Most of us, unless we have been steeping ourselves
in Greek drama lately, will draw a blank when we come upon that word. Themis. Not really a household word nowadays.

But it ought to be. It bespeaks, really, the whole shape of life for the Greeks. For them, it constituted the touchstone by which a man tested his own attitudes and behavior. If he was a good man, before he acted or came to a decision he consulted a certain “senate,” we might say. He asked himself, first, about custom:What were the canons governing right action in his city-state? He submitted his proposed action to that which is permitted; and again, to that which is correct; and to the demands of the holythe way of our ancestors. Themis, in other words.

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But of course it was not only the Greeks who bowed to such overarching considerations. Every tribe, culture, and civilization of which we have any knowledge at all seems to have known that themis is in the cards, so to speak. Themis, of course, is the foundation of taboo, which is the guardian of order in any civilization. The prophet Jeremiah adjures the Hebrews, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it” (Jer 6:16). The Old Testament is laced with such adjurations: Repeat the Law to your children — line upon line, precept upon precept. There are things that you must do, and things that you cannot ever do.

I find myself from time to time in conversation with some old friends about the great moral issues that beleaguer us all now, and that would seem to raise the question of themis, or as the Hebrews and Christians might call it, “the will of God” — notions that heretofore have been thought of in those quarters as moral absolutes: gender, the sanctity of human life from conception, sexual behavior, and so forth. My fellows in these conversations are, to a man, believing Christians — all of them hailing eventually from the conservative wing of Protestantism. Sola scriptura would be the ensign under which they march.

I have been startled to discover, however, that my friends are, to a man, innocent of what the Greeks would have called themis and the Hebrew prophets and the apostles and Fathers of the Church the will of God. I am aware that these two categories are not synonymous. Greek wisdom was, of course, pagan, and hence questionable, in the last resort. Nevertheless, the idea of there being great fixities arching over our mortal life seems to be omnipresent in all cultures. T. S. Eliot called these fixities “the Permanent Things.” C. S. Lewis would have referred to it as the choreography of the Dance.

For example, one of our number has concluded that, in the light of “recent studies,” homosexual practices are now permissible. He adduces “compassion” as the operative word here. Who will be so callous as to forbid the only form of sexual bliss available to people with same-sex attraction? Scrupulous exegesis, on this view, can always remove any difficulties offered by the very few Scriptural texts that might seem to rule out such practice (e.g., the astounding exegesis that arose in the palmy days of early feminism in the 1970s, which turned on its head all that the writer of Genesis and St. Paul had to say about husband and wife).

Or again, another member in our group will have it that “times are changing.” In his view, this is the non-negotiable starting point: Times are changing — which, then, calls for a complete overhaul of all traditional moral ideas. It is all merely a matter of “society’s stereotypes” for this man; it is not an ontological question. The notion that the feminine and the masculine are epiphanies of bright fixities that are written into Creation is simply outdated. “Science has shown,” they say. Hence marriage can no longer be governed by antiquated ideas as to who may marry whom. Times are changing.

(To be fair, this man does, in fact, cling to the idea that marriage presupposes one man and one woman — he is an altogether moral man. But he cannot see that the matter has anything to do with the nature of things, so to speak. These ancient ideas have no grounding in eternal reality. Bible verses are all that he has to cling to. Lewis’s “Dance” is not invoked.)

Virtually all of the men in the group have a difficult time being clear about abortion. Oh, to be sure, we’re (more or less) against it. But scientific research has altered the whole matter. We must first consider such awkward factors as the hardships that impoverished women face when they have pregnancy thrust upon them, or the inconvenience that pregnancy holds for so many busy and affluent women, or the quality of life ahead for the fetus, and so forth. These factors now have priority.

But again, these men are not secularists. They are Bible-believing, “born again” Christians. They are also academics who, over the decades, have taught thousands of Christian students. When I have raised the idea of a fixed moral order arching over our physical life — which order itself, from the sacramental point of view, bespeaks the blissful nature of ultimate Reality — my protestations merely arouse incredulity. Times are changing.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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