The following is a brief summary and response to the final plenary paper delivered at the Sophia Institute Conference, December 7, at Union Theological Seminary.
I became familiar with the work of Fr. Michael Plekon early in my graduate work. I contributed to the (now defunct) Graduate Theological Society by following the latest articles in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly. That is where I read Plekon’s on “The ‘Sacrament of the Brother/Sister’: The Lives and thought of Mother Maria Skobtsova and Paul Evdokimov.” Fr. Plekon focuses on contemporary “hagiography” – what makes someone a saint in the modern world? His work introduced me to Mother Maria Skobtsova (now St. Maria of Paris) and deepened my understanding of Fr. Sergei Bulgakov. Fr. Plekon is deeply formed by the tradition, yet also understands that the tradition is living and active. Like the liturgy itself, it takes up the world and offers it as a gift to God.
Paul Evdokimov was part of the vibrant Paris community of Orthodox Christianity in the mid-twentieth century, after the Bolshevik revolution sent many of Russia’s faithful into exile in other lands. That community was shaped by the reforms of the Russian Council of 1917-18 (reforms which the subsequent revolution interrupted). Evdokimov, like many of his sisters and brothers, believed the gospel was to be lived out in every aspect of modern life. He did not turn away from modernity. Says Plekon, “Evdokimov did not see our world as a secular wasteland.” Diversity, both outside and inside the church, testified to the infinite glory of God. Thus his approach to the tradition was not reactionary. He recognized that it was something “nimble” (my term).
When it comes to marriage, it is obvious that our concept of “romanced-based monogamy and the nuclear family is not the only one we find in the Bible.” I might add that we do not find it in the history of the church, either. Thus Plekon says it is appropriate to ask about how we Orthodox should approach marriage today, especially when we consider that our theology has been deeply shaped by the spirit of monasticism. That is not to disparage the virgin life, only to note that virgin monks were very concerned with remaining virgin monks. They did not have a lot to say about marriage, and what they did say was often negative.
In his book Sacrament of Love, Evdokimov points out that holiness is not the call of just a few people. It is a universal call, applying to virginal and married people alike. Chastity, Evdokimov suggests, is not all that heroic. Marriage is not a lesser path. It is its own kind of askesis. One’s spouse presents a means of grace and avenue for communion with God.
Whenever one talks about marriage these days, gay marriage comes up. Either that, or it is “the elephant in the room.” Fr. Plekon did not discuss gay marriage in detail, except to say that there is an ongoing debate among Orthodox Christians. Some advocate extending civil marriage to gays. Others see gay marriage as a threat to the very fabric of society. Fr. Plekon did not tip his hand as to his own view, except to say that, when it comes to the culture wars, we should always remember that the tradition of the church is to approach all people with grace and compassion. Quoting Evdokimov, Plekon reminds us, “[T]he person is first.”
Fr. Plekon’s paper made me move Sacrament of Love to a higher spot in my reading queue. What Plekon says about virginity not being all that heroic reminds me of what St. Augustine wrote in On Virginity. He praised the commitment of the virgins, but mostly he warned them against pride, noting that there are many dedicated virgins who would make terrible martyrs. The true test of sainthood is not outward chastity but a truly selfless love. (A virgin who loves God to avoid hell is most likely going there.) Marriage is the arena where we struggle against selfishness. Every decision, from managing money, to delegating household chores, and even lovemaking, is an opportunity to practice the askesis of selfishness.
What I most appreciated about Fr. Plekon’s paper is the way he was willing to reverently critique the tradition (which is not the same as to criticize the tradition). As I have said in previous posts in this series, it seems to me that before we can sort out what a contemporary Orthodox view of marriage is, we need to sort out how it is we can be contemporary and Orthodox at the same time. Our scriptures and the teachings of the mothers and fathers are the church are not corpses to autopsy and report about. It is more like an ecosystem. The tradition is living and active. It is internally diverse, both synchronically (with time) and diachronically (through time). It grows with our history. The fathers did speak about the teachings of the apostles, but they all understood those teachings in slightly different ways (and to adhere to someone’s teachings is not the same as to replicate it). But this does not mean we make the tradition suit our needs willy-nilly. What I have always appreciated about Orthodoxy is that the pace of change serves as a check against my own intellectual hubris. The tradition tells me to “slow down,” think, and listen. We cherish conciliarity and consensus in the Orthodox Church. Thus we need to have a frank conversation about marriage, sex, and family in the Orthodox Church, and we need to do it without culture-wars mud-slinging. Every topic – every possible question – needs to be on the table (and I am not just talking about gay stuff). If we believe that the Spirit who was living and active in the apostles is living and active among us, then we have nothing to fear from the answers.