“FOR I AM WONDERFULLY MADE” reviewed by Giacomo Sanfilippo

“For I Am Wonderfully Made”: Texts on Orthodoxy and LGBT Inclusion (2nd edition)
Misha Cherniak, Olga Gerassimenko, Michael Brinkschröder, Eds.
Nieuwegein: Esuberanza Publishing, 2017

wonderfullymadeBefore I began writing this review I had to do some internet sleuthing to uncover basic facts about the book. This is not to suggest that the editors had anything to hide, but simply that the format of the title and copyright pages does not make sufficiently clear who (and where) the actual publisher is, and who the collaborating agency. In the end an ISBN search solved part of the puzzle.

Esuberanza Publishing operates somewhere between subsidy publishing and self-publishing. It charges its authors a fee and only prints on demand. Owner and editor Ineke Lautenbach also serves as secretary of the European Forum of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Christian Groups, which owns the copyright together with the individual authors, and whose logo occupies a place of equal prominence alongside Esuberanza’s on the title page. The Arcus Foundation contributed financial support to the publication of the book.

These facts demonstrate the considerable individual and organizational commitments that brought this volume to publication and distribution.

Because one of the editors of “For I Am Wonderfully Made” (hereinafter FIAWM) is a Facebook friend with whom I interact frequently, I became aware of this project before it hit the presses. Yet I must confess that I found myself in no great hurry to read it: the self-affirmation of the main title, the use of sociopolitical rather than theological nomenclature in the subtitle (“LGBT inclusion”), and the implicit conflation of the Pride flag with church candles in the cover art all led me to assume an unserious book, with little of intellectual or theological depth to offer, or perhaps not much different in tone and content from Justin Cannon’s earlier Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church or Wendy VanderWal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness in an Orthodox key, useful as these may be. 

I could not have been more wrong.

For this I apologize to my friend, the other two editors, and the almost two dozen individuals from across the Orthodox world who contributed to this anthology. Their intelligent, thoughtful, and thought-provoking voices represent an invaluable addition to the very conversation which has stood as a core commitment of Orthodoxy in Dialogue since the beginning, and to which The Wheel has more recently made its own significant contribution. I easily commend this volume as required reading for every hierarch, priest, theologian, and layperson who counts questions of sexuality and gender among the Orthodox Church’s greatest theological and pastoral imperatives of our era.

This is not to say that I agree theologically with everything contained in FIAWM. Quite the contrary. Each contributor makes statements on which I can agree, others on which I cannot, and still others on which I must reserve judgment. In fact, among the several essays themselves the reader will find points of convergence and divergence. Yet this reveals something of the very nature of authentic intra-ecclesial dialogue as a process of synthesis through the action of the Holy Spirit: the need for attentive, respectful, reciprocal listening among brothers and sisters in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church where each bears witness to Christ in his or her life—however incompletely, however inadequately. 

In the space of a brief review it is impossible to do justice to an edited volume with so many contributors. With this caveat, I think it useful to point out a few areas which I found—with a fair degree of consistency from one author to another—to be insufficiently addressed:

  1. The inherently ascetical nature of Orthodox life for all, not just for monks, and how this must shape our theology and spirituality of same-sex love.
  2. The fallenness of sexual desire—regardless of its orientation to one’s own or the opposite gender—and the corollary need to “complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” Do we talk about theosis so much that we forget repentance as the only straight and narrow path to get there? What does a life of peace and repentance require, as well as not require, of an Orthodox Christian attracted spiritually, emotionally, and erotically to persons of his or her own gender?  
  3. The importance of the monastic witness concerning human sexuality. While monasticism cannot have the final word on the sexual aspect of the human person, neither can we be cavalierly dismissive of it. All of the 20th century’s greatest Orthodox thinkers who explored the meaning of human erosincluding Father Pavel Florensky on what we now call same-sex love—found positive ways for the spirit of monasticism to inform their theology and spirituality. 
  4. More generally, the discernment between capital-T Tradition and small-t traditions. I have remarked elsewhere a tendency nowadays to label as “‘small-t traditions’…everything that we individually happen to dislike about Orthodoxy.” Some of FIAWM‘s contributors seem, either consciously or unconsciously, to dismiss as small-t traditions anything with which postmodern social, sexual, and gender theory disagrees. How do we engage fruitfully with postmodern philosophies without making them the criterion of truth, as the Fathers engaged with the philosophies of their age? What does it mean, and not mean, that the Church—as possessor of the mind of Christ—stands as the pillar and ground of the Truth? How does Holy Tradition “work,” and not work? What does it mean, and not mean, when we speak of the changelessness of the Orthodox Church and of her faith “delivered once for all to the saints?”

These critiques in no way diminish the value of FIAWM in the conversation on the place of same-sex desire in human nature and its redemption through divine grace in the life of the Orthodox Church.

While these and similar questions require much time and care to address in an ongoing dialogue of brotherly charity, in his “Response to Myself” Father Robert Arida of the Orthodox Church in America underscores the pastoral immediacy and human faces of these issues:

If the Church is going to respond to the legalization of same-sex marriage and unions, it seems that it should begin by considering how to minister to those same-sex couples who, being legally married, come with their children and knock on the doors of our parishes seeking Christ. Do we ignore them? Do we, as a matter of course, turn them away? Do we, under the rubric of repentance, encourage them to divorce and dismantle their families? Or, do we offer them, as we offer anyone desiring Christ, pastoral care, love, and a spiritual home? (130-31)

In conclusion I must express my thanks to Father John Parker of St. Tikhon’s Seminary. I felt compelled to open FIAWM at long last when he deemed the book so dangerous that he traveled to Crete to warn an international audience about it—curiously, at a conference on the Church and the internet having nothing to do with books or human sexuality. This book should be read without fear, and with an open mind and heart. 

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, the father of five and grandfather of two, and a former priest. He previously completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has written for the Toronto Journal of Theology, Public Orthodoxy, and The Wheel.

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