A RESPONSE TO ROSS DOUTHAT’S ORTHODOX ADMIRER by Giacomo Sanfilippo

twoboys

The two innocent boys pictured in this photo might have romantic feelings for each other. In the secret recesses of their own minds if not out loud to others, they might describe their attachment as being in love with each other. Young children often experience romantic love for someone of the opposite or their own gender in all the freshness of innocence.

Every gay man from young adulthood to old age with whom I have ever spoken about these things—and there have been hundreds, over the years—was the age of these boys or younger when he realized, or began to realize, that he had the same interest in boys that most other boys had in girls. Ritch C. Savin-Williams begins his essay on gay teens, “Memories of Same-Sex Attractions” (Men’s Lives, 8th Edition, New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2010: 86-103), with the following introduction:

Recalling their childhood, gay/bisexual youths often report the pervasiveness of distinct, early memories of same-sex attractions. They remember particular feelings or incidents from as young as four or five years of age that, in retrospect, reflect the first manifestations of sexual orientation. These memories often comprise some of the youths’ earliest recollections of their lives, present in some rudimentary form for many years before the ability to label sexual feelings and attractions emerges, usually after pubertal onset.

     Indeed, over 80 percent of the interviewed youths reported same-sex attractions prior to the physical manifestations of puberty. By the completion of puberty, all youths recalled attractions that they later labeled as “homosexual.” Nearly half noted that their feelings for other males were some of their very first memories, present prior to beginning elementary school.

Yesterday, a professor at an Orthodox seminary in the US shared with his several hundred Facebook friends the following excerpt from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat‘s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The professor introduced the excerpt with the following remark of his own: “Some very wise and helpful words for Christians wrestling with sexuality issues.” 

A renewed Christianity should be moralistic but also holistic. No aspect of Christian faith is less appealing to contemporary sensibilities than the faith’s long list of ‘thou shalt nots’; and no prohibition attracts more exasperation and contempt than the Christian view of chastity and sex. But recurring efforts to downplay the faith’s moralistic side—to make its commandments general rather than particular, to decontextualize Bible passages that offend contemporary sensibilities, to make the faith seem more hospitable to America’s many millions of divorced people, cohabitating couples, and (especially) gays and lesbians—have usually ended up redefining Christianity entirely. The traditional Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge. Like most Christian dogmas, from the identity of Christ to the doctrine of the Trinity, it doesn’t just rest on a literal reading of a few passages in Scripture, which can be easily revised or reinterpreted. Rather, it’s the fruit of centuries’ worth of meditation and argument on the whole of the Biblical narrative, from the creation of Adam and Eve to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce. It seems easy enough to snip a single thread out of this pattern, but often the whole thing swiftly unravels once you do.

This passage contains so much that is problematic—especially as endorsed by an Orthodox seminary professor—that one hardly knows where to begin to respond.

So I shall ask my unnamed professor a few questions instead:

What do you mean by “sexuality issues?” What do you mean by “wrestling” with them? Who are those that “wrestle” with them? When we step away from the runaway heterosexual-marriage-worship on one side of the culture wars, and read the Fathers at face value—especially the monastic Fathers (who account for virtually all the Fathers anyway)—we find that “wrestling with sexuality issues” describes the condition of the whole human race, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or marital status. “Homosexuals” have no monopoly on the struggle (notwithstanding Douthat’s “especially gays and lesbians”); “heterosexuals” get no free pass, even those married in church.

Have you read any modern Orthodox theology at all? The greatest, most universally acclaimed names from, say, Florensky to Lossky, Yannaras, and Stăniloae? Or any Fathers? I ask because of your apparent acceptance of “moralism” as a valid category in Eastern theology, spirituality, and ecclesial life.

Have you met any of the Orthodox Church’s countless numbers of divorced and remarried members, who thank God and the Church every day for their second chance? Who have children with their second spouse and are raising them in the Church, sometimes in a single family unit with their half-siblings and step-siblings? Why would you join your voice to Douthat’s in condemning them as immoral, in accusing them of complicity in “redefining Christianity entirely?” 

Can you point out a single sentence in Douthat’s passage, or at least a partial sentence, that counts as “wise and helpful words” for gay and lesbian Orthodox Christians, presumably the main target of your Facebook post? I ask because I have gone through it repeatedly with a fine-toothed comb and find only Douthat’s pharasaical moralism. Your introductory remark set me up for the disappointment of expecting, but not finding, a little bit of wisdom to help gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex Orthodox Christians live their lives positively, “in abundance,” rather than on the bleak landscape of utter deprivation that passes for “asceticism” in the pious imagination of those who have no idea what they’re talking about.

On your timeline, I commented (but have since deleted, because the responses to me were sickening) that Douthat’s passage was sheer poison because it participates in the kinds of discourse that causes death. You, a priest, and some unknown person derided and dismissed my comment, as well as Katherine Kelaidis’ “My Gay Orthodox Friend’s Suicide” (one of you brought up her article, not I), as no more than “an appeal to emotion.” Tell me, does the Jesus Christ whom you worship look upon Kelaidis’ friend, or my friend Eric Iliff, or my transgender son when he struggles to make it to another day, with that kind of cold-hearted indifference?

It’s no wonder that so many gay and lesbian seekers of God want nothing to do with yours. Please impart to me some word of wisdom to help me understand why this is a good thing. 

Now, back to our two young boys:

St. Maximus the Confessor insists that nothing human is evil in and of itself, nothing. This must include same-sex love, for two reasons:

First, a person’s interior disposition to same-sex love usually begins to manifest itself in his or her consciousness in the earliest stages of childhood memory, long before any experience or even cognizance of its sexualization has occurred—long before a child can even imagine that “sexual activity” exists. This is no different from a very young child’s nascent awareness of his or her interior disposition to opposite-sex love.

Second, Maximus uses male-male nuptial intimacy—in bed—as a metaphor for the eucharistic union of Christ with the individual male believer, not with “the Church” as an abstraction.

(Centuries later, St. Symeon the New Theologian expands upon this metaphor much more explicitly. Men who experience the ick factor at the thought of making love with Christ in bed—even metaphorically—need to take it up with Maximus and Symeon.)

The same St. Maximus, incidently, also takes for granted that—in accordance with the will of God—every generation will discover new meanings and applications in Holy Tradition that had lain hidden to all previous generations. The notion that Tradition supplies ready-made answers to every possible question, if only we turn to the right chapter and verse, was entirely foreign to the Fathers.

Do you want to know what drives people to suicide? It’s not what you think it is. It’s not the refusal to “let” gays and lesbians “have sex.” It’s the refusal to believe them when they say that their orientation goes infinitely beyond “sex.” It’s the endless flow of cookie-cutter answers to everything they have to say about themselves and their experience of love.

You might drive our two boys to suicide when they get older and realize that your God rejects them. No Gospel is a “good message” if it drives a child to take his or her own life. Please stop with the toxic Facebook posts.

And no, this is not an appeal to emotion.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He holds an Honours BA (First Class) in Sexuality Studies from York University, and an MA in Theology (First Class) from Regis College/St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. He is also an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

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