In creating Orthodoxy in Dialogue we made a conscious decision, as a matter of editorial policy, not to publish very often on questions of sexuality and gender. The list of upcoming titles on the Archives by Author page gives an idea of the wide range of topics to which we look forward in the coming weeks. Yet we will not hesitate to return to these questions more frequently when circumstances warrant it.
It seems to have occurred by sheer coincidence that our elder sister blog, Public Orthodoxy, published Bradley Nassif’s “The Holy Trinity and Same-Sex Marriage” just as we were preparing to release Giacomo Sanfilippo’s interview with Father James Martin, SJ. The contrast in pastoral spirit between Martin and Nassif could not have been juxtaposed more starkly.
Given that Public Orthodoxy had previously published Sanfilippo’s “Conjugal Friendship,” we commend our brother editors for their commitment to presenting more than one side of a question. At Orthodoxy in Dialogue we likewise encourage prospective writers to submit articles irrespective of whether we might agree or disagree with them.
Yet Nassif’s article stands out precisely for adding nothing new to the conversation, nothing that has not already been iterated and reiterated a thousand times before.
To be clear, we do not judge the value of his article so much for his position on same-sex love, as for the disappointment for which he sets up his readers. With great interest we started his second paragraph: “At times, Orthodox responses have been knee-jerk in their opposition to same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ agenda. But a blunt rejection is woefully inadequate. A rebuke is no reply.”
We eagerly anticipated something more substantive than mere pity for adults, youths, and children who “struggle with their sexual identities;” more theologically creative than “help” for “those who struggle with same-sex desire;” more pastorally expansive than simply a “defense of those who have been hurt, injured, or bullied.”
Nassif does not deliver. He couches his own knee-jerk opposition, blunt rejection, and unreplying rebuke in the language of an oversimplified trinitarian theology, and in a “woefully inadequate” understanding of how we in the Church participate by grace in the uncreated love of the Holy Trinity, both here on earth and in the age to come.
We see some of the more salient inadequacies of Nassif’s article and so many others of the same genre—of which the tacit or stated aim is to shut down the conversation—as follows:
- They conflate civil marriage laws with church doctrine on marriage. What does Byzantine trinitarian theology have to do with the marriage of two Lutherans, two Jews, two Muslims, two agnostics, two atheists? Why should the Orthodox Church appeal to Congress or Parliament to force her “moral teachings” on the unwilling, the unbelievers, the uninterested? What does the Orthodox Church gain from violating the religious liberty of Christian churches and other faith communities who hold a different view of same-sex marriage? Why has no Orthodox commentator ever agitated to overturn civil laws allowing unlimited numbers of serial divorce and remarriage, or incestuous marriage between first cousins? Is a man with his eighth wife really more reflective of the Holy Trinity than two men in a lifelong, faithful, monogamous conjugal friendship? (Here we mean friendship in the way that Father Pavel Florensky envisioned it.)
- They perpetuate the myth that the Church has “always” condemned “homosexuality.” How can the Church have ever done any such thing, when the awkwardly hybridized Greco-Latin neologism, and the so-called psychopathology that it was coined to name, date back no further than 1860s Germany? When no two people can even agree on what constitutes “homosexuality,” and what does not? Is it a catalogue of verboten sexual acts—and if so, what do we make of innocent children five, six, and seven years of age, in whom an awareness of their orientation to their own gender begins to develop long before they can imagine that “sexual acts” even exist? Defenseless children for whom no amount of cajoling, pleading, moralizing, shaming, scaring, warning, prayer and fasting, preaching, therapy, can “repair” their orientation…but may very well drive them to the gaping abyss of suicide, when they understand at last that they will never “measure up” to the “expectations” of their parents, their peers at school, their Church…their God? The hurt, injury, and bullying from which Nassif wishes to protect same-sex oriented children begins too often in their own homes, at the ambo in their own churches, in “statements” from their own bishops, in articles like Nassif’s, no matter how cushioned in the language of “love,” “piety,” “concern for salvation,” and worst of all, “the defense of marriage.”
- They perpetuate the myth that marital sex can ever be truly sinless in the fallen conditions of human life. How often do husband and wife have sex without the full consent of one or the other? How often does marital sex, even in the most loving unions, fully escape the objectification of the spouse for one’s own bodily pleasure? How often does one or the other spouse require an undisclosed fantasy of being with someone else, someone sexier, a favourite celebrity or the woman at work or the man in the next apartment—perhaps with someone of the same gender—simply to bring the coital act to completion? How many children are born as the fruit of such fantasies? How often does a married couple actually “conform”—with the same unwavering exactitude foisted upon same-sex couples—to all the canons that regulate the days, seasons, times, positions, and techniques of their love-making? In fact, marital sex is subjected to no kind of scrutiny at all in today’s Orthodox Church, except by some monastics who have no business “counseling” married people on their sex lives. Certainly married priests do not peep behind the bedroom doors of their heterosexually married parishioners. Yet the fact remains that heterosexuals “struggle with their opposite-sex desires.” Read the Desert Fathers or any other monastic literature…or ask any honest heterosexual Christian, married or not.
- Finally, they perpetuate the myth that all same-sex couples engage in the same kinds of “sex acts,” or in any kind at all. People are shocked to learn how many same-sex couples do not engage in “this” or “that.”
We conclude with the following three quotes. The first (with which David Dunn alone has tried to engage) comes from “Conjugal Friendship” —
If conceived as indiscriminate carnal desire for members of the opposite, one’s own, or both genders, all sexual orientations originate in the fall of human love from its primeval capacity to reflect and participate in the ecstasy of divine eros. The genius of Florensky, who wrote at a time when the idea of sexual orientation had already gained widespread currency in Russian society, resides in his transformation of the concept into a radiant vision of the spiritual orientation of one person to another. When the attraction is reciprocal, each Friend yearns to step outside of himself to enter into the very being of the other, and to receive the other into his own being, that the two might become more perfectly a single I. Thus begins their joyful but arduous task of lifelong co-ascesis towards “preliminary consubstantiality,” grounded in their frequent co-partaking of the Holy Mysteries.
The second comes from a 2011 book review by theologian, writer, and theological consultant to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Father Archdeacon John Chryssavgis —
Indeed, one of my gravest concerns over the years is that the oppression of homosexuality and silence on sexual issues in a hierarchical institution, such as the Orthodox Church, not only results from unjustifiable and unacceptable ignorance and prejudice. It also results in the church’s complicity in discrimination as well as the church’s reticence concerning sexual abuse in our own communities. Saying we hate the sin but love the sinner can sometimes be rejection masquerading as acceptance. It is, after all, so much easier to label than to listen.
We will doubtless be judged by God for failing to notice and to respond compassionately, instead opting to find security in easy scriptural texts and theological castigations. Both of these comprise a simplistic approach and perhaps provide a convenient way out.
Still, the truth is that, as Orthodox Churches and as Orthodox Christians, we are going to have to discuss homosexuality with far greater candor and with far greater charity, admitting that the issue is far more prevalent among both laity and clergy on all levels and in all positions. After all, why would we be afraid of such an interchange ? Or what would we be afraid of in such an exchange?
The last comes from Gregg Webb’s heartfelt response to “Conjugal Friendship,” entitled “How Should We Then Live?” —
I don’t need to be reminded that I am called daily towards chastity and celibacy and to remain steadfast in following all that the Church teaches related to sexual intimacy. I know these things all too well and those battles within my heart rage continually. I need no reminders of these battles or allegiances.
What I do need however, and what I think attempts like Sanfilippo’s are grasping at, is an idea of what exactly I am called to as a gay Orthodox Christian. My life must be about more than forsaking romantic relationships, refraining from sex, and fidelity to the Church’s teachings. I need to walk with people who are more educated in the life of the Church and more knowledgeable of God to help me figure out just what I can do with these circumstances I have found myself in. I need to try and understand how I am able to find a place in the Church where I am able to flourish and become more than a reminder of all that we are asked to give up for the sake of Christ. By embracing celibacy in light of my sexual orientation I must be embracing more than the absence of sex. What exactly can I do with my life and my love within the Church? How can my love be a good gift to God? Like all of humankind I possess desires for connection, intimacy, and love. These human traits are part of how I reflect my creator God who formed us out of love for a purpose. What pathways and avenues are open to me to express these God-given desires in ways that are pleasing to God and His Church?
We need priests, theologians, and friends who are willing to come alongside those of us struggling within the Church to know our lives and to be both challenged by and influenced by our lives. Frequently I am given advice or counsel that comes as a quick response to a one dimensional appraisal of my life. It becomes difficult for me to trust in any advice I’ve received that isn’t both aware of and challenged by my heartbreak, my love, and my circumstances. I need older and wiser men and women to offer up their unique talents and knowledge in a desire to both know me, and many like me, and to use their influence and understanding to help shape a vision for our place within the Church. Impersonal knowledge and theology is offered in abundance via blogs, essays, and podcasts, but rarely reflects the actual lives of those most directly impacted. I have regularly offered my life, my stories, and my pain as a gift to the Church in an attempt to provide a public example to encourage more person-centered discussions. It is hard for me to trust that you know what is best for my heart if you have never sat and grieved with me and come to any real knowledge of my heart.