“Contextuality and Normality: Orthodox Visions of Human Sexuality” by Dn. Drew Maxwell

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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!

3 thoughts on ““Contextuality and Normality: Orthodox Visions of Human Sexuality” by Dn. Drew Maxwell”

  1. I will always refer now to Met. Kallistos’ keynote address at SVS in 09/2011 and available on the Ancient Fatith Network: http://ancientfaith.com/specials/2011_alban_and_sergius that he titled “The Present and Future of Orthodoxy.” He speaks directly to this point of a living, dynamic Tradition – perhaps not so much to “new gifts” (we do, after all, acknowledge at Pentecost that “Today, all gifts have been given”), but the revelation and insight into our limited understanding of what we already possess. Likewise, St Gregory Palamas is emphatic in rejecting any “theology” that would attempt to limit the limitless Energy of the Father, and St. Andrew of Crete simply observes, “the Spirit goes where He wishes.”

    It is in this dynamic Tradition – the elements of which have never been voted upon or enacted by Council or authority, but “revealed” over the course of time – that we are able to acknowledge the fathers, theologians, and teachers in each generation, and to recognize the characteristic, though often unspoken introduction, “joining with the Fathers before us…” The alternative, it seems to me, frequently referred to as “traditionalism,” would have us as museum curators, manically guarding luster-less icons (“No, that’s not ‘accumulated prayer,’ it’s soot”) and chanting Elizabethan prose for their “inherent sanctity.” Go figure. Thanks to God for those converts who, having invested in Tradition, will eventually lead the Church away from from tradition.

  2. “o 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 Fr. 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!”
    Very interesting “wrap up” to this brief article, David.

    I have found the Eastern Orthodox fathers to speak more positively of marriage than the Western monastics, of course, as you cite here, however, I believe that the positive nature of — say — St. John Chrysostom carries over to a positive/definite characterization of approach to gender discussion.

    One of the best examples I have heard concerning Orthodox tradition influence on gender discussion is in the podcast: Gender as Icon and Vocation, given by Dr. Philip Mamalakis at the Orthodox Institute 2012 – Culture, Morality, Spirituality and available on Ancient Faith Radio here: http://ancientfaith.com/specials/orthodox_institute_2012_culture_morality_spirituality/dr._philip_mamalakis_gender_as_icon_and_vocation

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