Response to Basil (Part Two)

My conversation with my friend Basil continues below. The first part of the conversation may be found here.

From Basil:
Hello Fr. Richard:
Thanks for your thorough reply. I appreciate your recognition of several incomplete ways of addressing this matter sufficiently in our current time. I do indeed look forward to the question we have arrived at: What is a Christ-centred vision of sexuality, specifically as it speaks to the contemporary question of same-sex relationships?

I know for myself another element of our contemporary situation that has shifted so, is the rapid normalization of homosexual relationships and the effect this is having on peoples' experience of their same-sex attraction. For me, the question of human sexuality and especially homosexuality used to be a very fascinating point of mostly theoretical interest. In my adult life I have found myself increasingly exposed to the question in more personal ways. A large number of friends who experience same-sex attraction and are responding to this experience in differing ways (from Orthodox who struggle to Christians who embrace to secular who nevertheless live good and decent lives in single-partner relationships of fidelity).

I am finding the need or at least interest to 'test' my 'position' on this issue against the experiences of the many people in my life- their suffering and confusion, or alternatively their seemingly 'ordinary' (Protestant) Christian lives while in a gay relationship.

Thanks again for your thoughtful response.

Love, Basil

* * * 

My Response:
Dear Basil:

Again I apologize for the time it has taken me to respond to your last email. Your questions deserve some real consideration, and when I add this ‘percolating time’ to the time I must spend on my family, my secular work, and the course I am taking at Trinity Western, the result is more delay than I would like. Oh well, here I am!

Our evolving question—what is a Christ-centred vision of sexuality, and how does it speak to same-sex relationships—is just as large as the previous questions you asked… J Frankly, it could barely be answered in a multi-volume book, let alone a single email! All I can do in this format is to sketch out (in serial form) the roughest outlines of my own answer. I am very conscious that I am not a trained scholar, and though I am taking steps to become more disciplined and rigorous as a thinker, I have a long way to go. Take this for what it is: the first attempt at something I hope one day to articulate more comprehensively.

Before we can speak of a ‘Christ-centred sexuality,’ we need to address the more fundamental question, namely, what does it means to be a Christ-centred person in the first place? While I believe that we cannot speak of personhood apart from sexuality (more on this later), I would say that the meaning of sexuality depends on the meaning of human personhood. Before we consider how the encounter with Jesus Christ defines our sexual relationships, then, we should consider how that encounter defines human person as a whole.

As I suggested in my previous email, I could very easily respond to this question by citing the Scriptures, then the creeds, councils, fathers, icons, liturgy, and so on. Although you yourself might accept this appeal to text and custom (because you are already convinced), it could not help you to engage fruitfully with the real experiences of people you mention, people who do not wholly share your convictions—those Orthodox Christians who struggle with the Church’s teaching (or rather, the way that teaching has been articulated); those non-Orthodox Christians or non-Christians who “live good and decent lives in single-partner relationships of fidelity”; not to mention those non-Christian folks who have little sense of what it means to be sexually faithful to one person for a lifetime.

A more compelling approach by far, as I said, is to begin with a personal testimony of our encounter with Jesus Christ that is consistent with the communal experience of the Church as testified in the scriptures and the living tradition. Thus our testimony is not merely individualistic and subjective, but is rather personal-communal, that is, both relative to each of us and absolute in its reference to the one Jesus Christ proclaimed in the Orthodox Church since the Apostles.

One of my favorite portions of the New Testament comes from St. Paul’s second Epistle to the Corinthians: to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It is my experience and conviction that St. Paul is not merely speaking for himself in this passage. As human beings, we each have ‘a thorn in the flesh,’ a ‘messenger of Satan’ that may manifest itself in different forms, whether blatant (e.g. a substance addiction) or subtle (e.g. a tendency to gossip), but whose basic effect is the same for us as it was for St. Paul: tearing at us and sooner or later, draining our lives away.

As we grow and (hopefully) become more self-aware, we learn the broad outlines of the people and circumstances that have shaped our histories and led to our wounded state. A complex interaction of genetics, upbringing, and cultural background, not to mention our own choices, has shaped the thorn that continues to bleed us out. In reality, this awareness is our first step towards the fulfillment of our personhood, in that we are no longer merely reacting to the wound, ‘doing the very thing [we] hate’ (Romans 7:15) without really understanding the internal and external forces that are compelling us. Instead, our self-knowledge allows us to stand back and see that we are living in a state of utter subjection, labouring under the tyranny of all the complex psychological, historical, cultural, and biological factors that have constituted our particular “thorn.”

Even if we could magically gain freedom from this and every other subjection—financial, intellectual, political and so on—we would always be subject to something, even if it were only the constraints of time, space and the limitations of our own bodies. Thus our “thorns,” whatever they may be, become emblematic of subjection as a general, fundamental condition of our human existence.

Merely attaining self-knowledge, though, is not sufficient. It is one thing to understand the ways in which we are subjected, but another thing to actually rise above that state in our own lives. As St. Paul himself says, I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. We can only begin to attain some measure of freedom when we enter into intimate and transparent relationships with others who are willing to admit that they too struggle with a thorn of their own. This sharing of mutual weakness leads us to realize that we are alone, and that freedom is possible for us.

How does this happen? When other persons share with us the ways in which they are subjected, they demonstrate their solidarity with us. Even though they may come from very different backgrounds, though their histories may be quite different from our own, we can identify the pattern of our own subjection, the same tyranny that oppresses us, in what they have to say. In the midst of our differences, we find commonality.

At the same time, our commonalities also highlight just how different we are. This sense of difference is crucial for each of us, because it allows us to see our own state through the eyes of those who are truly ‘other’ than us, that is, ‘from above.’ Our fellow strugglers can give us more than what mere self-knowledge has to offer, however; because we can identify with them, they allow us to conceive of transcending the various subjections that have dominated us. In other words, the co-suffering of others allows us to objectively grasp the unique suffering that defines (and confines) our personhood, even as we are able to reach for an identity that transcends those personal limits.

Our experiences with other ‘co-sufferers’ is what ultimately allows us to appropriate Orthodox Christianity on a personal level. When others demonstrate their solidarity with our wounded condition, and we allow that solidarity to bear us upwards into transcendent truth (about ourselves) and freedom (from ourselves), then everything that the Orthodox Church teaches about Jesus Christ descends from the theoretical realm and resounds on the level of experience. Though these tenets of faith may have been real and true in a wider communal sense, now they are real for you and me.

For if the co-suffering of other wounded human beings leads us to identify ourselves both as ones who are subjected and ones who can transcend subjection, then it is only a short step for us to understand personhood as centred in Jesus Christ. After all, doesn’t the Church proclaim Jesus as the Son of God, the absolutely divine ‘other’ who leads us through His fully human co-suffering into a personhood that is both utterly subject and potentially transcendent?

As you and I know, this is purely a rhetorical question. Evidence of this doctrine may be provided ad infinitum, but since you don’t need convincing, I will simply say that our personal experiences of defining personhood finds its communal root in the Orthodox Church’s own experience and teaching, recorded in Scripture and lived in the tradition by the saints from age to age. I can therefore offer as authentic the following definition of Christ-centred personhood: the state of utter subjection and potential divine transcendence in relation to the co-suffering of the God-man Jesus Christ.

Having established this, we can proceed next to speak of what we mean by sexuality, and the ways it articulates Christ-centred personhood in specific, concrete relationships. But that’s the subject of another lengthy email… J I appreciate as always your thoughts and questions, as well as requests for clarity, elaboration, and so on. I appreciate criticism, and comments you might have to help me explain myself a little better.

In Christ, Fr. Richard

Comments

Jon said…
Fr Richard,

I can't tell you how excellent this and your last post were—and I can't emphasize the "excellent" part enough. They totally hit on a number of points I've been having to address recently with other friends—especially in trying to relate from the perspective of the experience of Christ within the personal-communal aspect of Orthodoxy. I'm definitely interested to hear more how you develop the Orthodox position within a current context. One of the things I've especially been appreciating about the faith—speaking as an Orthodox Christian—is its relevance a living, continuous tradition that goes back to the Scriptures, ultimately Christ, yet it has an immanent relevance through the lives of living witnesses in the Church, the liturgy, the spiritual life, etc. One can see and draw out the roots of the faith in the sayings of the Fathers, the ancient traditions, etc., and see the blossoming of the faith in our witnessing Christ through the whole Church.

Anyway, there's much that can be delved into. I'll restrain myself and say: thank you so much for posting these. I look forward to hearing more!

Best, and in Christ,
Andrew

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