SEXUALITY AND GENDER: AN ORTHODOX WAY OF APPROACH by Giacomo Sanfilippo

The following is an excerpt from “Knowledge as Power: Some Reflections on Sexuality, Gender, and Tradition,” a paper delivered at the TGSA Graduate Students Conference at the Toronto School of Theology in March 2017.

manprayingIs the knowledge for which we strive in theological studies ἐπιστήμη—epistemic knowledge, “scientific” knowledge broadly construed—or is it γνῶσις, gnostic knowledge? The noun ἐπιστήμη derives from the verb ἐπίσταμαι, to know in the sense of “to acquire information about something.” Γνῶσις, on the other hand, represents the kind of knowledge that God is said to have, as well as humans: from the verb γινώσκω, which can mean to know in a higher, esoteric sense; to know someone instead of something; to know even in the sense of the bodily union of erotic intimacy. It comes down, I believe, to the most fundamental of all questions for us: Do we study and teach theology to accumulate and impart facts and ideas about God? To provide religious cover for a worthwhile social or political project? Or do we seek simply to know God, and to help others to know Him, and in so doing become mystically one with Him, and mystically one with one another in Him, insofar as humanly possible through our God-given receptivity to divine grace? “Be still,” the Lord says to us through the mouth of the psalmist, “and know that I am God.”  In my favourite line from the Blessed Augustine we read: “The thought of Thee stirs [man] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises Thee, because Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in Thee.” And again from the psalmist: “O God, Thou art my God, I seek Thee; my soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh faints for Thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is.” The 20th-century St. Silouan the Athonite wrote: “My soul yearns after the Lord, and I seek Him in tears. How could I do other than seek Thee, for Thou didst first seek and find me…and my soul fell to loving Thee.”

With these considerations in mind I would like to propose that we envision  “knowledge and power in theological education” as first and foremost the knowledge of the heavenly God as Father, granted to us in our unworthiness through the power to become His children, that out of the depths of His paternal love for us and the poverty of our filial love for Him, we—even we!—may be accounted worthy to speak some small word of beauty and holiness and truth to one another, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, to the Church, to our students and professors and colleagues, and to the world around us which so hungers and thirsts for Him and for His tender-hearted compassion.

Yet in no way do I wish to deprecate the importance of a theological education in the academic sense. What I have sought to do here, rather, is to place things in their proper order; to emphasize the nature of our theological task—even in the academy—as a spiritual endeavour above all else—I would go so far as to say an ascetical endeavour in the broader meaning of that term; and to suggest that whatever epistemic knowledge of theology we gain through our studies and our research can, and should, and must serve the higher purpose of knowing God, of entering into and deepening our communion with Him, and with one another in Him, indeed with the whole created cosmos in Him. In this way we who are made according to His image, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to acquire His likeness, come gradually to know the indelible beauty of our own inner selves.

Without being so foolish as to claim any measure of success, in my own theological work in sexuality and gender I strive to hold fast to all that I have set forth in my foregoing comments. What does this look like, practically speaking?

  1. While I remain fully committed to the advancement of the social and political well-being of queer people in all their diversity, my theological approach engages only tangentially with secular discourses of human rights or with the full inclusion of queer people in the consumerist circuits of neoliberal capitalism. Theologically, I am much less concerned with who has the legal obligation to bake a wedding cake for whom, or who has the legal right to use which washroom—and I say this as the enormously proud and fully supportive father of an activist transgender son—and I am much more interested in questions of how sexual and gender “non-normativity” reflects the image of God; of how a person of same-sex orientation or transgender identity acquires, through a lifetime of spiritual struggle in the bosom of our Mother the Church, the likeness of God, as every Orthodox Christian must do; of how a person of transgender identity or same-sex orientation—infinitely precious in the sight of God, infinitely beloved of Him— “becomes God” through the lifelong process of deification in the Holy Spirit.
  2. I’m not doing “gay theology,” I’m not doing “queer theology,” and I’m most emphatically not “queering” Orthodox theology. I’m not doing “liberal theology” or “conservative theology.” Gay—queer—homosexual—heterosexual—transgender—cisgender—intersex—black—white—brown—liberal—conservative—these represent socially constructed descriptors of our fragmented humanity in all its fallenness. Why would we situate the criterion of truth outside of the Church—however each of us conceives “the Church”—who is herself said to be the pillar and ground of truth; who is herself said to be as inseparable from Christ, and He from her, as a bride from her husband, as a human body from its head; who is herself said to have the mind of Christ? I strive to do Orthodox theology, plain and simple. Of course, it remains to the Orthodox Church herself—who, in the totality of her ecclesiological structure as the people of God, functions as her own magisterium—to discern whether I have done theology rightly, purely, truthfully…and this, probably long after I have been spiritually and emotionally burnt at the stake many times over, and long after I have departed this life.

And lastly…

  1. I avoid the anachronistic transposition of heavily laden cultural, political, and social constructs to a time and space where they have no meaning. Theologically, I find it not helpful at all to call David and Jonathan, or Christ and John, or Sergius and Bacchus, “gay lovers.” Lest you think I’m being dismissive of the identitarian constructs that many of us genuinely feel that we need in order to navigate the realities of social and political life, I would find it equally incongruous to call Adam and Eve, or Abraham and Sarah, or Aquila and Priscilla, a “straight couple.” The special vocation of the Orthodox Christian same-sex couple consists not in reimagining the love of David and Jonathan, Christ and John, or Sergius and Bacchus in the image and likeness of our fallenness, but rather in opening ourselves and our love to being recreated in the image and likeness of their holiness. In the Orthodox Church we look to Christ and to His saints not so much for validation of what we already are, as for a revelation, an epiphany, of what we can become by grace, for as we read in 1 John, “…we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone having this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”  

In a mysterious paradox almost beyond my impoverished ability to express, I find what we in the Orthodox Church call Holy Tradition, and the knowledge of it that we can gain both epistemically and gnostically, academically and ecclesially, to be profoundly liberating, not constraining, empowering, not disabling, on both a spiritual and intellectual level. Experienced by the whole body of the Church as the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit from age to age, Holy Tradition produces neither mere copyists lacking thoughts of our own, nor an inflexible adherence to dead traditionalism. It demarcates the terrain, as it were, of our theological creativity, yet without stifling it. Holy Tradition is a vital dynamic, a living charism through which the Spirit transforms our minds and hearts into a site of communion with the mind and heart of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Holy Tradition thus guarantees in every time and place the continuity of the Church’s faith once for all delivered to the saints.

The full text of this paper is available on the author’s Academia.edu profile.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.