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? 

Thoughts on Solovyov and the Social Trinity

This morning I was reading Vladimir Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good where he talks about pity being the foundation of altruism. He criticizes Shopenhauer, who said that pity arises out of an identification of the self with the other; the boundary between two separate things gets blurred. Solovyov criticizes this idea on the basis that there are not two purely separate things to begin with. Were that the case, and people were constantly confusing themselves with others, then not only would children eat while their mothers starved, but it is just as true that mothers could grow fat while their children starved. People would be in a constant state of confusion. That is manifestly not the case.  Continue reading “Thoughts on Solovyov and the Social Trinity”

Public Theology in the Post-Secular?

Martin Marty in full regalia.
Martin Marty in full regalia.

I recently read/pillaged an article by Linell Cady which calls for a re-evaluation of the role and methods of public theology in light of our post-secular context (brill.com/ijpt).

The term “public theology” appears to have been coined by Martin Marty. It was a liberal Christian response to a growing religio-political fundamentalism. Of course, religio-political fundamentalism (i.e. the religious right) was itself responding to secularization. So, in a way, public theology attempted to be a better, more “right” kind of response. Think of it as the “B” side of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, but with a smaller PR budget. Continue reading “Public Theology in the Post-Secular?”

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”

Gregory of Nyssa on Sin and Sex

The following has been adapted from a much longer essay in a forthcoming book by Theotokos Press. Part 1 of this essay can be found here.

Gregory of Nyssa thought of sex in eschatological terms. He was born an aristocrat. Citizens of his rank were taught that, apart from the expectation to produce male offspring who would grow up to oversee the family’s estates, sex was innocuous. As Peter Brown has noted, for a Christian of Gregory’s rank, celibacy was an act of protest against this passing order for the sake of the kingdom to come.[1] It was a martyr-like decision. St. Athansius cited Christian fearlessness in the face of death as proof that Christ was raised from the dead.[2] The same was true of the abstinent. Aristocrats had babies because they feared death, and with it, the loss of property and reputation. But Gregory believed that birth only feeds the grave. Whether adult children find the cold body of their grandmother in her bed, or terrified parents try to cool their gasping, feverish infant, both witness the order Christ came to vanquish by the power of the cross. Death is the last enemy to be overcome (see 1 Cor. 15:26), it gnaws away at the living, and it is a foe against which both martyr and virgin have declared war. Continue reading “Gregory of Nyssa on Sin and Sex”

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

  OR

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”