THE CONVERSATION ON SAME-SEX LOVE CONTINUES: A TRIO OF BOOK REVIEWS by Giacomo Sanfilippo

Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church​, Wendy VanderWal-Gritter (Grand Rapids​​ MI​: ​Brazos Press, 2014​)

​When Brothers Dwell in Unity:​ Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality​, Stephen Morris (​Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2015)

Pavel Florensky: Early Religious Writings 1903-1909​, Boris Jakim, Trans​. (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017​)​

genspacemorrisearlyflorenskyConsidering that the academic year ends early in Canadian universities—in April!—a surprisingly full room of one Orthodox bishop, several Orthodox priests, some Anglican and Protestant clergy, and a few dozen laymen and laywomen gathered at Trinity College late yesterday afternoon for an informal public conversation between Dr. Christopher Brittain, Dean of Divinity at Trinity College, and Father Andrew Louth, Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University in the UK.

During the Q&A, Dr. Brian Butcher of the Sheptytsky Institute—who has written twice for Orthodoxy in Dialogue (here and here)—asked Father Andrew to address how questions of sexuality and gender are causing divisions “right down the middle” within churches, while at the same time generating a kind of “ecumenism of the right” and “ecumenism of the left” which unites individuals from different churches.

Father Andrew’s reply was measured, balanced, nuanced, and—without mentioning Orthodoxy in Dialogue—fully open to the kind of dialogue that we are committed to facilitating on our pages. He concluded by remarking that, if we discuss sexuality and gender from a place of fear, trying to frighten people, we’re probably doing it wrong.

(We wish to thank Father Geoffrey Ready, co-director of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, for providing the link to the full video of yesterday’s event here.)

The dialogue around any topic within the Orthodox Church necessarily requires our critical engagement with books published by Orthodox Christian and other Christian authors. Here I offer three reviews of mine: Generous Spaciousness, which appeared in the Toronto Journal of Theology (33.1, Spring 2017); When Brothers Dwell in Unity, appearing for the first time; and Early Religious Writings, which appeared here on Orthodoxy in Dialogue and will also appear in the Toronto Journal of Theology (34.1, Spring 2018).

The appearance of Generous Spaciousness in 2014 is said to have been something of a history-making event for Brazos Press, given its mission to foster “the renewal of classical, orthodox Christianity.” The slowly growing recognition among at least some of the laity, clergy, and hierarchy of conservative and traditional churches that there may be valid theological grounds to re-examine questions of sexual and gender variance in human nature, and especially its place in ecclesial life, represents a much needed if not universally applauded development with direct application for pastoral praxis.

Wendy VanderWal-Gritter holds the MDiv (1999) from Tyndale Seminary and the DMin (2016) from Knox College and the University of Toronto. Her concern for a pastorally responsive approach to same-sex orientation, and notably the shift in her thinking, comes from her having served since 2002 as executive director of New Direction Ministries, a Canadian entity formerly affiliated with the now defunct Exodus International. The latter had gained notoriety in LGBTQ circles for its role in the ex-gay movement, its promotion of reparative therapy for persons of same-sex orientation, and its membership in a coalition of likeminded groups called PATH, or Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality. As widely reported at the time, the shuttering of Exodus International’s operations in 2013 was accompanied by a dramatic public apology for the decades of emotional harm that it had perpetrated against same-sex oriented persons and their families. VanderWal-Gritter’s denominational and professional background, and New Direction’s transition from its previous affiliations to its current affirmative focus under her leadership, underscores the unexpectedness of a conservative Evangelical’s openness to the testimony of Christian men, women, and children who experience their same-sex orientation as a positive spiritual force in their lives.

The “generous spaciousness” envisioned by VanderWal-Gritter entails the creation of a welcoming ecclesial space—coterminous with the church itself, not relegated to a corner or closet—where two things can occur: first, an open dialogue at all levels of church polity on the question of same-sex attraction and love, unimpeded by “voices clamoring for this position or that perspective” (p. 26); and second, an uncoerced interior process by which same-sex oriented adults, youths, and children can work through the meaning of their orientation for a life of faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ: to “wrestle with God” (p. 89), if necessary. She urges church members to adopt a stance of humble acknowledgment that “the right answer or solution for the church on the theological topic of homosexuality” (p. 26) will not be quickly or easily found.    

Perhaps most important of all to a more nuanced theological understanding of the complexities of sexual orientation, she correctly situates the initial awakening of self-awareness in very early childhood for most individuals, sometimes as young as three to five years of age, long before a child knows that “sexual acts” even exist, let alone possesses the capacity to imagine the variety of ways in which people might “have sex.” At the heart of it, the statement “I was born gay” represents not so much a biological fact or political declaration as a testimony to a person’s self-knowledge since his or her earliest childhood memories: This is the only way I have ever known myself.

At some point in the evolution of her thinking, VanderWal-Gritter came to discover the inseparability of sexual orientation from “healthy and normal longings for intimacy, belonging, companionship, and family” (p. 69). Perhaps her greatest epiphany comes in the first quarter of her book: the irreducibility of “the complex experience of same-sex attraction to a sex act” and the recognition of all “sexual attraction [as] a multifaceted combination of the spiritual, emotional, romantic, and physical” (p. 72).

VanderWal-Gritter’s book offers a vital testimonial to the real lives of real Christians. In this endeavour she has made a laudable contribution to the pastorally minded in conservative and traditional churches who have come to realize that scriptural proof texts of dubious relevance fall short of the experience of those who love both Christ and a partner of their own gender.

The largely anecdotal form of Generous Spaciousness lends itself well to the author’s purpose. I would have liked to see, however, perhaps less attention to her personal diary of feeling convinced of the Holy Spirit’s guidance at every stage of her work and thinking.

As an Orthodox exploring the range of possibilities for a theology and spirituality of same-sex love fully consistent with Holy Tradition, I find Generous Spaciousness most useful for its witness to the priority of personal experience over ideological postures detached from real life. Pastors, theologians, and hierarchs of traditional churches would do well to follow VanderWal-Gritter’s lead in truly listening to the personal testimony of same-sex oriented Christians who strive to ground their lives in the Gospel.

Claudia Rapp suggested that I read Stephen Morris’ When Brothers Dwell in Unity when I emailed her about her own outstanding study, Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium (reviewed here by Kevin Elphick). In a journal article some twenty years earlier she had established her reputation as a voice of moderation in the firestorm ignited by John Boswell’s controversial—and in many respects misleading—work on the same topic.

Morris is a friend of mine and an independent scholar of Byzantine church history who studied under Boswell at Yale University and Fathers Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. I expected his book to represent a further corrective to Boswell. In this respect it largely disappoints.

Like Boswell, Morris offers an abundance of useful facts and texts from various eras in Orthodox history, yet intermixes these with so many anachronisms, non sequiturs, questionable conjectures, uncited claims, and bald attempts to titillate his readers, that his book falls rather short of a serious contribution to the study of the Byzantine Church, let alone to a genuinely theological and spiritual approach to the place of same-sex desire in an Orthodox vision of life in Christ. Orthodox at the time of writing, he demonstrates none of the delicacy or indeed piety that one would have liked to see from an Orthodox author on such a sensitive issue. The contrast between Morris’ treatment of his topic and Father Pavel Florensky’s “Friendship” and “Jealousy” more than a hundred years ago could hardly be more stark.

Morris’ proclivity to assign an explicitly sexualized meaning to a text that suggests no such thing stands as a salient case in point. In one instance he quotes a desert apophthegmatum that warns of the occasion for jealousy when two monks live as a pair and a third comes to engage one of them in conversation. Inexplicably Morris prefaces the story by noting that “[t]here were still other signs that a monk was interested in a sexual relationship with another adult [as opposed to a young boy].” He concludes that “[c]omplaining that a desired sexual partner spends too much time with or gives too much attention to a third party has always been a dead giveaway of the accuser’s jealousy” (p. 26).

In another place he describes an astonishing scene of sensuality among monks: “Bathing, we must remember, was a communal affair in the classical style and could involve prolonged exposure or contact with the young, naked, and beautiful as the monks soaked in the hot tubs or scrubbed and massaged one another” (p. 31). He offers not a shred of evidence beyond his own word that monks actually bathed in this fashion and handled one another’s naked bodies. If this were the case, the provision for monks to bathe four times a year, in connection with lenten periods or great liturgical feasts (p. 32), makes no sense at all. What monastic typicon sets aside times of the year when monks are permitted to play with the fire of sexual temptation with each other?     

The biggest head-shaking moment of all comes when Morris projects the results of the much disputed 20th-century Kinsey Reports onto early and Byzantine monasticism to suggest that fully half of all monks had copulated with farm animals before embracing the ascetical life. He concludes his excursus on bestiality with the gratuitous, parenthetical tidbit “that in Morocco and among the Turks sex with a donkey is thought to make a man’s penis grow larger!” (pp. 35-36; exclamation point in the original).

Morris slips into the same pitfall of wishful thinking as Boswell when, on the subject of the Byzantine rite of brother-making, he asserts (admittedly arguing from silence!) that “it seems evident that the adelphopoiia service was, without widespread disapproval, considered to be and functioned as a form of ‘gay marriage’” (p. 93). This fails to account for the numerous instances known to history of made brotherhood between two monks, a monk and a layman, two men married to women, a man with several men, an entire group of men with each other, and at least one case of a man with a woman.

All the more ironically, then, Morris concludes his book with a critique of Boswell’s “advocacy scholarship” (p. 169) and his needless alienation of Orthodox readers: “The very community that was in a critical position to best evaluate Boswell’s work on Orthodox liturgical texts, with the most both to lose and gain, was the Orthodox Church itself. If there was any community that Boswell should have taken pains to avoid offending gratuitously, it was the Orthodox” (p. 170). Yet Morris, possessing both the theological formation of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the pastoral experience of a former Orthodox priest, succeeds hardly better than Boswell in finding an authentically Orthodox key in which to handle his primary sources and address their range of possible applications for the contemporary Church. His hope appears misplaced that “the cultures of traditionally Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe can use this study to begin moving toward safety for gay men and lesbians” and that “the Orthodox world can use this book to take a step or two in the direction of dealing honestly with contemporary society” (p. 174). It seems odd that he should profess primarily sociopolitical aims for his book, rather than theological and spiritual. I suspect that he will attract a very limited readership among the hierarchy, clergy, monastics, theologians, and laity of the Orthodox Church, and that he will be dismissed almost as summarily as Boswell was.

This is not to say that I find no use for When Brothers Dwell in Unity in my own work. It serves as a valuable catalogue of primary sources—patristic, monastic, canonical, and juridical—of which I might not have otherwise come to know. Morris has been especially helpful to me in identifying the homilies in which St. John Chrysostom rails with such infamous vehemence against sexual relations between men. His bibliography runs to almost twenty columns of small print, in itself a goldmine of primary and secondary sources for my research.

As was the case with Boswell, Morris’ entirely avoidable flaws overshadow the positive contribution that he could have made to the pressing theological, spiritual, and pastoral question of same-sex love had he chosen to proceed more carefully. This makes for a truly unfortunate missed opportunity.    

Boris Jakim began to establish his reputation as one of the foremost English translators of modern Russian religious literature when he published four books by S.L. Frank (1877-1950) between 1983 and 1993. He introduced Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) to the English-speaking world in 1997 with his translation of his magnum opus, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, originally published in 1914. While it has become something of a commonplace to call Florensky one of the 20th century’s preeminent Orthodox theologians, very little of his literary corpus is available in English. Consequently anything like “Florensky studies” remains in its infancy among academics who do not read Russian fluently. Jakim’s latest contribution adds another important piece to the complex puzzle that comprises the man Florensky.

The years covered by this volume attest to Florensky’s extraordinary intellectual gifts in early adulthood: he wrote these essays between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-seven. After the secular upbringing typical of Russia’s educated classes at the time, and while a student of mathematics at Moscow University, he surprised his parents in 1903 by committing himself to the Orthodox Church in that era’s movement of “returning intelligentsia.” A year later he caused them even greater consternation when he abandoned a promising career in maths and sciences to enrol at the Moscow Theological Academy. There, as a seminarian and later lecturer while he completed his master’s degree and worked on Pillar and Ground, he wrote most of the essays presented in this collection.

The breadth of titles included in such a slim volume—“Superstition and Miracle,” “The Empyrean and the Empirical: A Dialogue,” “The Goal and Meaning of Progress,” “Questions of Religious Self-Knowledge,” among others—demonstrates a fundamental principle of the returning intelligentsia: namely, that Russia’s intellectuals did not check their brains at the door when they entered the church. From the moment of his conversion Florensky maintained an interior life centred on a living dialectic between the simple immediacy of the peasant piety which he so admired and the cultural, social, literary, philosophical, and scientific milieu which educated Russians inhabited alongside their Western European counterparts.

My sole but nevertheless major critique of Jakim’s presentation is contextual. From 1904 to 1909—all but the first year covered in this collection—Florensky was partnered with Sergei Troitsky, his roommate at the Academy, in what we now call a same-sex relationship. The significance of this for the present volume lies in Florensky’s emphasis, in Pillar and Ground, that this “friendship” provided the inspiration for his entire intellectual and literary activity. While we might forgive Florensky’s Russian editor and grandson, the priest-monk Andronik Trubachev, for his reluctance to acknowledge the nature of his grandfather’s friendship with Troitsky, Jakim’s failure to mention Troitsky at all in the three places where it would have been logical to do so in his introduction seems considerably more baffling.

Florensky’s speech to the philosophical circle of the Moscow Theological Academy in January 1906, “Dogmatism and Dogmatics” (pp. 119-38), begins with this dedication: “To my uniquely cherished friend, Sergey Semyonovich Troitsky.” Trubachev identifies Troitsky in a footnote as “perhaps [emphasis mine] Florensky’s closest friend. He was married to Florensky’s sister, Olga” (p. 119). Yet Troitsky did not enter into this unconsummated marriage until three years later. Just two weeks after Florensky delivered “Dogmatism and Dogmatics,” he spent part of a major church holyday writing a shockingly homoerotic love poem to Troitsky entitled “Two Knights.”

Their relationship resurfaces, if more implicitly, in “The Salt of the Earth” (pp. 164-222), Florensky’s tribute to their spiritual father, a priest-monk at Gethsemane Skete: “Whenever a pair of friends would come to see Father Isidore, he’d always express his joy and approval of their friendship” (p. 203). This is surely autobiographical. In dedicating Pillar and Ground six years later to the now deceased Troitsky, Florensky writes, “Nevertheless, with a kind of tranquil grief, I repeat before our cross, which you made from an ordinary stick and which our gentle Elder [Father Isidore] blessed, I repeat, ‘Lord! If Thou hadst been here, my Brother would not have died.’” In Florensky’s writings, a pair of friends signifies a male couple, such that each friend regards the other figuratively as his husband. What other kind of friendship would require a spiritual father’s “approval?”

I remain immeasurably indebted to Mr. Jakim in my own doctoral research. Yet one hopes that he will become more comfortable with this aspect of his subject’s life and personality.  

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. 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. His “Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love” will appear in the upcoming Spring-Summer 2018 issue (13/14) of The Wheel, guest-edited by Father Andrew Louth.

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