Voices From St Vladimir’s Seminary:
Peter: It is a very great pleasure indeed to introduce someone who has been a friend for more than twenty years and a close colleague for more than ten. Here are just a few things about Fr. John Behr and why we are very lucky to have him address this conference this evening. Fr. John Behr is a person of the Church. He lives and breathes it. He comes from a family of people of the Church – people who wrestled with it very deeply and very intensely.
He and his line are a people of great intensity. Nobody in his family just breezes through the Church or takes it in a simple struggle-free way. But Fr. John is deeply and intensely a priest of the Church. Then, Fr. John is a consummate scholar. It helps that he’s one of the most energetic scholars or people that I’ve ever met and ever will meet I’m sure.
But with that, he is a scholar of the first class. He lives and breathes scholarship, and not just scholarship for its own sake, because remember he is a person of the Church. And what he does in his scholarship is never loses sight of that orientation, specifically his is an orientation toward the Lord Jesus Christ and Him crucified known in the Scriptures.
People ask sometimes what makes him a noted scholar; what makes him original; what makes him a big deal, because he is a big deal. And the answer sometimes sounds funny, because the answer lies in the fact that he focuses on Christ and Him crucified. And you think, “Well, I thought we had that one down already. I thought we had that one covered.”
But the fact that Fr. John makes this focus into something genuinely new and indeed prophetic of his study and teaching either means that he is pulling one over on us, or it means that the study of the Church’s tradition was actually in serious need of that kind of a reorientation. And trust me, the stuff is real. He’s genuinely a big deal.
And so, the Scriptural crucified Christ is the true focus of pretty much all of his writing, preaching, and teaching even as he treats a wide variety of topics related to the Church and to the world. The amazing thing is within that focus Fr. John is able to say something really new about every subject that he touches.
Sometimes I suspect that he’s a bit addicted to novelty or being a maverick, and that’s the twenty year friendship talking. But what’s indisputable is that he does, in some way, say something that’s both new and convincingly of the tradition within pretty much every subject that he touches.
And as it happens, fortunately for us gathered here, one of the subject that he has taught and thought about and written about the most over the years has been the subject of the human person and specifically gender and sexuality. This has been the case at least since his work at Oxford in the early 1990s. It’s been one of his more consistent themes ever since and one of his most popular elective courses here at the seminary.
And so, for all these reasons, we’re really very fortunate indeed to have him address this particular gathering and to give another kind of serious theological weight to the questions that we’re here raising in all of the different ways that we have been.
So, Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, also distinguished lecturer of Patristics at Fordham University, author of innumerable books, essays, and articles, I give you Fr. John Behr.
Fr. John Behr: Thank you very much Peter for your very warm and generous introduction. The twenty year friendship is one I truly value as well. Thank you very much for that. Does everybody have a quotation sheet with them? We’re going to be doing some close reading of texts, and you really do need to have this with you. At least you’ll have something to take home after this lecture on the piece of paper.
As we gather together with a topic of Women Disciples of the Lord, we are, over today and tomorrow, being presented with a veritable banquet about the activities, the ministries, and the vocations that women have found in the past and the present in the Church. And really, it’s truly inspiring to see all of you gathered here and to hear all of the things that you’ve been doing and have to say about it.
My topic, however, this evening is going to take a step back from that; to take a step back from praxis to theoria; to try and discern what we can say about human existence as male and female, theological anthropology. As Peter mentioned, it’s been one of my abiding concerns over many, many years now.
I think that most of us know that human beings are created as male and female; as sexed human beings. It seems straightforward? Well, it isn’t. If it were, I wouldn’t be here. In fact, issues pertaining to sexuality are really among the most controverted in the modern world and debated really with even more ferocity in some church circles.
And the question and issues are numerous, wide-varied, and extreme. From questions of medical or scientific understandings of sexuality with all the difficulties that that raises to questions of lifestyle and human identity and all the real difficulties that raises. So the field is incredibly complicated and incredibly multi-faceted, and clearly we’re not going to sort it out this evening.
What I want to do this evening is to go back to the foundational texts from Scripture and to try and tease out as much as we can from them, hoping to find in them new depth and learning how to orient ourselves properly in regard to all of these matters as we try to grapple with them.
It’s really striking that there are no texts from the Early Church on a subject of what it is to be a man or a woman. In part, this reflects that our world today is radically different from previous centuries. The emancipatory power of the Industrial Revolution, women’s suffrage, the sexual revolution, the pill, and many, many other factors have changed human society perhaps indelibly.
And so, we are faced with new questions, and they need answers. In some ways, the topic of anthropology really is our burning question today, just as Christology was for the early Church. Although, perhaps these can’t really be separated. And perhaps because they cannot be separated, maybe there’s more going on in what the Fathers say and do not say than what might be explained away simply by appealing to a changing social environment.
As we’ll see, perhaps the interest is more in being human after the stature of Christ than being either male or female. A similar point can be made with regard to sexuality more generally, and the context for that, which the Church has always taught, is marriage. It is again very striking how few writings there are from the Fathers devoted to marriage, apart from various passages in homilies and Scriptural commentaries.
The more usual topic treated by the Father is the topic of virginity. Although this often has much, much more to offer, even for married Christians, than one might immediately think. In fact, it’s striking that it’s Augustine, who of all people usually gets a bad rap for matters of sexuality, who is one of the few people to write a treatise on the good of marriage, On the Good Marriage.
If we look at the canonical material, you get a lot of stipulations about who can and who cannot get married; the conditions for ending marriage. But the canonic literature really does not have much to say about marriage and marital relationships themselves, apart from regulating sexual intercourse, sexual activity in ever increasing exactitude – stipulating where, when, and under what conditions marital intercourse can take place; always with a proviso it must be for procreation.
And the hagiographical material also points in that direction. There are comparatively few married saints of the Church. And as Deacon John Chryssavigis points outs, “Almost all the married saints are saints despite their marriage,” and he lists them:
They are saints because they are mothers and fathers of holy children. They are saints because they lived in the earliest period of the Church or were martyrs. They are saints because they were married to pagan or unfaithful spouses and tolerated that relationship. They were saints because they were royalty. They were saints because they were married against their will and their spouse suddenly died, liberating them to become monastics or because their marriage was not consummated and they lived as brother and sister. They escaped marital relations by feigning sickness. Or finally, they are saints because they abandoned their family, wife and children, to become monastics.
And he concludes, “Well this hardly provides edifying material for married people seeking sanctity within marriage and as marriage.” And he makes clear that this is to say nothing at all about the sanctity of the people who lived their lives in this way. But he wants to raise a question, “Is this a suitable model of married Christian life?”
On the face of it, it really doesn’t present us with much positive material, but on the face of it, because maybe there’s more going on it. On the face of it then, abstinence and procreation have come to define human sexuality in theological treatises and anthropology. But is this the last word that Christian theology has to say about the matter? I would suggest not. And perhaps more importantly, I would suggest that it’s not even the first word that should be said.
If we take account of what else is said, we can perhaps begin to see these concerns in a much fuller context, no longer as abstinence for the sake of abstinence as if this were a superior mode of life, but rather as an educational tool directing us to a fullness of existence for which we have yet to be trained; a fullness which has yet to be attained.
But before getting into that and before turning to the Scriptural texts themselves, there’s one other aspect which needs to be noted and that is there has been extensive discussion in modern Orthodox theology, not so much about the meaning of either being male or female but about whether human beings are male and female in any meaningful sense at all.
Drawing upon two patristic texts, Maximus the Confessor Ambiguum 41 and Gregory of Nyssa On the Making of Man, some have argued that sexuality and sexual differentiation was only ever provided by God in his foresight of the fall; that prior to this, we would have multiplied like the angels without the need for male and female.
This sexuality, male and female differentiation, is only latent. It becomes active in and through the Fall. It’s symbolized in the garments of skin, which God puts on Adam and Eve after they’ve fallen and which will be removed in the Resurrection. You get a lot of that kind of position articulated in modern Orthodox theology, probably most fully by Nellas in his book, Deification in Christ.
Now it seems to be clear, however, that this is not present in the text of Genesis or in the way that Christ Himself refers to these words in Matthew 19, which we’re going to look at later. The only aspect in Genesis, which might perhaps be supposed to connect existence as male and female with the Fall is that it’s only after the Fall that Adam knew Eve. But is this supposed to be an etiological statement? That is, is it because they are fallen that they now know each other in these ways, or do you only read it that way if that’s your presupposition?
And as we’ll see in a few minutes, the rabbis read these texts very, very differently indeed. We’ll see it’s not envisioned in the New Testament, and in fact, it’s only based upon a couple of Patristic texts – two texts, which I think there’s a lot more going on in them than is usually given credence for, but that will be for a different time; different place.
However, as we’ll see, we do have to differentiate what it is to be human and what it is to be male or female. But whether one can be human, without being either male or female seems to me to be really dubious. And in fact, I’m going to argue that our way to becoming human is in part facilitated by our existence as female and male.
That we have to differentiate, at least theoretically, between what it is to be human and being either a man or a woman leads to another aspect of the debate. For instance, one modern Orthodox writer insists that if we maintain that human beings are either male or female, she concludes:
This is a denial of complete freedom to the person in his or her relationship with God and with other human persons. This complete freedom of personal expression within the context of one humanity is the true nature or humanity’s reflection of the interpersonal relations within the Trinity. Rather than human beings relating to each other as complete persons, expressing their full humanity truly and uniquely, these theologians (referring to Evdokimov, Ken Weshi, and Fr. Tom Hopko) believe that humans are bound to be or should be to their masculine or feminine natures.
In other words, she’s arguing that if one accepts that sexual differentiation is real; is part of God’s vision for mankind, then it entails that one either is male or female. And this reality of human nature is perceived as a denial of the person’s freedom. One cannot be either. You’re given one. You cannot be either, and that’s a denial of the true freedom, which reflects the Trinitarian personal relationships within God.
So instead, sexuality, gender, sexual differentiation is described as being part of the biological hypostasis; the biological mode of existence; the biological necessity, which we must transcend if we’re to become true persons. Now the idea that person transcends nature is one that’s been subject to a lot of criticism over recent years more recently, but it shows that there’s a problem in perceptualizing this.
Another aspect here is the difficulty of conceptualizing how one is to think of sexual differentiation. And this is not just a modern problem, this is an ancient problem that even Aristotle couldn’t solve. Males and females are certainly different, yes, but does that mean that they’re different species of the same genus? If not, what’s the difference?
Aristotle’s solution was to say in fact that there was no difference and that the female is only really an imperfect male. In other words, he understands male as a species and keeps female within it. His point is not misogyny in anyway, it’s a point of classification. How are you going to classify these different things? That was his solution. He couldn’t figure out any other way of doing it. Is it a difference of genus? Is it a difference of species? If not, where is the difference?
Likewise, some modern writers suggest that if sexual differentiation is integral to being human, then you have to posit a third level somewhere between nature and hypostasis. In other words, all human beings have the same human nature, granted. Nature is common to all those of the same nature. Yet being male or being female is common to more than one human being, but it’s not common to all.
So it cannot be located on the level of nature, and it cannot be located on the level of the person. So what do you do with it? Do you simply deny that it exists? Or do you say that it’s merely a secondary addition, which will be removed when we come to be our true persons? In my opinion, this is a result of treating terms, such as nature and hypostasis, in a wrong way; taking them as referring to ontological reality itself, rather than as a descriptive model.
As a model, the distinction between nature and hypostasis is useful. It’s most often an adequate way of analyzing beings. You’ve got a thing and you’ve got another thing, you can say what it is, the nature of the thing, and then you can describe its hypostasis, its particular concrete manifestation.
You can have a nature without having a hypostasis, such as a unicorn. We can imagine what a unicorn is, but we’ve got no concrete example of a unicorn. But you can’t have a hypostasis of a nature, because a hypostasis is a given instance of a particular nature, and there’s no third term in that model.
Similarly, the classification of genus of species is a useful way of relating various groups – animals, mamma