The following open letter, written by Dr David Ford of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary, is a response to Gregory Tucker’s February 2018 post on this blog, which addressed Dr. Ford’s “Open Letter on Same Sex Love” originally published on the blog Orthodoxy in Dialogue.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Thank you very much for reading my lengthy open letter to Giacomo Sanfilippo, and for your thoughtful, respectful response to it. I appreciate your calmness and civility in approaching the controversial topic of homosexuality, and I will endeavor to respond to you in a similar way.
I also thank you for being, I think, quite fair, for the most part, in representing/summarizing my words. On one key point, though, I would like to offer a crucial clarification. I’m sorry if I may have given the impression in my letter that I believe tradition to be an “ultimately static system,” as you describe my position. I do, in fact, agree with your words: “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.”
Yes, the tradition, ever guided by the Holy Spirit in the Church, has always been and still is “alive” and “creative.” But at the same time it has always been internally consistent. With every fresh presentation of the gospel to each new generation, in each new cultural setting, the Church has adapted her preaching to the specifics of the cultural context, but never to the extent of being inconsistent with what she has always preached in every other context.
Hence, I’m surprised that you’re calling for a “radical re-imagination” concerning “issues of sex, gender, and sexuality.” For these words certainly imply at least the possibility of a radical change in the content of the tradition itself. Yet there has never before been even remotely anything like a radical change in the content of the tradition in the entire history of our Church. So it would be very much inconsistent for such a radical change to ever occur, either now or in the future. After all, we do believe in timeless truth—since Jesus Christ, the truth himself, is “the same: yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
So I think the basic point of our disagreement lies in the extent to which we believe and understand that certain elements in our tradition are open to change. Certainly there can be a vast array of local customs in music, iconography styles, rubrics in the services, certain minor pastoral practices, etc., there is great room for variety. And these local variations often are in flux. Yet they all are consistent with the tradition as a whole.
Veneration of local saints is perhaps a good example. As far as I know, there has never been an instance, in the entire history of our Church, when one portion of the universal Orthodox Church glorified/canonized someone as a saint whom another portion of the Church rejected as being a saint.
So we see that among all these variations in local practice, there is no departure from basic, foundational belief. Your analogy using WonderBread and artisanal San Francisco sourdough bread, and asserting that they are still both bread, reveals how radical indeed your re-imagining is! For how many true-blue artisanal sourdough bread lovers would see in WonderBread anything consistent with what they know to be truly bread!
From the point of view of consistency within the tradition through the ages, it’s inconceivable that the Orthodox Church as a whole would ever endorse sodomy—or any other form of same-sex sexual activity—as an acceptable practice, as something consistent with the quest for holiness and purity in spirit, soul, and body which her members have always preached and endeavored to practice. It cannot ever be seen as being consistent with the holy Scriptures, which as you know strongly condemn the practice, or as being consistent with the teachings of our church fathers and the canons of our tradition, all of which also strongly condemn that practice as not being consistent with the life of purity to which our Church has always called us all: “Pursue holiness, without which no one can see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
I fully realize that for many Christians who identify themselves as homosexuals, they are convinced, by their experience, that same-sex sexual relations are compatible with a life of holiness, especially if their same-sex sexual activity occurs within a loving, committed relationship. But the foundational problem here is that they reach this conclusion based on their own experience and reasoning, and not on the experience and reasoning of the Church as a whole.
Yet we Orthodox Christians are always taught not to trust our own experience and reasoning—for we know how easily we can be deceived—but rather to measure and adapt our experience and reasoning by and to the experience and reasoning of the saints and fathers of our Church—all of whom have always deplored and continue to deplore same-sex sexual activity as deeply sinful and highly detrimental to a life of true holiness. Of course, heterosexual sexual activity outside of marriage is also similarly condemned by our Church.
While I empathize with self-identified homosexuals who are trying to reconcile their sexualized SSA with their Christian faith, it seems to me that of all Christians, Orthodox Christians should be able to understand that if they do have sexualized thoughts and feelings of SSA, these thoughts and feelings cannot possibly be approved or blessed by our Lord. So whatever the complex origins of such thoughts and feelings may be, in the universal and timeless understanding of our Orthodox Church these thoughts and feelings must be resisted with the help of our Lord, and through the guidance of his Church and her deep understanding of spiritual warfare and dealing with ungodly thoughts (logismoi), in order for a life of real holiness to be experienced.
* * * * *
I also agree with you, Gregory, that theologically we need to delve more deeply into the mysteries of human sexuality, to try to ascertain more fully why indeed our Lord Jesus fashioned mankind into only two sexes, and what this means as we seek to live as faithful Orthodox Christians—especially in today’s cultural setting in which many are seeking to minimize the importance of the many distinctions between the two sexes.
If sexual complementarity had not been our Lord’s will for humanity, he certainly could have simply fashioned another man to be Adam’s longed-for helpmate. But he did not. Rather, he desired for Adam and Eve to rejoice in the glorious and wondrous mystery of male/female complementarity.
In addition, Christ declares that the man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife—not to another man (cf. Matt. 19:5). He also teaches concerning marriage, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). Since in the Orthodox understanding it is God himself who unites one woman and one man in the marriage service, it would be enormously inconsistent to his age-old way of acting, through his holy Church for two thousand years, to suddenly believe and assert that he is now uniting two men or two women in “marriage.”
Can it be a reasonable expectation that our Lord in our own time will change his mind on this very major issue, just because the Supreme Court, or Hollywood, or many in our secularized and sexualized contemporary society have changed their mind on it? And even if we may happen to hope that there’s a chance that our Lord, acting through his Church, will some day change his mind on this, I believe it’s unconscionable, and in egregious disobedience to our Church and our tradition, for us now as Orthodox Christians to be encouraging anyone with SSA to engage in same-sex sexual activity in the hope that one day the Church will consider such activity acceptable.
Indeed, I believe it’s unconscionable for anyone in our Church to encourage people with SSA to engage in same-sex activity for any reason—because encouraging such activity implies that it’s something good and acceptable to the Lord, when it so obviously is not, according to the consistent teachings of our Church for two thousand years in a multitude of different cultures. When this is made crystal clear to people wrestling with SSA, it gives them a sure foundation to inspire them to fight against any impulses towards same-sex sexual activity. Otherwise, so often there is heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching uncertainty, which can amplify, sometimes with disastrous consequences, the confusion that people struggling with SSA so often feel.
In addition, I would assert just as strongly that everyone else in the single state also must struggle just as much against inappropriate heterosexual sexual behavior in order to live chastely before marriage—no matter how strong their feelings and impulses might be in a sinful direction, and no matter how strongly the surrounding society is urging them to indulge in sexual sin. And for the married, this is also just as important for them—to ensure that they will not engage in inappropriate sexual activity within marriage, and that they will resist even the slightest thoughts of possibly committing adultery.
* * * * *
Christ also made men and women so different so that they could reproduce sexually—which, of course, is biologically impossible for same-sex couples. Their bodies are not even designed for becoming “one flesh,” as Christ says the man and woman will do in marriage (Matt. 19:5).
Furthermore, I believe, along with Fr. John Breck, that the current many-faceted effort to reduce the importance of, and indeed to renounce entirely, binary human sexuality, is indeed a heresy—an anthropological heresy which can be called, as he does, unisexism. As we quote him in the Introduction to the book of essays which my wife and I helped to edit entitled Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage (SVS Press, 2016):
“Unisexism” is perhaps the Arianism of our day, the seductive and convenient, if heretical, solution to the intractable problem of sorting out gender roles in a workable and equitable fashion. Only it’s inverted. Whereas Arius dealt with the antinomy of God-manhood by denying consubstantiality, the unisex heresy deals with the problem of gender by denying differentiation (p. 12; our emphasis).
* * * * *
You asked in your letter to me for a deeper reflection on Jesus Christ himself as an avenue to help us sort out the current controversies regarding human sexuality. I’d like to make an effort in this direction by suggesting that the heresy of unisexism has affinities with one of the most major heresies of Christian history, that known as Monophysitism. In this heresy from the fifth century, there is a tendency to blur and obscure the distinctions between our Lord’s divine and human natures—perhaps in a way parallel to the current efforts to blur and obscure the distinctions between the two sexes.
But as the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon (451) proclaims, the two natures of our Lord are united in Him “without confusion, without change, without separation, and without division; and without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the distinctive properties of each nature being preserved” (my emphasis). In the Church’s rejection of the related heresy of Monothelitism at the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680–81), this doctrine is further refined with the assertion that “in Him are two natural wills and two natural operations, existing indivisibly, uncontrovertibly, inseparably, and unconfusedly” (my emphasis).
In transposing this unchanging understanding in our tradition of our Lord and his two natures to humanity existing in two sexes, I believe we can assert, in a similar way, that humanity exists in two sexes “without confusion, without change, without separation, and without division; and without the distinction of the sexes being taken away by such union, but rather the distinctive properties of each sex being preserved.”
Unisexism, with its strong endorsement of homosexual relationships—wherein the opposite sex is actually totally eliminated, and wherein a man is said to be a “wife,” and a woman is said to be a “husband”—is also related to the heresy of Iconoclasm. In that highly destructive heresy of the eighth and ninth centuries, the veneration of icons, a crucially important practice of the Church praised by the church fathers and approved in the canons, was “cursed out of the Church” by bishops under intense pressure from the emperor.
In our own time, we recognize the intense pressure of many elements in our surrounding society, including many governmental authorities (all taking the place of the emperor), pushing towards acceptance of sodomy and same-sex “marriage” by everyone, including by all the Christian churches. And in this effort, just as the Iconoclasts destroyed the icons, this new form of Iconoclasm is intent on destroying historic Christianity’s understanding of marriage as only being ever between one man and one woman, as well as historic Christianity’s understanding of sexual relations as only being ever approved and blessed by God within heterosexual marriage.
Furthermore, it’s clear that unisexism also has close affinities with the ancient yet constantly recurring heresy of Gnosticism, especially libertine Gnosticism. In today’s version of libertine Gnosticism, I think it can be said that one aspect of the secret cosmological knowledge that brings salvation is now the assertion that sodomy (and transgenderism, for that matter) is acceptable, and therefore that it can be practiced with no detrimental repercussions for the spiritual life.
Gnosticism, of course, is centered in the belief that all of Creation is a vast cosmic mistake, with matter itself being evil at least to some extent. Therefore, the human body must be somehow evil also, and must have nothing to do with salvation. Hence, the Gnostics saw no moral significance in the body’s natural form and functions. So it’s not surprising that the Gnostics of our own time see no moral significance in what has traditionally been seen as the glorious and fruitful complementarity of the two sexes.
Indeed, for the Gnostics, the body is seen as a tomb from which the soul must escape in order to find salvation. In this view, since those having the secret knowledge are believed to be automatically saved, and since for them the body does not participate in salvation, it can be used—and abused—at will, without any damaging repercussions.
The Gnostic worldview, of course, is far removed from the Orthodox understanding of the goodness of creation, including the human body, created by the good God who loves mankind. Hence, our tradition understands that the body does very much participate in the ongoing work of salvation, which includes the constant endeavor to live in purity of spirit, soul, and body. Furthermore, our tradition sees great moral significance in the God-given natural form and functions of both the male and the female body—which is why, for instance, there are canons prohibiting castration and cross-dressing.
* * * * *
I believe what I’ve shared above is a step towards your call for “a shift from a defensive to a constructive mode” in doing theology—though I would never minimize the importance of what might be called “defensive” theology, since every one of the seven ecumenical councils met precisely to defend the timeless, universal faith against specific heresies. Yet as the fathers at each of these councils defended the faith, they did so in very positive ways—preserving the sound and pure doctrine which is crucial for underlying and shaping sound and pure living. And they did so in creative ways—using new wording in order to most effectively address each new heresy—while always remaining completely consistent with what the fathers had taught before them.
I also believe that current Orthodox writing on the glory of marriage is also a step in this direction. So I would suggest again, as I did in my open letter to Giacomo, that we are seeing expressed in our own time within Orthodoxy a deeper and richer appreciation for the glory of traditional marriage as a path to holiness as equally valid and meaningful as the monastic path. To quote from that letter,
A wonderful example of this is expressed by an illustrious contemporary Athonite monk, Elder Aimilianos, in his homily, “Marriage: The Great Sacrament” (which is available on-line by that title). In this homily, the elder says that a husband and wife truly living the Gospel are “a theophany” as they exhibit iconically Christ the Bridegroom’s love for His Bride, His Holy Church, in their marriage. You and your readers might also be interested in the 30 essays on various aspects of marriage by 26 Orthodox priests and scholars, including two monastic elders, in Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016).
Thank you, Gregory, ahead of time, for considering these thoughts. May they be helpful to you and to many!
Yours, in Christ,
Dr David C. Ford
Professor of Church History
St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary
South Canaan, PA