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.)
I’m all for knowing things in your heart, but I’m a scholar. I have always believed in loving God with my mind, which does not mean that God has to make sense, only that my mind resists demands of obedience for its own sake (which actually isn’t very Orthodox anyway).
The Orthodox Church does not have a clear and consistent teaching on “homosexuality” because the “homosexual” was an invention of the Victorian era. That is why I keep putting that word in scare quotes. The fathers and mothers of the Orthodox Church thought about acts and desires, but those are apples, modern gays are oranges, and there are more than a few reasons to believe that our theological predecessors thought of same-sex acts in very different terms than us. To say that Gregory the Great wrote about “homosexuality” would be like saying he wrote about “white dwarfs.” Using the same words does not mean referring to the same idea. History matters.
This underscores the need to develop a coherent Orthodox understanding of sex and gender-identity issues.Typically, when we write about “homosexuality,” we either borrow Roman Catholic natural theology arguments, or we repeat Protestant prooftexts. We are so anxious to defend the Orthodox faith from the assaults of modernity, that we do not stop to listen to what that faith is actually telling us.
I am out of my element. I am a political theologian who spends most of his time mulling over how to conceive of, and negotiate the boundary between, the sacred and the secular. I first began writing about gay marriage in that context. I have never done what my field dubs “queer theory” (an actual, technical term). But I have been trying to come to grips with my church’s teaching on this subject, and I think the stand the church takes depends a lot on how we answer a couple of basic questions. I want to put those questions out there and trace a few of their implications. I will not come to any groundbreaking conclusions. Instead, I am hoping to start a civil conversation about this issue. (Civil! I’m serious! Be nice or go home!)
My hope is only to keep the topic on our minds as we collectively suss out a response.
- Is sexual difference essential to human nature?
- What is the purpose of sexual intercourse?
These are the questions the fathers and mothers of the church asked in their own contexts, which focused mostly on the value of marriage versus virginity. There was a strong tendency to relegate marriage to a second-class status. Ascetics viewed sexual desires as evidence of our disordered and passionate souls. Others, like Jovinian, rejected some of the anthropological assumptions behind that view, arguing instead that conjugal intercourse was innocent. (Jovinian, for what its worth, was condemned as a heretic).
I will not get into all of the issues. We only need to understand that the mothers and fathers of the church were dealing with a different set of problems, but that does not mean that their answers cannot inform us.
So, what if the answer to Question 1 is “No”? That is the view St. Gregory of Nyssa took. He said that God intended for Adam and Eve to remain sexless. They were not male or female. But in anticipation of the Fall, God gave them different “parts” so that they might perpetuate the species in a way that corresponded to their animal natures (Gregory talked about a kind of “angelic” reproduction if Adam and Eve had not sinned, whatever that means).
But I want to know if it is possible to agree with Gregory and not also disparage sex and marriage. Despite some modern attempts to reinterpret Gregory’s theology of sexuality, a straightforward reading of his encomium On Virginity pretty clearly indicates that he thought the truly spiritual should avoid marriage altogether. Otherwise, at least try to have as little sex as possible (see my recent post on this).
Personally, I don’t like that answer. [winkey-face]
So what if the answer to Question 1 is “Yes”? Well, then we are all Augustinians. St. Augustine said that marriage, sex, and natural reproduction were all part of God’s plan. Thus sexual difference is somehow essential to what it means to be human. (This may raise other problems I don’t have time to get into.), but Augustine was practically the only person who made that claim. Also, Orthodox Christians don’t really care for him. To say more about this, I need to address Question 2. Are sex and sexual difference a part of God’s plan for creation?
If we take the Augustinian view, then it is only a short step from there to a kind of natural theology argument. One could pretty easily conclude that same-sex acts are outside God’s original intentions. Augustine certainly opposed anal intercourse on those grounds. He told wives that if their husbands insisted on the act, they should tell him to go to a prostitute because it was so unnatural. Nature thus becomes a normative theological category if we follow Augustine.
But this is where things get interesting, particularly for us Orthodox Christians. As a general rule, we don’t like Augustine’s views about sexuality, and we often adhere to Gregory’s views about being essentially neuter (thus there will be no male and female in the Resurrection).
We don’t necessarily adhere to Gregory’s views about marriage either. It turns out, we Orthodox like sex acts, but we don’t really care about sexual difference, which ironically lends itself to the support of gay sex. In other words, if we are not essentially different, and the point of sex is not just to make babies, then it really does not matter who has sex with whom as long as they only have sex with each other.
That is putting it too simply, and I know that one might bring other issues or concerns into this topic. Please don’t. At least, don’t do it if it is going to muddy the waters. I am trying to bracket other concerns for the sake of conceptual clarity. My point is that there there seems to be an aporia (a gap in our thinking). If we go with Augustine, then we can (actually) like sex, but probably not like gay sex, and think all sex this side of heaven had sin in it. Or we could go with Gregory, not like sex, think we won’t be sexed in heaven, but hypothetically be okay with gay sex now (since all sex is pretty bad anyways).
Or are there other questions I am not considering? Do other church mothers and fathers provide resources for thinking about sex and gender in a rich and constructive way?