The following represents a departure from the safe space that our readers have come to expect from us on questions of sexuality and gender.
Dr. Ford of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary submitted the following open letter for publication on November 7, 2017 in reply to Giacomo Sanfilippo’s “A Response to Ross Douthat’s Orthodox Admirer.” In his article Sanfilippo did not name the admirer or the seminary where he teaches.
In close consultation with an Orthodox licensed therapist the editors proposed to Dr. Ford a dialogical format for presenting his thoughts. This would have entailed an abridgement of his letter—which, at 5000 words, runs a full five times over our usual limit—and the interpolation of a paragraph or two of commentary from us at various intervals.
Two main considerations guided our proposal: first and foremost, the therapist’s concern for the potential harm to emotionally vulnerable LGBTQ readers of Dr. Ford’s unedited letter; and second, the fact that Dr. Ford does not actually engage with anything that we have published on the question of same-sex love.
Dr. Ford declined to proceed under the terms that we requested.
After sitting on his letter for nearly four months we have decided for a number of reasons to publish it exactly as written.
Our hope is that some benefit may accrue from adding this document to the conversation on sexual diversity in human nature and how it might reflect the image and likeness of God.
Addendum on 2/28/18: See Gregory Tucker’s response to Dr. Ford here.
My Response to a Response to a Facebook Post: An Open Letter of Brotherly Love to Giacomo Sanfilippo
by Dr. David C. Ford
November 8, 2017
Holy Archangel Michael and all the Angels
Dear Giacomo, fellow-struggler in Christ,
Glory to Jesus Christ!
I feel your pain, and I greatly appreciate your strong desire to help alleviate the pain that others are experiencing, as they try to find their way to inner peace in this era of much confusion concerning sexual issues.
But it grieves me to realize that, in my opinion, you are not helping people in the best possible ways. My prayer is that you and your readers will prayerfully consider what follows, in the hope that some bit of clarity may come concerning what really will satisfy the hunger and soothe the pain that’s in all of our hearts for many reasons in this terribly fallen and broken world.
Our Holy Orthodox Church, following both the Old and New Testaments and nearly 2,000 years of consistent spiritual tradition, has been very clear about Her age-old path to holiness and true joy. Along with many other things, this path involves humble, willing acceptance of Her understanding of the importance of sexual purity, both for each person and for society as a whole.
Hence, as we know, She has always condoned sexual activity only within traditional marriage (one man and one woman), the one and only place of life-long commitment and self-sacrificial love that safely protects and channels this very powerful aspect of our humanity. Traditional marriage also provides the God-ordained setting for the bearing and raising of children – assuring, as much as possible, that each child is raised by both a mother and a father. And, as we all know, only the marriage of one man and one woman can iconically express the eternal, steadfast love that Christ the Bridegroom has for His Bride, His Holy Church. In addition, of course, there would be no scourge of sexually-transmitted diseases in our society if everyone lived in sexual abstinence outside of marriage.
In order to be faithful Orthodox Christians, we trust our Mother, the Church, to guide us safely through this often tearful, battle-torn present life and into the Heavenly Kingdom. No matter what our personal temptations and tendencies may be – even if we have strong feelings of same-sex attraction that we’re convinced we’ve had since our earliest childhood – we trust Her Motherly guidance. And we do so even when some aspects of that guidance may seem hard to accept and live by since they involve self-sacrificial discipline, ascetic self-control, and perhaps even spiritual warfare and warnings about the danger of delusion (prelest), which we are all vulnerable to in one way or another.
But it’s precisely in endeavoring to follow the standards of sexual purity, and all the other divinely-given guidelines given by our Church, that we are filled with the joy and peace of our Lord. And this is why, it seems to me, that faithful Orthodox Christians will be dedicated not only to gratefully obeying the guidelines She gives us in every realm of our lives, but also to encouraging others to do the same. This is part of our God-given commission to faithfully transmit our Holy Faith full and intact to the next generation.
Yet you seem to be not only rejecting the Church’s guidelines concerning sexual purity, but even blaming tragedies on these standards. This is like blaming the laws against theft for someone who steals a car getting jailed for breaking those laws! It’s not the Church’s standards of sexual purity, but the rejection and violation of those standards, that can contribute, in one way or another, either sooner or later, to confusion, anguish, and despair, which may sometimes even lead to suicide.
You also seem to be blaming tragedies on the Church’s judgment and warning that homosexuality is simply not a God-given path towards holiness. This is like blaming the warning sign that says “Road Closed – Bridge Out” when someone ignores the sign, drives through it, and plunges into a river. So again, it’s not the Church’s warning that homosexuality is not a God-favored path, but the rejection and ignoring of that warning that can lead to anguish and despair.
You say people are committing suicide because of the Church’s “refusal to believe them when they say that their orientation goes infinitely beyond ‘sex.’” The Church, in my understanding, actually fully believes and recognizes that the homosexual way of life involves much more than overt sexual activity, and this is exactly what makes it that much more problematic, that much more difficult to uproot. For as we know from the way logismoi work, the more we accept and ponder upon, and imbibe and act on thoughts and feelings that are not from God, until we may even become fixated on them, the more we become convinced that these thoughts and feelings are an inextricable part of our lives, indelibly shaping and even determining our very existence.
This is very hard for me to say, and most likely very hard for you to hear, since we all know there can be committed same-sex relationships that are characterized by self-sacrificial love, and that may not even involve explicit sexual activity at all. But if such relationships are not “Platonic friendships,” but rather have a distinctly sexualized foundation, they simply cannot be endorsed by our Church, for reasons of Her spiritual wisdom and discernment in knowing from 20 centuries of prayer and asceticism what is conducive to holiness and purity of heart, mind, and action, and what is not.
From our Church’s perspective, human feelings of love cannot be the last word in determining Her understanding of which kinds of relationships bring us closer to Christ and His Holy Church, and which ones are not conducive to this. A polyamorous relationship can be filled with much self-sacrificial love as well, but that doesn’t mean the Church should endorse or bless such a relationship.
And let’s always remember that through the Church’s profound wisdom about every aspect of personhood, and through compassionate yet firm pastoral care, there is great hope for those having thoughts and feelings of same-sex attraction. For no matter how strong such thoughts and feelings may be, their momentum can be broken, their power can be crushed, and their direction can be reversed through a change of heart, through heartfelt repentance, and through a determination to do things Christ’s way through the guidance of His Holy Church.
I know you most likely believe that people with SSA cannot reorient themselves, because the roots of that disposition run so deeply, perhaps way back to their early childhood, as you argued through posting the photo of the two innocent boys hand-in-hand by the sea, and by referring to stories of many homosexuals who remember such times of feelings of sexual attraction for other boys from even before elementary school. But even if the disposition is tremendously deep-seated, for whatever reasons, and even if it has roots back to one’s early childhood, this still does not make it something godly, something God-given, something conducive to a life of holiness and purity. But again, the good news is that even in these cases, deliverance from this situation is possible, with Christ’s help, as I’ve said. “For with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).
To come back to the issue of suicide, since it is nearly always caused by very serious depression or other related mental illness, it’s not correct for you to blame it on one particular perception about things – the Church’s “refusal to believe them when they say that their orientation goes infinitely beyond ‘sex,’” along with not accepting “everything they have to say about themselves and their experience of love.”
The Church can and does appreciate “the experience of love” wherever it occurs. But that doesn’t mean that in all cases She can endorse the setting of any particular “experience of love.” She can, and most certainly should, listen intently and compassionately to every life-experience of someone which has contributed to that person having thoughts and feelings of same-sex attraction. Yet that doesn’t mean that all those experiences were ordained and favored by God, or that they resulted in a situation which the Church can endorse.
Various factors in the rise of suicide in our society
Since more people today, even when “gay marriage” is legal, when homosexuality has become “politically correct” and there’s much less stigma in the general society against being openly gay, are tempted to think of ending their lives, we need to ask bigger questions. Why do we have so much rampant heartache, anxiety, depression, addictions of many kinds, and suicide in our society today?
There are many reasons, of course, and it’s impossible to discuss them all. But one big factor, it seems to me, is the breakdown of traditional moral values and the general spirit of rebellion that was fostered through the so-called Sexual Revolution that coalesced so strongly in the 1960s.
We also have the rise of “identity politics,” which encourages people to think of themselves primarily in terms of only one aspect, such as “sexual orientation,” of who they are. This is directly against the precepts of Christianity, which gave the world the understanding of the value of every person (already indicated in Judaism) in his or her entirety, because each person is made in the image of God. This is what fundamentally defines each of us according to the Christian Tradition – not race, or sexual orientation, or gender, or nationality, or economic status, or profession, etc.
In addition, there’s a growing trend for people to see themselves primarily as victims, which is never helpful in the spiritual life. For spiritual health, our Tradition teaches us to take responsibility for our actions, and even for our thought-life – and not to blame society, or particular people, or God, or Church teachings, or how we’re created, etc., for anything that we feel we are suffering from. Only in this way can we repent for our shortcomings and sins, and be forgiven, and receive the grace to live more virtuously, and more entirely in love for God and one’s neighbor, no matter what our particular circumstances may be.
A great affirmation of all this comes from Victor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who studied why some people were crushed by the conditions there, and why others could even thrive in that horrific environment. Those who were crushed thought of themselves as victims – “why me?” “it’s not fair!” – thinking that something is very wrong if things aren’t fair, or equal. Those who thrived thought things like “now that this terrible thing has happened, how can I bring light/good into this situation?” They didn’t expect life to be fair and everything to be equal – they knew that this is not a realistic expectation, and anyone who has it is bound for lots of disappointment, at the least.
This wisdom is exactly what St. John Chrysostom and the Church Tradition as a whole encourages: how to make the best out of whatever unjust, unfair, negative situation we may find ourselves in – how to turn it for spiritual profit. Life is like a marketplace: if we know how to “buy and sell,” we can “make a profit” on anything – even a negative occurrence – as St. Mark the Ascetic says, and as the Patriarch Joseph understood as he told his brothers who had tried to kill him, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people” (Gen. 50:20). This is the kind of attitude that greatly helps us to maintain our inner peace, and our steady communion with the Lord.
In striking contrast, much of what’s on the Internet, especially on social media, encourages people to feel upset, even outraged, nearly all the time. Both leftwing and rightwing groups – as well as many individuals – very much encourage this in order to stir people up, to influence them, to get them to give money, etc. People are constantly being manipulated in very unhealthy ways – ways that we are often oblivious to. Yet all of this can so often have a cumulative unsettling, destabilizing effect on us.
Tragically, people struggling with all kinds of things – all primarily connected to severe depression – may try to commit suicide. When one is severely depressed, all kinds of things can make life seem so overwhelming that one may be tempted to end it. In fact, if someone is so fragile psychologically that criticism of their “life-style” might tempt them towards suicide, they should definitely avoid the Internet – at least all social media, blogs, etc. That’s just basic self-defense. And their fragility should not be used to try to stifle respectful discussion of all the issues involved.
Then we have our economic system – an aggressively materialistic, consumer society – that’s constantly trying to stir up all of our desires for things and pleasure in order to get us to buy things, and to make us feel incomplete and discontent if we don’t buy the latest smartphone, etc. It’s constantly telling us that the way to happiness is to indulge our every desire – the very opposite of what every major religion has always said. Who knows what all the ramifications are and will be of this unprecedented and unhealthy constant titillation of all our desires for pleasure and ease.
Then there’s the element of the high level of addictions of various kinds in our society. Pornography, for instance, is strongly addictive. And here again, people acting unconscionably as they produce and promote pornography are making money off other people’s weaknesses, and causing terrible harm in many lives.
There are some recent studies about the deliberately addictive nature of much of the Internet itself (because it is driven by an advertising approach – to get people endlessly clicking, watching, etc. – and flooding our screen time with advertising). And there are some recent articles about Silicon Valley professionals who ironically are now greatly limiting their children’s and their own use of the technologies they themselves have helped to invent and promote.
Added to that, we have a society that has almost no idea about the reality of temptations, of logismoi – the reality that every thought or feeling which comes into our mind isn’t necessarily from our true self or from the Lord. And so we understand that we don’t have to accept such thoughts and feelings, or identify with them – such as thoughts and feelings of anger, greed, envy, pride, lust, same-sex attraction, etc. All of us, including our children in age-appropriate ways, need to be taught that such thoughts and feelings need to be resisted and rejected, not accepted and indulged in. This is all foundational in our Tradition’s understanding of spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10-18).
There is also in our society generally no clear teaching about real love. Children are taught about “sex” in school in a clinical way, almost as if it’s like getting a haircut, rather than as part of how to have a meaningful relationship of love in the safe harbor of marriage. And they are not taught that real love always involves sacrifice, each one sacrificing his or her desires for the other.
Then there is the extreme devaluation of human life with such things as the inundation of graphic violence in entertainment and video games, as well as abortion on demand – which teaches by its very premises that a person is worthy to live only if his or her mother wants him or her to live.
And of course, many have lost any belief in eternal life, or Divine Judgment at the end of time. So they think that there are no eternal consequences coming from how they live in this life, or from taking their own life.
These are the kinds of things – along with, of course, the Devil’s constant machinations – that are really behind people’s despair, depression, and thoughts of suicide – not the Church’s traditional teachings on sexual purity and the dangers of homosexuality. For these teachings help to bring emotional and spiritual health to all who even just attempt to willingly and gratefully follow this guidance, as well as all the Church’s guidance that helps us to grow in virtue, purity, and holiness in every realm of life. This has been the experience and the teaching of every single Saint who has ever lived! – including St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Symeon the New Theologian.
So who are we to say that these teachings should be changed, and to encourage people to live as if they have been changed, just because some people have particularly strong sexual desires that the media is encouraging them to act on, or because homosexuality is now politically correct, or because contemporary science has changed its mind about homosexuality being a psychological disorder.
Science “changes its mind” by a pressurized vote
What has to be recognized about that turn of events is that the decision of the American Psychiatric Association in December of 1973 to remove homosexuality from its list of psychological disorders was made through a vote taken by its Board of Trustees that was heavily influenced by aggressive homosexual activists using Marxist tactics of infiltration and intimidation. When the entire membership of the organization was polled in the next year whether they approved of the decision, only 5854 out of 17,905 members eligible to vote responded saying yes.
Granted, this was more than the number who responded saying no (3810), but the fact still stands that there was opposition by many psychiatrists to this change. And yet the decision remained in effect. Then in January of 1975 it was also adopted by the American Psychological Association (for a detailed account of this story, which even same-sex activists don’t dispute, see here).
What also has to be remembered is that before that vote, there were hundreds of scientific studies giving substantial evidence of various deleterious emotional, psychological, and physical consequences of the homosexual lifestyle. Yet since that vote, nearly every scientific study which was going, or even just perhaps going, in the direction of showing the harmful sides of homosexuality, has been stifled by the tyranny of political correctness in the universities where research is done, and in the foundations and governmental agencies which give the grant money for such research.
With all this in mind, can we really believe that science has “proved” that homosexuality is just as healthy a lifestyle as heterosexuality? Furthermore, the result of all this is that the contemporary science involved with the whole realm of human sexuality cannot be trusted. With its being held hostage by political correctness, it has lost its objectivity – and objectivity has always been the utterly indispensable lynchpin of real science.
Real love speaks the full truth
If people feel they must act in a certain way due to the pressures and proclivities of whatever temptations and/or compulsions and/or addictions they are suffering from, including same-sex attraction (which I think in some cases has some addictiveness involved), I believe that real love does not encourage them to go ahead and act upon those proclivities. That would be like offering a drink to someone fighting alcoholism. Rather, real love warns the person of the very real dangers of their activities, and encourages and helps the person to resist such urges and overcome them through God’s help. And the stronger such urges and tendencies are, the more the Lord will honor the person’s efforts to resist them.
Humble acceptance of the Church’s guidance
For all those who may be in this situation, I would further suggest that this would be an opportunity to die to oneself, to one’s own desires and feelings, to one’s own self-will – which the Holy Orthodox Tradition has always emphasized as being crucial for our path to salvation, even if following this path is very difficult. Whatever we may think about the complicated causes of same-sex attraction, it seems clear that the spiritually sound path to be taken by people having thoughts and feelings of SSA is to willingly and humbly accept the Church’s guidance, and live by it, and encourage others to live by it, and hopefully even rejoice in the knowledge that our Lord will graciously accept and honor the self-sacrificial obedience that’s being shown.
Surely it would be tremendously better for one’s entire well-being to take this path of humbly trusting our Church, rather than to live in anguish and agony over the fact that the Church’s age-old guidance and restrictions on sexual activity and same-sex relationships are the way they are. And of course, every one of us, no matter what temptations and/or compulsions and/or addictions we’re suffering from, has to die to our own self-will and accept and live by the teachings of our Holy Church if we want to be faithful sons and daughters of our Church, humbly trusting that She knows what’s better for us than we sometimes know ourselves.
And let’s remember that all the while, whatever our trials and tribulations, we have the assurance of our Lord’s grace-filled help. For along with His summons to each of us: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24), He also gives us this promise: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matt. 12:28-30). And we also have St. Paul’s assurance in 1 Corinthians 10:13 – “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man. But God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able to bear, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
Please don’t assume at this point, Giacomo, that I haven’t ever experienced the viciously debilitating effects of depression. I have, so I know how hard this is to fight against sometimes, and how it can drive people to the brink of suicide. But I also know from my own experience that at such times it’s crucial for us to cling to our Lord’s promises all the more to get us through the darkness.
The passage from Ross Douthat – on efforts to redefine Christianity
Concerning the passage that I quoted on my Facebook page that you’re reacting to, it seems to me that Douthat is simply making a non-judgmental, factual observation when he says that “recurring efforts to downplay the faith’s moralistic side . . . have usually ended up redefining Christianity entirely” – and when he observes that unmarried people living in cohabitation, and gays and lesbians, seem to be at the forefront of such efforts in the Western world today. Of course he doesn’t mean all such people. But I think it’s fair to say that at least some of those in these categories of people who are politically active are interested in taking virtually every kind of sexual sin out of Christianity, in order to engage in any and all kinds of sexual activity without having to worry about, or feel guilty about, any warnings coming from the Church about it.
And often the theological result is that people assume that God must be OK with such sexual activity, since they think He’s so loving and non-judgmental. This is a big part of “the Religion of Me” and/or “the Religion of the God Within,” which Douthat talks about eloquently in his book.
The main reason I posted the passage by Douthat was to affirm his point that changing the Church’s historic teachings on sexual purity would result in a new and different Christianity. How many exhortations to sexual purity, always understood to be a vital part of personal holiness, would have to be deleted from the Holy Scriptures, both from the Old and the New Testaments? This, of course, would include the words of our Lord Jesus in Mark 7:21: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornication, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.” (And this certainly reminds us that it’s far from true that “anything human isn’t evil in itself,” as you claim in your response to my post!)
In the Age of Reason of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson took scissors and cut out from the New Testament all references to miracles, since his society was tending not to believe in miracles any longer. Now, in today’s Age of Feeling, efforts to cut out references to sexual sinfulness from the Scriptures and from the writings of the Fathers reflect the current society’s general belief that there’s no such thing as sexual sin any more – believing falsely that if something feels good, it must be right.
Certainly the result would be a new Gospel – and for us Orthodox, this is an attempt to create a radically different version of our Orthodox Church Tradition, in which sexual purity has always been foundational in our efforts to be holy as our Lord is holy (cf. 1 Peter 1:16), to participate in the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), and to grow in sanctification, which for us is a crucial part of the salvation process for everyone.
When St. Paul declares that the will of God for all of us is sanctification, the very first thing he says next is about the necessity for abstaining from sexual immorality: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3). Then he adds: “that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel [i.e., his body] in sanctification and honor” (v. 4).
And in such a new Gospel, such a new version of Holy Tradition, I believe there would be a serious diminishing on our Tradition’s ongoing emphasis on personal asceticism, through which we control all of our desires, whether for food, money, drugs, sex, or anything else that would be harmful when indulged in excessively and in the wrong setting. Self-control, self-restraint, modesty, self-sacrificial putting aside of our own desires for the sake of others, spiritual warfare, discernment of which of our desires and feelings are from God and which are not, the ceaseless struggle against thoughts and feelings which are not from God (the logismoi) – all these things are central to our Orthodox way of life, as you well know.
Like a carefully protective and loving Mother, our Holy Church knows these things are vital to our spiritual and physical health and well-being. And our efforts to maintain sexual purity help train us to be self-controlled in every other area of life.
A new emphasis on the glory of marriage
Here’s another observation, since you mentioned the possibility of something new happening in the Orthodox Church concerning sexual issues. In my mind, the new thing happening in our own time concerning sexual matters is not the Church coming to accept the legitimacy of same-sex sexualized relationships – something the Church has always condemned. Rather, it’s a new emphasis on the special glory of traditional marriage, which has always been present in the Church – just look at the glorious Orthodox wedding service.
A wonderful example of this is expressed by an illustrious contemporary Athonite monk, Elder Aimilianos, in his homily, “Marriage: The Great Sacrament” (which is available on-line by that title). In this homily, the elder says that a husband and wife truly living the Gospel are “a theophany” as they exhibit iconically Christ the Bridegroom’s love for His Bride, His Holy Church, in their marriage. You and your readers might also be interested in the 30 essays on various aspects of marriage by 26 Orthodox priests and scholars, plus two monastic elders, in Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016).
Coming back to the issue of suicide, St. John Chrysostom is so clear, so insistent, that despair is never from the Lord, no matter what is causing it, and that we must always resist it, with God’s help. As he writes so encouragingly, “Nothing can harm the man who does not harm himself.”
In his seventh letter to his very close confidante, St. Olympia the Deaconess, written as he is suffering in exile due to being totally unjustly banished, he gives a priceless key for how to navigate through the heartaches and sorrows of this life, whatever they may be:
“Therefore, do not be cast down. For there is only one thing, Olympia, to fear, only one real temptation, and that is sin. This is the refrain that I keep chanting to you ceaselessly. For everything else is ultimately a fable – whether you speak of plots, or enmities, or deceptions, or slanders, or abuses, or accusations, or confiscations, or banishments, or sharpened swords, or high seas, or war engulfing the entire world. Whichever of these you point to, they are transitory and perishable, and they only affect mortal bodies; they cannot in any way injure the watchful soul. This is why, wishing to express the paltriness of both the good and the bad things of this present life, the blessed Paul stated the matter in one phrase, saying, ‘For the things that are seen are temporal’” (2 Cor. 4:18).
And as he says in this same letter about how the Three Youths in the furnace responded to their desperate circumstances,
“They sent up hymns of thanksgiving for having been bound and set on fire by their enemies, and for having been driven from their homeland, for having been made prisoners, for having been deprived of their freedom, for having been banished and made homeless wanderers, and for having to sojourn in a foreign and barbarous land – all of this was fitting for a prudent soul to be thankful for.” (Saint John Chrysostom: Letters to Saint Olympia, SVS Press, 2016, parts 7.1C and 7.2C, pp. 46 and 48; my emphasis).
I’m praying ardently that these thoughts may bring some degree of comfort, consolation, insight, and encouragement to you and your readers.
With love and prayers,
Dr. David C. Ford
Professor of Church History
St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary
South Canaan, PA
Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s numerous articles on sexuality and gender are listed in a category of their own near the top of our Archives by Author.