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? 

Did Sergei Bulgakov Read Søren Kierkegaard?

This morning I was looking up a passage from Bulgakov’s 1917 foray into theology, The Unfading Lightwhen I happened upon the following passage:

Moreover, religion, which some wish to reduce entirely to ethics, in its integrity is higher than ethics and hence free from it: ethics exists for the human being in certain bounds such as law, but the human being must be able to rise above even ethics. Let them ponder the sense of those stories of the Bible when God, for the purposes of religious economy, or for testing faith, permitted or even ordered acts that wittingly contradict morality: the sacrifice of an only son, the bloody extermination of whole nations, deceit, and theft.

What Bulgakov says here about ethics, and mention of the sacrifice of Isaac, should raise the eyebrows of anyone who has read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Did Bulgakov get this from Kierkegaard? Or did he stumble into the teleological suspension of the ethical by accident? This is more than a point of curiosity for me. Those of us who try to figure out what dead people were thinking benefit greatly from knowing who they were reading. Unfortunately, Orthodox theologians in the past did not always cite their western sources, and even more unfortunately, most of what Bulgakov did footnote, Eerdman’s publishing decided wasn’t worth printing. But don’t get me started on that.

I really would like this question answered. So “Like” this post and share it with all your Russian friends.

Follow me at @DrDavidJDunn.

Messy Prayer

This morning I went to pray, something I will confess I do not do enough, when I noticed how messy the area around my family altar was. There was a vacuum cleaner under Augustine, a basket of things for Goodwill hanging out under St. George, and to the right of Nona a bunch of crap that my kids left in the hallway and never picked up. Looking at the picture I snapped of it all, I just noticed a crack in the wall. I wonder how that got there. It was probably the kids, though I am sure none of them will have any idea how that happened.

I thought about cleaning up the mess before I prayed, but there is something about the vacuum cleaner and Goodwill basket being part of that space that seemed right. In her book The Quotidian Mysteries Kathleen Norris talks about finding spiritual meaning in the ordinary. Housework itself can become an act of prayer. I have tried to remember this as I pick up after my children. It is very easy for me to bark at them about the messes they leave about, or worse yet to make them feel guilty. “You say you shouldn’t have to pick up a mess you didn’t make, but I pick up messes I didn’t make all the time.” Poor me. Dad the housekeeping martyr. At times I have found myself thinking, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t do this.” I am not proud of those thoughts, but they come at times when I am feeling sorry for myself. Lately I have been trying to reverse it, thinking, “I love you, and so I am doing this.”

I pick my daughter’s boots up off the floor and chuck them into her room and quietly pray, “I love you.”

I pick up the scattered candy wrappers my son left in my favorite chair. “I love you.”

I empty Gallifrey’s cat box, a job they promised to do when I agreed to adopt him.“I love you.”

I pick up my youngest’s bowl of milk leftover from his morning cereal, milk I keep asking him to drink so it doesn’t go to waste.“I love you.”

Yesterday we read from the Gospels about Jesus saying to take up our cross and follow him. A litter box is not a cross, not even close. Christianity demands sacrifice. One must die to one’s pettiness. There is no salvation without sacrificing the inner child, much like how Abraham laid Isaac upon the altar, killing him in his heart before he could receive him back. If I cannot raise the knife above the whiny brat in my own heart, then there is no hope for me. The kingdom of God is not for the petulant. Or on second thought, maybe it is. Jesus said we must come to him as a child, did he not? So perhaps there is hope for me yet. Perhaps God treats us the way I know I should treat my children. We leave our stuff lying around, we make cracks in creation, and God says to us, “I love you.”

That is why I chose to leave the crap lying around my family altar. Prayer is messy, just like life. Prayer is not about a presentation of artificial cleanliness. Prayer is, so to speak, ugly. Or at least it is not always pretty. Prayer is interrupted by our children, our spouses, or our own thoughts. Though we pray in the church about setting aside “all earthly cares” before we receive Communion, I cannot help but hear that prayer with a kind of irony. More often than not we are unable to lay aside our cares. We have to push through them, like a child pushing its way through a crowd of grownups, hoping we do not get lost along the way.

So I left those cares right in front of my face this morning. I have to vacuum the living room tonight, and I really do need to remember to take the stuff from that basket to the thrift store. I will do all that later…or, to be honest, I may not. All that quotidian stuff that is a part of my household is also a part of my prayer life; it is part of what I must learn to make a living sacrificing, laying it, like Isaac, upon the altar of my own petulant heart.


I tweet stuff like this, and other quotidian things, at @DrDavidJDunn. Thanks for following and sharing.

 

Real Life: The Great New Board Game Nobody’s Talking About

I just had a great idea for a new board game. It would be called “Real Life.” It would be kind of like Monopoly, except instead of starting from the same place with the same resources, players would draw Birth cards that would determine the circumstances of their birth. Then a set of Parent cards would determine players’ first 18 moves. After that, they get to use whatever educational and financial resources they have so far accumulated to make decisions about the spaces they land on. The last player left alive wins.

Naturally, to keep it real, the vast majority of the Birth cards would involve lack of food, clean water, medical care, and adequate education. So unlike Monopoly, Real Life would be a very short game.

If this is your idea of justice, you’re a terrible person.


UPDATE: After writing this post, I discovered that this game actually exists. Next time, I will Google first. There goes my retirement plan.

My Daughter is a Smrt-ss

Der Reder,

I cn’t use the letter. It’s mking me relly upset. So now your job is to find…

Yesterday my daughter participated in Vanderbilt’s WAVU program. She took a creative writing course. One of the exercises she was assigned was to write a brief letter, but she could not use any words that contained the letter “A.” So naturally she wrote this: Evernote Snapshot 20170304 193239.png

Der Reder,

I cn’t use the letter. It’s mking me relly upset. So now your job is to find out wht letter I’m not using. It should be reltively esy. nywho, I’m smrtlic so of course I was [sic] gonn do something like this. I’m lwys finding loopholes. Who sid it had to be rel words.

This is what I’m up against people.

Every. Dy.

Reflections on the Wise Words of Cartman

Preach!

Last summer a friend of mine from work laminated this for me. It sits behind my office desk now, and I try to look at it everyday. It’s been nearly a decade since I watched South Park. (I have less of a stomach for raunchiness now.) But the episode from which this quotation was taken has stuck with me. Cartman decides he will take it upon himself to enforce traffic laws, and when he feels people are not showing him proper deference, he starts hitting them in the shins with his nightstick.

Why do I keep this poster by my desk? To remind me of this… Continue reading “Reflections on the Wise Words of Cartman”

Freelance Educational Consulting

The other morning I got up to write, but I ended up spending 90 minutes helping a friend write instructions to his students for a class project. It was a complicated game he brilliantly called Leviathan. We had been hashing out parts of it over the past few weeks. He wanted a kind of simulation that would help his students think more critically about the writings of Thomas Hobbes (the war of all against all, and all that). The idea we worked out riffed on a popular camp game called “Assassins,” but with lots of complicated rules intended to keep the students engaged and the professor (my friend) out of trouble (rules that involved not making university officials ask questions). I ended up having a lot of fun thinking about this thing off and on over the past few weeks, and then in the 90 minutes it took me to try to make the rules of a pedagogical LARP into something his students could understand easily.  Continue reading “Freelance Educational Consulting”