Some Thoughts About “Conjugal Friendship”

This model of friendship, in which two people become one soul, sharing life together in all ways but procreation, has roots in Scripture and other holy writings. We see examples of it in David and Jonathan or the saints Sergius and Bacchus. Conjugal friendship has such deep roots in the church that it actually predates the rite of marriage, or so the author claims.

Public Orthodoxy recently posted an article by Giacomo Sanfilippo on “Conjugal Friendship,” which he puts out there as a kind of alternate way of beginning to think about same-sex marriage from an Orthodox theological perspective.

Sanfilippo uses the Russian theologian and polymath, Pavel Florensky, as a kind of case study in conjugal friendship. (Pyman’s Quiet Genius is a superb introduction to Florensky.) Florensky, the author claims, was the first theologian to articulate such a theology in modern times. This model of friendship, in which two people become one soul, sharing life together in all ways but procreation, has roots in Scripture and other holy writings. We see examples of it in David and Jonathan or the saints Sergius and Bacchus. Conjugal friendship has such deep roots in the church that it actually predates the rite of marriage, or so the author claims.

Holding HandsDespite whatever one might be inclined to read between the lines here, it does need to be acknowledged that the modern idea of a macho, tough-guy who only grunts around other men is a historical aberration. There are multiple examples from history of deep friendships between members of the same sex. We would be inclined to see these as “gay” today, but maybe not. Masculinity today is a reaction to perceived threats of feminism, and thus men, at least in the time and place where I live, are not inclined to do things like kiss or hold hands, even though such displays of affection are common in many other parts of the world.

Sanfilippo’s article needs to be read…twice. And then read again. I am still processing a great deal of it. I have plans to look through his original sources. I recommend the same for all of his readers, especially those who were convinced of its errors before ever setting eyes on it. That said, there was one statement he made that raised some immediate questions.

Yet to project “sexual orientation” anachronistically onto a time and place where such a thing was unknown as a marker of personal identity is historically inaccurate and theologically unhelpful. If conceived as indiscriminate carnal desire for members of the opposite, one’s own, or both genders, all sexual orientations originate in the fall of human love from its primeval capacity to reflect and participate in the ecstasy of divine eros.

I would like Sanfilippo to elaborate on this statement a bit more. What does he mean by it? On the one hand, it seems to suggest that all sexuality is a result of the fall. This would make all sexual desire and sexual pleasure sinful. Is this something the author himself agrees with? Or is his point more nuanced? Is it possible for sexual desire and pleasure to be experienced as a kind of ecstasy in divine eros?

It is the second possibility that fascinates me. I have blogged about this before when thinking through the theological anthropologies of St Augustine and St Gregory of Nyssa (and their implications). Augustine has a reputation for being anti-sex, but I actually think the evidence has it the other way around. Augustine sees sex and procreation as being part of God’s plan before the Fall. For Nyssen, it was a result of the Fall. So for Augustine, sexual desire post-Fall is disordered desire because it cannot fully escape selfishness, but in theory, absent the constraints of original sin, this leaves open the possibility of a kind of theology of redeemed intercourse. For Nyssen, on the other hand, that is never really a possibility. Sex is just there, temporarily, to continue the human species. In essence, sexual differentiation and sexuality are just not part of who we are. That is not necessarily the case for Augustine. One might say that for Gregory of Nyssa it is a necessary evil while for Augustine sex is a disordered good.

I realize at this point that I am beginning to sound like one of those people at academic conferences that pretends to have a question but really just wants to talk at length about what interests them. That is not my intent. What I am curious about is which of the two options does Sanfilippo think is most compatible with his argument. If we are to have conjugal friendship, then is it better for us to be without sex or gender in essence, as Gregory of Nyssa thought? Or does the physical affection that he says comes with conjugal friendship necessitate an anthropology more along Augustinian lines, wherein we are bodies that demonstrate affection for each other, and that affection can, at least in theory, be holy?

Or to put it another way, from the perspective of Sanfilippo’s argument, does conjugal friendship have the potential to be a rightly ordered good, or can it only ever be a necessary evil? 

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