New beginnings in community: Gender issues and the Church by Fr. Alexis Vinogradov
New beginnings in community
Gender issues and the Church
Fr. Alexis Vinogradov
July 10, 2011
The vertical axis and the Creed
The title of Father Robert Arida’s essay, A Response to Myself, suggests one of the most honest ways of approaching the cultural and ecclesial considerations of the forms of human community today—to start a conversation with that which each of us personally perceives and can begin to articulate. I repeat and stress: begin to articulate. This is because among the Orthodox churches, at least, we do not yet have a common platform for respectful discourse on the complex social issues of our day. That is not due to a lack of effort, particularly among lay and clergy theologians in the course of the twentieth century. Their literature testifies to the urgency to articulate an ecclesiology which offers each one arriving at the Church’s doors the means to answer Christ’s essential question addressed to man’s irrevocable freedom: “Who do YOU say that I am?” Answering this question, dogmatizing about Christ, the Church formulates her intuition about the ineffable God Man, and in a few sentences of the Creed will go from “by Whom all things were made”, to “crucified under Pontius Pilate”. In other words, her intuition ranges from the ineffable mystery of the relationship of Creator and Creation, to the mundane reportage on a tumultuous weekday on a hillside in Palestine. In the same Creed this mystical assertion: “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary”, and a few sentences later, the cold fact: “and was buried”!
It might seem to us that the Creed should offer a clear “foundation” for righteous godly human society (live by what you believe), but how does it point to a mandate for living, for marrying, for having children, for the all-important “family”? Our Lord seems to even challenge the possibility of such a mandate: “If a man does not hate father and mother…” [Lk.14: 25-27]. The community of the three Persons of the Godhead revealed in the Creed, establishes the ineffable measure of human community; and the possible “impossibility” [Mt.19: 26] of such community is meted out concretely by the Beatitudes. Benedict Groeschel reminds us that in these short rules we have the simple path to life, whereas, he adds, we need two thousand volumes of canon law in order to tell us how to circumvent the Beatitudes and get away with it!
Are not the Creed’s closing affirmations, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, and “I believe in the Church”, the place where the existential answers lie? Neither the Spirit nor the Church can to be confined within an orderly volume of citations, yet it is in the Spirit’s breath upon the Church that heaven and earth are joined; and the solid building of our Church here, can only rest on foundations which are to be found there [2 Cor.5] in the realm of the Spirit. So, responding to that question of our Lord, “Who do you say that I am?” we begin the discovery of our own identity as members of His divine and human Body, and of all the consequent implications of our living in that light. The Creed, therefore, IS the founding block of our ethics, but to discern it is to be transformed by that light; and history reveals that even the Creed’s “final” formulations did not diminish lively theological controversies about its assertions well into many successive centuries.
Consciousness of the Fall
When the American Episcopal Church started ordaining gay clergy, many “conservative” commentators countered with the argument that heterosexual relations are the “antidote”, or the “normal” form of sexual expression. At that time, in at least one essay, Fr Alexander Schmemann, demonstrated how this kind of argumentation keeps the problem on the “horizontal” level. It overlooks the fundamental insight and clear teaching of the Church that all human sexuality (as all human activity) lies under the curse of the Fall, and is in need of being “saved”, transformed. Without going into detail, it is sufficient to point to the whole gamut of proofs: spousal abuse, the prevalence of violent sex, sexual manipulation, a pornographically saturated culture (gay and straight), collapse of family and marriage—to emphasize that for all its historical development, knowledge, psychosocial advances, human civilization teeters even more precariously along the Fall line. To state this is not to promote a Calvinistic despair about man’s intractable depravity, but on the contrary, to warn against today’s growing and artificial polarizations between good and bad people, between the enlightened and the unwashed, the facile identification of the saved and the damned. For Fr Schmemann the fallen state is characterized by dvusmyslennost’, the ambiguity or double-sidedness of all things. The devil, he would say, does not have the power to create “bad” things that oppose the good. The devil can only take everything that is inherently good, and pervert it from within. This is why the realm of religion can and does become the most ambiguous, and consequently dangerous place of struggle and discernment, because of our proclivity to think of everything in religion as defacto “good”, and everything outside it as “secular” and therefore “bad”.
Today’s growing appeal and reliance on simplistic and formulaic answers is the natural fruit of a beleaguered religiosity seeking to provide security for its frightened adherents, who no longer trust their Master’s promise: “the gates of Hell will not prevail against my Church!” [Mt.16: 18]. Such a religiosity cannot tolerate ambiguities, for it attributes the modern moral and spiritual crisis entirely to the disdain for absolutes and certainties. In the minds of many, Orthodoxy has already stated the “final word”, long ago divinely revealed to and articulated by the “fathers”, to be trotted out with textual citations as needed. To speak of a living and developing “mind” of the Church is taboo: it signals an invitation to perpetual ambiguity, the playground of the devil to twist any phrase or dogma, the proverbial slippery slope that has diminished or dismantled heterodox traditions to the point that one can no longer speak of any possibility of ecumenical discourse. Orthodoxy equals security. So, we are told that the debate on sexuality must stop, because the indisputable norm is the choice of heterosexual marriage or celibate life in society or in monasticism.
To begin a profitable conversation on these themes, we cannot avoid our own “beginnings”. Just who are we humans “before” the Fall, and what have we “become after” the Fall? Our readiness to accuse Adam and Eve shifts the blame onto a point in linear history, with us as the innocent victims along its arduous historic path. The theological terms, prelapsarian and postlapsarian suggest that we know both of these states successively, but the same church fathers who speak of these states of man, did not speak of them in temporal terms. Without negating the historic process, they did not confine salvation “history” to the level of cosmic time alone, for that would indeed confirm and excuse a victim culture. Freedom would make no sense. One can say this more simply: we know that in essence God’s creation is good (we know it “before” the Fall), while at the same time we know that this creation, along with us, is fallen (we know this, so to speak, “after” the Fall). In other words, as humans, we already have from early on, the experience of what it means to be incomplete, not whole; while at the same time we live with what the same fathers call the nostalgia of paradise, the inborn memory of wholeness. It is this knowledge that sustains and impels the work that is incumbent on us free persons acting and growing according to the divine grace we have all received.
For theological discourse this knowledge is invaluable, for it means first of all, that my thinking and articulation on any subject will be imperfect, for every person who thinks and articulates theology is a member of fallen humanity. But cumulatively, and over time, because of the redeeming and saving work of Christ, what remains true in this discourse is always revealed to the Church as her innate theology, as belonging to her essence and life. The Creed took almost four centuries to be carved in rock. The New Testament took three. The veneration of icons (not a side issue in Orthodoxy, but of the Church’s essential theology) took almost half her historic journey to confirm. Inherent in the very theology of our “beginnings” (speaking of creation and fall), we are faced with that very ambiguity, that dvusmislenost’, that Fr Schmemann identified above. As we confront those existential beginnings we will therefore also have to learn how and why the same church fathers understood and valued the language of silence, when words fall short.
In the beginning was the End
Now, the “beginning” for theology, is always articulated in terms of the “end”, or the goal. Beyond some temporal arrangement for mutual gratification and a pleasant life into retirement bliss, man’s paradisiac nostalgia is a deeper quest for his very soul, for what it means for him to live and to die. He is a creature in deep search of validation of his remarkable uniqueness, purpose, recognition and joy through intimacy, the experience and validation of love. He lacks words adequate to that need, but it is there in each human being. And it is divinely planted in each person’s body, for that body is the sacrament of that search, the psychological and physical “matter” for the goal to be reached; and that goal is nothing short of eternity.
In the “beginning” God saw that it was not good for man to be alone. Evolving from the divergent and engaging discourse of the Church fathers, there comes to us the common intuition that in the face of the community of the Three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), one human is decidedly not the adequate image of the triune God. Here lies the problem of the “alone”. And this remains the fundamental prelapsarian intuition: I absolutely need another, in order to be fully me! And this fundamental need is prior to any concerns we might have about sexual differentiation.
If the Fall is “explained” as man’s (Adam and Eve’s) refusal of the divinely Other, their refusal of God who completes them, then this is the paradigm for the destructive “threat” perceived in any other whom I need to actually complete me. Humanity, to be truly humanity, can only be completed in unmitigated, unrestricted unity in love: God’s children freely deciding to become brothers and sisters with total fidelity and joy in their one Father in communion with the Son and Spirit. But this picture does not exist. Rather, we live (in the fall) by selective, self-affirming unions in the unredeemed constructs of status, race, profession, national loyalties, physical attractiveness, star power, the lure of other forms of power—and all of these fallen measures are heavily reinforced in religion (ethnic churches, clerical ranks and awards, personality cults, to name a few).
The result is that the more fragile among us, the weak, the different, the slow, the sensitive—are effectively and quickly marginalized, and retreat into other social realities that offer the validations which are absolutely warranted to every human being. Father Roman Braga, survivor of Rumanian torture prisons, says that even the cacophonic outpourings of the heavy metal rocker are rooted in the same nostalgia for paradise as of the nun praying before her icon!
An ironic dimension of the life of the Church is that as she embraces the weak of society—those genuinely seeking shelter in God’s arms—there begins to form within her another sub-culture of individuals who find protection under religious externals and props. The formation of this sub-culture, because it often enjoys the apparatus of clerical power, must always force its own survival through the exclusion of everything that does not conform with its totalitarian construct of reality. Instead of being the portal through which the world is rescued into the kingdom, the Church, according to their siege mentality, becomes an airport screening booth that only allows entry to those cleared of all suspicious baggage. That is why so many ecclesial institutions today are populated by men and women identifiable by a host of external signs and dress. Many today defend this as a viable and necessary witness of faith. That is not to say that a Brooks Brothers suit is any kind of antidote, but we do well to remember that our Lord was able to hide in a crowd. It was said of Him: no man ever spoke this way[Jn.7:46]!, not, no man ever dressed this way. To our surprise, the Lord will search out his own, the lame and the faltering, in the streets and alleys [Lk.14:21].
The debate on gender, and the two axes of the Cross
Homosexual persons did not decide to become homosexual. It was not the fruit of their supposed depravity or sin. That much we know today. There can only be a continuing conversation if we can cross that hurdle of blatant intransigence by those who refuse to acknowledge this fact. But homosexual persons, just as much as heterosexual ones, need to feel the warmth and love and nurture of other persons. God created them for that love, that love is the substance of our humanity; it is what constitutes all of us in bearing his image within us. For any member of the human race when that love is not forthcoming openly and easily, when community taboos and fears isolate them away from the family, it is inevitable that their legitimate searching and need will appear as an anomaly to those who have safely passed through the invisible selective screen. The selective culture, society in general or church, will have pushed them to extremes.
With all the fears, limitations, and let’s say it—blatant self-centered sinfulness—prevalent in all human institutions, the Church must certainly exert her innate super-human effort to rise above the societal taboos, and to meet the challenge of nurturing every fallen soul at her doors—and every one of us is that! This is not to say that Church must not also always hold up before her members the Cross implicit in our road to the goal. Affirming the need for intimacy and human warmth does not defacto translate into an affirmation of gay marriage. Human relationships are infinitely fragile and complex; they are simply not reducible to socially convenient categories. If the Church’s canonical tradition is both prescriptive and proscriptive, it represents a sober consciousness of the Fall. If the evolution and formation of my relationship with one individual becomes a source of temptation or confusion to another, I cannot avoid the human weakness and limitations of this “other”, and so I have an obligation to both of them, because the “goal” (eschatology) IS the mutual transcendent unity of the three of us, and with all others. The canons and rules account for these human and temporal limitations; they account, in other words, for the horizontal dimension of the Cross, as well.
The development of my full humanity, in consideration of the fallen condition in which I work towards my salvation requires me to take into account my weaker brethren [Romans 14]. Herein lies the root of the Church’s ascetical life. Self-restraint, the restraint of my “self” is precisely so that the “other” next to me can arrive at fruition, can reach his or her own “goal” without the imposition of my ego and my claims. And still, while we strive to be mindful of the Church’s disciplinary and canonical tradition, the Gospel presents us the fact of the six husbands (!) of the Samaritan woman, and despite the Church’s canons on marriage this woman becomes St.Photini. The canons are related to history and to time; they are not immovable pillars, and so their place in Church life will also have to occupy a major place in the coming discourse. The vertical, the unpredictable, the Spirit’s free blowing, has yet to show us much in our present age which the martyred priest Alexander Men’ called the infancy of the Church.
The beginning, as we look for beginnings, and as I see it, is therefore, a true asceticism of restraint on all fronts. It ought to be a restraint on the part of the believing and worshipping gay person, as it must be for the bishop, the priest, the monk, and every layman or woman—a restraint in judgment, in quick responses and final answers. Father Robert Arida demonstrated the ambiguity and complexity of the development of thought, teaching, and practice in relation to marriage. His effort is a gift for it reminds us of the beautiful intricacy of human life. Images of the infinite God, at our very best, we humans rightly resist and repel all reductions of our being to neat formulas and categorizations of sin. For all who can hold one another up before God, and who can love each other despite all perceived or hidden faults, the Church needs to be the safe harbor where we can begin to see what God’s new creation is beginning to look like. If the world will not see it among us, then in the words of poet Leonard Cohen, “it’s closing time!”
If we are certain of our Lord’s promise to his Bride, surely neither our silence, nor our restraint, nor our willingness to express our tentative thoughts among one another, can injure this Bride whom He loves. But our callousness, judgment, and self-assurance surely can and do.
Fr. Alexis Vinogradov
July 10, 2011
Wappingers Falls, NY