Response to Basil (Part Three)

The first and second parts of my email conversation with Basil may be found here and here respectively.

From Basil:
Good evening Fr. Richard;

Thanks for your response. I think was I am interested in is *why* homosexuality is wrong. What is "bad" about it- what is unhelpful to a person's theosis and how do we know it's unhelpful? I think the answer to this question will be tied up very firmly and thoroughly in Orthodox Christian anthropology. I just don't know the answer. :)

I know of one former (very devout and thoughtful) Orthodox Christian who left the Church basically because he felt it just "wasn't working" for him. He laboured for years to find what you describe- some experience of transcendence of his 'thorn' that could bring him joy- and did not find it. He has subsequently left the church and had the good sense to leave Christianity- not willing to believe there are legitimate Christian expressions that also embrace an active homosexual lifestyle. The challenge this man presents, is that he has "experientially" found his self-described healing, peace, joy, etc. only after leaving the Church. So, there is a counter-narrative being told. Freedom and joy finally being experienced when embracing one's sexuality. This of course demonstrates the subjectivity of personal experience. You can read a fascinating piece of his experience here:

Criteria for a Genuine Christian Response to Homosexuality (Part I of a Three-Part Series)

Why A Serious Engagement by the Church of Homosexuality is Difficult (Part II of a Three-Part Series)

A Way Forward? (Part III of Three)

In the end, at this point, I could write another email of some length stating where, exactly, I fall on the question of how to manage the question of homosexuality from an Orthodox standpoint. My position aligns most closely with Fr Michael's comments (esp. regarding the way in which we are taking sex out of proper context in modern experience and thinking). But my time with the computer is up... I'll write more another time.

Love, Basil

* * * 

My Response:
Dear Basil:
I appreciate that you are engaged in this conversation with a wide group of individuals. I certainly respect both their and your need for privacy. As you can see, I have abbreviated your last response to reflect that request.

It was enlightening to read your friend's posts, which struck me as thoughtful and genuinely struggling with the issue. I am sorry that he left not only Orthodoxy, but also Christianity, in the end. I wish it had been otherwise. I cannot say what combination of factors beyond theology led to his decision, but I have no doubt of his sincere desire to make the Faith work in the life God has given him. I cannot evaluate his experiences or judge his choices. I have no doubt that he encountered real difficulties in the attitudes of the Christians he encountered, attitudes that require change and repentance.
I agree that a merely personal experience of the Faith is subjective, which is why it is not sufficient to guide us into truth. As I said previously, personal experience must be tried and tested by immersion in the experience of the community. As Fr. N said, this is precisely what Tradition does for us. And what is Tradition but a compilation of the saints’ personal experiences of truth, tried and confirmed by the experience of the wider Body of Christ, then testified to in the Scriptures, the liturgy, the writings, the hagiographies, the icons, as well as the ascetic practices of prayer and fasting?

You point to the problem of subjectivity in this man's experience: healing, peace and joy found only when he left the Church. Again, I cannot judge that narrative as true or false. Speaking for myself, though, I have known times when I found myself at odds with the Faith that had "worked" for so many others, but was not “working for me.” In those situations, I came to ask if perhaps I did not understand the significance of my personal experience clearly enough. In time, I realized that the disconnection between my own experiences and those of the Saints stemmed from incompleteness in my surrender: I had not entirely identified myself with my Christian co-sufferers and thus could not fully trust their collective experience—Tradition, again—to bear me upwards into full transcendence.

I am not suggesting that the man who left the Church should have just "worked harder"; I have no reason to doubt his devotion. All I can say is that in my own case, my own unwillingness to completely subject my own experiences to the broader experience of the Church was the cause of my difficulty. And even when I discovered this unwillingness, the process of overcoming it was not easy and indeed, continues to this day. Isn’t that the heart of the spiritual life, though? Isn’t that what Lent and the ascetic struggle are all about: the continual surrender of self to the other, a struggle that we must sustain for a lifetime, trusting that God will grant us the same freedom, peace and joy that He promised and delivered to His people through the ages?

You again ask, "Why is homosexuality wrong?" I know that I have taken my time, and that I don't seem to be any closer to an answer. Part of the reason is, I am working this out as I go along, thinking through the ideas as I write them. More than that, I really think that a broader theological foundation needs to be laid before I can offer a meaningful pastoral response. Too often, I think, we do not respond to these important questions as much as we react, speaking out of all kinds of biases that we don’t even recognize, let alone understand. Subjected to these influences while completely unaware of their influence, we cannot know if our stance is truly godly, or merely the product of this or that political ideology, social movement or personal emotionalism. To avoid this pitfall, we must proceed carefully, defining our terms and considering the whole theological picture before we fill in the details.

The gentleman whose case we have been discussing puts it very well in his blog post: The response must be grounded in a genuine wrestling with the Scriptures and interpretive tradition in which various groups find themselves, and not based primarily on politics or activism (of left or right). Whether gay-friendly or not, it must be rooted in the vision of humanity, creation, and God espoused by Christians (no matter how that is defined by the various Christian groups). This is a right in a society of free conscience and belief, but it is also a responsibility. The stakes are high, and Christians must take great care to think things through before speaking for God one way or the other; it would indeed be a dangerous thing to bless what God would not bless; it would also be an equally dangerous thing to condemn that which God does not condemn.

On this point, I completely agree, which is why I am taking my time.

You may recall from my last email that I defined personhood as is the state of essential subjection and potential transcendence through the co-suffering of another. I also said that the meaning of sexuality depends on the meaning of personhood. The question now is, what is the nature of this dependence?

The first thing that needs to be said is that while sexuality depends on personhood, the reverse is not true. While personhood is fulfilled through a co-suffering relationship with another human being, what makes ‘another human being’ other does not depend on bodily factors, including the sex of that person.

Consider two people, a man and woman, who have both endured the horrors of a concentration camp. While it is true that each will have had experiences specific to their sex, experiences that the other could never know, it would be absurd to suggest that their sexual differences would prevent them from sharing the sufferings that they had endured. In reality, they could indeed share much and draw strength and healing from one another, regardless of the differing sexual forms that their experiences took.

Likewise, each human person can engage in a fruitful relationship of co-suffering with another person, regardless of the specific bodily expression of his or her subjection. In this sense, sex is not essential to attaining true personhood, a point to which the Church testifies in its long and venerable tradition of monasticism.

There is more to be said, though. While anyone can attain personhood in non-sexual ways, it is also evident that all human experience is fundamentally bodily (that is, it takes place within the complex matrix of body and soul) and is therefore necessarily sexed. Each and every human being, therefore, has the potential to articulate his or her personhood in a specifically bodily register, that is, sexually.

I use the term ‘register’ here very deliberately; in the field of sociolinguistics, it refers to a variety of language that is used in a particular social setting or for a particular purpose. So, for instance, I might use slang, informal speech, inside jokes, and private references when speaking with friends, and more formal, elevated and rhetorical language when preaching a sermon.

The sociolinguistic analogy is actually quite helpful to our discussion of the relationship between personhood and sexuality. The non-sexual way of attaining personhood may well be seen as a broad language that all human beings share, regardless of sex. After all, it is precisely through a dialogue between co-suffering persons that we come to articulate our human identities. Within this broader dialogue in which personhood is articulated, however, there exists a dialect whose form is specifically sexual. Just as we use particular varieties of language for particular purposes within particular social settings, so too this ‘sexual register’ speaks of personhood within specific contexts and for specific purposes.

How does this sexual register speak of personhood? What are the contexts and purposes in which it may do so? Those indeed are the larger questions. My goal now would be to explore some possible answers, first broadly and then within Orthodox Christian anthropology (as you rightly discerned was necessary), before we can see to what extent same-sexuality is helpful to the fulfillment of our human identity in God.
In Christ, Fr. Richard


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