Response to Basil (Part Four)

At long last, here is my fourth response in the ongoing conversation with my friend Basil. The first, second and third responses may be found herehere, and here respectively.

This is a long post, so I have added a few section titles to help break it up.

Dear Basil:
With the feast!
It has been a long time! I apologize for how long it has taken from me to get back to you. It's an excuse I know, but Lent, then Pascha, then the final weeks of the school year intervened, and I never really felt as if I had a good block of time in which to sit down and respond fully to your thoughts. Anyway, I have some time today, so I will continue our fruitful conversation.

Personal Subjectivity Versus Corporate Experience
What happens when the personal experience of a believer, his or her subjectivity, finds itself at odds with a teaching of the Church? This is clearly the situation of many Christians who have come out as gay and believe that homosexuality is a fundamental fact of their existence, part of what makes them who they are. In such cases, it is understandable why they might feel that the Church regards them as essentially defective human beings.

I am not one who has found himself in that situation, and I do not pretend to be able to understand that dilemma. However, I have known times when some aspect of my life that I believed to be inherent to who I was as a human being came into conflict with the Church's vision. In my last email (months ago now), I said that "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."

In your last email, you asked what this meant. Unfortunately, I can't get into specific personal details, for obvious reasons. Let me just say that there have been occasions in which I have found myself standing emotionally and intellectually outside of the Church, alienated from those Christians around me in some way, convinced that they must wrong and my own experience right. Rather than walking away and severing communion, however, I entertained the simple possibility that my understanding of my own experience might be lacking. Even if I couldn't imagine how I could possibly be wrong, I allowed for that possibility and sought to understand why the Church community's experience was so different from my own. In other words, I tried to remain open to being taught and corrected by everything I experienced in the Church--especially the liturgy and the lives of the saints both past and present. In time, the Holy Spirit worked on my heart and mind, and I experienced what I believe to be genuine metanoia, which we translate as 'repentance' but which has a much more transformative connotation.

So I suppose I would say this: our personal experience is genuine and deserves to be heeded. Polonius was right: to thine own self be true. Can we be willing to admit, however, that the way we understand our 'selves' may be deficient in some way? "To thine own self be true," but might there not be a 'Power greater than myself' that knows my 'self' better than I do? Just because I am the one who lives my life doesn't mean that I understand the meaning of that life better than anyone else. Indeed, the chances are excellent that I am so caught up in my own subjectivity that I can't see the forest for the trees. That's why I need to be open to being challenged, taught and corrected by the wider experience of the community.

This points back what I would now take as my definition of personhood: essential subjection and potential transcendence through the co-suffering of the other. A complex interaction of genetics, upbringing, and cultural background, not to mention my own choices, has shaped the mortal condition in which I find myself--what St. Paul referred to as his 'thorn'; that condition at least partially defines who I am as a person. However, I cannot fully see the whole of my subjection unless I see it from the outside, that is, through the experience of another who shares him or her self with me. In this sharing, what I call 'co-suffering,' I am able to understand my own subjection through the commonalities of our experiences, while transcending the limits of my subjection by embracing the differences between us. In short, I attain full personhood simultaneously in two ways: by identifying my subjection and transcending my subjection through an intimate conversation with one who is both like and unlike me.

Human Personhood and the Co-Suffering Community
Such a conversation presupposes a certain vision of community in which each member would a) affirm that subjection is essential to an authentic human identity; b) accept that the form of each person’s subjection is unique; c) share each other's forms of subjection without judgement; d) identify common experiences as bases of unity; e) identify differences as ways to rise above the limits of their individual subjectivities.

I believe that the Orthodox Church offers the fullest possible spiritual foundation and rationale for such a community, but you are right in pointing out that in the life of the Church today this vision more an ideal than a reality. Like you, I have found lived instances of co-suffering love to be scattered among a few particular elders in the faith, along with some of the saints. At times I have been disappointed that our average Orthodox Christian communities are not able or willing to cultivate such intimate co-suffering among their members, but I have come to accept this as a fact of life, and I take comfort that most people in our Church are at least able to recognize that the compassionate, non-judgmental, mutual sharing of subjection is the destination of Christian community, even if they are not there yet. While I too have encountered other groups that seem to better exemplify co-suffering as a principle than most Orthodox communities, I recognize that the ultimate source of that principle lies in the Church (and more specifically, the Orthodox Church) because in the Church alone do we find the One who first emptied Himself so that He might share our subjection with us, even as He remained transcendent above all subjection.

I seem again to have strayed far from the questions of sexuality with which we began this conversation. However, we are not so far away. I believe strongly that we cannot respond adequately to our culture's mass sexual disorientation unless we first articulate a clear vision of what it means to be a human person, and that also means a clear vision of what it means to live in community--the two are inseparable. This is why I defined personhood as evolving out of an 'intimate conversation,' which necessitates a community.

Christian Personhood and Sexuality
When speaking of 'intimate conversation,' I have to admit I was tempted to use the term 'intercourse.' I restrained myself because 'intercourse' has sexual connotations, but really, that's the word to use here, since its denotative meaning is "an interchange of thoughts and feelings." By speaking of 'intercourse' or 'conversation' my intention is to say that personhood can be understood as a languagewhose vocabulary is subjection, whose syntax is co-suffering and whose meaning evolves through the interpersonal dialogue. Much more has to be said about this, but to maintain focus on our topic I will say only that within this broad 'language of personhood' we can perceive a more particular kind of 'intimate conversation,' a dialect if you will, about which we use 'intercourse' in its connotative form: sexual intercourse.

The idea needs to be unpacked, but my basic argument would be as follows. The language of personhood is universal; if you are a human and you exist in relation to at least one other human being, you can learn to articulate personhood. However, only Christians in general and Orthodox Christians in particular have received the charisma to fully articulate the Name of self-emptying, co-suffering Word who initiated the dialogue from which authentic personhood flows. As you have pointed out and I agree with, we Christians do not make good use of our charisma; still, it is our gift and our calling--and we will be judged if we neglect our vocation, which is simply to make all our relationships speak of Jesus Christ.

As Christians, our relationships can speak of Christ in a variety of way or dialects, but one of these fundamental dialects is sexual. The question is, how do we make our sexual relationships speak of Christ? Here is where I would affirm heterosexual marriage. When we examine the Scriptures, we see that one of the ways--if not the central way--in which they prophecy to Christ is through the image of the Bride and the Bridegroom--the eternal heterosexual marriage. If the Christian sexual relationship is to speak of Christ, it must translate into bodily form the metaphor that the Scriptures use in speaking of Christ.

At first glance, this may seem like another appeal to a Scriptural text, but it is not. Fundamentally, I am appealing to Jesus Christ, according to the Scriptures. What makes heterosexual marriage Orthodox is not that it is 'scriptural' as much as it is Christological and its Christology is articulated in the language of the Scriptures. The Christian sexual relationship exists as a continuing, living testimony of Jesus Christ as He was prophesied to in the Old Testament Scriptures, interpreted in the New Testament, and proclaimed in the corporate experience of the Church from the beginning. Christian sexuality is and should be heterosexual and monogamous, not primarily because heterosexuality and monogamy are scripturally 'legal' or biologically 'natural' (I have spoken of the problems associated with such arguments), but because only heterosexual monogamy possesses the greatest bodily potential to articulate the Jesus Christ that you and I know in the Orthodox Church.

Pastoral Responses
I believe that my position allows for certain nuance in responding to homosexuality (not to mention any other issue around sexuality). In the first place, to the extent thatany human relationship (sexual or not) works according to co-suffering principles, we can uphold and bless it as good. Secondly, we can encourage non-heterosexual or non-monogamous persons entering into the Church to view themselves and their relationships as being on a path towards fullness in Christ, a path on which we are all travelers, working for greater sexual authenticity. Some of us are a little further along that path than others, but no one will reach the end until the Son of God comes in His Kingdom. Rather than simply excluding those who cannot yet speak our dialect, our task is to demonstrate the ways in which we share a universal language of personhood, before going on to teach them how to speak (in their own loving relationships) the Name of the One whose divine love they were 'feeling after that they might find Him,' to paraphrase St. Paul.

I will end then with the anecdote that we discussed together many months ago, when this conversation first got started. You recall the one I mean: a gay man who went to various churches and found himself dissatisfied that they either rejected him out of hand or sought to accommodate him by compromising traditional Christian teaching. Finally, he came to an Orthodox church and approached the priest, confessed that he was gay and waited for the response. The priest listened quietly, nodded, and said simply, "Well, let's talk about Jesus first, and we will go from there." The man was perturbed and thinking the priest had not heard him correctly, said again, "You do know that I am gay and that is not going to change." The priest again nodded and repeated, "Let's talk about Jesus first, and we will go from there." At this the man broke down and began to cry.

You probably recall the details of this story better than I do, so perhaps you can refresh my memory. Anyway, you get the point, which is simply that our goal in responding to the people of today's sexually-disoriented culture is to invite them to talk about Jesus, first by cultivating the language of personhood in their relationships--the co-suffering community of which I have spoken; second by coming to recognize the Christological grammar that underlies that language; and third by learning to speak the divine Name itself (as it has been revealed in the Scriptures and the breaking of the bread) in and through the flesh of our love for one another.

I am glad that you have come to some peace about this matter. I am happy to clarify anything I have said above.

In Christ, Fr. Richard


Father bless!

Thank you for all you've written here. Your comment above about Polonius leads me to wonder if you're familiar with a film called The Last Days of Disco and, more specifically, with the scene in there in which one character quotes "To thine own self be true" and then questions the understanding of the "self"?

You can see the scene in question at YouTube.

Thanks again!
ofgrace said…
Beautiful. Thank you, Father. Seems like a lot more problems in the Church than just this question of how to nurture the faith of those who struggle with SSA would be on their way to being healed if we could all "talk about Jesus first and go on from there."
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