Through the prayers of countless friends around the world and after many personal setbacks, my doctoral committee approved my thesis proposal this morning. This advances me, at the age of 65 with a number of new health challenges to deal with, to the status of PhD candidate or ABD (All But Dissertation)—a moment of joy, gratitude, and deep emotion. I thank the many of you for your unflagging encouragement and prayers, and for your faith in my ability to forge ahead.
I especially wish to extend public thanks to my supervisor, Dr. David Neelands of Trinity College; committee members, Dr. James Ginther of St. Michael’s College and Dr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, of Regis College; former committee member, Dr. Peter Galadza, recently retired from the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, who stayed with me through my comprehensive exams in August; and the additional examiner for my comprehensives, Dr. Jaroslav Skira of Regis College. I would not have reached this point without the support and guidance of each of them.
I also owe a sincere thank you to Dr. George Demacopoulos, Dr. Aristotle Papanikolaou, and Dr. Nathaniel Wood of Fordham University for my first opportunity to share my work on Father Florensky with a wide global audience (Conjugal Friendship, Public Orthodoxy), and to Dr. Inga Leonova of the Boston Architectural College for the opportunity to publish an introduction to my PhD thesis (Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love, The Wheel).
Finally, the generous words of support from His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) (Foreword, The Wheel) and Father Andrew Louth (A Conversation on Theology, Church, and Life, Orthodoxy in Dialogue) remain forever as precious as gold to me.
The following is a partial text, stripped of footnotes. The PDF of the full text, including footnotes and my working bibliography, can be downloaded on my academia.edu profile.
First page of “Friendship” in the original 1914 edition of The Pillar and Ground of the Truth
Conjugal Friendship and the Sacrament of Love: Father Pavel Florensky’s Orthodox Theology of Same-Sex Love
Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) wrote “Friendship,” the culminating chapter of his magnum opus, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters (hereinafter PGT ), in response to the 19th century’s invention of homosexuality. The coinage of this awkwardly Greco-Latin neologism signals the beginning of a gradual social, cultural, political, and even religious shift—ongoing now, some hundred and sixty-five years later—from same-sex desire and its enactment understood in terms of psychopathology, crime, or sin to those of a morally and psychologically neutral category of personal identity. In articulating an explicitly conjugal form of male friendship inspired by his relationship with his roommate, Sergei Troitsky, during their studies at the Moscow Theological Academy and for nearly two years following, Florensky crowns his masterpiece with his proposal for an Orthodox Christian theology of what we now call same-sex love.
A polymath who excelled from early childhood in every field of inquiry that piqued his insatiable curiosity—mathematics, natural and applied sciences, engineering, ancient and modern languages, comparative linguistics, art history, sexuality and gender, philosophy, theology, et al.—Father Pavel Florensky is widely regarded as “Russia’s da Vinci,” the 20th century’s most intellectually gifted Orthodox theologian worldwide, and one of the principal religious voices of Russia’s Silver Age for his seminal contributions to the Russian Religious Renaissance, Russian religious philosophy, and Russian sophiology.
With the exception of Father Robert Slesinski’s Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love (1984) and the translation of Florensky’s Iconostasis by Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (1996), “Florensky studies” begin to appear in English with Boris Jakim’s translation of PGT in 1997. The literature either tiptoes through “Friendship” or circumvents it altogether in favour of other aspects of Florensky’s thought. This reticence on the part of Florensky scholars seems all the more noteworthy in that this is the chapter universally acknowledged as the very dénouement of PGT.
Slesinski interprets “Friendship” in such abstract terms that his reader suspects no actual relationship in Florensky’s life as its referent. Avril Pyman, Florensky’s English biographer, cites primary sources for his homosexuality (her word) and the nature of his relationship with Troitsky, and identifies Troitsky as PGT’s unnamed dedicatee and addressee of its twelve letters. Yet her summary of “Friendship” stops short of recognizing a fully formulated theology of same-sex love. At the 2014 conference in Moscow to mark the centenary of PGT’s publication, not one participant presented a paper on “Friendship”—surprising, to repeat, because this is the apogee of the book, anticipated both in the emblem selected by Florensky for the frontispiece and in his heartbreaking dedication to Troitsky.
Father Dumitru Stăniloae, writing in Romanian in the 1970s, engages briefly with “Friendship” to refute its substitution of “pairs of friends” for the nuclear family at the heart of church life, but without evidence of understanding that the pairs in question represent men in a same-sex union. (One suspects that he would have objected more strenuously.) Father Georges Florovsky, writing in Russian in the 1930s, condemns its “dark sediment of erotic temptation.” Nicholas Berdiaev penned a scathing review in 1914 as soon as PGT was released, in which he says nothing good about the book. He dismisses “Friendship” as “infinitely far from Orthodox reality” and the “‘Orthodoxization’ of antique emotions”—presumably what we now know anachronistically as “Greek homosexuality” or, more quaintly in Victorian times, “Greek love.” We would be remiss not to add here that “Friendship” began to cause consternation even before it became a chapter in a book: Florensky’s supervisor at the theological academy required its excision from his master’s thesis for fear that the ecclesiastical censors would deprive him of his degree. It will become clear through the course of our examination that we are not dealing with a treatise on “just friends,” as some in the Church today would piously like to imagine.
Biographical summaries by Father Andrew Louth, Paul Ladouceur, Boris Jakim, and others typically move straight from Florensky’s theological studies to marriage and ordination, entirely ignoring the relationship with Troitsky which Florensky takes pains to single out as the most intellectually and spiritually formative of his life. Archimandrite Andronik Trubachev, Florensky’s grandson (b. 1952) and Russian biographer, corroborates Pyman’s narrative from additional primary sources, albeit unwittingly: he professes not to understand the more telling signs of same-sex love in his grandfather’s anguished letters to Troitsky at the abrupt termination of their “starry friendship.” These biographical elisions matter for our status quæstionis. With the nearly complete erasure of Troitsky from the narrative, we lose the autobiographical character of “Friendship” and its function as Florensky’s theology of same-sex love. Commentators have suggested that Florensky intended his unnamed dedicatee and addressee to be understood as Christ, or as the reader by way of a literary device—both of these strange conjectures, given the tender, exquisitely detailed reminiscences of shared moments scattered throughout PGT. In fact, Florensky conceived his book, and “Friendship” in particular, as an invitation to his reader to listen through the keyhole to an intimate conversation between himself and his flesh-and-blood beloved. My thesis has the secondary motive of restoring Troitsky to his rightful place in our scholarly and ecclesial memory and to his full importance in Florensky’s life and work.
Evgenii Bershtein, Laura Engelstein, and other secular scholars of the period note Florensky’s interest in questions of what we now call sexual and gender diversity—particularly in his extensive correspondence with Vasily Rozanov, Russia’s main theorist in sexuality and gender at the turn of the last century—but they either minimize or seem not to see the connection between this and “Friendship.” Florensky’s highly stylized Symbolist prose (another complaint of Berdiaev’s) and the nuance of his theological approach to same-sex love may account for this apparent blind spot among postmodern scholars accustomed to a more direct manner of discourse on anything having to do with sex.
Only Richard Gustafson, devoting to “Friendship” nearly a quarter of his introduction to Jakim’s translation, foregrounds the significance of its “decided homophilic, if not homoerotic, tinge,” the priority of male couples in Florensky’s vision of the ecclesial community, and his decentering of marriage and procreation as vestiges of paganism accepted by the Church by way of concession.
Of equal importance is the living ecclesial context of my work. This study is addressed as much, if not more, to the hierarchy, clergy, monastics, and laity of the Orthodox Church as to my mentors and peers in theological scholarship. My extensive online and print publishing since 2015 on the relevance of “Friendship” for contemporary Orthodox theology and pastoral praxis—my MA thesis on TSpace and numerous articles on the UTP Journals blog, Public Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and in The Wheel, the Toronto Journal of Theology, and the Kyiv Post—has attracted the attention of tens of thousands of readers globally. Public reaction in Orthodox circles has ranged from a positive reception by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Father Andrew Louth to equal measures of gratitude and ad hominem vilification on numerous non-academic blogs, websites, and social media platforms. Resistance to the substance and implications of this study will continue to come mainly from the pious refusal of many within the Orthodox Church to imagine that such a saintly man as Father Florensky could have ever experienced a committed same-sex relationship, let alone as a theology student with his roommate, and then proceeded—“unrepentant”—to memorialize their love for posterity by publishing PGT after his marriage, the birth of his first child, and his ordination to the priesthood.
The broader significance of “Friendship”—indeed, of PGT in its entirety—lies in its testimony to the vitality and theological creativity of Russian Orthodoxy in its engagement with the prevailing concerns of modernity at a time of complex social, cultural, political, and religious crosscurrents right up to the dual tragedy of world war and revolution. It also witnesses to the grace-filled capacity of same-sex couples to participate in the fulness of the Orthodox Church’s sacramental, spiritual, theological, and intellectual life.
To my knowledge, my thesis constitutes the first full-length study of “Friendship,” especially from a theological perspective. It seeks to establish Florensky’s place in the past, present, and future trajectory of Orthodox thought on sexual and gender diversity in human nature and ecclesial life. At the same time, it tells the very human story of “Pavlusha and Seriozha,” our two young theology students whose passion for each other radiates from every page of Florensky’s luminous prose. To take him at his word, we understand nothing of The Pillar and Ground of the Truth unless refracted through the prism of his undying love for its dedicatee and the addressee of its twelve letters.
The implications of this study extend far beyond the academy to the very heart of the Orthodox Church’s life and praxis. I hope ultimately to make an enduring contribution to a more holistic Orthodox theological and pastoral approach to questions of sexual and gender diversity. This study may also prove useful to other traditionalist or conservative churches as they grapple theologically and pastorally with these matters of life and death for many people within and outside Christianity.
More than a century after “Friendship” first appeared in print, it stands as a signpost for the Church, showing a way to proceed consistent with the fundamentally optimistic anthropology and ascetical ethos of the Orthodox faith.
A correct reading of “Friendship” in light of its multilayered context—as outlined in detail below—will establish Florensky’s intentionality in articulating an Orthodox theology of same-sex love and setting it at the very heart of his theodicy, or “justification of God.”
Moving systematically through the historical, social, cultural, ecclesial, ecclesiastical, academic, and autobiographical context to the text itself, my thesis will make the case that an Orthodox apologia for same-sex love represents the sole reading of “Friendship” intended by Florensky. Under the rubric of a form of friendship which can only be described as conjugal for its resemblance to marriage in every aspect but procreation (including the natural need for bodily intimacy), he situates monogamous love between two men, and the sanctification of their bond in the “sacrament of love”—the liturgy of adelphopoiesis or “brother-making,” which culminates in the couple’s co-partaking of the Eucharist—at the very heart of Orthodox tradition and ecclesial life.
It is important to note from the outset that Florensky never uses the expression “conjugal friendship.” I introduced it in a course assignment on “Friendship” in 2016, and publicly in an article of the same name for Public Orthodoxy in 2017, as a reminder that Florensky himself describes this particular form of friendship as “just like marriage.”
This study proceeds from the self-evident premise that our agreement or disagreement with Florensky’s position and its discrete components remains secondary to, and dependent on, a correct understanding of its substance and our coming frankly to terms with authorial intent.
My argument rests on the foundation of a twofold historico-contextual and hermeneutical methodology. “Friendship” cannot be interpreted properly outside of the historical moment in which Florensky lived, loved, and wrote. Constructing a synthetic narrative from a wide range of secondary sources, my thesis will trace the roots of this moment to events in 18th-century Russia and 19th-century Europe which flow together in a paradoxical confluence of cultural, political, social, ecclesiastical, religious, scientific, and scholarly currents to produce the “intersectional” milieu of the first decade of the 20th century, wherein Florensky’s early adulthood unfolds and “Friendship” becomes possible. Chief among these we should foreground the following: the westernization of Russia under the ambivalent reforms of Peter the Great (d. 1725) and his anticanonical restructuring of the Russian Orthodox Church as a lay-supervised department of state along Swedish and Prussian Lutheran lines; the translation of the Philokalia into Slavonic by the Ukrainian St. Paissy Velichkovsky (d. 1794) at the bilingual monastery in Neamţ (present-day Romania), almost simultaneously with the appearance of the Greek edition in Venice, followed quickly by editions in modern Russian and the steady production of other patristic and liturgical translations, immeasurably fruitful for the renewal of Russian monasticism and lay spirituality and the birth of Russian scholarship in patristics and liturgiology; the removal of manuscripts, codices, and icons from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai and other sites in the Middle East to Russia by Archimandrite Porphyry Uspensky (d. 1885); the gradual ascendancy of Russian lay theologians and lay religious thinkers from the first half of the 19th century onward, some of whom directed their efforts to a positive revaluation of marriage and sexuality unseen in Orthodox writings since Chrysostom (Florensky was a layman when he wrote “Friendship” as a chapter of his master’s thesis); the birth of what we now call sexuality and gender studies and the invention of homosexuality in mid 19th-century Germany, followed by the rapid development of social, cultural, scholarly, political, legal, philosophical, and theological attention to these questions in Russia, becoming borderline obsessive after the failed Revolution of 1905; 19th-century Symbolism and Æstheticism transposed into a Russian key; and finally—the era of Florensky’s youth and early adulthood—Russia’s Silver Age at the turn of the last century, with its concurrent Russian Religious Renaissance and the birth of Russian religious philosophy.
The Silver Age (c. 1895-1917) represents a time of remarkable literary creativity, and the Russian Religious Renaissance, of similar activity in theology and religious philosophy. The period was marked by an exodus of “returning intelligentsia” to the Orthodox Church from atheism, agnosticism, other isms, or simple apathy. Deeply immersed in, and earnest to make their uniquely Russian contribution to, the thought world of Western Europe, these sought to articulate their newfound faith—as personified in their religious imaginary by the idealized Russian peasant—in an idiom commensurate with the modernist concerns of their fellow intellectuals. Florensky, from the moment of his embrace of Orthodoxy while a university student in his early 20s, foresaw his lifework at the centre of this mission. In PGT’s subtitle, An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, he uses the word theodicy not in the conventional sense of grappling with the existence of evil in a world created by God, but in the broader sense of an all-encompassing “justification of God”—and, by extension, of Russia’s historic Orthodox faith—to the mind of the Russian skeptic schooled in the ways of rationalist European thought. “Russian religious philosophy” thus occupies a grey zone between theology and philosophy, an innovative movement to bring Orthodox theology into conversation with the most prominent names and currents in the history of Western philosophy. Florensky, only twenty-five years old when he began writing the master’s thesis eventually to be published as PGT, demonstrates a phenomenal breadth of familiarity with these names and the complexity of their thought. (Troitsky, in no way Florensky’s intellectual inferior, submitted at age twenty-six a thesis for his theological degree entitled “Spinoza’s Ethics.”)
Of particular relevance to our study, the era’s interest in all things sexual took the same widely divergent turns in Russia as elsewhere in Europe, running the gamut from pornography and erotic fiction to experiments in open marriage, a growing tolerance of homosexuality, and revisions in civil legislation pertaining to such matters as rape, prostitution, and consensual same-sex acts.
In all this fixation on sex throughout Europe—recall that this is the era of Oscar Wilde and the early career of André Gide—Russia made its contribution most especially in the religious domain. Russian theologians and religious philosophers set out to explore—in self-consciously non-moralistic terms—the spiritually transformative potentiality inherent in sexual love. Vasily Rozanov stands out as perhaps the era’s most controversial religious thinker to grapple with the problem of sex. He expanded upon the idea of “universal bisexuality” put forth by such German authorities in the nascent field of sexuality and gender studies as Richard Kraft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Otto Weininger, who applied the term not to bisexual orientation but to the male and female aspects presumed to constitute every person. They speculated that one’s relative degrees of masculinity and femininity determined the gender to which one would be principally attracted. Rozanov’s importance for my thesis lies in the extent to which Florensky agreed with his ideas and relied on them to understand his own same-sex orientation.
By the time Florensky sent PGT to press, his beloved “Seriozha” was four years dead and Florensky a married priest of unquestioned fidelity to his wife and the father of a 3-year old son. Yet he dedicates his book not to his wife but to Troitsky, nor does he substitute for “Friendship” a treatise on marriage. He places European and Russian society’s interest in homosexuality at the very heart of his “justification of God”—explicitly in the second, eleventh, and twelfth letters, and implicitly through the remainder of the book.
To lay the groundwork for presenting “Friendship” as Florensky’s intentional theology of same-sex love, my thesis will begin with an examination of the wider context in which he wrote, as summarized above and outlined in the following section. The historico-contextual component of my methodology will adduce a variety of primary and secondary sources to trace the more salient details of this multifaceted history from the general to the specific.
Letters Two, Eleven, and Twelve of PGT—“Two Worlds,” “Friendship,” and “Jealousy,” respectively—comprise my main primary source for Florensky’s theology of same-sex love. Additional primary references and allusions are scattered elsewhere in his writings, viz.: the other letters of PGT; his essay “Dogmatism and Dogmatics” and booklet The Salt of the Earth; his letters and shockingly homoerotic love poems to Troitsky; his correspondence with Rozanov; the memoirs that he wrote for his children over the span of several years; and numerous articles, diary entries, and letters cited by Pyman.
Jakim’s 1997 English translation of PGT serves as my main text. Where additional clarity is needed, I consult Florensky’s 1914 Russian original—of which I am extremely fortunate that Robarts Library has a facsimile edition, rather than a reprint—and Constantin Andronikof’s 1975 French translation.
As a Symbolist, Florensky adopts a florid stream-of-consciousness style of prose in which he meanders from one subtheme to another and back again, mounting nothing like a conventional, logically sequential argument. (Berdiaev, in his review of PGT cited above, complains that Florensky never directly says what he means.) For this reason, as outlined below, the hermeneutical component of my methodology consists in reorganizing his text thematically while allowing him to speak for himself, but in conversation with secondary sources and my own intuitions as an Orthodox Christian who experiences same-sex desire as a spiritual force susceptible to transfiguration through the theandric synergy of divine grace and human ascesis.
As an Æsthete, Florensky oversaw every detail of PGT’s physical appearance: the blue cover to symbolize Sophia (his letter on sophiology immediately precedes and leads organically into “Friendship”), the ornate typeface, and most importantly for our purposes, the captioned woodcuts selected from two European handbooks of emblems, or devices, one published in the 17th century and the other in the 18th. These must be “read” not as mere ornamentation, but as an integral part of the text. The small medallion at the head of “Friendship” serves as a visual clue to the homo-romantic themes to follow, while the full-page emblem on the frontispiece signals—in hindsight, for the reader—the place of same-sex relationships in the life of the Church as the axis around which the entire book revolves. These emblems will be reproduced in the body of the thesis.
“The End of Love, that Two Become One”
Frontispiece from The Pillar and Ground of the Truth