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.
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.
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.
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. 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? 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.
Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
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.