Fear of Gays and Episcopalians (and Bears, Oh My!)
Not long ago, Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse suggested that Fr. Robert Arida go become an Episcopalian. For those who don’t know, that’s the conservative Orthodox equivalent of, “Go f@#k yourself!” This sentiment was echoed by the always level-headed, never trollish, commenters of Monomakhos.com. The ostensible source of their outrage is an article that Fr. Arida had posted on Wonder, a blog forOCA youth. According to Fr. Jacobse, Fr. Arida attempts to “legitimize homosexual parings” in clear violation of “Orthodox self-understanding and practice.” That is a pretty bold accusation, one that demands a first-hand investigation. Unfortunately, the original article was censored taken down, but I found a PDF version. In it, Fr. Arida says the following about “homosexual pairings”…
Fr. Arida mentions “human sexuality” one time in a sentence that also addresses abortion, euthanasia, family, and the environment. The words “gay,” “lesbian,” “LGBT,” and “homosexual” appear exactly zero times. The letters “l,” “g,” “b,” and “t” do occur, but not in sequence. Fr. Arida’s article claims to be about the Orthodox Church’s need for a more robust theology of culture (hardly a controversial claim), which is a theology that knows how to begin looking for answers to the kinds of questions the fathers and mothers of our tradition did not even know how to begin to ask. So what is it about this article that is making some readers see words that are not there?
Fr. Arida talks about the need to “to critique and build upon the writings and vision of the Fathers.” His point, as I read it, was that we need to be careful not be fundamentalists. He places some of the blame for a growing fundamentalism in the Orthodox Church on converts who sometimes join the Orthodox Church because they perceive it to be a bastion of the true faith against the disintegrating effects of secular culture. As a convert, I agree with Fr. Arida’s sense of things. I have met more than a few individuals who, when they convert, replace their old biblical literalism with patristic literalism (I know a young earth creationist who cites St. Basil as a prooftext). So what you get is a fundamentalism with more resources (i.e. not just the Bible but tradition too). Of course every religious tradition will have fundamentalists, but it has not been a major part of the Orthodox tradition. Fundamentalism is more prominent today than in the past. Orthodoxy has not always been this reactionary. We have a long history of pillaging the Egyptians – a patristic metaphor for taking whatever is “excellent” and “praiseworthy” from one’s culture (Phil. 4:8) – to better understand the gospel and apply it in everyday life. If St. Basil believed the earth was a few thousand years old, it is because he thought it was true, not just because the Bible said so. The saint of Caesarea would find what some call “Orthodoxy” today embarrassing. This is indeed, as Fr. Arida says (quoting Florovsky) a “new and alien spirit.”
People forget that the fathers and mothers of the church were just men and women. Citing them as authorities, with little regard to real contextual differences between them and us, is not fidelity. It’s idolatry! Faithfulness to the fathers is faithfulness to their spirit, which is the Holy Spirit. There were some opinions they held that were informed more by their historical context (e.g. slavery) than the gospel. To read the fathers critically, as Fr. Arida says, is to read them with that difference in mind. Just because the fathers say something does not mean that we must say the same things. So when it comes to the questions our culture asks us to consider, we need to be humble enough to remember that, “The wind [i.e. “spirit”] blows where it wills.” Let us be attentive. (Note: in Greek “wind” and “spirit” are the same word.)
(UPDATE: I forgot to mention that my book deals with some of this stuff!)
Of course ignorance of context does not fully explain why so many of Fr. Arida’s readers would read some kind of ulterior motive between the lines of his plainly stated intent. One clue comes from my first encounter with something Fr. Arida wrote a few years ago. He raised a pastoral pickle for the church to consider. Namely, what happens when a family with same-sex parents wants to convert to Orthodoxy? Do we break up the family in the name of family values? Fr. Arida does not answer this question, but I suspect this essay may have set off a few alarm bells among individuals with more reactionary temperaments. Based on some comments I’ve seen, others claim to know that Fr. Arida is, in fact, one of those Orthodox priests I have heard rumors about, the kind that communes unrepentant LGBT. I do not know if this is true, and I’m willing to be they don’t either. I suppose some of his critics could be basing their knowledge on direct conversations with Fr. Arida, or perhaps surreptitiously recorded confessions, but I doubt it.
Rumor would explain why some might see a hidden agenda in Fr. Arida’s article, but rumor is not a sound, or very Christian, basis for lobbing accusations at people. This is not the first time that Fr. Jacobse and his readers have demonstrated an uncanny ability to know a person’s inner thoughts, so I suppose it is also possible that I am criticizing clairvoyants (at great risk to myself, no doubt!). Perhaps the rumors are true, or perhaps not. One might also consider that some priests are generous when it comes to oikonomia, which (in short) is the practice of erring on the side of grace when it comes to the rules and regulations. Those who see an agenda in Fr. Arida’s essay are basing their suspicions on gossip they have heard and now are helping to spread.
Hearing a rumor is one thing. Believing it is something else entirely. We believe things that align with our intellectual prejudices, which is another way of saying that often what we say has less to do with the facts than how we feel about them. Some feel that there is an underground movement to make Orthodoxy more Episcopalian (the Episcopalian bogeyman is a whole other issue I don’t have time to discuss). There are certainly some Orthodox Christians who would like to see us change our stance toward LGBT, both politically and theologically. Others are not quite sure where they stand. But the vast majority hold firm to the traditional teachings of the church. Whatever opposition one might detect to these teachings, it takes a special kind of paranoia to see a movement at work. Fr. Jacobse’s essay is a call to fear, to fear priests who may or may not commune gays, parishioners who may or may not have secret agendas, and to fear that communing gays will cost us money and members, like it has the Episcopalians (because that is how we know we are being faithful to the gospel, apparently).
Fear is great if you are being chased by a bear. It is a powerful emotion that helps us survive dangerous situations. Fear is what makes us act first and think later, which is precisely why it is not a sound basis for thinking about culture theologically. Fear is the antithesis of the gospel because it causes us see other people as threats rather than children of the living God. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
I also wonder if another kind of fear is not at work here, a fear that is more personal. Since it is personal, I want to be clear that I am not pointing a finger at any particular person. I am not accusing anybody of anything! I am only going to raise a question that our Lord himself raised. “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). My grandparents said that you could tell what someone was doing by what they believed other people were doing (case in point). Or to put it another way, we can sometimes put on a show of being extra indignant about things we are worried other people might find out about us.
Righteous indignation can be a defense mechanism for those who are ashamed of their own desires. Over a decade ago, a friend told me that, in his experience, the more outraged someone got about LGBT issues, the more likely it was that that person was cowering in her or his own closet. To be honest, I had my doubts. But I kept hearing this hypothesis confirmed by others. Then there were the the more prominent Ted Haggard and Larry Craig scandals. This anecdotal evidence was recently confirmed by a compelling scientific study, which compared what men said about LGBT to how they really felt. To put it frankly, the study compared men’s words to their penises. There were three stages to the study. Part 1 questioned men about their opinions on LGBT issues and individuals. Some men scored high on the “I don’t like gays” questionnaire. Others were more like, “Meh.” In Part 2, the men were shown three different kinds of porn: male-female, female-female, and male-male. Devices were attached to…um, their organs to measure arousal while they watched the movies. Finally, in Part 3, the men were asked which films they were aroused by. The study found that those who claimed to be most anti-gay (in Part 1) were also most aroused by the gay (male-male) porn (in Part 2). Here’s the kicker! When questioned (Part 3), they denied that they were aroused at all. They lied! This study suggests that men who make a good show of not being gay are, quite possibly, reacting to desires they are afraid of in themselves.
Let me be clear that nobody knows what another person might be feeling inside, least of all me! Outrage is complicated. Just because you get incensed about something does not mean that you are struggling with that thing yourself. I get incensed about rape. That does not mean I am a rapist. On the other hand, I also get incensed about the objectification of women in the media, but (confession time) I do a lot of objectifying myself. I am not proud of the fact that, when I see a pretty face (by which I mean “ass”), I have to remind myself that it belongs to a human being made in the image of God. But there you go.
My point is, I am not pointing fingers, nor am trying to silence the opposition through passive-aggressive shaming tactics. I just think it is important that, before we speak, we take some time to reflect on where our outrage might be coming from. The vast majority of Orthodox Christians who take a politically conservative stance about same-sex unions, and a theologically traditional stance about same-sex attraction, do so out of love for the church. The same is true for the “liberals.” That said, about 5% of the general population is LGBT. So it is a safe bet that some people who read “gay” when Fr. Arida says “human sexuality” are probably reacting against their own secrets.