Why We Need Nature

by David Bradshaw

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

Here is a little thought experiment. Suppose a pill is invented that enables you to eat whatever you want without getting fat. It is cheap, does not require a prescription, and has no bad side-effects. For good measure, let us suppose that it maintains muscle tone as well, so it lets you stay in shape without needing to exercise.

Would you take the pill?

If you answered yes, and you are Orthodox, then I would urge you to think again. Surely nothing is more antithetical to Orthodox ascetic and spiritual teaching than to think that we can off-load the problem of maintaining self-discipline onto a pill. If anything, Orthodoxy adds hard challenges that are not physically necessary. We “afflict ourselves” with fasts, vigils, and long prayers in ways that are decidedly contrary to the ethos of the world around us. We do so because we recognize that a spirit of self-denial is essential to the spiritual life. If we cannot forego a little food for the sake of Christ, we are not likely to be able to overcome the subtler temptations that come at us every day.

Here is another thought experiment. Suppose (as is likely to happen in the not too distant future) that sexbots are perfected. They move, feel, and even taste like human bodies. They utter the right sounds, emit the right secretions, and make the right motions to produce maximal sexual pleasure. They can even keep up a conversation and share a smoke afterward if that happens to be your taste.

You are lonely, have no commitments, and have not had sex for some time. Would you use a sexbot?

I trust it is obvious what the answer should be. For an Orthodox, sex should never be simply a matter of achieving gratification by whatever means are convenient. Sex belongs within marriage and it has a purpose that is deeply tied to the goods of marriage. To use a sexbot would be a glorified act of masturbation, but one that is far more dangerous than ordinary masturbation because it so closely mimics the real thing. Aside from the misdirection of the act itself, it would be enticing, and perhaps even habit-forming, in a way that could destroy one’s capacity for a real relationship.

These examples raise the question of the place of the body in our moral lives. Is the body anything more than a machine for producing experiences? If it is not, then we can drug, manipulate, and enhance it as needed to produce the experiences that we want. The only limits are technological. One can envision a day when even sexbots will come to seem old-fashioned. Why not insert a chip in the spinal cord that simply produces whatever pleasurable sensations one wants at the push of a button? One could control it from one’s cell phone, or the future equivalent thereof, and enjoy whatever pleasures one chooses while on the subway on the way to work.

Orthodoxy does not think of the body in this way. For us, the body is our co-worker in salvation. We do not think of our existing desires and inclinations simply as givens that we seek to gratify, but as raw material that has to be transformed and redirected to bring us closer to God. The body is integral to that process, and so we fast and stand in vigil. We also kiss icons, light candles, make the Cross, sing, prostrate, walk in procession, receive anointing, and above all, partake of the Holy Eucharist. All of these are ways that we incorporate the body in our journey of salvation. They are actions that both express and seek to advance that redirection of desire that is essential to any living relationship with God. Ultimately we look forward to the day when the body will be raised and will share, in its glorified state, in eternal salvation.

Because we see the body this way, we also seek to respect the integrity of the body and the deep connections that exist between its various levels of structure and function. Part of what is wrong with the pill envisioned above is that it severs the bond between the act of eating and its normal physical consequences. As Orthodox, we believe that these consequences are not merely accidental, but are part of the structure given to us by the Creator to help us learn, among other things, the value of self-control. Likewise, part of what is wrong with sexbots is that they disengage the normal elements of lovemaking from their natural home within the bodily expression of love for another person. Remove the other person and they become a caricature of their true selves.

The word that has traditionally been used to identify this integrity of bodily structure and function is nature. In particular, when an act is said in ancient sources to be “in accordance with nature” or “contrary to nature,” this is usually the sense that is intended. To use any of the devices I have mentioned—the anti-fatness pill, sexbots, the chip in the spinal cord—would be unnatural in this sense. But we need not limit ourselves to imaginary scenarios, for other practices that have long existed are also unnatural, such as cannibalism, bestiality, and genital mutilation.

To discern what is natural in this sense is not always easy. People have often leapt to unwarranted conclusions, using this term to validate what (with hindsight) we can see to have been merely their own prejudices. We must beware of such mistakes. However, they do not invalidate the very concept of nature—no more than, say, appeals to democracy to support mob rule invalidate the concept of democracy.

When we are in doubt about what is natural, the appropriate place to turn for guidance is Scripture and the tradition of the Church. What these have to say about homosexual intercourse is well known. Here I hope merely to have given a framework for understanding what these teachings mean and how they fit into the rest of our moral and spiritual lives.


David Bradshaw is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky.

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 Fordham-Exeter project leaders, the conference as a whole, or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.