Orthodoxy and Modernity, Theology

(Review) “The Wheel” Issue 13/14- Being Human: Embodiment, Sex and Marriage, Pastoral Challenges

Published on: June 18, 2018
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The Wheel is a quarterly journal that strives to articulate the Gospel “intelligently and constructively for the 21st Century” from Orthodox perspectives. It offers an accessibly thoughtful and well-researched platform for Orthodox self-expressions and often features world-renown contributors. Andrew Louth edited this volume, which “initiates discussion” (14) concerning Orthodoxy and sexuality. I commend the editorial decision to incorporate vehemently disparate viewpoints as an overture to a multi-partisan and long overdue conversation. I treat here some of the salient discussions in this issue, though I warmly encourage reading it in full.

Louth calls attention to an increase in cultural sexualization and a positively correlated “coolness and lack of physicality” (17) that runs the risk of reducing all human relations to sexual terms. Behr proposes a different vision whereby Christian asceticism (married or not) ought to sublimate sexual difference by becoming human in Christ (28). On Behr’s reading, sexual difference corresponds to being “in Adam, not in Christ” (29). This framework invites deeper reflection on human embodiment. Kelaidis’ article calls for just such an engagement with “the human body as a site of divine revelation” (33), but unfortunately it sometimes deals in platitudes (e.g., its handling of Platonic dualism and “Gnosticism,” pp. 34–35) and I would suggest that the author’s tacit disappointment (33) that Orthodoxy has not produced something of the same “scope and magnitude” (33) as John Paul II’s Theologia corporis is misguided. Collectively, the many extant Orthodox meditations on the body and sexuality are tesserae in a kaleidoscopically shifting mosaic, whose complexity hints—and no more—at the mystery of embodied personhood.

Of the controversial pieces, I found the essay by Papanikolaou and the one co-authored by Corbman/Payne/Tucker the best argued and most consistent, while Yannaras’, Thermos’, Nassif’s, and Sanfilippo’s present difficulties.

Yannaras emphasizes freedom from nature and self-transcendence as constitutive dimensions of ecclesial personhood (72&ff.). I found it surprising, therefore, that he abandoned his premises to condemn homosexuality on naturalistic foundations, calling same-sex acts “fruitless” (80, emphasis mine). Ironically, his premises should logically result in affirming non-heteronormative relations as “freedom from biological necessity” par excellence, given that they transcend “naturalistic necessities” better than the alternative. Surely, few can support this conclusion.

Thermos’ argument is equally ironic. He grounds his opposition to same-sex marriage on Maximos’ distinction between logos (substantial principle) and tropos (mode of existence). For him, logos implies a divine affirmation of heteronormativity—but this is the exact opposite of Maximos’ position. The Confessor believes that through virtue, “the particularity of male and female, which in no way was linked to the original logos of the divine plan concerning human generation” can be “shaken off from nature” so to “become just a human being, following the divine intention, not being divided by the appellation of male and female’” (Amb 41.3, emphases mine). Heteronormativity cannot be founded on Maximos’ thought because for him, sexual binarity was the first division of nature that Christ overcame (Amb 41.3&ff). Gallaher’s conclusion from examining Greco-Latin natural law(s) fits well here: we must be ready to embrace a “jaundiced opinion of heterosexual relations” to condemn homosexual relations (59). Papanikolaou enriches this debate by proposing that sex itself can function as marital asceticism for “learning to love” (97), which transcends the utilitarian dichotomy of sex as unitive or procreative.

Nassif’s piece reflects some more negative aspects of conservative American Evangelical sensitivities, likely cultivated over his sustained conversations with them. For instance, he on principle expresses his skepticism of the scientific process (100), suggests that the effectivity of sex conversion therapy is an ongoing debate in the scientific community (100), and he appeals to (thoroughly un-Orthodox) “plain sense” Scriptural hermeneutics (99). But his most questionable claim is that “gender identity continues in the resurrection” (101) and that “full humanity” is only possible as male or female (104; cf. Mt 22:30; Gal 3:28; Maximos, Amb 41.3&ff). These last assertions work only by succumbing to historical-theological amnesia.

I consider these three “traditionalist” contributions a disservice to the intellectual possibilities for “conservative” Orthodox Christians, who may wish to await more compelling accounts of human sexuality and marriage.

Sanfilippo’s piece implicitly disagrees with these three but is nonetheless uncompelling. The author wishes to draw attention to the potentially homosexual expressions of Fr Florensky’s life—for which, to be sure, there is meaningful evidence—but his analysis of the texts is problematic. For example, his exposition of the poem Два рыцаря (Two Knights) as a homosexual encounter will likely strike those with firsthand knowledge of Slavic literature and culture as affected and unconvincing. He reads a jousting match as a penetrative homosexual encounter by claiming that the knights remove their armor (nowhere stated in the poem) and “‘break their spears’ with each other” (67). But the line in question depicts a different context: “I will break spears with you in honor of the Lady” (сломим копья с тобою в честь Дамы, stanza 1.4).[1] It is unclear who the “Lady” is (Florensky’s sister Olga?), but surely, queering texts needs no female erasure to make a point.

Corbman/Payne/Tucker penned the most “progressive,” and arguably the most controversial, piece. Their article must be engaged carefully, regardless of politico-religious allegiances, because it rightly shifts attention to Orthodox history and theology. Their argument is that rationales against blessing same-sex marriages in Orthodoxy rely on a “false identification of marriage, the nuclear family, and binary-gender anthropology as core components of Christian theology and practice” (107). They note that universal ecclesial marriage recognition in the Roman Empire became official only in 893, while slave marriage was legalized as late as 1095 (114). Simultaneously, they contend (via Gregory Nazianzen) that the Trinity’s radical transcendence precludes its analogical appropriation to ground human relationships, including marriage (109). Instead, they describe marriage as “a context (one among many) in which conformity to Christ can be perfected” (114). Thus, they conclude that absent compelling theological and historical arguments, the Church ought to bless “the marriages of all who seek to follow Jesus Christ” (116).

I have not done justice to this volume nor have I mentioned every contribution. Rather, I have threaded together the most closely related and contemporarily salient pieces, which focus on the validity of blessing non-heteronormative relationships. I would like to add two further considerations.

First, we draw imaginary lines between modern and premodern Christian marriage practices at our own peril. We cannot conflate modern and premodern marriage practices just because they were constituted by opposite sexes any more than we can conflate modern same-sex partnerships and premodern two-person monastic partnerships just because they were comprised by the same sex; they were all different social phenomena. Most premodern marriages blessed by the Church were involuntary (certainly for most women, probably for some men) and often featured substantial age disparities. Most married women’s hagiographies clearly depict their protagonists’ utter reticence to intramarital intercourse; it is naïve to attribute this reticence exclusively to pious aversions to sex. Rather, saintly married women frequently attained holiness precisely by eluding heteronormative strictures through creative strategies of resistance: Macrina the Younger argued that (re)marriage would betray her betrothed (deceased before consummation); Matrona of Perge eluded her abusive husband by assuming a male identity and entering a (male) monastery; Walatta Petros withheld sex from her husband following his apostasy to Catholicism and later divorced him.

Second, given this evidence, it is unsurprising that most Orthodox saints attained holiness through non-heteronormative ways of life: as anchorites, cenobites, etc. The historical-theological witness of the Church challenges us to consider why these lives were salvific and deifying and how they might be applicable to (all) contemporary marriages. Papanikolaou’s article may offer preliminary answers to this challenge, but as this volume’s strengths and shortcomings indicate, much work still lies ahead.


[1] Reading сломим as a colloquial “plurisingular” circumlocution.


Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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  • Luis Sales

    Luis Sales

    Visiting Assistant Professor of Early Christianity at Scripps College in Claremont, CA

    Luis Salés is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Early Christianity at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. His most recent publications include a series of articles on Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, and Yahya ibn 'Adi, as well as an English translation of Maximos' Chapters on Theology and a S...

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