The recent publication on Orthodoxy in Dialogue of an open letter on the topic of homosexuality (dated Nov. 8, 2017) by Dr David Ford of St Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary has elicited predictably strong-and-polarized emotional reactions from readers: some have expressed relief that the position they understand to be that of univocal Orthodox tradition is being rigorously defended by a person charged with teaching theology in an Orthodox institution; others, exasperation that the letter does not engage with the arguments and testimonies which have been made and given on many public platforms (including Orthodoxy in Dialogue itself) and therefore appears to refuse the genuine dialogue and radical self-critique (repentance) which is necessary for theological integrity.
This response is not an attempt to refute any of Dr Ford’s claims regarding homosexuality per se, because it seems to me that very many combatants in the arena of issues in sex, gender, and sexuality are committed to their declared positions on principle (this includes Dr Ford, whose many publications on this topic make his views quite clear), and so there is little to be gained from raising objections. Yet, the urgent contemporary questions raised in this area continue to challenge all of us in some way, and it seems that the apologies (more on this below) made by church spokespersons for the church’s views continue to fail to satisfy many who are deeply engaged with these issues in a variety of contexts—not least in the pastures of parish life. So, if public discourse on the topic of “same-sex attraction” (and other related matters) among Orthodox thinkers is to move beyond the impasse of an endless cycle of the assertion and re-assertion of mutually exclusive positions (which, all too often, devolves into a most unholy slanging match), I believe that we must enter upon a more difficult examination of the pillars on which the arguments that lead to our theological commitments stand.
Therefore, this short essay will, with one hand, attempt to point out some of the foundational ideas that support the views expressed by Dr Ford in his open letter, and, with the other, gesture towards an understanding of how these differ from the fundamental presuppositions of those who have diverged in their conclusions on matters of sex, gender, and sexuality. (Dr Ford may, of course, reject my analysis of his theological reasoning—in which case, I hope that he will correct my errors.) It will not even attempt to be exhaustive in this regard; in fact, it will be consciously selective in dealing with only three of the fundamental presuppositions that I see at work in this letter. The topics are treated in no particular order and with necessary brevity. And, to underscore the point made above, this essay will certainly disappoint those who hope to see a point-by-point rebuttal of Dr Ford’s letter, since the particulars of the discussion of same-sex attraction are here marginalized in favour of a discussion of more basic issues.
As a final preliminary note: we must be honest that there can be no pretence to “objectivity” in this conversation about theological fundamentals. Those, like myself, who think that the current mainstream approaches in the Orthodox Church to issues of sex, gender, and sexuality (and others) are no longer sustainable on theological grounds and therefore in need of radical re-imagination will seek to build a first-order theological framework from the raw materials of the Orthodox tradition which can then support our second-order arguments and conclusions. In the same way, those, like Dr Ford, who think that there should be (or, perhaps, can be) no change to these approaches will seek to demonstrate (or merely imply) that their first-order theological framework is the Orthodox theological framework and that the second-order arguments and conclusions which derive from it represent the Orthodox answer to the questions being raised (and perhaps, therefore, cannot even be categorized as second-order in the way that I have done here, since they are equally part of a “consistent spiritual tradition,” to quote Dr Ford). We must not shy away from this observation concerning bias in our (theological) hermeneutics, since awareness of the inevitable and necessary operation of bias in all thinking is crucial if we are to understand how arguments work.
Dr Ford’s letter foregrounds the role of tradition in his theological methodology. Indeed, one might summarize the entire letter as an apology (in the sense of apologia, a defence) for tradition-al Christianity. Tradition is characterized as “consistent,” “age-old,” “divinely-given,” and “holy.” It is spoken of as active, as being an agent—it teaches and emphasizes points. In many places, it seems to be synonymous with “the church” and “the faith,” and, as such, it is perfect, and we are obliged to trust it, obey it, and “faithfully transmit [it] full and intact.” Dr Ford’s letter gives the impression that the Orthodox tradition is a vast repository of information and experience—an all-encompassing network of ideas, values, practices, and guidelines—which, when humbly accepted in its entirety without change or question, leads one along the “path to holiness and true joy.” Tradition is unambiguous and univocal—at least with regard to issues of sexuality, but presumably others too—and deviation from tradition is, at best, the result of sinful delusion and, at worst, a conscious attempt to distort (and ultimately abolish) Christianity.
The foregrounding of tradition is, indeed, a central and defining feature of Orthodox theology. All Orthodox (theologians) seek to receive and transmit the apostolic teaching. But what does this mean in practice? When one engages the enormous corpus of Orthodox theological writings (and something similar could be said for other traditional media, such as iconography), one very quickly realizes that Orthodox theologizing has not merely entailed the reproduction of fixed, exhaustive content, over and over. If this were the case, there would have been no need to do theology at all! But we can see that the corpus of theological writings has, in fact, grown—theology has been and is creative. Theologians strive to receive the gospel—the apostolic faith—not simply to preserve it but to preach it. And preaching requires that we address the gospel to an audience—we engage the world with the gospel. When we look at the history of theology, this is what we see: the apostolic tradition alive in various figures who work out its meaning in their historical context.
This analysis opens up two contrasting possibilities for how we conceive of tradition: either it is a kind of sum total of all the (Orthodox) Christian theological ideas ever articulated, or it has a somewhat more narrowly delineated content. Let’s call these views, respectively, maximalist and minimalist. Unfortunately, both terms have value connotations which I do not wish to import here. The contrast I want to draw is something like that between a loaf of bread and yeast. For maximalists, tradition is the loaf—fully-formed and delicious, mother’s own recipe; for minimalists, tradition is yeast—a small but absolutely indispensable ingredient in a whole variety of leavened loaves.
It seems to me that Dr Ford’s letter rests upon a maximalist view of tradition. By this, I do not mean to say simply that he understands tradition to be “all the Christian theological ideas ever articulated” in the sense that a survey course of the history of Christianity might indiscriminately say that “the broad Christian tradition” includes the whole gamut of ideas and practices which in any way (however weakly) have something to do with Jesus Christ—he certainly does not! Rather, I think his concept of tradition is of a very large, entirely cohesive, and ultimately static system. It is a baked loaf. The job of theologians is essentially to mark, learn, and inwardly digest the tradition (the Tradition) and then repeat what has been said before. There is, after all, nothing new to say; all the questions have been answered. The tradition is complete; the loaf is baked. This kind of view of tradition is often coupled with an assertion of the “objective truth” of Christian theology and an explicit rejection of any suggestion of newness and change as the product of “relativism.”
By contrast, many of us who find room for a reconsideration of issues to do with same-sex attraction (and other topics) think in terms of a minimalist view of tradition—tradition as yeast. I cannot over-emphasize the fact that this does not mean that we minimalize the role of tradition in our theology or that we wish to reduce the content of Christianity to some kind of “lowest common denominator.” No! We say in all sincerity, “as our fathers have taught us, so we believe….” But we do not conceive of tradition as a vast and complete system. Rather, we think of it as a highly concentrated, potent, and essential ingredient. What is handed on (“traditioned”) and guaranteed in the church is this apostolic faith, which is then preached afresh in every generation. The result is that theology looks different in different places and at different times—the yeast sometimes yields a wholegrain loaf, other times white sandwich bread. But the effect of the apostolic teaching is unmistakable: it would be incorrect to compare a cheesecake and a baguette and conclude that, since they both came out of the same oven, they must both contain yeast!
The maximalist vision of tradition is appealing and impressive: it’s all true! Great confidence is generated by the idea that there is an unbroken, immaculate, inviolable chain of knowledge and praxis embodied by the saints, stretching back to the very beginning of Christianity. One can take any two books out of the Orthodox Library and find the very same truth, in the very same terms, in both. This impresses upon us the need to accept without question what is taught as the apostolic faith: after all, “the Church’s traditional teachings…[are] the experience and teaching of every single Saint who has ever lived!” as Dr Ford writes. The problem, of course, is that when one wanders from the “Introduction to Theology” shelf of the Orthodox Library’s reading room into the cavernous stacks below, one discovers a hugely diverse body of literature (and other media), which is full of beautiful disagreement and irreducible difference. Whereas the maximalist, at this point, may despair and return to a comfortable synthesis, or more narrowly define Orthodoxy to exclude challenging thought, the minimalist is able to rejoice at the fact that the same yeast yields not only Wonder Bread, but artisanal San Francisco sourdough, and some cakes as well!
Somewhat paradoxically, it is the minimalist approach to tradition that preserves the whole of the tradition from obscurity and irrelevance—even as it demands that we think theologically for ourselves today and preach the gospel to our generation. It does not require us to explain away all disagreement, resolve all difference, and smooth out every wrinkle. It allows us to marvel at divine providence and see how mindblowingly potent the gospel really is.
Theology & NaturAL SCIence
Dr Ford’s letter also displays strong convictions about the relationship between science, theology, and nature. He expresses the view that natural science, when free to conduct “objective” research, is able to reach conclusions about human nature which corroborate Orthodox ethical teachings—at least insofar as the scientific community judged historically that “the homosexual lifestyle” had “deleterious emotional, psychological, and physical consequences.” In other words, when we ask questions about the world (or, at least, about sex, gender, and sexuality), natural science and theology will yield compatible answers when they are both operating freely. It is only when science (or theology, one might suppose) is diverted from its rational, objective course by external factors, that it reaches erroneous conclusions which diverge from the teachings of the church. Dr Ford therefore narrates a history of science in which the judgment of the scientific community regarding homosexuality could once be trusted, but now, under the “tyranny of political correctness” and as a result of “aggressive homosexual activists using Marxist tactics of infiltration and intimidation,” is to be absolutely disregarded: “the contemporary science involved with the whole realm of sexuality cannot be trusted. With its being held hostage by political correctness, it has lost its objectivity” (emphases original).
I agree with Dr Ford that there is no necessary incompatibility between the disciplines of natural science and theology. In fact, time and again the influence of contemporary understandings of the natural world (albeit those derived through pre-modern scientific methodologies) has been detected by scholars in patristic texts—whether, for example, in theories of sight or understandings of the causes of biological differentiation between males and females—demonstrating that theologians of past generations did not necessarily shun the conclusions reached through investigation of the natural world. But to observe that theology and natural science are not incompatible (in the way that Young Earth creationists do, for example) is not equivalent to saying that they are capable (when operating freely and “objectively”) of reaching identical conclusions about the same questions. Quite simply: theology and natural science do not deal with the same subject matter, even when they appear to do so (concerning the nature of the human being or the origins of the universe, for example). They have different objects of study and—crucially—different methodologies, which lead to irreducibly and incomparably different results, and they cannot, therefore, be compared with one another and used to shore-up or critique one another’s arguments.
Once again in the interest of avoiding misunderstanding, I want to be very clear that this does not mean that the church (especially in the person of her theologians and pastors) can ignore or disparage developments of human understanding in natural science (or any other non-theological field)! Indeed, to do so in our contemporary world, with all its technology—electronic, engineering, medical, etc.—would be pastorally irresponsible at best. Developments in natural science impact our lives every day and the church must be vigilant in assessing them and contemplating how they relate to spiritual matters. We are called to bless whatever is found to be good and true (cf. Phil. 4.8). Furthermore, the church is wise to seek humbly the counsel of scientific professionals and to cultivate those who are able to acquire both scientific and theological learning. But the church must also understand and refuse to overstep the limits of its competency—not least, as a corollary to requesting that natural science respect the territory of theology and not disparage it per se as a pre-modern attempt to answer its own questions.
The acknowledgment of the incommensurability of natural science and theology relieves the latter from a burden of proof which it simply cannot bear and frees it to speak on its own terms and with its own logic (even as these must always, necessarily, be rendered intelligible in our historical context). This requires that we consider very carefully what the subject-matter of theology is and how we do theology. In short, I suggest that many of us who find room for a reconsideration of issues to do with same-sex attraction (and other topics) understand theology to have a relatively closely-defined field of operation and a distinctive set of methodological presuppositions, which means that theology cannot (and should not strive to) articulate a Theory of Everything, even if its conclusions do impact every area of our life and determine our sense of what is finally, perfectly (i.e., teleologically) significant about our existence in the world.
So contemporary scientific understandings of sex, sexuality, and gender (whether we agree with them or not—and most of us lack the specialist knowledge to adjudicate) can only take the theologian so far—in fact, they can only take the theologian to answers which meet the criteria of scientific methodology! If contemporary science is asked about human nature and the role of sex, sexuality, and gender within that, it may be able to say “homosexuality is a natural phenomenon insofar as we understand human nature,” but that does not answer any theological question about the human being and how sex, sexuality, and gender fit into the plan of God. To suggest that the natural scientific conclusion answers the theological question is actually to deny the validity of theological reasoning and circumscribe theology within the horizon of the world—nature as it is intelligible to us apart from Christ. In theological terms, it is to suggest that the economy of God in Christ does little more than to tidy up and slightly improve this world and our experience of it; whereas, I would suggest, the plan of God is more profound and more challenging than this.
Thus, if we wish to answer theological questions about how sex, sexuality, and gender (or, in the case of Dr Ford’s letter, specifically homosexuality) relate to human being, then we need to examine how human nature is defined by and in Jesus Christ (rather than by and in any other definition of human being). Furthermore, I would add that the understanding and meaning of human existence as sexed, gendered, and sexual has shifted so radically in Modernity (i.e., in the ambient cultural context in which Orthodox Christianity has long drawn breath, however much it protests that fact) that we cannot make assumptions in this area—even when we reason theologically from familiar texts (and other resources) within our tradition, using established language. It is essential, for example, that we recognize the relatively recent genesis of the term “homosexuality” and understand that Greek itself has no native term for “sexuality” (Modern Greek uses the partial calque, σεξουαλικότητα [sexoualikotēta].) The “so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s” is only one phase in a (moral) revolution that has been going on in the Western world for centuries and has raised many subtle, complex, and genuinely-new questions for theology. If we really want to ground our contemporary responses in what our ancestors in the faith thought about these overwhelmingly significant topics, then we are going to be obliged to suspend our familiar definitions and conceptual matrices—even for terms we think of as being stable, such as “virginity”—and enter deeply into their historical context, lest we simply read our own conclusions onto their arguments.
Apologia and Theologia
Finally, Dr Ford’s letter appears to be an example of the genre of apologia: it is a defence of the discipline and pastoral practice of the Orthodox Church in light of the accusation that its teachings on homosexual attraction, emotional intimacy, and sex are erroneous and have serious negative consequences. There is a very long tradition of apologetic writing in the church, stretching back at least to Tertullian’s Apologeticus (late second century), which sought to defend Christians against unjust treatment at the hands of the Roman civic authorities by answering the charges brought against the church. Famously, this included the claim that Christians eat babies. Dr Ford’s letter begins by briefly summarizing his understanding of the church’s teaching (“[the church] has always condoned sexual activity only within traditional marriage [one man and one woman], the one and only place of life-long commitment and self-sacrificial love that safely protects and channels this very powerful aspect of our humanity”) and proceeds to a very lengthy explanation of why this teaching should be upheld, how it does not lead to the terrible consequences that are attributed to it, and how, in fact, rejection of the church’s teaching on homosexuality leads to all manner of wickedness.
Christians must be able to give a good account of the hope that is within us (cf. 1 Peter 3.15). Primarily, this requires that we be able to articulate and explain the apostolic teaching—what I referred to above as “first-order” theology—and, only secondarily, that we be able to articulate and explain what is derived from this—“second-order” theology. So, for example, before discoursing at length on the history and merits of rigorous asceticism during the Great Fast, we must be able to explain that we believe that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, who laid down his life in an act of self-sacrifice, and, entering voluntarily into a death which he did not need to die, “trampled down death by death,” and revealed that death has no power over true life. Every aspect of the church’s life—its entire theology, liturgy, disciplines—proceeds from and leads back to this Paschal Mystery.
It is the Paschal Mystery that constitutes the content of the apostolic preaching and provides the methodological first principles of theology. Every other theological word is derivative of this—whether in the field of Christology, Trinitarian theology, hermeneutics, eschatology, anthropology, moral theology, or any other. Therefore, in rendering our “good account,” we should be able to show how it is that our second-order theological deductions proceed from our first-order premises. Now, it must be admitted that this is neither easy nor always necessary! Much second-order theology passes by unnoticed as such, because it is easily accepted. For example, monasticism as a path of Christian living is not challenged in most parts of the Christian world, because it has been accepted culturally for centuries now as a feature of church life. But under pressure—whether consciously constructed by Reformers or at first encounter (e.g., by Evangelical protestants)—monasticism has to be explained and re-grounded in first-order theology. I would venture that it is very hard to deny that Orthodox Christian teaching on anthropology, specifically in regard to matters of sex, gender, and sexuality, is under pressure today!
Perhaps it is thought to be so obvious how the Orthodox Church’s stance on homosexuality proceeds from its first-order theology that it simply does not need to be explained. (Dr Ford’s letter makes no effort in this regard and neither do many other reflections on this topic.) But I will humbly report that it is not at all clear how this is the case to very many of us who continue to wrestle with these ideas and practices. For that reason alone, it is imperative that the discourse shift from a defensive to a constructive mode—from apologia to theologia. If we are to embrace these teachings, which stand in such stark contrast with the prevailing attitudes in our Western cultural contexts, then we must understand why we do so, from the starting point of the Paschal Mystery. Moreover, it is essential from a missiological perspective (since many of us today seek to proclaim the gospel in contexts of sophisticated learning and complex reflection on the self) that we learn to articulate the theological basis for our anthropology rather that simply asserting the unquestionable value of submission to a system of thought and praxis which we do not understand.
As stated in the introduction, this essay is not an attempt to challenge Dr Ford’s presentation of the Orthodox Church’s teachings on homosexuality at the level of those teachings themselves. It is, rather, a reflection on prior theological methodology, highlighting the presuppositions I judge to be at work in his (and many other) reflections on this topic and contrasting them with those which I see operating in the theology of those who find room for the Orthodox Church to reconsider its stances—in a way which would be consistent with its own tradition. No doubt, some representatives of both sides of the debate over homosexual attraction, relationships, and sex will disagree with my analysis and struggle to locate their views within the taxonomy I propose. But I hope, at least, to have suggested some questions which may help us to break out of the ideological deadlock in which we find ourselves.
Gregory Tucker is a doctoral student of theology and editor of The Wheel.
The Spring/Summer 2018 double issue of The Wheel (guest edited by Andrew Louth) will explore the theme of embodiment and expand upon many of the topics treated here.