The following is a brief summary and response to a short paper delivered at the Sophia Institute Conference, December 7, at Union Theological Seminary, NY.
In this paper, Dcn. Drew Maxwell argued that an overly negative view of human sexuality is one unfortunate consequence of the modern turn to patristic sources. Theology is deeply informed by context. Most patristic and medieval theologians were monks and often wrote to celibates, which is why their writings often stressed celibacy over married intimacy. In some cases, there may have been genuine disdain for the married life; in others we are merely witnessing a kind of pastoral encouragement. If modern readers forget the importance of context, they can walk away from such resources with a distorted view of what their own marriages should be.
There has been very little done to develop a positive or constructive theology of marriage in modern Orthodoxy. Two strong attempts to articulate a theology of married life come from Paul Evdokimov and Metr. Kallistos (Ware). Evdokimov says that sex and sexual difference are good because they were designed by God. Ware calls us to see the spouse as an icon of God, so that we encounter the divine in the veneration of the other.
Maxwell did not (in the fifteen minutes he had) do much to lay out his own constructive account of sex and marriage in Orthodoxy, but naming the problem is a good start. To proceed any further, I think we may need to explore his paper’s subtext. No progress will be made on this, or any other issue, unless we Orthodox Christians get clear on how we view the role of historic context in the shaping of Holy Tradition. Is Tradition an unchanging deposit? Or is it a living Tradition that grows? Should we follow the example of Paul Evdokimov, to reverently critique the fathers, and to re-imagine a theology that builds upon them? Or is Orthodoxy merely replication of the past? Context be damned!