The (Metaphysical) Joy Of Orthodox Sex
I want to follow up on my post earlier today defending the Evangelical pastor Joshua Ryan Butler against uncharitable (to put it mildly) attacks on him for likening married sexuality to Christ's relationship to the Church. If you haven't yet read that one, go here to do so, then come back to read this post.
I'm revisiting it because I'm gathering, for my re-enchantment book, the notes I took while reading the Greek Orthodox theologian Timothy Patitsas's book The Ethics Of Beauty. Re-reading the highlighted passages, I realized that Patitsas, and Orthodoxy, have a lot to say about this discussion.
Patitsas advocates what he calls a "beauty-first" approach to God. Basically, he says that we first approach God through Beauty, and follow our eros (desire) for Beauty to Goodness, and then to Truth itself. This, it seems to me, is what the late Benedict XVI meant when he said that the best arguments the Church has for the faith are the Beauty it produces, and the saints (that is, extraordinary goodness made incarnate). Patitsas writes:
In the sin-first description of what Christ has done to save us, Christianity may collapse into a moral system. We act as if being good were our first order of business.
He means that if we begin our approach to God with consciousness of our own sinfulness, we start out on the wrong foot. Here I was reminded of what the sociologist of religion Christian Smith told me a while back about evangelizing young Americans: that they will never be brought to faith through moralizing. This is certainly not to say that good morals aren't central to Christian life! It is rather to say that you cannot start there, not with them.
Patitsas goes on:
This becomes a big question in our context, where in the attempt to live by faith alone, some Christians have unwittingly tried to live by their minds and spirits alone. If your body suddenly starts to express faith through the prompting of God himself, they will accuse you of trying to save yourself through good works! The result is that we become like gnostics, acting as if spirits are the real us and our bodies are an accidental shell. Of course, lately our brother Christians have learned with dismay the very long-term consequences of their theology – people don’t even anymore understand the proper connection between bodily gender and marital love. Many live by a disembodied, genderless, faith.
The Church Fathers were wise. They said that the spiritual struggle is with the body and for the body. And in fact, the Resurrection is precisely a sign that the body and the soul belong together. Now, I know that, insulated by technology and comfort, I sometimes become a functional gnostic, thinking of myself as a mind, and not as a mind, heart, soul and body. …
Again, I don't know much about Evangelical theology, so I sincerely welcome correction. Reading the criticisms of Josh Butler, it struck me that people were horrified that he would taint Jesus with the dirtiness of human sexuality. Others saw his argument as an excuse for patriarchal power. An Evangelical reader advised that the real clash here is not over puritanism, but with the strong feelings of sexual abuse survivors and their advocates, who believe that this kind of theology somehow justifies abuse of women.
I don't follow that argument, but in any case, a theological truth doesn't become false because some bad men abuse it. We can't throw out what St. Paul wrote and taught because somebody, somewhere, might use it to justify cruelty to women.
Patitsas writes about the struggle for "Chastity," defined not just in sexual terms, but as disciplining all the body's desires to make the conform to the will of God. If we only seek chastity in our minds, without ascetic bodily practices, we are going to fail:
But then I ask myself: If I don’t want to fast, nor make prostrations, nor stand in front of my icon corner nor attend vigils, nor even light the charcoal and cense my house, and if the struggle for Chastity seems to me like something wholly negative and not a positive achievement, if pilgrimage to holy places near and far is too inconvenient and expensive, then what role exactly will my body play in my spiritual life? Do I want a spiritual path and a salvation that does not involve my body? Because if so, then my spirituality may be gnostic or classically Greek, but it is no longer Christian.
If I allow my body no role whatsoever in my service to God, let alone the central role it deserves and demands, then what is the point in confessing faith in God Incarnate, of celebrating Christmas, of professing that Christ is risen bodily from the dead, of hoping for my own bodily resurrection, of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, or even of being baptized? What would be the point of reverencing our martyrs, the point of the bodily sufferings of our Savior upon the cross, and of the millions upon millions of Christian acts undertaken throughout history to heal and feed the bodies of the poor, the sick, and the elderly? Despite all my own personal emphasis on fitness and health care, apparently to me my body matters only when it gets in the way of my real center – my vanity, my ego, and my intellect.
If chaste sex -- which means only expressing sexual desire within male-female marriage -- is not an icon of the divine (meaning, a window onto how God has ordered reality), then don't the gay rights activists have a point that the Biblical prohibition is just arbitrary? To be clear, even if there were no deeper metaphysical reasoning behind Scripture's teaching, we would still be bound to obey it. But if you lose that metaphysical connection between the Body and Heaven, if you cease to understand our moving and being in the world as what the Anglican theologian Hans Boersma calls "heavenly participation," then you are in trouble of losing a lot more.
These days, however, we are trending in a different direction, inspired perhaps by the technology of virtual reality. WE want to be free of our bodies, to no longer be determined by them. We don’t express Chastity with our bodies, because we so often behave as if our bodies were the “vehicles” of our real selves, rather than inseparable from our core identity. Down this path lies certain danger.
... The disconnection of human personhood from physical human nature actually began the moment we forgot that the reality of our world depends on its being a sacrament, a symbol, of heavenly realities. Because if the world is not an icon, then neither marriage, nor gender, nor anything else about us is an icon. In that case, our human form would be as arbitrary as the form of the world itself, and chastity would no longer make sense.
He refers to the late medieval debate in the Western church between the Nominalists and the Realists, saying that, "One feels already very early on, in other words, that the West will have some trouble in holding on to the idea that our world is real because it is a symbol, an icon, of heaven."
Now, what do we mean by nominalism, and why is it important? There are many aspects of the nominalist position, but the main one is just the denial that this created world is an icon of a heavenly reality. Instead, nominalists hold this world’s form to be arbitrary, a product of sheer divine will. As Orthodox, we still comfortably assert that the world is an icon of heaven, or is meant to be. But in the West this union of the symbolic and the real became rather vexed. Now, we have even developed this destructive iconoclasm around gender, the human body, human sexuality, and so forth. Outside the Church, we have come to think that we can simply posit whatever reality we wish about these things.
Note: "Above all, we must stress that 'symbolic' should not mean 'fake,' but, rather, 'the highest level of reality.' ... [S]ymbols are not empty shells, but realities which participate in their archetypes."
The Western Church correctly discerned that to say the Eucharist is only a symbol and not really the Body and Blood of Christ, is clearly heresy. But to phrase the question in this particular way is a trap and has no good answer. Once you pit the symbolic against the real, once you forget that this world is real only because it is the symbol of the heavenly realm, then everything about the created order becomes by definition arbitrary. If creation is not a symbol of heaven, then its beauty and its goodness are no longer anchored in an underlying and eternal truth. In fact, an arbitrary world is somehow not only “false,” but also neither beautiful nor good.
Instead, the physical form of the world would just be the imposition of a capricious divine will. The world would be nothing more than a power play, in other words, a dead object of God’s creative whim. And once we have the power (through technology), we can change the world to whatever suits us. The world is then no longer “a second book of revelation,” no longer an icon.
Reading this, I think maybe I understand better why the Evangelical feminists conceive of sex as many secular feminists do: as primarily an expression of power relationships. This is to entirely disenchant sex, which is the most intimate way most of us will ever relate to another person. Because sex is so sacred, God put all kinds of rules around it, to guard it and to keep it holy. One more quote from Patitsas:
The world and all of creation are, through Christ, a window, a potential window, into heaven. And thus the world’s order is not arbitrary, for God made the world, and He made it good (Gen 1:31). But as we know, God alone is good (Lk 18:19). If we meditate on these two verses, we will see that the world is an icon. …
This is Christian faith: that the world becomes real through an ever-deepening infusion of God’s uncreated grace.
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If you see things this way, you will understand naturally why Josh Butler, however inartfully he described it, is basically correct. As I said in that earlier post, I was puzzled and even chagrined back in 2015, when I overheard an Evangelical woman complaining about the fact that we discussed sex, sexuality, and homosexuality so much, because this was, to her, a distraction from proclaiming the Gospel. I was a guest at this Evangelical meeting, and didn't want to overstep my bounds, but I could not understand why she thought that the use of the body was somehow peripheral to the Gospel. Maybe she thought salvation was something to do with what happened after we die, and with the interior disposition of our minds and hearts. If so, that's a very late development in Christian theology, and not consonant with the Gospel, in my view. But I'm not a theologian, so I welcome the input of those who are.
Readers, I'm going to cross-post this as an extra e-mailing on Rod Dreher's Diary, because I'm really interested in what all kinds of readers -- various Christians, and non-Christians -- think about it, and I know that very few can comment here at TAC. Anybody who subscribes to Rod Dreher's Diary ($5/mo, $50/yr) can comment. We have recreated over there at my Substack the excellent comments section I used to run here. As you know, this coming Friday will be my last day as a TAC blogger, so please go over and subscribe so we can continue having these conversations. Thank you!
Here's the link at Rod Dreher's Diary -- you can only comment there if you're a subscriber, but I bet the comments section, which you should be able to read, will be really interesting once people start opening up.