You cannot stop being a Christian if you love Christianity and Christ.
Olga Mark in “For I Am Wonderfully Made” (FIAWM)
This short essay contains some of my reflections on current debates over LGBT identity in Orthodoxy. I think that some criticisms of LGBT-affirming Orthodox thought miss some of these thinkers’ main arguments. I offer the following as a short analysis of these arguments.
One of the key theological insights of LGBT-affirming Orthodox theology is that the act of re-engaging with Holy Tradition is an act of love in imitation of the love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Reconsidering what the Tradition might have to say about contemporary moral issues is neither an act of betrayal nor an act of malice toward Tradition. It is an act of love for Tradition that is patterned after the love that constitutes God’s very being. This, I argue, is what LGBT-affirming Orthodox theology has to teach us about Orthodoxy itself.
Holy Tradition and the Holy Trinity
Tradition is the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It is the condition of the possibility of witnessing to the Resurrection in successive historical ages. LGBT-affirming Orthodox theology interprets Tradition through the love of God for humanity, agape. This love is the unfathomable tenderness through which God engages with human persons. LGBT-affirming Orthodox theology engages with Tradition by applying an understanding of the principle of God’s love to our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s action in the Church. In trinitarian terms, this means that the love of the Father is used to interpret the action of the Holy Spirit.
The love of God is not only the love through which God interacts with humanity. It is also constitutive of God’s very being. As it is written in 1 Jn 4:8:
He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (RSV)
Orthodox theology insists that the Holy Trinity is not merely a philosophical gloss on the manner of being of the monotheistic God. Rather, it is the dogmatic formulation of God’s being: it is not wrong to say that God is one, but it is most true to say that God is Trinity.
John Zizioulas famously argued that if God is to be free, God must be triune; and if God is triune, God subsists in love. In his words:
[God’s] being is identified with an act of communion…the Father as a person freely wills this communion. (Being as Communion, p. 44).
Identifying God’s being with only the concept of a singular transcendent divine essence introduces the concept of “necessity” into our concept of God’s being. In this framing, God’s being must be transcendent, for instance, because this is a necessary attribute of divinity. This is because a substance, such as “the divine,” must have certain attributes in order to exist at all.
But the Holy Trinity chooses to be as It is. If God is merely defined as a transcendent substance, God is subject to conceptual necessity. But if God is a free communion of Persons, God’s very being is freely willed, subject to no necessity or restriction. And as Zizioulas further argues:
The only exercise of freedom in an ontological manner is love. The expression “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16) signifies that God “subsists” as Trinity, that is, as person and not as substance. (p. 46)
Therefore, God’s being is an act of love.
LGBT-Affirming Orthodox Theology and Holy Tradition
What does this point of Orthodox trinitarian dogma have to do with LGBT-affirming Orthodox theology? LGBT-affirming Orthodox theology applies an understanding of God’s love for humanity in all its diversity to the interpretation of Holy Tradition. Holy Tradition is constituted by the action of the Holy Spirit within the Church. This theological method, then, is nothing less than using the love of the Father to begin to understand the action of the Spirit. This theological method therefore imitates the love of the Trinity, the love that the Father wills and that is constitutive of God’s very being.
Love for Tradition, and its interpretation through God’s love, are how these theologians describe their projects. As Giacomo Sanfilippo writes in his MA thesis, A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love (p. 9):
Orthodox Christians of same-sex orientation…seek ways to work out their salvation honourably that cohere with the ascetical ethos of Orthodox life and the spirit of Holy Tradition, and just as crucially, that ring true in the depths of their hearts.
As one anonymous writer puts it, “The Trinitarian love overflows and reaches out to the world and to humanity….” (FIAWM, p. 20). This love is the hermeneutical principle of this theological method, as Philippe De Bruyn writes: “According to Scripture, our vocation is to find the image of the loving God in us and make it shine in the world” (FIAWM, p. 28).
Theocentricity is central to this theological method. As Valerie A. Karras points out, genuine Orthodox theological anthropology must proceed from the concept of God to the concept of humanity (FIAWM, p. 40). This is what this theology does when it begins with reflection on the love of God, and moves to the implications of this love for our hermeneutic of Holy Tradition. LGBT-affirming Orthodox theologians also make the crucial point that there has been historical change in Orthodox practice regarding sexual morality. As Father Robert Arida points out, this is most evident when analyzing the evolution of canon law on such questions as slavery and divorce (FIAWM, pp. 130-311). The action of the Holy Spirit in Tradition is not uncomplicated, and requires theological interpretation on our part. God is not static, and there is still much that Holy Tradition can say.
The current debate over LGBT identity in Orthodoxy is not over whether or not to follow Holy Tradition. It is over what constitutes Holy Tradition. LGBT-affirming Orthodox theology offers a new interpretation of Tradition, and this is not the same as rejecting it. It is an act of authentic love for Tradition. This is what I think is most insightful and even inspiring about it. This is why I am personally very grateful for the insights these theologians have to offer about the love of God, and what this love means for all of humanity.
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Phil Dorroll is a professor of religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg SC and an Orthodox Christian. He holds a PhD in Religion from Emory University, and specializes in the history of Islamic theology in classical Arabic and modern Turkish. His work focuses partly on historical interactions between Orthodoxy and Islam, on which he has written for Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He and his wife, Dr. Courtney Dorroll (who has also written for Orthodoxy in Dialogue), have a 2-year old daughter.
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