they fled to Orthodoxy in the first place.

These are of course generalizations, and there are exceptions in all groups. Some ethnic parishes are fantastic and thriving.

All of that is within the Church. There is no one person deciding Orthodox doctrine, and when you look into it you might be astonished by how little absolute dogma we actually have. I think it is very wise of the Church to insist on as little as necessarily true as possible, since this minimizes the impact of individuals' mistakenness. That said, there is no requirement on the part of Orthodox Christians to oppose same-sex 'marriage' in the secular world. We see it as our place to tell people what is and isn't right, but not to force them to comply. Trying to strongarm non-Christians into living as only Christians are expected to is contraindicated.

Hopko (reposed 2014), whom I quoted above, was considered as close to a spokesperson for the Orthodox religion as has existed in modern times, and his viewpoint was essentially that.

There's much more to be said here, but it'll have to wait for my big post, unless you have specific questions, which I'd welcome.

The third major heresy Evangelicals accuse Mormons of is lack of sufficient belief that faith alone will save us. Where does Orthodoxy stand on the faith vs works debate? Is that even a cogent question within the Orthodox framework?

You phrased this well. Yeah, Orthodox practice is so rooted in action that trying to separate out faith from works makes my head hurt, and sounds like the kind of silly thing Western Christians would spend a lot of time debating and trying to pin down. I think that the RCC wanted to view things in terms of faith being a proposition that is assented to, and works being the natural expression thereof, but... that's definitely not how I'd approach the topic.

Rather, faith is not something that can be articulated well enough to either assent to or not. Much of Christianity is mysterious, and cannot be expressed, but only experienced. Faith can only exist as acted out in Christian life. Belief does not come by considering propositions, but by putting them into practice. From my current perspective I can't even comprehend the sickness that would lead to trying to disentangle the two things, which is saying something, since I was raised in it. I remember wondering at the statement that faith without works is dead; now it's just something so blindingly obvious that it's almost uncomfortable to have to say.

So much, so much more to be said. But I guess that's a consistent theme in Orthodoxy: The saying isn't, and never can be, close to enough, and we fixate on talking about things to our own peril.