The recent publication on Orthodoxy in Dialogue of an open letter on the topic of homosexuality (dated Nov. 8, 2017) by Dr David Ford of St Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary has elicited predictably strong-and-polarized emotional reactions from readers: some have expressed relief that the position they understand to be that of univocal Orthodox tradition is being rigorously defended by a person charged with teaching theology in an Orthodox institution; others, exasperation that the letter does not engage with the arguments and testimonies which have been made and given on many public platforms (including Orthodoxy in Dialogue itself) and therefore appears to refuse the genuine dialogue and radical self-critique (repentance) which is necessary for theological integrity.
This response is not an attempt to refute any of Dr Ford’s claims regarding homosexuality per se, because it seems to me that very many combatants in the arena of issues in sex, gender, and sexuality are committed to their declared positions on principle (this includes Dr Ford, whose many publications on this topic make his views quite clear), and so there is little to be gained from raising objections. Yet, the urgent contemporary questions raised in this area continue to challenge all of us in some way, and it seems that the apologies (more on this below) made by church spokespersons for the church’s views continue to fail to satisfy many who are deeply engaged with these issues in a variety of contexts—not least in the pastures of parish life. So, if public discourse on the topic of “same-sex attraction” (and other related matters) among Orthodox thinkers is to move beyond the impasse of an endless cycle of the assertion and re-assertion of mutually exclusive positions (which, all too often, devolves into a most unholy slanging match), I believe that we must enter upon a more difficult examination of the pillars on which the arguments that lead to our theological commitments stand.
Therefore, this short essay will, with one hand, attempt to point out some of the foundational ideas that support the views expressed by Dr Ford in his open letter, and, with the other, gesture towards an understanding of how these differ from the fundamental presuppositions of those who have diverged in their conclusions on matters of sex, gender, and sexuality. (Dr Ford may, of course, reject my analysis of his theological reasoning—in which case, I hope that he will correct my errors.) It will not even attempt to be exhaustive in this regard; in fact, it will be consciously selective in dealing with only three of the fundamental presuppositions that I see at work in this letter. The topics are treated in no particular order and with necessary brevity. And, to underscore the point made above, this essay will certainly disappoint those who hope to see a point-by-point rebuttal of Dr Ford’s letter, since the particulars of the discussion of same-sex attraction are here marginalized in favour of a discussion of more basic issues.
As a final preliminary note: we must be honest that there can be no pretence to “objectivity” in this conversation about theological fundamentals. Those, like myself, who think that the current mainstream approaches in the Orthodox Church to issues of sex, gender, and sexuality (and others) are no longer sustainable on theological grounds and therefore in need of radical re-imagination will seek to build a first-order theological framework from the raw materials of the Orthodox tradition which can then support our second-order arguments and conclusions. In the same way, those, like Dr Ford, who think that there should be (or, perhaps, can be) no change to these approaches will seek to demonstrate (or merely imply) that their first-order theological framework is the Orthodox theological framework and that the second-order arguments and conclusions which derive from it represent the Orthodox answer to the questions being raised (and perhaps, therefore, cannot even be categorized as second-order in the way that I have done here, since they are equally part of a “consistent spiritual tradition,” to quote Dr Ford). We must not shy away from this observation concerning bias in our (theological) hermeneutics, since awareness of the inevitable and necessary operation of bias in all thinking is crucial if we are to understand how arguments work.
[Please continue reading on The Wheel‘s blog here.]
Gregory Tucker is a research assistant within the Faculty of Catholic Theology and the DFG-Graduiertenkolleg “Metropolität in der Vormoderne” at Regensburg University in Bavaria. He is writing a doctoral dissertation on the history and theology of the Constantinopolitan liturgy in the Middle Byzantine period. He previously studied theology at the University of Oxford, St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and Fordham University. He is also an editor at The Wheel.