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? 

Polyphonous Orthodoxy: When We are Being Different Jesuses

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.
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Orthodoxy and “Homosexuality”

Trisagion anyone?
The church’s teaching on gays and lesbians has been consistent for 2000 years. Also, heliocentrism!

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.

(For the record, I do believe in, and try to practice, intellectual humility.) Continue reading “Orthodoxy and “Homosexuality””

Sex, Sin, and Pleasure

The following has been adapted from a much longer essay in a forthcoming book by Theotokos Press. See Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay.

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. 20130101-060304.jpgThe 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.[1]

Continue reading “Sex, Sin, and Pleasure”

Augustine on Sin and Sex

The following has been adapted from a much longer essay in a forthcoming book by Theotokos press.

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, Mosai031“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.”[1] 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.[2] 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”

The Mysterious Disappearance of St. Augustine from Sergei Bulgakov’s Theology

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A Plan for Eerdmans to Make More Money

St Augustine of Hippo
St Augustine of Hippo

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).[1]

Continue reading “The Mysterious Disappearance of St. Augustine from Sergei Bulgakov’s Theology”