Further thoughts on Conjugal Friendship: A Response to Siewers

When an Orthodox Christian brings up the church’s teachings about sexuality…critics respond more to what they perceive to be the agenda of the author than the substance of the argument.

Ancient Faith’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” blog recently featured a guest post by Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers, responding to Giacomo Sanfilippo’s recent article on Conjugal Friendship in Public Orthodoxy. Sanfilippo deserves praise for broaching a topic that puts a bullseye on his back, and Siewers deserves praise for his thoughtful and measured response. These two articles, together, exemplify a spirit of dialog over an issue that needs to be fully and reasonably considered, but which often generates more heat than light. That said, Siewers seems to be countering a set of arguments that Sanfilippo simply does not make.

For full disclosure, Sanfilippo and I are friends on Facebook. That means, over the past few years, I have become familiar with the kinds of selective bits of autobiography people share on that platform. The crux of Sanfilippo’s argument was that “conjugal friendship” is a more sophisticated and precise term for theological reflection upon the multiform manifestations of human sexuality than is captured by the phrase, “same-sex union,” because “same-sex union” anachronistically applies modern notions about “sexual identity” onto a past that did not think in those terms. Siewers’s rebuttal was that Sanfilippo was applying anachronistic ways of thinking about “sexual identity” onto the “Holy Tradition,” making it both “ethnophyletic” and “gnostic.” But the first part of Siewers’s thesis is identical to Sanfilippo’s, leaving one to wonder where the accusations about gnosticism and ethnophyletism are coming from. Siewers’s article makes a number of points in support of, and sometimes in addition to, these main claims. I will address and respond to a few of them below.

Out of the gate, Siewers accuses Sanfilippo of committing a straw man fallacy. First he quotes his own words.

“To the question, ‘Can two persons of the same gender ‘have sex’ with each other?’ we hear from Holy Tradition a resounding no,’” it [Sanfilippo’s article] states. “Yet if we ask, “Can two persons of the same gender form a bond in which ‘the two become one?’” the scales begin to fall from our eyes.”

Then Siewers says:

The scaly eyes seem part of a straw man view of the Body of Christ, however. For the Orthodox Church does not call it impossible for two persons of the same gender to engage in sex with each other.

He goes on to say that the Orthodox Church recognizes “in her teachings on love and anthropology” that two persons of the same gender may have sex with each other. Only, the author argues, the Orthodox Church does not take “secular Western definitions of gender and sex” into account when articulating its theology of sexuality in our post-lapsarian state.

Does Siewers really believe that Sanfilippo does not think the Orthodox Church recognizes the physiological phenomenon of same-sex acts? This seems like a willful misunderstanding of his opponent. It makes for good polemics, but is ironically its own kind of straw man.

The second claim is that Sanfilippo is an essentialist. Essentialism is the notion that entities have essences. If you strip away their trappings—their accidental characteristics—there is something irreducible and common to all iterations of that entity. (It comes up most often in gender theory; essentialists think in terms of male and female nature, whereas constructivists think gender characteristics are entirely cultural.) Siewers sees essentialism in the way Sanfilippo allegedly construes sexual orientation as a kind of marker of identity. “Any view of essentialist identity,” the author claims, “is not part of Orthodox Christian teaching on the purpose of man as theosis.” Such ideas originate out of modernism, secularism, Westernism, and as such they are not properly Orthodox.

This charge of essentialism is peculiar for two reasons. The first is that Sanfilippo and Siewers are in agreement (as noted above) that modern ideas about human identity are not part of Orthodox teaching and that our fulfillment as humans is found “in the ecstasy of divine eros” (as Sanfilippo put it). The second reason is that Siewers seems to fall into essentialism himself in the way he contraposes modernity and the West to Orthodoxy, as if to be one thing makes it impossible to be another. I know little about author’s background, but it is a safe bet, that when it comes to being Orthodox or Western, Siewers is both.

It is in Sanfilippo’s alleged essentialism that Siewers appears to detect ethnophyletism, which is the heresy of institutionalized racism, the Greek Orthodox Church being for Greek people, the Russian Orthodox Church for Russian people, and so on. Siewers seems to deploy the word “ethnophyletism” to refer to the way Sanfilippo is allegedly held captive to modern ways of thinking about identity. “American ethnophyletism,” the author says, involves “an emphasis on individual or tribal identities rather than ecclesial communion.” It is about the consumerist fulfillment of “individualistic desires.” Presumably, Siewers has in mind the individualistic desire to sleep with members of the same sex. He thus makes “identity” an ethnophyletic category.

The idea that consumerism can be a kind of ethnophyletism is creative and intriguing, but it is a thesis that needs an argument. Otherwise, it is just an accusation. As such, it does not make sense to apply it to Sanfilippo. It implies that Sanfilippo is a heretic when, in fact, Siewers’s point seems merely to be that he is reading the “Eastern” tradition through a modern, “Western” lens, but does reading the “Eastern” tradition through a “Western” lens really make a person a heretic? If so, most of us North American Orthodox Christians are heretics, because this is something we all cannot help but do. It also needs to be said that calling Sanfilippo an ethnophyletist is tantamount to calling him a racist, at least by implication. This was surely not the author’s intent, which is why it would be an injustice to both the “accuser” and the “accused” not to point it out.

Finally, there is the charge of gnosticism. According to Siewers, “Orthodox Tradition of marriage involves a profound encounter with the other iconographically in biological sex, a Christian fulfillment of the Daoist yin-yang.” The iconographic component is important, for it is in the coming together of two material creatures—man and woman—in their complementarity that we see the original goodness of creation in Adam and Eve fulfilled in the eschatological nuptials of the church with her Bridegroom. Sanfilippo, according to the author, sees marriage as the locus where one expresses one’s sexual orientation as an “atomized will” separated from the Body of Christ.

But is this gnosticism? Apart from whether or not this is even what Sanfilippo is saying, does his modest suggestion that the words “conjugal friendship” are more fertile ground for the sowing of Orthodox theological thought than the words “same sex union” mean that he is denying the significance of the human body and its connectedness with the Body of Christ? I am, frankly, not sure where Siewers is getting that from, especially given that Sanfilippo points out that physical affection between conjugal friends is in keeping with Orthodox views of matrimony as a kind of mutual ascesis (one in which one’s own body ceases to belong solely to oneself without also thereby making one’s body the “property” of the spouse).

When it comes to questions of identity and the iconic nature of human sexuality, Siewers has more in common with Sanfilippo than he may realize. It is often the case that, when an Orthodox Christian brings up the church’s teachings about sexuality in light of contemporary LGBTQ issues, critics respond more to what they perceive to be the agenda of the author than the substance of the argument. That seems to be the case here. Though laudably cool-headed, Siewers appears to be boxing a much larger shadow than Sanfilippo’s modest argument casts. (Sanfilippo should take it as a compliment that someone could think he would be capable of upending 2,000 years of Christian teaching in an article of less than 1,000 words.) As for what Sanfilippo does believe about Orthodoxy and “homosexuality,” despite my Facebook friendship with the man (such as it is), I cannot even begin to venture a guess. Siewers, and all Sanfilippo’s readers, would do well to exercise similar caution.

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