Welcome to this edition of Steve the Builder. It has been four months since my original podcast on Same Sex Attraction. A lot has been going on since then, partly a surge of construction work which has kept us out of foreclosure and bankruptcy so far, partly our Mission Church, partly working on my book called “Orthographs” and my new Curmudgeophan the Recluse cartoon strip from my blog called “Pithless Thoughts”, and partly avoiding this second installment because of the sensitivity of the follow up. But, I finally compiled and edited months of email exchanges since the last podcast, and this is what I’ve come up with. This is not intended to be THE last word on the issue, but it will probably be MY last words on it. So without further introduction, I’ll just jump into the questions and answers.
Q: SSA: Sounds like a “Syndrome”, can we discuss the topic without labeling people?
A: After talking with the people who participated in the creation of the original they preferred SSA to “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian”. SSA defines the condition, not the person like the other labels do. It is not a pejorative nor a “label”, it is merely a way to describe what people are struggling with without stigmatizing the person. For the sake of communication it had to be called something, and this was the “label of choice” that we landed on for the article.
Q: Steve, clearly you have a heart for those struggling with homosexuality, but I fear you are clinging to theological notions of homosexuality that are inconsistent with reality. In effect, you are requiring 100% of gay men to do something that fewer than 1% of heterosexual men are able to do successfully: live a celibate life. That is a recipe for failure for gay men everywhere, who are doomed by your very precept to fail.
“You are not your sin” is not a comfort to those of us who know that our sexuality is indeed an integral part of our humanity, just as it is with heterosexuals. The Church may be authoritative in matters of faith, but matters of science, psychology, and diagnoses are not her bailiwick. As a gay man who has cried and prayed and struggled for half my life, I know that I will not change. And I finally have come to accept myself, whether the church does or not.
A: I can’t presume to say I can live inside your pain, but I can say I know suffering related to sexuality pretty well both personally and through my years of counseling. That said, I feel I must take issue with several of your theological and propositional statements, in all kindness and compassion for your personal struggles.
First, it is not only 1% of heterosexual men that are called to or able to live celibate lives. I don’t have statistics but I’d guess at least 30% or more of heterosexual men are unmarried. All of them are called to celibacy by God. Whether or not they or a homosexual IS or CAN be celibate is another issue entirely. Theological notions are often inconsistent with our “personal realities”, but the point of theology is to define reality not accommodate everyone’s individual issues with it.
The “recipe for failure” is the same for hetero and homosexuals if you are assuming that because you have a biological desire it therefore demands or therefore is a right to fulfillment. Theologically the reality is that all “diagnoses, psychologies and sciences” are of the fallen order: all of them merely define or identify ways in which we fail. However, because the DSM-IV does not identify something as a disorder does not necessarily make it so. The Church is indeed involved in diagnosis of human issues because that is what the Eastern spirituality is about: the healing of the human being in the image of God. The issue as I see it is that sexuality is indeed PART of our humanity but not the overarching definition of it under which all other aspects of our being function. Sexuality is subsumed to the created human image of Trintarian love which trancends sex. The Agape of the Trinity is what heals the human being, not mutual orgasms, no matter how pleasant or powerful they might be to our psyche.
So, dogma is not merely propositional theology or a concept that can be tweaked according to “what is true for you according to your personal issues”, it is ultimately an objective definition of the human being created in the image of God. And therefore, dogma defines the possibility of the return of the human being to the life of Love in the image of the Trinitarian God. All psychology does is diagnose the ways we fall short of that glory, but only the Church offers the true and final cure. It is not a matter of the Church “accepting you”... the Church does accept you because Christ accepts ALL fallen human beings no matter what they are attracted to that damages them. As I said in the first podcast, we ALL live with some consequence of the fall, whether it is premature baldness, a fat butt, a predisposition to alcohol, heroin or men. We all work out our salvation within our specific spiritual arenas. For God to ask someone to struggle against a self destructive tendency in order to attain a higher spiritual state is not “rejection”, it is a prescription for healing. It is destructive to “accept ourselves” if by that we mean we redefine our humanity so that the tail wags the dog… by this I mean that we cannot let our attractions and desires rule our emotions and define our self worth rather than our “true worth” in the image of God defining and limiting what desires and feelings we act on and define ourselves by. There are many parts of my own personal being that I know will “never change”, believe me. But I do not look at them as “gifts of God” or something to be celebrated or a license to “be what I am”. If I did that God knows what a bigger wake of destruction I would leave behind me than I already have.
At the risk of sounding cold, years of tears are not the permission for us to redefine our humanity in order to stop crying. If anything they are an existential and spiritual badge that you are indeed human because you are struggling. Only human beings have the capacity to self examine and assess and weep over a self definition. And many of us will spend a lifetime as a human being that weeps over facing personal limitations and issues we did not ask for, things that we cannot control or change, and whose consequences we must confront and deal with whether we feel like it or not.
All that said, I hope no one thinks I’m saying any of this flippantly or lightly. This is indeed “the arena” and the struggle is great, and there is no platitude that will make it go way or lighten it for any of us who choose to enter the fight.
Q: The Church condones marriage by declaring it a sacrament—something that helps individuals journey closer to God. So it is OK for a man and a woman to be sexually intimate within the bounds of that marriage and sexual intimacy outside of those bounds is not a good thing. Now take a same-sex couple who are just as devoted to one another as a committed opposite-sex couple. Why is it OK for the OS couple to have sex and it’s not OK for the SS couple to have sex?
A: Let me try to unpack some of my thoughts, hopefully in an orderly manner. Your question regarding marriage and “committed relationships” is a fundamental issue when discussing this topic. There are several facets to this issue in my mind. Here’s my thinking in no particular order of importance.
I think the Western Christian world has corrupted marriage in the sense that since the 60’s sexual revolution (and probably way before actually), marriage is seen as a Church issued “license to have sex”. Cloak it any way you like, but the gist of the arguments regarding “committed relationships” is about the religious or civil legitimacy of the ability to have orgasms with someone of your choice. Yes, it is “OK” for heterosexual couples to have sex within marriage, but even that does not guarantee that once you are married you WILL always have the ability or circumstance to actually have sex. The issue in my mind is not how many people can or cannot have sex with whom and how often, but it is even more basic than that: what is the legitimate place of genital contact within the theological definition of a “committed loving relationship”.
The arguments FOR sex within ANY committed relationship I think views sex as a “right” and sexual attraction as a desire that, if left unfulfilled somehow leaves a facet of our humanity wanting. What I am saying is that the desire to have sex (with anyone) is human. The fulfillment of that desire (with anyone) is not a “right” that can be fulfilled willy nilly or in just any context I decide is right for me simply because I desire it and think it is what I must have to be fulfilled as a human being. Sexual fulfillment is neither a “right” nor is it central to the definition of the human being. It is gender defines the created human being, not sexuality. Millions of people have lived and do live without sex and the definition of them as complete human beings is not compromised. The fact that SOME people can fulfill sexual desires within a certain theological framework of marriage and the definition of the human person does not legitimize sexual intimacy for all people in any circumstance.
But not all committed intimacy boils down to sexual intimacy, and I would submit that the Church legitimizes ALL committed relationships. A monastery is a group of same sex people who live in committed relationship. They do not have sex with the Church’s blessing, but they live in an intimacy with one another that rivals that of a marriage. Intimacy is what the human being is created for. Sexuality is subsumed to that and CAN be an aspect of intimacy and yes, it feels good and makes us feel close, but it does not define intimacy, and in fact often is a barrier to true intimacy even within heterosexual relationships. That fact is well documented within psychological research of marital and psycho-sexual issues. We are ALL looking for “love” and often settle for sex. And as Woody Allen once said, “Sex without love is an empty hollow experience, but as far as empty hollow experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
Q: But as far as relationships go, heterosexuals at least have the opportunity to have a loving partner in life. I believe that the sexual aspect is the culmination of a deep intimate relationship. It is the ultimate expression of love in intimacy. The scripture speaks of celibacy as gift, but it is not for all. Again the scripture reminds us “it is not good for man to be alone”. The homosexual person is left no alternative.
A: It is always with great fear that I address “intimacy/sex” issues because they come off sounding callous, uncompassionate and patronizing, especially because I am married and heterosexual and of course anything I say can be dismissed because well, “that’s easy for ME to say…” That said, I think both homosexuals and heterosexuals are victims of our Western romanticized and sexualized culture. While sex CAN be AN expression of intimacy, I will have to differ with you… it is not the highest or deepest or best. I think everyone would agree that the highest expression of love and intimacy was Christ on the Cross in His self sacrifice for the human race. Sex or even physical contact is not a necessity for intimacy, though I’ll be honest, personally I’d rather have intimacy with sex than intimacy without it.
That said, the opportunity and desire for marriage to heterosexuals does not guarantee an intimate sexual partner to anyone. I can say I have counseled as many heterosexual men who wept because they could not find wives as homosexual men who had to forgo “lovers” for the sake of their faith. The pain of loneliness and unfulfilled desires is the same for both.
So, just because sex in marriage for heterosexuals is “biblically legitimate” does not make the struggle any less intense for someone who cannot fulfill a desire for marriage and sex because of some physical issue, psychological problem or genetic defect. It was news to a homosexual man I was having a discussion with that heterosexuals incapable of having a “legitimate heterosexual relationship” feel just as strongly and have to fight just as hard against lust, fornication and passions as a homosexual. Involuntary or voluntary celibacy is a curse to anyone who cannot do what their biology is screaming for because of their “religion”. It is not only the homosexual that MUST chose to be “a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” in spite of not feeling like they have the “gift of celibacy The Scriptures teach that all have the same calling, regardless of orientation, regardless of reasons for inability to have sex within a heterosexual marriage: celibacy. As with ANY besetting sin, orientation, inclination and habit, the promise by God is the same: The thorn may never be removed but His grace is sufficient. Forgive me if I have sounded uncaring, that is the furthest thing from the truth. The fact is that none of us can live in another person’s skin totally, so we all usually assume our existential pain is greater than the next person’s, but that is ultimately narcissism, the plague of us all when it comes to our own peculiar faults and fallenness.
Q: Gee, just what I needed to hear: “Eunuch”. This is why I struggle and have doubts in regards to the whole - Homosexual=bad, Heterosexual=good - thing. I know that I am simplifying things but in reality, that’s what it is. I hear one side debate scriptural interpretation and context, then the other side is always reminding homosexuals that they will not inherit the kingdom if they act on their feelings.
But what it comes down for me is this: If I have to deny what feels natural for me it means more then a life without sex. It means a life without a very important type of intimacy, more than a good friend or buddy. It means not having a partner to share and walk through life with. It means no dates. It limits my life and leaves me feeling less than human. When I hear Eunuch, I envision someone whose manhood has been denied by force or by choice. I know for me, that it is not something that I have been given a gift for. For me to deny my personhood is for me a curse. The question that always comes to mind for me, is why? It is not like we are choosing to lie or be disobedient, we’re just a person, seeking companionship and Love. As we grow older, friends are more fleeting, people have families and lives to lead. The person that doesn’t have these things is not left with a lot.
A: I don’t think in Orthodoxy it is “Homosexual=bad, Hetero=good”. Perhaps in some Christian circles that is preached. In the grand scheme of the Orthodox view of salvation, ANYONE who “acts on their feelings” risks not inheriting the kingdom. Our feelings are not the guide for life and godliness. What “feels natural” or even brings us comfort or happiness may in fact be ungodly and in fact ultimately a denial of our true personhood. No where in Scripture or the teachings of the Church are we commanded to deny friendship, intimacy, love, or deep commitment to another human being. In fact, those are what make us human. The challenge for both the heterosexual and homosexual is how to do that in a godly way that does not involve the flesh, passions and violate our own and others’ bodies. “Eunuch” in the context of the Gospel is not an involuntary castration, but a voluntary walk for the sake of the “beauty of virginity” which is a phrase one NEVER hears in our modern culture. We are not asked to deny our personhood, but our flesh. We are not asked to deny the image of God in which we are created, we are told to deny our passions. This is not just for homosexuals, it is for all people regardless of how natural or passionately they feel about any relationship. Homosexuals are not singled out in the sin of fornication or adultery. Any sexual sin by any person is a violation of an aspect of our true personhood. Marriage is prescribed by God as ONE path to salvation. Marriage is one, virginity is another. Both have their benefits and problems. Heterosexual marriage is more than just sexual intimacy, and anyone who has been married for any length of time will tell you, sex is the first thing to go when spiritual and emotional intimacy is lost or violated. The grass is not greener with a “license to have sex” if that is what marriage is seen as. As I mentioned earlier, marriage may appear on the outside to be “God’s license to have sex”, but even within marriage that aspect can and often does become through no fault of the partners due to sickness, handicaps or mental illness, unavailable or impossible. I know several people who are married and cannot have sexual relations. What then? Marriage does not survive on sex, nor is sex necessary for marriage and all of its “non-physical” intimacies to thrive and deepen. As I’ve mentioned before, homosexuals are not the only class of human beings who are denied the “right to sex” by the Christian faith. Sexual intimacy is not a human right. While the culture might guarantee us the “pursuit of sexual happiness” the Gospel does not. The Gospel guarantees us the pursuit of full personhood and gives us the prescription for it. As strong an instinct and feeling it may be in the human being, sexual intimacy is not a necessity to the realization of personhood nor is it necessary for the attainment of deep communion and intimacy with another human being, male or female regardless of orientations.
That said, I hear the loneliness and despair in your voice. Homosexuals are not the only people on earth who are alone, wanting friendship, intimacy and connection. The world is full of desperate and lonely people who do not know how to connect with another human being, to have intimacy that is not defined by sexuality and physicality. I meet them every day. In that sense we are victims of our culture that force feeds us “sex-as-intimacy” and fulfillment as a human being through sex and romance. We have bought a false definition and then despair that our lives will never look like that definition. But again, this is all easy to talk about on the internet. It is desperately hard to come to terms with in the middle of the night when we have no one to share a bed with and every cell in our body wants a warm body next to us no matter what our orientation is. That is the struggle. And no pontification on theology will make it easy. Forgive me if I have sounded like I have minimized your pain. That is the furthest thing from my intention.
Q: We are more than monastics and ascetics. We are people who need Love and crave relationships and human touch. We also need families and adult relationships. “It is not good for man to be alone”…
A: I need to speak to your statement that: “we are more than monastics and ascetics” because it implies a juxtaposition of the ascetical life with “wholeness, intimacy, family, relationships, etc.”. The word “asceticism” in Orthodox terms applies to everyone, it is not only for monks, the radically committed or goofy zealots. It is the definition of the painful and long process of the healing of the soul of the human being ravaged by corruption, death and the futility of this fallen order. To the degree that someone engages the process is the degree to which one will experience the healing of the soul. In that sense everyone is called to ascesis, the denial of the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vainglory of life. These are manifest in manifold ways and every person has predispositions, issues and inclinations brought on through genetics, nature and nurture. The reality is that asceticism properly understood in the context of an Orthodox anthropology encompasses and enhances the possibility of relationships being MORE authentic to our human nature. Wholeness, intimacy and deep relationships are in fact the GOAL of asceticism, not only in the arena of SSA, but in every aspect of our lives no matter what our sexual orientations are.
The definition of “wholeness” is not the “permission” to live according to our passions or feelings or perceived needs. Fulfillment of desires is not necessarily fulfillment of our personhood. No asceticism is pleasant or easy. The outcomes and goals of self denial are usually not apprehended while we are engaged in the combat. The spiritual disciplines of an ascetical life in an Orthodox framework encompasses the entirety of human existence, not just sexual orientation. In the final analysis, the roots of human despair and lack of intimacy and authentic relationships all boil down to a core of issues that are manifested in a multitude of human failure and weaknesses, and SSA is merely one of those issues. That is why the Orthodox Church does not make homosexuality the unforgivable sin or demonize it, OR hold out false promises of healing and change. The glutton, the womanizer, the egoist, the narcissist, the miserly, the wrathful, the disobedient, the lazy, etc. etc. ALL face the same hard path to shedding their besetting weaknesses and finding healing and wholeness through arduous and prolonged struggle.
So, I am not minimizing the anguish of homosexuals, I am informing them that they are not alone in the difficult and gut wrenching struggles they face. It is in that sense that I believe that homosexuals, like all human beings who are suffering, often are narcissistic in their insistence that they experience despondency and despair to a greater depth than other people, and that no one except other homosexuals can understand their feelings.
I recall a gay man telling me that I HAD to watch “Brokeback Mountain” because it defined the gay experience. I told him I watched “Brokeback Mountain” and to me it was just a gay “Bridges of Madison County”. He eventually responded, “I see what you mean”. Homosexuals are not the only people on earth who struggle with relationships, sexual desires and are broken deeply because of them. Perhaps it is because of my intense involvement in broken people’s lives that I see everyone is in a great battle and no one’s struggle is truly greater than another’s.
So nothing in this podcast is intended to minimize the truth of anyone’s struggles, but to level the field of what it means to wrestle with ourselves and God. The reality is, all human beings are diseased, all are afflicted and all who choose to enter the arena are engaged in a desperate spiritual warfare. And the cure for all is the ascetical path of self denial within the context of a community of love and intimacy.
As a final note, one of the things I’ve consciously avoided in the podcast is giving specific spiritual counsel and advice. I’ve had several long email exchanges with people who are having difficulty with their spiritual director’s advice and disciplines. As I said in the previous podcast, all spiritual fathers are not created equal and it is not a sin to not confess or take spiritual direction from someone you believe is not equipped to work with your issues. The only advice I can give in a podcast is that both finding and leaving a spiritual director should be undertaken extremely carefully and soberly.
And I as I said in the introduction, these podcasts are not the final word or even the “Church’s word” on same sex attraction. These are my thoughts and those of a few who have agreed to participate in a discussion of the issue in the context of living the Christian life in the context of the Orthodox faith. I pray that these podcasts have been helpful and I beg the forgiveness of any whom I have offended and marginalized inadvertently.