Friday, November 15, 2019

Trying to Make Silk Purses Out of Sows' Ears (Response to "A Theology of the Erotic")

In the second installment of Aristotle Papanikolaou's latest argument against the concept of there being unchanging moral teachings of the Church, "A Theology of the Erotic," he begins by once again invoking the authority of St. Maximus the Confessor:
"If there is to be consistency in the Orthodox Tradition between theology and ethics, dogma and canon, an ethics of sex must be a theotic ethics; that is, it must be such that the performance of sexual eros is potentially sacramental in the sense that the experience of God is possible through eros, as with all of material creation (St. Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names). God’s material creation is not the enemy of God; it is that which God has made in order for us to experience God. That materiality includes eros. No less than St. Maximus the Confessor has affirmed that eros is the driving engine of nature, the fuel that propels us to union with God when all cognitive functions have ceased as a result of encountering the saturated phenomenon of the divine light. As he says, “When in full ardor of its love (eros) for God the mind goes out of itself . . . through love the mind is ravished by divine knowledge and in going outside of creatures has a perception of divine transcendence” (Four Hundred Centuries on Love 1.10 and 1.12; also 1.19, and 1.100, among many other references). In fact, when speaking about love for God, St. Maximus only uses the word eros. Eros in itself is good, as all creation is good, but it can be misdirected.
It is for this reason that St. Maximus gives detailed analysis and description of the various parts of the soul and their interrelation to one another, more than any other patristic writer in the Orthodox Tradition. He is trying to give advice on how to reshape the architecture of the soul so that eros is progressively directed to God and not simply to finite objects. This architecture is constituted by various parts that include desire, emotions having to do with such reactions as fear, hatred, anger, courage, and the cognitive/rational activity of the soul. How any one part of the soul functions depends on its entanglement with other parts, and for one part of the soul to function optimally, the other parts must also function optimally. For example, envy causes our desire to become greedy, which then clouds the way we see (cognitively) the truth of God’s creation, which, in a vicious cycle, can further fuel other destructive emotions and desires. The measure of this optimal function is participation in God, that is, love for God and neighbor, which includes enemy and stranger and which occurs to a greater or lesser degree. (For a more detailed analysis of St. Maximus on the soul and theosis, see my article, “Theosis”).
It is true that in discussing a sexual ethic within the Church, attention must be given to nature, but in St. Maximus nature is dynamic. Furthermore, human nature has something to do with the architecture of the soul and the landscape of emotions and desires. The real ascetical struggle is how to optimize the relation of the various parts of the soul so that eros progressively is directed toward God and, in that sense, is an experience of the divine life.
What does this mean for an ethics of sex? If the goal of life is union with God, then ethics are not rules for the sake of rules; they are not rules to follow in order to score points with God; they are about principles, practices, and rules that are discerned to regulate the architecture of the soul in such a way that facilitates our ascent to God, and in so doing affect our relation to our neighbor (social ethics). Sexual desire, like all desire, needs an ascetical structure to maximize its potential for sacramentality, which means its capacity for manifesting the presence of God."
What St. Maximus the Confessor was not doing was providing grounds for a theology of sex. Eros is a power of the soul, which is perhaps best described as the longing of the soul for God, as seen for example in St. Augustine's Confessions:
"Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." (Confessions 1:1).
Sexual desire is a part of eros, but the longing we have for God is not to be confused with the sexual desire one person may have for another that they are sexually attracted to. This is true even in the most natural and wholesome expressions, within the context of a loving Christian marriage, much less is it related to perversions of that natural desire. St. Paul does indeed use marriage as an image of Christ's relationship with the Church, but this is using an earthly image to speak of spiritual things, and like any analogy, one should not press the analogy beyond its intended purpose.

In Papanikolaou's previous essay, he began with a hypothetical question that he seems to think compellingly makes a point in support of his general thesis:
"Perhaps my point is best illustrated through a story: During the fall 1999 semester, I taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, a course on Ethics. We were discussing St. Maximus the Confessor on virtues and how the development of virtues enables relations, and in so doing, makes space for the presence of God. I then asked the students that if two people (I did not mention gender) were living together in friendship for fifty years and manifesting the virtues, would this be an example of communion and participation in God. They all said yes. I then asked whether the fact that they had sex would negate the good resulting from their virtuous friendship:  half said it would, while the other half got the point that I will try to articulate in this short, two-part essay."
The problem here is of course the false premise that people living in an immoral relationship could nevertheless be "manifesting the virtues". The foundation of any manifestation of the virtues on the part of fallen men is repentance, and repentance requires both a change of mind about sin, and a change of behavior with regard to sin. Papanikolaou intentionally leaves these "friends" genderless in his analogy, because he is pushing the door open for the acceptance in the Church of homosexual relationships.

But let's consider a real world example. There was a man in Corinth who was in a sexual relationship with his step-mother. We are not given a lot of additional details about the nature of this relationship, or how it came about, but it is likely that this man's father had been married to his mother. His mother probably had died at some point and his father remarried, perhaps in old age, and to a much younger woman. His father likely died at some point, and these two people ended up in a relationship. This relationship was far more natural than a homosexual relationship. There was no biological incest at work here, however, according to the laws of the Old Testament, this was a forbidden sexual relationship (Leviticus 18:6-8). Among the basic requirements which the Apostles laid out for gentile converts was that they abstain from sexual immorality (porneia), and the only standard of what constituted sexual immorality they could have had in mind is that standard found in the moral law of the Old Testament (Acts 15:28-29).

Did St. Paul admonish the Church of Corinth to explore how to make this sexual relationship work within "an ascetical structure to maximize its potential for sacramentality"? No, he commanded the Church in Corinth to ex communicate this man (i.e. no potential for sacramentality), and to have no fellowship with him until he repented (1 Corinthians 5). In the very next chapter, when addressing homosexuality and transgenderism, St. Paul says that those who engage in such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). This is stated in no uncertain terms, and so one has the choice of denying the inspiration of Scripture and thinking they know better than St. Paul, or to accept that what St. Paul says is true -- but they don't get to have it both ways.

Regardless of whatever jesuitical arguments Papanikolaou may engage in, if his reasoning leads to the conclusion that it is OK for Christians to engage in any kind of sexual immorality, and yet be members of the Church in good standing, and receive Holy Communion, he is obviously wrong, because, as the saying goes, "you can't get there from here." The Scriptures are clear. The interpretation the Church has given of these Scriptures is equally clear on this subject. If you want to invent your own religion, you are free to make up whatever beliefs you wish, but if you wish to be an Orthodox Christian, you have no such freedom. Even if we granted that Papanikolaou was properly interpreting St. Maximus, St. Maximus is not of greater authority than the Scriptures. But he clearly is trying to twist St. Maximus to support an agenda that we know for a fact St. Maximus would never have had anything to do with.

When Papanikolaou says "attention must be given to nature, but in St. Maximus nature is dynamic," he is alluding to Fr. Richard RenĂ© thesis in his "Meeting Michelle" essay, which Tikhon Pino has already demonstrated, was a clear distortion of St. Maximus the Confessor (See Response to "Meeting Michelle" Part 1).
"The Church has historically discerned that this ascetical structure would entail a long-term committed relationship between a man and a woman. This relationship, however, must be ascetical in the sense that the human beings involved must engage in the ascetical practices that facilitate the manifestation of the virtues, which shape the flow of eros such that it is sacramental. The ascetical nature of this relationship runs throughout the entire relationship, but in terms of sexual eros, a very simple and basic example of an ascetical approach to sexual eros would be to listen and be attentive to what the other is saying about likes, dislikes, fears, and hopes in relation to the sex act.
Is this a “new asceticism” in the sense that the patristics writings do not point to those specific practices? It may be speaking with the Tradition in a way not yet articulated, but it is not a “new asceticism” if asceticism has always been about restructuring the architecture of the soul to shape eros toward God and, thus, in accordance with nature. Asceticism cannot be self-control or self-renunciation for the sake of those acts, which would reduce asceticism to simply rules to follow rather than practices that experience has confirmed are effective in reshaping the soul. Furthermore, there are several ways that one could interpret self-control and self-renunciation: to engage in practices of honesty and vulnerability throughout one’s sex life with a life-long partner can be seen as a loss of self for the sake of finding the self (Mt 16:25). The good news is that the sex act itself, the movement toward the other, is potentially a moment that is sacramental, that is, iconic of the divine presence, while also simultaneously shaping the flow of eros toward God.
There is more, however, to sexual desire than simply movement to the other who is loved. As human beings, we are fallen creatures because of misdirected eros away from the God who created us. As a result of this fall, sexual eros can be messy, as it is not always clear what is involved in the incitement of sexual desire.  It can be simply wanting to be close to the other, but it also might have something to do with our genes, our biological and neurological infrastructure, how we are feeling at the moment, the time of day, the season, the temperature, what someone was wearing, our own history. Much more tragically, it may be knotted to an experience of rape or other forms of violence and trauma. These interlocking factors often have something to do with the presence of fetish or fantasy that may incite the sex act and even accompany it.
When we pay attention to the details of what’s possibly involved in sexual desire, arousal, and the performance of the sex act, it is not so simple as saying that sex is blessed, pure, made right, correct, neutral, morally allowed within marriage. This claim also forgets that rape has and does occur within many marriages.  Sexual desire is, indeed, complicated, and it is probably because of its complexity that St. Paul said that is was “better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor 7:9). Following St. Paul’s lead, the Church recognized that marriage potentially provides an ascetical structure to erotic desire that does not cancel its complexity, but has the power to shape erotic desire in a way that leads to participation in God even amidst this complexity. Asceticism does not resolve complexity; it simply does not allow complexity to be definitive in such a way that would lead to objectification, demonization, or violence. And for those who have been traumatized as a result of sexual violence or other forms of violence, research has shown that practices that one might describe as ascetical may be a path toward recovery and healing."
So somehow, we are to believe that the same St. Paul who called for the ex communication of a man who was in sexual relationship with his step-mother, and who said that those engaging in homosexuality, or indeed any other kind of sexual immorality, will not inherit the Kingdom of God -- in the very same epistle in which he said these things, no less -- was opening the door to approving of homosexual relationships in the Church, because it is "better to marry than to burn with passion." How far down the sewer things have gotten that we have gone from St. Paul, who said that such things should not even be so much as named among us (i.e., they should be unheard of as occurring within the Church, see Ephesians 5:3), to the likes of Papanikolaou arguing for the Church embracing these sins?

Now we come to the conclusion of this essay:
"What does all this mean for the experience of homoerotic desire? First, even though the authoritative sources weigh heavily toward condemning homoerotic sex acts of a particular kind, I have argued that ethical norms, rules, and practices, codified mostly in the canons of the Church, are discussable in a process of ongoing discernment. Given that, I have tried to provide a framework for discussing erotic desire in the hope of providing discernment for shaping sexual desire so that it leads toward God and not away from God."
Even though God clearly has forbidden such things, we nevertheless need to discuss whether or not God really meant it, or whether there might be some way to dance our way around these clear commandments, and do the opposite anyway. Again, we have theology done the devil's way (Genesis 3:1-5).
"If marriage is discerned to be, in part, an ascetical partnership, and if part of that ascetical partnership has to do with being attentive to the complexity of erotic desire so as to maximize the sacramental potential of this eros, the question for discussion is this: Is the structure of homoerotic desire different than that of heteroerotic desire? And if not, why is homoerotic desire precluded from the same ascetical shaping and sacramental potential that is affirmed of heteroerotic desire?"
What is the difference? St. Paul tells us the homoerotic desires are "dishonorable passions" which are contrary to nature (Romans 1:26-27). On the other hand, he says of lawful marriage: "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled..." and then reiterates, "but the sexually immoral and adulterers God will judge (Hebrews 13:4). One involves violating nature to fulfill base desires, and the other is in accordance with nature, and results in the fundamental building block of society (and the Church), which is the family.
"There is ample evidence that homoerotic desire is shaped in long-term committed relationships in a way in which the virtues are manifest, and if there is to be discussion, then the Church should listen to those bridging voices of experience."
Does Papanikolaou really believe St. Maximus would agree that two men having sex with each other in a "long term relationship" was a means to manifest the virtues? The fact of the matter is very few male homosexuals have long term "monogamous" relationships to begin with, and only a minority of lesbians have relationships that actually end up being truly long term (see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp. 452-460), but even if the opposite were true, it would not matter. St. Paul did not condemn the man in an immoral relationship with his step-mother because it was not for the long term -- he condemned it because it was an immoral relationship. St. John the Baptist did not condemn Herod's marriage to his brother Philip's ex-wife because it was not for the long term -- he condemned it because it was an immoral relationship. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear, and you cannot make a relationship that manifests the virtues out of an inherently sinful relationship.

If Papanikolaou was calling for a dialogue on how best to help those struggling with the sins of homosexuality or transgenderism, I would be very much in favor of it. This is an area that we could certainly use further exploration of, and it would be of benefit to the entire Church, if it were done on the basis of the moral teachings of the Church, rather than in spite of them. Sadly, this ain't what they're up to.

For More Information, see:

On the Writings of Archimandrite George (Kapsanis): A Correction

Discernment or Scaffolding?

Moral Heresy?

Unitarian Morality With a Little "Theosis" Sprinkled on Top

The Living Church 2.0

Cultural Marxism and Public Orthodoxy

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality