QUEERING QUEER: HITTING THE RESET BUTTON (QUEER THEORY AND ORTHODOX THEOLOGY) by Giacomo Sanfilippo

This is an abbreviated version of an essay submitted in April 2014 in fulfilment of the requirements for the graduate seminar at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University College, University of Toronto. Written for a non-Orthodox audience immersed in the canon of academic queer literature, it attempts to convey something of Orthodox anthropology and spirituality in a key comprehensible to them. 

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Queer theory and Orthodox theological anthropology share a surprising number of insights into the human condition in general and the ambiguities of human sexuality in particular. This is not to deny the vast epistemic differences between them—their paradigms of knowledge production and their determinants of what even counts as “knowledge”—or the gulf that often separates the conclusions reached by each in its respective domain. Yet they struggle to make sense of the same existential dilemma, mount similar critiques of the world-as-it-is, and ground their motifs in a vision of transfigured futurity for the human person and the human collective.    

With this essay I begin to explore some of the terrains of possible thematic convergence between queer theory and Orthodox theology. Along the way, I attempt to develop a common lexicon by means of which theorists operating from two widely disparate epistemological bases might engage fruitfully in a dialogue of mutual charity, to the reciprocal benefit of each. Queer theory, in its way, has as much to offer Orthodox theology as vice versa. The present essay embodies a call, as it were, to contemplate a metaphysical basis for the future direction of queer theory, one that both transcends the exigencies of immanent political expediency and recovers the legitimacy of modes of knowing informed by a long lineage of communitarian spiritual intuition.

To do this we must hit the reset button, contest queer theory’s substitution for heteronormativity of its own species of compulsory normativity, and resist our knee-jerk tendency, at least since Foucault, to be uncritically critical of all things Christian. Orthodoxy has preserved and continues to build upon a two thousand year tradition of the highest intellectual calibre, one that bears no resemblance to the biblical literalism and culture warmongering that pass for Christianity in the United States today and in many sectors of its global South colonial-missionary orbit. Orthodox theology merits a careful, reflective reading on our part.

Some Thoughts on Human Personhood and Subject Formation

The nature of human personhood stands out as the single most crucial area in which I see a need for us to hit the reset button in queer theory. Upon this more than anything else—the manner in which we conceptualize “the person”—all else depends in postmodern philosophical thought, not least of all in the queer project of interrogating every socially constructed norm, with our rightfully heightened attention to the possible range of meanings of sexuality and gender in human life. 

A genealogical nexus can be traced between queer theory’s dogmatic insistence on the insubstantiality of personhood and the reduction of persons to “bodies.”  

The question of whether “the person” possesses an “essential core” is not new. The Greek fathers—the collective name for Christian theologians of the patristic era whose writings are considered foundational for Orthodox theology to the present day—wrestled with the meaning of personhood as long ago as the 4th century. Their expansive theological vision of the human person, premised on its being created psychosomatically in the divine image and endowed with the capacity to acquire by degrees the divine likeness, required for its articulation nothing less than a deliberate, dramatic linguistic shift. The word prosopon—etymologically, “towards the vision” or “towards the view,” equivalent to the Latin persona—which until then had been commonly used for “person,” also meant a theatrical mask. Its use coincided with the Platonic understanding of the human person as little more than a transiently embodied manifestation, possessing no intrinsic value of its own, of an abstract, pre-existent “nature.”  Its “salvation” lay in the shedding of both corporeality and personality at biological death and its reabsorption into its primordial beatific but impersonal state.

In some respects, prosopon corresponds closely to the socially constructed subject of postmodern thought, a fundamentally exteriorized and ultimately expendable subject, discursively or interpellatively formed from intersectional axes or unstable assemblages of multivalent historical, racial, social, economic, sexual, gendered, religious, ethnic, cultural, genealogical, classist, familial, physiological, psychological, educational, affective, societal, appetitive, and other forces largely beyond our control and often beyond our cognizance. Even in the contemporary vernacular, of course, persona conveys the notion of a subject artificed for public display, a mask removed at the end of the day within the lonely seclusion of whatever closet we inhabit.

This was precisely what the Greek fathers rejected. In order to formulate more adequately their theological paradigm of personhood, they resignified the already-existing word hypostasis, an exact calque of the Latin substantia: etymologically, that which “stands under” a subject’s exteriority. A term literally meaning substance and used in the original Greek of the New Testament in the sense of “nature,” hypostasis thus came by ecclesial consensus to signal that which is particular to personhood and not general to humanhood, that which is unshared from person to person and not that which is shared by all humanity. With the adoption of this word the Greek fathers established, no less counterintuitively to Platonic than to postmodern thought, a “substantial” or “substantive”—what we now call “essentialist”—identitarian foundation for the absolute uniqueness, inimitability, and unrepeatability of each human person.

The search for a word more adequately illuminative of fourth-century Orthodoxy’s essentialist vision of personhood was propelled by the lexical requirements of an evolving trinitarian doctrine. For the Christian deity’s ineffable manner of being, conceived as a triune communion of love, without beginning, of uncreated divine persons absolutely distinct in their identity or subjecthood while absolutely one in godhood, a term such as prosopon clearly did not suffice, bearing as it does within its internal morphemic structure the unavoidable connotation of a “mask.” Its use tended to suggest an impoverished, monadic conception of the deity as an eternal solitary, or an impersonal force. This, in turn, led to a modalist reduction of the divine persons to non-persons, to three contingent or situational “modes” of the monad’s self-disclosure in relation to whatever or whoever lay outside the boundaries of its divine solitude.

This brief excursus into Orthodoxy’s trinitarian vision of God, esoteric and tangential to our topic as it may seem, relates directly to my earlier statement that any Orthodox consideration of the meaning and nature of human personhood flows organically from the notion of the “divine image” of which every human person is said to be the bearer. Expressed another way, whatever we can affirm about the three divine persons must apply by analogy to the innumerable multitude of human persons in their infinite diversity, and this by virtue of the intentional “resemblance” between divine creator and human creature, implanted in the latter by the former as a birthright.

My purpose here is not to argue for the “facticity” of the biblical myth of human origins, but to foreground the divine, mystical, and proleptically utopian foundation of the inestimable and illimitable value attributed by Orthodox theological anthropology to every human person without exception. I cannot imagine a more radical affirmation of queer theory’s unrelenting resistance to the hegemonic triage of human lives into ascending and descending compartments of worth, validity, and access to the basic necessities of life.

The Orthodox understanding of what it means to be created in the image of a personal and essentially “communitarian” deity, on the one hand, and Foucault’s discursive or Althusser’s interpellative formation of the human subject, on the other, shed fascinating light on each other in a mutually complementary fashion. Before ever we were “discoursed” or “hailed” into subjecthood by the complexly intersectional matrix out of which we emerge as social subjects, we were spoken into existence, hailed out of nothingness into being, by a divine discourse, a divine interpellation, a creative word uttered “in the beginning,” not so much as an exercise of divine power as of divine love.

Yet we must not imagine that this “before” adduces any sort of temporal or spatial anteriority, for the time and space of our creation as human persons in the divine image correspond exactly to the sociohistorical moment and place of our initial appearance on the human stage and our incipient formation as social subjects. We need not admit a sharp dichotomy between these two “operations”—the divine creation of the human person and the discursive or interpellative formation of the social subject—but we can rather regard them as two aspects of an indivisible moment of theandric synergy in which the divine initiative possesses both existential and ontological anteriority over the social in the genesis and evolution of personal identity.

This preserves an antinomic balance between the fundamentally mysterious “essential core” of the human person and the contextually constructed expressivity of the person which queer theory has contributed so much to accentuate. Neither intuition leads inevitably to the foreclosure of the other. Orthodox theology sees the human person not so much as a passive recipient of its own creation, but as an active participant in partnership with the divine; queer theory shows how this synergistic process unfolds within the comparatively limited and predetermined range of cultural, political, and linguistic possibilities available within a given social context.

Herein lies the antinomy: the divine image, the capacity to acquire the divine likeness—those things in which the “essential core” resides—render the human person irreducible to the sum of its multiple intersectional components, and impart to it the spiritual power to transcend the very limitability imposed both by its temporally and spatially contingent social existence and by the bodily boundaries of its corporeal existence. This is to say that we adopt the same reverentially apophatic approach to the unknowable and unutterable mystery of the inner self at the heart of every human person that we maintain with respect to God.

The human person’s primeval grounding in communion with the divine personal triunity, its essential irreducibility to any social construct, and its powers of transcendence signal the fundamentally teleological orientation of human life—counterintuitively to most queer thought—inscribed deeply within us as part of our psychic nature and evidenced by the insatiable restlessness and dissatisfaction of postmodern life, by our incurable nostalgia for that better yesterday that never existed, by our endless quest for the “nowhere” of the utopian tomorrow, and by the inexhaustible tenacity of erotic desire despite its inability—if we are honest with ourselves—ever to live up to its promise.

Desire, Eros, Communion, Death

As urgently as “cohabitation as a norm of sociality” commends itself to our unremitting efforts as a political project for consensual coexistence, Orthodoxy offers a deeper vision of the possibilities for human community. This vision is rooted, of course, in the doctrine of a “communitarian” deity whose image we bear, and the gradual attainment of whose likeness constitutes the impetus both for our inner life and for our relations with one another. In contradistinction to, yet subsuming, paradigms of political cohabitation with the other, we might think of this as a vision of spiritual inhabitation within the other. This is to suggest that we possess, as bearers of the divine image, the capacity to transcend the limitations of mere community, of life side-by-side, and to embark upon a path towards communion, towards life each-within-each, a path found only within the human heart and not in any kind of political agenda or utopian plan for economic restructuring.

The interpenetrativity of the divine communion of love, of which the image and likeness reside innately embedded within the innermost sanctum of the human person, illumines the veiled meaning behind every endeavour and every desire—including erotic desire—and establishes an eschatological telos for human life of reciprocal interiority with God and with one another, inaugurated and nurtured in the everyday ordinariness of our existence as social subjects first interpellated as “those who resemble God.”

John Zizioulas writes that the principal obstacle to communion lies in our morbid fear of alterity:

…[I]n our culture protection from the other is a fundamental necessity. We feel more and more threatened by the presence of the other. We are forced and even encouraged to consider the other as our enemy before we can treat him or her as our friend…. We accept the other only in so far [sic] as he does not threaten our privacy or insofar as he is useful for our individual happiness…. There is a pathology built into the very roots of our existence, inherited through our birth, and that is the fear of the other.

Our fear of the other—indeed our construction of the other precisely as “other” and, ipso facto, as an actual or potential enemy—deflects our gaze from the horizon of infinite human diversity to the degradation of alterity through its pathologization, criminalization, or hamartiologization, erecting and fortifying barricades between ourselves and everyone we encounter, whether the stranger on the street or the “stranger” wearing our wedding ring in the bed we share night after night. Even in our most intimate relations, sexual or otherwise, we experience our existential alienation and exteriority one from another as ultimately unbridgeable.

Yet in the secret depths of our being, do we not yearn to bridge it, to discover within ourselves and among ourselves a mode of reciprocal interiority, of interpenetration, a way not so much to transgress our boundaries as an act of “violation,” but to ingress them as a reciprocal act of entry, the somatic ingression subsumed in and coterminous with the ingression of psychic spaces, in a perichoretic or circumincessional movement analogous to that of the incorporeal triune deity whose image we bear? This may offer a fresh direction for queer theory to think about the “meaning” of social relations in general and of sex in particular.

For is sex—even at its most “promiscuous,” its most repugnant, its most terrifying, its most incomprehensible, its most fetishistic—ever “just sex” in our queer analysis? Across the boundless spectrum in which it demonstrates its mysterious power, is sex ever “just” about carnal desire, pleasure, love, gratification, orgasm, domination, submission, possession, subjugation, pain, destruction, egoism, romance, procreation?

Or does eros, more expansively imagined, subsume sexual acts and their motivations unnegated while at the same time revealing “something more,” something beyond a complex of physiological and psychological sensations, indeed something transcendent? These questions do not spring from a lifeless, desiccated, spiritually bankrupt, socially respectable moralism. My purpose here is to explore the ways in which the erotic drive, in all its variegated acts and practices—from the most sublime to the most perverse (for let us be honest: the queerest among us all have a line we will not cross, even “theoretically”)—possibly figures as an inalienable aspect of the divine image within us.

Without sexualizing the Christian deity in any way—for that would degrade it to the status of an all-too-human god in the Greek or Roman pantheon—and likewise without whitewashing the infinitely tortuous details of real-world sex, Orthodox theology sees the erotic drive, at its core, as an indispensably integral aspect of the divine image and likeness. Eros mirrors very powerfully something about God. In its infinite multitude of positions, methods, practices, and technologies of bodily ingressions and transgressions, of internal and external sharings of every kind of bodily fluid, of defiant mockeries of death even in the face of its inexorable approach, sex embodies in a human idiom an epiphany of the “divine eros”—however imperfectly, however transiently, however carnally, however questionably—an epiphany of the divine desire for ecstatic oneness, the divine movement towards ever deeper interiority one within the others, the divine joy of reciprocal surrender and possession that characterize the eternal life and love of the three uncreated persons; and not only a divine eros offered and received among the three from all eternity, but one which “compels” them, as it were, to draw every created human person into the unlimited intimacy of the uncreated sphere of unending love.

According to Orthodox doctrine, the “erotic desire” that attracts divine creator to human creature culminates in the bodily incarnation of God, who enters corporeally into the zone of space, time, and death in order to effectuate the deification of the corporeal human person in a zone beyond spatiality, temporality, and mortality. Whether we take this at face value as a dogmatic truth or as a beautiful myth, the sheer poetry of a God who voluntarily makes human embodiment his own, offers his body to us, mingles his blood with ours, climbs as the ultimate lover into our sepulchral bed of death, speaks exquisitely of divine eros and of the possibilities for its reverberations in human eros.

For whatever else sexual desire may “mean” in human life, at its very root the insatiable drive to intrude literally and physically inside the body of another, to accept this intrusion inside our own body, to possess and to be possessed, however transitorily, may signify an unvoiced longing to overcome our spatial and temporal exile from one another, to heal our existential loneliness in a state of maximum proximity and interiority with each other. The cruel irony surely lies in this, that our “lust” (dare we use that word in queer theory?) sends us day after day in search of ever new bodies, but never in search of a person who is infinitely new. We risk reducing each other to programmable devices to facilitate one another’s orgasms.

Can queer theory allow itself to ask if, the more sex we have with the more partners, the more acute the anguish of exile and loneliness that follows? Christos Yannaras writes,

Many centuries before Freud discovered the significance of the libido, or psychoanalysis “liberated” sexual life from its “social restraints” and made it a separate area of man’s life insulated from the whole—showing it as an end in itself, tragic and unfulfilled—the Greek church fathers had connected man’s existential problem with the orientation of his natural sexual impulse: whether it turns towards sensual pleasure or towards giving life a hypostatic [i.e., personal] reality as communion and relationship.

Yannaras has in mind neither an oppressive moralism imposed from without nor “social respectability,” but a much deeper motive, for he goes on to acknowledge—in agreement with everyone in queer theory from Foucault to the present—that “[a]n entire mythology has grown up around the bourgeois ideal of ‘the Christian family,’” over against which Orthodox theology envisions a “freedom from natural necessity, from the exclusiveness of the biological bond created by carnal relationship and natural kinship.”

From an Orthodox perspective, the fundamental question for queer theory comes down to this: whether we can ever imagine—even if only as a utopian vision, but one quite different from those that usually capture our imagination—an inner transfiguration of our sexuality and of the ways in which we perform it; whether a human person might transform her or his sexuality from merely a faint reflection of a germinal divine image to a fuller expression of an efflorescent divine likeness. This need not imply a turn from pleasure per se, but from pleasure as an end in itself, which always already objectifies, desubjectifies, depersonalizes, dehumanizes the desired other as well as, perhaps more crushingly, the undesired other. It implies, rather, a turn towards the person.

Parting Thoughts

The most radically queer performance imaginable of sexuality, gender, and embodiment may very well be found in monasteries: there, in monastic communes sometimes dating back a thousand years and more, Orthodox monks and nuns remove themselves by free choice not only from the circuits of biological reproduction and capitalist consumption, but also from the circuits of orgasmic reproduction and consumption. They do these things as a conscious and deliberate form of resistance to the objectification of the self, of the other, of the nonhuman environment. They live life as an embodied philosophy to the maximum degree, as a continuous “performance art” through which they channel their erotic energy, in an arduous but joyful lifelong ascesis, into the cultivation of communion with God, with their fellow humans, and with the natural world on the deepest possible existential and ontological level.

Orthodox monasticism is not anti-body, but pro-body in the most radical sense; for unlike Platonism and many other philosophies and religions of the past and present, Orthodoxy teaches that both personhood and embodiment in their essential goodness are destined for eternity in an inconceivable mode of being that transcends every limitation and barrier of the present age.

Consider this: it may come as a shock to realize that queer dogma shares a fundamental hegemonic normativity with the twin heresies that it condemns the most, heteronormativity and homonormativity: namely, the expectation—indeed the requirement, the obligation—to have sex. That the three differ in the details of when, where, why, how, and with whom, bears little consequence. What can queer theory offer to the person upon whose shoulders the burden of unattainable compulsory sex weighs more oppressively than that of unattainable compulsory happiness? The resigned, the despairing, the bitter who desire achingly, relentlessly, but are too old, too fat, too ugly, too disabled, too psychosocially maladjusted, too dentally maloccluded in our flashing white and perfectly occluded world, ever to be desired? The failure to get laid must surely represent the queerest failure of all. How, then, to make an art of it? Has our sexual liberation ended, paradoxically, in the exhausting tyranny of obligatory sex, sex every day, sex every way, sex everywhere, sex with everyone?

What can queer theory offer to the young transgender girl who dreams hopelessly of one day having enough spare change for lip gloss, forget about surgery? To the global South mother whose only desire is food and water to save the life of her starving child? To the barefoot man who spends the night shivering on a sidewalk grate in downtown Toronto in the middle of a Canadian winter? Surely, our endless condemnations of the third heresy, neoliberal capitalism, have led us to formulate a concrete alternative, a plan of action, a better way? Surely, at the very least, we share generously with the beggar at the doorstep of the halls of our tenured professorships, at the doorstep of the publishers of our books about the evils of neoliberal capitalism and our books about utopia, the beggar to whom Nowhere beckons from the warmth of the diner across the street, where he would love to tarry over a cheeseburger, a large fries, a cup of hot coffee on a frigid night, if only someone would put a few dollars into his hands, those few dollars that alone stand between him and coming in from the cold?

I offer these musings not as an indictment, for I am in no position to cast a single stone, but as an invitation, a challenge, a call, to myself foremost and then to others. Perhaps in a partnership of dialogue with ancient yet living traditions of spiritual and metaphysical knowledges (of which Orthodoxy represents but one; there are others well worth exploring, e.g., the more mystical strains of Islam, Judaism, Western Christianity, Buddhism), some of us can undertake the exciting work of surveying and mapping new routes over new terrains of queer thought and life. Queer theory has given so much; can it give still more? It has shown us how to think; can it now show us how to live, how to embody our utopian visions here and now, how to make Nowhere somewhere, how to open our hearts to the least of our fellows not merely sentimentally, but existentially, ontologically, so that gazing into the eyes of the other in her or his innumerability I meet my own self and understand, at last, that there never were any strangers after all?

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our publication of an article by an editor implies neither the agreement nor disagreement of the other editor. 
¡Cristo resucitó! ¡En verdad resucitó!

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