I am always struck by how, at least in the Orthodox Church, we are never taken neatly through the life of Jesus. This is especially pronounced at certain times of the year. For instance, during Epiphany (or Theophany), daily readings included Mark 1:1-8, Luke 3:1-18, Mark 1:9-11, and Matthew 3:13-17 to name a few. It is like we progress through Christ by taking a couple of steps down the road, a couple of steps back, and then three more steps in a slightly different direction the next time. The church seems to want us to dance into holiness, and slowly. Continue reading “Polyphonous Orthodoxy: When We are Being Different Jesuses”
Pretending to be an ostrich is not an effective Christian social theory, but we Orthodox do just that when it comes to sex and gender-identity issues. For example, now that I have said those words, someone is sure to tell me that I am sowing confusion. “You see,” they will say, “the Orthodox Church has been clear and consistent in its position on ‘homosexuality’ for centuries.”
Except it hasn’t! The claim itself is offensive! Why? Well, obviously, those of us who keep talking about “homosexuality” are either ignorant of the clear teachings of the church or we are just stubborn, preferring intellectual gymnastics to intellectual humility necessary to accept what the truly spiritual Orthodox Christians know in their hearts what’s right.
Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo both agree that sex poses a spiritual risk, but each thinks about the nature of that risk, and thus the best response to it, in terms not easily reconciled, so that what is of secondary importance for Augustine is primary for Nyssen. For Augustine, the problem with sex is not pleasure. It is pride. Pleasure is only a problem because we are fallen. It contributes to the self-delusion of pride and thus weakens the will by dividing its loves between the true love of God and the false love of self. The spiritual danger of sex is thus, in a word, spiritual. But pride does not feature in Gregory of Nyssa’s anthropology, at least not when he thinks about the Fall. He agrees that we are disordered, but this disorder has to do with an imbalance between the internal and external life rather than the internal life with itself. Pleasure caused the Fall by distracting us, and pleasure keeps us fallen by continuing to distract us, siphoning off spiritual energy that could otherwise go toward our beatification. Disciplining the body and bringing it under the rule of the rational mind begins to return us to Eden. This is not anthropological dualism; Gregory does not deny the goodness of the body. This is to misunderstand asceticism. Ascetic discipline does not reject the body because it needs the body to train the soul. Chastity is the foundation of the ascetic life because it refocuses our energies onto the Good, putting us back on the path toward prelapsarian integrity. By withdrawing from the distractions of the flesh, we begin to master it, transforming sarx back into soma.
The following has been adapted from a much longer essay in a forthcoming book by Theotokospress.
Augustine of Hippo infamously declared that sex was sinful even within loving marriages. It can be tempting for we anachronistic Illuminati to wag our fingers and scold his memory for being such a “prude,” but, as John Cavadini pointed out, “To fault Augustine in this context for not realizing that ‘sexual pleasure’ can enrich a couple’s relationship, or to assess Augustine’s views against our own more ‘positive’ view, may be, with all due respect, to beg the question.” In other words, before we dismiss Augustine, we should ask ourselves in what way he might have been right. Who is to say that sex – even within the confines of marriage – is always, or even mostly, a good thing? Perhaps Augustine was wrong. Or perhaps we like sex and prefer not to think too much about its spiritual consequences. Cavadini continues, “For Augustine, the question would not be whether sexual pleasure can enrich a couple’s relationship, but whether there is any sexual pleasure possible without a taint of violence or complacency (’self-pleasing’) in it.” The fact that Augustine thought there was sin in sex means that he thought of sex fundamentally in spiritual terms. He charted a middle way between the naïve Pelagianism of Julian of Eclanum, who saw conjugal sex as something innocent and harmless, and rigorist ascetics who would have every Christian don the black. These perspectives (the Pelagian and ascetic) only seem disparate, but they both share an anthropology which sees sex as something belonging merely to the flesh. For Augustine, sexual intercourse was a spiritual event with spiritual implications. In sex, Christian charity, sinful lust, the weakened will, and our divided loves meet in a moment of intense bodily pleasure. This makes sex, in a word, complicated.
Augustine did not think sex was inherently sinful. For Augustine, God create Adam and Eve male and female, and thus God intended our different sexual organs to serve a divine purpose. It is only lust that makes sex sinful. In our fallen state, our sexual desires, and thus our bodies, are never fully under our control. Eden was different: Continue reading “Augustine on Sin and Sex”
Let me start off by saying that it is not entirely accurate for me to say that Augustine mysteriously disappears from Bulgakov’s theology. He is more like a ghost, occasionally manifesting himself in the open, but most of the time he lurks in the dark corners of Bulgakov’s books, leaving his slimy ectoplasm between esoteric lines of prose. But “Mysterious Disappearance” sounds more intriguing than “the Invisible Augustine,” and I cannot resist the opportunity to plagiarize the wit of Tony Baker (who crafted possibly the best title for any paper I have ever heard presented anywhere).
I recently wrote that a Christian should not carry a concealed weapon because it violated the spirit of martyrdom and self-sacrifice the church tries to teach us. One common objection to this point was that to choose not to kill in the defense of another human being would be unloving. I agree. It would be unloving to the potential victim, and it would be unloving to the potential victimizer. In the Orthodox Church, killing in defense of self and country is still a sin. Continue reading “Why Killing in Self-Defense is Still a Sin”