Audio length: 105:41 minutes
Transcript published: June 27, 2012
From June 17-19, 2011, St. Vladimir's Seminary hosted a conference titled "Women Disciples of the Lord." The conference lectures will be posted here in biweekly installments. First up is the keynote address delivered by the Very Rev. Dr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary. The title is "Male and Female He Created Them."
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, mammals, humans, all the different ways you can classify them. But is it really a part of the truth of Christianity that anything which cannot be conceptualized in this way is not to be accepted as part of reality.
If you cannot ascribe being either male or female to either the hypostasis or the nature, and there’s no third term in that model, does it mean that male or female is unreal? Or does it point to an inadequacy in the model? Personally, I’d go for the latter. Unless we think that our own capacity for conceptual thought determines our existence, it would seem that the only sane option is the latter. To quote Hamlet, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”
It seems to me that this discussion is really beside the point. It’s mistaken in its direction, and it doesn’t really respond to the real questions that are being raised. So just having reflected for a few minutes on some aspects of the modern debate as we find it, let’s go back to the primary text that we have to hand.
Clearly, the first word for theology regarding human existence as male and female are going to be the foundational texts of Genesis – Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 in particular. And I’m sure we’re all familiar with them, just like we’re familiar with the New Testament texts that we will be looking at in a minute. But I’m also sure there’s more in it than we ever thought before. So let’s start with Genesis 1, the first quotation on your sheet.
Then God said, “Let us make the human being (anthropos) in our image, after our likeness; let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the cattle, over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So, God created the human being in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”
You all know that passage intimately. Attention in this passage is usually drawn to the words, “Be fruitful and multiply,” the blessing of God, “Be fruitful and multiply.” And it’s usually argued that this is the basis for procreation. But it’s striking that these words, these very same words, “Be fruitful and multiply,” are used of the other animals that God brings into existence, but these other animals are not said to be male or female.
In the opening poem of Genesis, when you read about the other animals, they’re not simply male or female. They’re all blessed to increase and multiply, be fruitful and multiply, but they are not said to be male or female. Both humans and animals procreate and multiply, but only human beings are said to be male or female, just within the scope of the text itself.
We may well postulate that of course the animals are male and female, but that’s not what’s actually being said in the text. This means that maybe there’s a possibility that there’s an intimation here of something in human existence as male or female, greater than the ability to procreate. Maybe there’s something more than simply procreative capacity.
And what this further dimension might be is indicated by the next verse, the verse describing the image, and the parallel construction that you have there. So God created the human being in his own image. This notion of being created in the image is often said, especially by Old Testament scholars who are concerned to discern the intent of the underlying Priestly writer, to assert that the creation of the human being in the image of God pertains to his vocation of subduing the earth.
The human being, in the image of God, is to subdue the earth. And it’s argued that what the Priestly writer, if there is such a thing, is doing here is to democratize the position of the king. In the ancient near east, it’s argued that the king alone was held to be in the image of God. But actually, it is God alone who is the king, ruling all creation through the human being, whoever he may be. The human being is a king of creation, not the kings that we make for ourselves.
But again, when we turn to the text itself, the text doesn’t actually link image, the status of being in the image, with the human role of subduing the earth. It doesn’t actually make that connection, nor is that image made elsewhere in the Old Testament. Rather, what the text does, very intriguingly, is to place image directly in counter-position with male and female. “In the image of God He created him; male and female, He created them.”
So could one then argue that to be in the image of God and what that means, which is unknown for us, is hinted at by the creation of human beings as male and female. Some people talk about the tenor of a metaphor. In any metaphor, you’re explaining the unknown by something which you know.
To be in the image of God, in the text, we don’t know what that means, but you need a way into that. Well, we know what it means to be male or female, or so we think. And so it’s using something about human existence to point into a way of understanding the image of God.
I want to be absolutely emphatic that in making that suggestion, I am in no way suggesting there’s anything in God which corresponds to male or female, as some Orthodox writers have done and come for a lot of criticism under it; suggesting that Christ represents a male and the Holy Spirit represents a female. I’m not suggesting that at all.
But within terms of this text, human beings and they alone are provided a way into the mystery of God through this aspect of their existence as male and female. It provides us a way into this mystery, and we’ll come back to that later.
A second aspect of this text in Genesis 1 that I want to point out, and again I’m going to take it up much more concretely later, is that human beings are radically unlike everything else in Creation, read through Genesis 1 again and just look how it speaks.
Let there be light, and there was light. Let there be a firmament, and there was a firmament. Let the waters under the heavens be gathered. Let the earth put forth vegetation. Let there be a light in the firmament. Let the water bring forth swarms of living creatures. Let the earth bring forth creatures.
Let there be. Let there be. Let there be. A divine fiat, let it be. And that’s sufficient to bring all these creatures into existence. It’s always followed, and it was so, and it was good. Period. But having declared all of this into existence by a word alone, God then announces his own project quite differently. He announces it not with an injunction, “Let there be,” but in a subjunctive, “Let us make. Let us make anthropos in our image after our likeness.”
This is the work of God does. God makes anthropos. This is a divine purpose. This is what He set His mind to. This is what He deliberates about. This is the divine purpose and the divine resolve, but it’s also something that doesn’t appear immediately, because what he actually makes is males and females. He says, “Let us make a human being,” but what He actually makes is males and females.
So is there something else then at work in that passage, which can lead us into a deeper theoria, deeper contemplation of what’s going on with that text? As I said, I’m going to come back to that later. The second text pertaining to male and female is obviously Genesis 2. And again, I’m sure you know it, but let’s read through it again.
Then, the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground, the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle and to all the birds of the air and to all the beasts of the field, but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept, he took one of his ribs and closed of its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man, He made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of the man.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Here the emphasis is clearly on the man and the woman, together forming a couple – one flesh. The early rabbis in interpreting this passage; following a tradition of interpretation that goes back to 2nd Century B.C., they explained this passage in terms of how God educated man of his need. Look at the passage in verse 18. It’s God who observes that man is alone and needs a helper.
The Lord God said, “It’s not good.” In the whole of Creation, it’s the first thing that’s not good. “It’s not good that man should be alone. I will make a helper fit for him.” He observes that man is alone, and he needs a helper fit for him, and what does he do? He creates animals. Is there a purpose here? Or is he just trying things out and waiting for the right thing to happen? These texts are humorous. They are meant to be read in a kind of humorous way.
It’s not good for man to be alone; God makes a whole bunch of animals to see what would happen. Then, when you get to verse 20, and the man gave names to all the cattle, birds, beasts, and so on, but for the man there was not a helper fit for him. It’s unclear who found that there was not a helper fit for him. It’s got no active agent in there. It’s not clear who it is.
But Adam’s cry in verse 23, “This at last is bone of bones,” suggests that it’s Adam, who having gone through all the animals couldn’t find one like himself. So it presumes that Adam is the subject. Now if this is the case, then God creates animals, not in order to make a mate for man, as if he’s trying this out and the cows don’t work, the horses don’t work. It’s not as if he’s doing that.
But rather, he makes all the animals in order to educate man of his need, so that man would finally come to realize, I don’t have one. And that’s in fact how the rabbis described it. Quotation #3 from the Midrash HaGadol is kind of a paraphrased explanation of what is going on in this passage. It says:
Adam named all the cattle. This first teaches that while he was calling each one by its proper name he noticed them copulating each with its mate and couldn’t figure out what they were doing, because a feeling of erotic attraction had as yet no power over him for the Scripture says, “Adam did not find a mate like himself.”
So it’s a way of educating Adam of his need. And then, following on from that line of interpretation, God’s building of one of his ribs into a woman is interpreted as God’s adornment of the bride. God Himself then acts as a groomsman in leading Eve to Adam, and then the precious stones in Paradise are described as being part of the marriage canopy, and the whole thing is described as a marriage ceremony.
And then not surprisingly, given that this is Paradise and given that Paradise is an incredibly fertile place, this marriage ceremony culminates in a very fertile union. See quotation #4. Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said, “They went to bed two and got out seven – Cain and his twin sister, Abel and his two twin sisters.” We’re not going to get into the details of that.
The only point that I’d want to address from this is that there’s an educational aspect within the narrative of Genesis itself in the creation of Eve. Adam had to discover. He had to learn of his need for another and his need to love, so that they male and female could enter into the mystery of their existence as the image of God. It’s not just simply a given. It’s something that has to be learned.
And then one final aspect of this text, which is really intriguing and which I haven’t seen commented on directly anyway is verse 24. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” We read those words so frequently; we all know those words, but they are really striking words, because rarely, if ever, have these words been practiced in human history.
Think about it. In human history, in almost every culture I’ve ever come across from the earliest times into modern times, it’s the bride who is brought into the husband’s home, and then bears his name. But here it’s the other way around. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and join to his wife.”
Not surprisingly then seeing as this is not a reflection of cultural practices, as far as we know, it was taken by the Apostle Paul as referring to Christ in the Church – the Son who leaves His Father’s side in the Heavens to join to His spouse. And that’s from the beginning of Church Tradition onward. A very clear example of that is quotation #5, from Tertullian, end of the 2nd Century.
Adam was a figure of Christ, Adam’s sleep provided a shadow of the death of Christ, who was to sleep a mortal slumber; that from the womb inflicted on his side, might be figured the true mother of living, the Church.
So the Church that came forth from the side of Christ when He slept, as blood and water coming from His side is foreshadowed by the formation of Eve from the side of Adam, when Adam was asleep the rib being taken out – the sleep of Adam which foreshadowed Christ’s own sleep and death.
It’s also striking in Chapter 2 that it’s only after the curse that the woman is named Eve and that’s said to be the mother of the living. It’s only after the curse that that is so. And this perhaps again indicates further depth in how human beings actually come to be – pointing to the identity of the mother of the living as the Church; the one who by the Passion of Christ, now gives birth to many children.
The connection here really is from Isaiah from the passage of the Suffering Servant, the long hymn of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, about the one who no guile was found. He committed no iniquity, yet he bore his sins voluntary for our sake in order to offer propitiation for us.
Now most modern scholars would say that that hymn of the Suffering Servant finishes at the end of Isaiah 53. But it’s really intriguing that when we read it in church, and we only do so once in the whole year and that’s on Holy Friday at Vespers, when we take down the Body of Christ from the tree and we place it in the tomb, the right of entombment, we don’t finish with Isaiah 53, but we read Isaiah 54:1 as well.
And Isaiah 54:1 is precisely this, “Sing O barren one, who did not bare. Break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail. ‘For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that is married,’ says the Lord.”
In other words, the barren one becomes the mother of the living through the Passion of Christ; the water and the blood taken from His side, and we now become children of God being born again in the Church, the mother of the living. That whole interplay between Adam and Eve and Christ and the Church. And that’s really indicated very concretely by the way of verse 24, which is so countercultural. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and mother.” It doesn’t happen. The only way it happens is through Christ and the Church.
So those are the two key texts from the Old Testament. There are many, many other texts one can look at regarding sexual practices, cultural taboos, and all sorts of things. But these are the primary texts regarding to human being; male and female.
Now, let’s turn to some New Testament texts. There are two particular texts that I want to look at, which speak specifically of male and female; man and woman from the point of view of theological anthropology rather than cultural practices, if you can even separate them. But these are the two ones which we are going to look at this evening and then move on to some further reflection.
Again, these are texts you know intimately, I’m sure, but I think they’re texts which have actually got a lot more to offer if we pause to think about what’s being said in them. The first is Matthew 19, the discussion about divorce and eunuchs. Let’s read through it again.
The Pharisees came up to Him and tested Him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning, made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,’ so they’re no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wife, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for chastity (the Matthean exception, not in other Gospels) and marries another commits adultery.”
The disciples said to Him, “If such is a case for a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this receive it.”
Really, really interesting passage. So Christ affirms emphatically the original intent of God for His Creation – very emphatically, no qualification whatsoever. The two, male and female, should become one flesh. There’s no mention of Fall. There’s no mention of garments of skin. Just very emphatically, “God made male and female that the two might become one flesh.”
And interestingly there’s no mention of procreation. It’s not that the two should become one flesh in order to procreate. And He says that this is to be an unbreakable unity. But because of their hardness of heart; their inability to live up to this goal, the possibility of divorce was granted through Moses as a concession. “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses gave you this concession. But it’s not something that was so from the beginning.”
Christ is older than Moses. He trumps Moses in this. It does not belong to the original plan. Christ is the one who is in the beginning. He is the Word with the Father in all of eternity, and therefore He has the authority to revoke the concession. Moses made a concession because the Israelites were hard in heart. Christ now revokes it, and so those who divorce their wives are guilty of adultery, with the Matthean exception of unchastity.
And then there comes about one of the most intriguing exchanges in all the pages of the New Testament. And it contains words, which are usually taken out of context. Faced with Christ’s affirmation about what has been from the beginning; what the original plan is, the disciples say, “Well if that’s the case, it’s better not to get married.”
And that response provokes from Christ, His words about the different types of eunuchs. And the most difficult part in all of this is in verse 11. In verse 11, what is the saying to which Christ refers, the saying which not all men can receive? What is that saying? There are only three logical probabilities.
It can refer back to verse 10, so that the difficult saying is that it’s better not to get married. In which case, those who’ve made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven are straightforwardly those who have not married; living lives of celibacy. And this is, without qualification, better. There’s a very hard line in that.
That absolute statement could be softened somewhat by taking this saying of verse 11 to refer to verse 12, so that in this case, it only refers to those who have been given this. “Not all can receive it. Only those who’ve been given it can receive it.” In which case it’s not saying, absolutely for everybody, it’s better not to get married, but He’s saying, for those who have been given the grace to receive this saying, for them it’s better not get married. It leaves open the possibility that for others it’s better to get married.
In both cases, this line of interpretation would take eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven to refer to those who have abstained from marriage, either because it’s better absolutely or because it’s better for them. And indeed, that’s the way in which most writers have taken this term, “eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven,” at least since the 4th Century. The monastics are the “eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Church has always taken phrases from Scripture and applied them in various ways. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it seems to me that doing that doesn’t respect the integrity of the passage. For in both cases, it would mean that the definition of the “eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” is given by the disciples’ statement in verse 10. “It’s better not to get married.”
And the difficulty of that is that it has Christ endorsing or approving the disciples’ statement of unbelief. He said, “From the beginning male and female were to become one flesh. Why divorce? Because of your hardness of heart, Moses allowed the concession, but that was not so from the beginning. And I say, if you’re doing that, you’re committing adultery.” The disciples say, “Well, in that case it’s better not to get married.” It’s like Christ now says, “Yes, you’re right. We got it wrong. Yes, you’re right.”
If you think about it, throughout the Gospels, the disciples are continually hard-hearted. They are continually slow in understanding. They are continually failing to get what Christ is saying. And Christ always has to reproach them. So this would be the one saying when Christ is not reproaching them, but saying, “Well, yes in fact you’re right. Forget what I said earlier. You’re right. It’s better not to get married for those who want to do it.”
It would seem to me then that the only way of interpreting this saying of verse 11 in this passage would be to take this saying to refer to Christ’s own teaching. “From the beginning, God made them male and female to become one flesh,” in the unbreakable bond of marriage. And as the disciples have just shown, not all men can receive that saying. They are hard-hearted. They are disbelieving. They don’t accept it. They want their own way.
Now if that’s the case, it means that “eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” would be those who’ve received this saying. And so “eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” actually, if you follow through the whole passage, has to be the monogamous Christian; the monogamous Christian couple.
And if that’s the case then Christ, or at least the Evangelist, is playing upon the word eunuch, because eunuch in activity was understood as a metaphor, as a trope, for the most obedient servant. The eunuch is the one who’s got no family, and therefore it’s better to have a eunuch as your servant because he has no one else to distract him.
So a true eunuch, not one made so by human hands; not one so born in that way or anything like that, is the obedient servant; the one who receives the Word of God and lives by it. So that’s how I would take that passage. I know it’s really hard to read it that way because we’re so engrained to reading it the other way.
But take out the word eunuch; wipe it out when you get home, and say, “What word would have to be here in order to respect the coherence of the passage as a whole; in order to respect the exchange of Christ and his disciples in this?” He’s laid out what’s the plan from the beginning. He explained why Moses allowed a concession of divorce. And then he has to respond to His disciples’ hard-heartedness. Is he going back on His own teaching? Or is He doing something more with it?
But the main point I actually want to bring out for the talk this evening is not so much the status of eunuchs in antiquity, although I can talk endlessly about that. Peter didn’t mention this, but when doing my doctoral work in Oxford, I think I spent six months reading all about the ancient Greek text in gynecology and physiology. I could speak for three hours, and I kid you not, on the different ways in which you could make yourself a eunuch in antiquity. Don’t sidetrack me.
The main point I want to bring from this is that Christ’s words in Matthew 19, about what is the original plan of God for males and females, doesn’t point us to the past but points us to the future. Certainly from the beginning, God intended males and females to come together in an unbreakable union, but also from the earliest times, from Moses, divorce was permitted, because we were too hard-hearted to do that. So there’s God’s original plan that we don’t look to the past for it, we look to the future.
When we look in the past, we see accommodations all the way through. And so we can’t look to the past to some kind of pre-history to see what it was like, but in fact being male and female is something we have to look forward to in the future. And so now we can see that the divorce, which Moses was granted, was a concession for the hardness of heart for those who were not able to achieve this reality, and can now be seen as a pedagogical tool; an educational tool allowing us to grow in the fullness that was envisioned from the beginning.
We get the same dynamic operative in the last text from the Scriptures that I want to look at, and that’s 1 Corinthians 7, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote, it is well for a man not to touch a woman,” or is it well for a man not to touch a woman. That line is exceptionally ambiguous in Greek. Remember, the Greek wasn’t written with punctuation. We don’t know if it’s got a question mark after it or not. Just the Greek itself, it can be construed in three different ways.
It could be Paul’s reply to whatever it is that the Corinthians have written. “Concerning the matters about which you have written, my answer is, it’s well for a man not to touch a woman.” It could be the question of the Corinthians. “Concerning the matter about which you have written, ‘Is it well for a man not to touch a woman? ‘.” Or it could be the Corinthian statement, “The matter about which you have written that it is well for a man not to touch a woman.”
It can mean any of these things, and you can’t tell by the Greek. There is no punctuation note. But really what’s important is what follows.
Because of their temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to the wife her conjugal rights and likewise a wife to her husband. For a wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband doesn’t rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another, except perhaps by agreement for a season that you may devote yourselves to prayer then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not command.
The argument here follows exactly the same in Matthew 19. Paul lays out what is the foundational paradigm. “Because of the temptation to immorality,” he says; because of the fact that we are created sexual beings, everyone should have a spouse, and they should give themselves to each other for their bodies are not their own.
It’s really emphatic what he says, and it is strikingly reciprocal. It’s amazing reciprocal for a latent ancient society. It’s not simply the wife belongs to the husband, but they are each other’s body, or their bodies belong to each other. So he lays that down as a basic principle in very much the same way that Christ lays down in Matthew 19, “From the beginning God made them male and female to become one flesh.”
Then, he adds, in a very cautious and qualified manner, he suggests, and no more, that perhaps by agreement, for a season the basic principle that he’s laid down may be set aside for the sake of devotion to prayer. But then he immediately adds, almost before finishing his breath, “But then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not command.”
What’s the concession and what’s the command? From the time of Augustine, the concession is usually taken to refer to Paul’s commission to come together again, so that the normal state for married people is abstinence, from which a concession is granted for a specific purpose, which Augustine and those following him would say is, “Come together for again for procreation.”
But procreation is not mentioned here at all, is it? In the reciprocity of bodies, there’s no mention of procreation as being any kind of finality. So that’s the way it’s been interpreted from Augustine onwards.
But given, again, the scope of the passage and what he says; given what he’s just laid down as his first principles, “Because we’re sexual beings, every man should have a wife; every man should have a husband and they should give themselves to each other in this reciprocal manner,” it would seem that his concession in fact is to separate.
And look how he qualifies it. He says, “Perhaps, by agreement, for a season.” These are three really strong qualifications. It’s a suggestion. Perhaps you might want to think about doing this, if you can agree on it; for a short period of time; to devote yourself to prayer.
In this line of interpretation, Paul is saying that yes the two becoming one flesh is the divinely established paradigm of human life, but that for those who find this difficult to remain this reality, while fulfilling the demands of prayer, well then for them temporary abstinence might be appropriate.
And it’s also important to notice, in the remainder of the chapter, the way that Paul always qualifies his words. He says, “To the married, I give a charge, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from the husband; the husband should not divorce his wife.” And then when he talks to the unmarried, he qualifies his words the other way around: “To the rest, I say, not the Lord.”
What he says with regard to married people is not him, but the Lord. What he says with regard to the unmarried is not the Lord but him. He qualifies it all the way through; consistently in that. So the point I get from this is that in a similar manner to the way that Moses granted concession, on the account of the Israelite hardness of heart, so too now Paul also introduces a concession, and the concession is the possibility of a temporary separation due to human weakness.
And again, these concessions then point us to the future when we will have finally matured into the pattern that God established from the beginning and which we are still working towards. So those are the two texts from the New Testament and two texts from the Old Testament that I wanted to look at. They’re really the foundational texts for any understanding of the human being, human sexuality, and so on.
If we approach the texts in this way, then in fact they offer far more to us than simply a restrictive understanding of human sexuality, as is too often misstated to be the case – procreative intent within marriage. But rather, they point us to an experience of sexuality, which still lies in the future. It doesn’t return us to some pre-history. From the beginning, yes male and female. But from the beginning, we have not yet reached that stature. We have not yet understood what that’s about.
And I would suggest that in this way, we can now understand all the various practices of abstention that we have in the Tradition, whether in the canonical material, the liturgical practices, or in the hagiographical material that I was talking about earlier. All of this is not so much restrictive practices for the sake of attempting to make us sexless, but rather they are educational practices opening us up to a reality of being male and female, which transcends our present experience of this bound up as our present experience is, within impassioned lust.
It points us to something beyond its own category to something more. And what this something more is, I think we can get a sense of when we go back to Genesis 1. Recall that in the opening poem of Creation in Genesis 1, God creates the world and everything in it simply by speaking it into existence. Let it be. It was. It was good. A divine fiat.
He then goes on to do something different as we saw. He then announces His own project. “Let us make a human being,” and then He goes and makes males and females. I would say that it is in fact only at the end of Scripture, in the Passion of Christ that’s proclaimed in the Gospel of John, that we finally see the completion of His intended project, “Let us make a human being.”
Before Christ goes to the Cross, Pilate tells us this. He says, “Idou o anthropos. Behold the human being.” And then, on the Cross in the Gospel of John, Christ doesn’t cry out in abandonment like He does in the other Gospels, but He says, “It is finished.” And He doesn’t simply mean, “My life’s come to an end, and I’m about to die,” or “The work I’ve been doing here on earth is about to come to an end.”
I would take it specifically to mean, “It is finished.” The project of God announced in Genesis, “Let us make a human being” is completed here. And in fact, we do that liturgically. We do it every year liturgically if we listen. Look at Creation on the Sabbath. We were talking about Isaiah 53, the Good Friday services, the reading of that barren woman, now giving birth to many children. When we get to Holy Saturday, with Christ resting in the tomb, look at what we sing, quotation #7:
Moses the Great mystically prefigured this present day saying, “God blessed the seventh day.” For this is the blessed Sabbath; this is the day of rest on which the only-begotten Son rested from all his works, through the economy of the death, he kept the Sabbath in the flesh; and returning again to the Resurrection he has granted us eternal life, for he alone is good and loves mankind.
“This is the blessed day.” It doesn’t say, “God did His work back then, and then He rested, and now Christ is doing something similar.” It’s a direct identification. God announced His project, “Let us make a human being;” Christ dies on the Cross; and then, “This is the blessed Sabbath on which we rest,” because the work of God, which is to make a human being is now complete.
So the human being finally comes into existence, when Christ says, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” In other words, the human being comes into existence, when He as a creature says, “Fiat/let it be.” Everything else came into being with God saying, “Let it be,” but now we have to say, “Let it be.”
Maximus the Confessor speaks of this work of Christ as, Christ as human, completing that which He as God predetermined to take place. Look at quotation #8.
Finally, according to the concept of humanity, He goes to God Himself, having appeared on our behalf, clearly, as it is written, in the presence of the God and Father, as anthropos, the one who is Logos cannot be separated in any way at all from the Father, fulfilling as anthropos in deed and truth, with unchanging obedience, everything that He as God has predetermined to take place, and accomplishing the whole will of the God and Father on our behalf.
So for every other aspect of Creation, all that’s needed is a divine fiat, “Let it be. It was, and it was good.” For the human being to come into existence requires one who themselves can say, “Let it be.” And when we look at some of the writings from the early Church, we see this in a really striking fashion.
Most striking I think is St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was led under guile from Antioch to Rome to be martyred there at the end of the 1st Century. On his way, he passed through various Christian communities. He wrote letters to them, and then he wrote a letter to the Christian community in Rome, whom he hadn’t met yet, exhorting them that they should do nothing that might prevent his coming martyrdom.
They shouldn’t try and intercede with the authorities. They shouldn’t try and bribe the authorities to get him out of his coming martyrdom. And then look what he says, quotation #9:
It’s better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth. I seek Him who died for our sake. I desire Him who rose for us. The pangs of birth are upon me.
He’s not born yet. The pangs of birth are upon him.
Suffer me my brethren. Hinder me not from living. Do not wish me to die.
That’s, “Hinder me not from living,” by stopping me from going to my martyrdom. “Do not wish me to die,” by keeping me alive in this world.
Do not give to the world one who desires to belong to God, nor deceive him with material things. Suffer me to receive the pure light. When I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being. Suffer me to follow the example of the Passion of my God.
For while I write to you while living, desiring to die, my eros has been crucified, and there’s no burning love within me for material things. Instead, there is living water, which is also speaking in me, saying to me from within: Come to the Father.
I have no pleasure in the food that perishes, nor in the pleasures of the life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ in the seed of David, and for drink I desire His Blood, which is imperishable love.
So his eros has been crucified, and by undergoing death in witness to Christ, “the perfect human being,” as he calls Him, “the new human being,” as he also calls Him, Ignatius himself will finally be born (He’s not yet born.) into life as a human being. He’s not yet a human being.
So God’s project is to make human beings. This is what God does, and this is who God is. Repeatedly in our doxologies in Church, we speak of, “For you are the philanthropos,” which we tend to translate very weakly as, “for you love mankind,” just kind of a vague love in general.
But it’s actually the lover of anthropos, the love of the human being. “You are the philanthropos.” God’s project is to make human beings, but for the human being to come into existence, requires a being who can say, “Fiat. Let it be.” We are called to become human, and we become such by ourselves saying, “Let it be,” and even more specifically by now using our very death as a means of birth, when we conform our death to that of Christ’s.
Now St. Maximus the Confessor, who provides some of the most profound reflection in what is involved in all of this, points out that as a biological event, death is unavoidable. It’s simply a matter of fact. All things that have come to be in time, pass away in time. We were born without any choice on our part.
As Kirilov says in The Possessed, Dostoevsky’s novel, “Who asked me if I wanted to be born? No one. There’s no choice in this.” Through an act of procreation between a male and a female, we have each been cursed into existence, and moreover, it’s an existence in which whatever we do, we will die. However good we make ourselves, we assuredly will die. Again, without any choice in our part. So much for freedom and free will.
In fact, death is the only unavoidable part of life. It’s the only thing I can be sure of, and therefore, it’s the only thing I have to contemplate. Death is a necessity in my life, just as my life is a given for me. But by Christ’s own death, that most human of actions, the only thing that in fact we all have in common, from the beginning of the world onwards, and by that action, which expresses all the weakness; all the impotence; all the futility of our created nature, by that action and nothing else, Christ is showing Himself to be God – trampling down death by death.
And in so doing and without minimizing the tragedy of death, Christ has opened up for us a way of seeing a deeper mystery in death and has transformed death throughout all time. What was once the end now becomes the beginning of a deeper mystery as it’s through His death that he conquers death. As St. Maximus puts it, “Christ has changed the use of death for all men and women throughout all time.” Quotation #10 on your sheet, he says:
When willingly submitting to the condemnation imposed on our passibility; our suffering, He turned that very passibility, that is our passive subjection to suffering, into an instrument for eradicating sin and the death which is its consequence.
By voluntarily undergoing death, the suffering and passion of death, a death to which He was not liable, because no in was to be found in Him, Christ has, as it were, turned this vicious cycle inside out. And in so doing, he makes death the beginning of life. Quotation #11 from the same text:
Death once it has ceased having pleasure as its birth mother, that pleasure for which death itself became the natural punishment, death clearly becomes the father of everlasting life.
How do we enter into the mystery of Christ? We do so through baptism, which is our sacramental death. So as Maximus continues in that text, he says:
Christ has converted the use of death so that the baptized person acquires a use of death to condemn sin, and this leads that person to unending and divine life.
So rather than being passive and frustrated victims of death and the givenness of our mortality, which we didn’t ask for anyway, in Christ we can now actively use death, in his striking phrase. And in so doing, we transcend the limitations of the life into which we’ve been born, and in which we found ourselves through no choice of our own – the existence in which whatever we do, we will die.
We’ve now got the possibility of using that very death as a means of life. In and through Christ, we now have the possibility of freely using the givenness of our mortality to be reborn, or in Ignatius’ words, “simply to be born.” But now it’s a birth by choice, and I actually choose to be born. And so I come to be in a life without end.
Only now does freedom, not necessity, become the basis for a truly human existence in Christ. And this is a new beginning – the beginning of a new existence. It begins with an act of freedom; that of Christ’s own voluntary Passion; converting the use of death for all throughout all time, which enables us to use our death by freely following Him.
This begins sacramentally, once for all, in baptism, where the baptized commits himself to dying in Adam and living in Christ; being born again from above – from water and the Spirit. And it’s continued thereafter throughout the whole of the Christian life, by taking up the cross and following Christ.
So it’s through Christ work, we now no longer need be passive victims of our mortality in the existence into which we’ve been thrown, but we can now actively use death freely to be born again into an existence as a human being. For every other aspect of Creation, it’s God who says, “Let it be.” For us to become human; for the work of God making a human being requires us to say, “Let it be.”
Now if achieving the desired intention of created human beings in the Image of God requires this lengthy preparation and requires this responsive sacrificial act from the creature being fashioned, then perhaps we can now see more in our existence as male and female. God’s intended project, as I keep saying, is to create human beings. But what he actually does is to create males and females, men and women, because it’s only men and women who can say, “Yes, let it be.”
Being male and female is usually considered to be something that we share with the other animals, because we unthinkingly consider it to be part of the biological; physical traits that we share in common with them. But as we saw earlier, no other creature is said to be male or female, at least not in the Genesis poem. So is there something more to being male and female, which is unique to the creature called to be human.
St. Maximus differentiates between two words, which sound identical when you say them even in Greek. He differentiates birth, gennisis, the birth which results from biological; sexual procreation between a man and a woman, and genesis, the coming into existence of the true human being.
The human being, in the full scope of what we’ve seen, is not simply the result of procreation, just as such reproduction doesn’t produce beings who are already in Christ, rather than in Adam. Procreation results in beings who can put on Christ, but they have to actively do so. It’s really important to emphasize and be absolutely clear that this is not because of any supposed taint or anything like that inherent in sexual activity.
No matter how purely engaged in, the children of this world marry and are given in marriage resulting in more sons and daughters of Adam. This has its own God-given role to play, but in itself is not the completion of God’s purpose. For those men and women to become human requires their own voluntary action to conform themselves to Christ, through baptism, and taking up the cross.
Beyond simply being the fruit of the loins, the aspect of marriage which belongs to the children of this world marry and are given in marriage, which result in more sons and daughters of Adam, marriage also provides a context for the spiritual fruit and the path to the heavenly realm. We saw that Ignatius, at the earliest years of the Church, considered martyrdom to be birth – birth in Christ and into existence as a human being.
In the later years, 4th and 5th Centuries onward, the ascetic life of monastics and celibates was also understood as martyrdom. The martyrs struggle in the arenas with the beasts, represented in the martyrologies as the demons, was now continued in the desert with the monks struggling demons depicted as beasts. The typology is continuous.
So in The life of St. Antony, it describes how he was continually martyred in his own conscience by fighting the passions and the temptations that daily assailed him. It’s his martyrdom. I would say likewise the sacrament of marriage. The crowning of the bride and the groom in the sacrament of marriage with the crowns is that of martyrdom, indicating here that this is an arena in which the couple learns to be human through their faithful and ascetic witness, martyria, to Christ. So marriage provides a context in which males and females are quite literally humanized.
Let’s take it one step further and then finish. I’ve gone longer than the time set, but never mind. According to St. Maximus, the attributes of being male and female are seen especially in men and women. Look at quotation #13. He’s talking about how Christ mediates a fivefold mediation that we see within Creation, and He talks about the different levels in all and this is Christ’s work effectively mediation now in us.
Christ, first uniting us ourselves in Himself, by the removal of the difference between male and female, and instead of men and women in whom above all this manner of division is beheld, exhibiting properly and truly anthropos alone thoroughly transfigured in accordance with Him and bearing His intact and completely unadulterated image touched by no trace of corruption.
These are really interesting words the way that he puts it. “The removal of the difference between male and female, and instead of men and women in whom above all this manner of division is beheld,” is very, very sophisticated wording going on here. He’s suggesting that being male and female is not simply equivalent to being a man and a woman. But they are, rather, the impassioned modes in which we currently experience our sexuality.
The divisive roles laid upon us by society are means of identifying otherness and thus destructive of being human. We’re to remove the male and female, which we see particularly in men and women. It’s not directly equivalent. We don’t obliterate men and women.
Earlier in the text, a quotation which I forgot to add to the sheet here, he speaks of overcoming the distinction of male and female by acquiring dispassion; by acquiring virtue. As Ignatius puts it, “My eros is crucified.” That’s how we overcome the distinction of male and female so that we can finally see each other as human beings – still men and women, but as human beings.
And Christ is neither male nor female. There’re still men and women, but not this male or female as a way of differentiation overlaid upon being a man and woman. So in this case, sexual difference is thus inscribed into human existence. It’s not some kind of addition as a result of the Fall, which one might hear about, nor is it simply there to perpetuate the species.
Rather, sexual difference provides a concrete, incarnate, and immediate experience of otherness evoking the possibility of real, self-sacrifice in ecstatic and erotic love. To reduce the otherness of sexual difference to a mere biological means of reproduction doesn’t do justice to the richness of human experience provided by God as a framework for our growth into what it is to be human in the stature of Christ.
It’s very striking that in the modern Orthodox theological language and elsewhere, there’s a lot of talk about otherness – persons and otherness, persons in communion, and so on. Sexual difference never plays any role in that whatsoever. Just as it doesn’t for the various philosophers for whom that is a significant role – people like Emmanuel Levinas or Lucy Irigaray. She really blasts the French philosophers for their male perspective in all of this; overlooking any kind of sexual difference and just seeing the other as another of themselves. But in some ways, that’s taken up into modern theological discourse where persons in communion and the otherness of another person; never the otherness of the other sex.
Our goal in Christ then is to become human, very straightforwardly. It’s to become human as men and women equally. As this is the goal, which is God’s own project, perhaps this is why, to return to the question I raised at the beginning of my talk, there’s precious little in the Fathers about what it means to be a man or a woman, because it’s simply not the focus. The focus is to become human. Eve Tushnet, in a very different context, makes this comment. She says:
Every attempt to codify sexual difference fails. People (mostly men) keep making these lists to explain what distinguishes men and women: Women are more practical, or more fickle, or more romantic or less. These lists aren’t just false, they’re boring. They take the vivid reality of sexual difference and flatten it out, drain the color from it.
Our practices and our cultures mores and values, where the modern, post-modern, pre-modern, traditional, agrarian, whatever historical place you want to locate, they are to paraphrase Christ, “not from the beginning.” What is from the beginning, however, is that God made males and females in his project of making a human being.
And this means that before we have any other identity, except our identity as creatures of God, we have sexual identity. Sexual identity is more fundamental than any other difference – class, ethnic difference, even belief. It permeates all history and all culture. Human existence really begins with a longing of man for woman; woman for man. The love of the other both creates and reconciles the sexes teaching us how, through sacrificial love, to be human.
But as we’ve seen, to be a man or a woman, in those terms, is not yet what it is to be human, and that is where our focus is, and it’s where our true identity lies. And the difficulty is that for now, that’s hidden with Christ in God, as a human being, to paraphrase St. Paul. Thank you.
Okay, I spoke way over my time. It’s supposed to be from 7:30-8:30. It’s now 9:05. I’d like to excuse myself by saying that I didn’t really begin until 7:40 or so, that kind of shaves off a few minutes. I am really happy to take some questions unless you want to get up and stretch your legs.
Inaudible question 1
Our birth into it is to be human is not through marriage. Marriage is inherently in Adam. To be in Christ is voluntary. In the sense of “being neither married, nor given in marriage,” we’ll be human. My intuition is that we’ll still be men and women, relating to each other not in an impassioned male-female dichotomy, but as human beings.
But to be human requires death from this world. It simply requires death from this world – sacramentally in baptism and ever-increasingly thereafter as we learn to take up the cross. But it’s not complete until we actually die in the ground.
It’s really interesting. Sacramentally, we die once and for all in baptism; we die to ourselves. However, there after, I am still caught in the predicament of the first person singularly. There after I can only say, “Didn’t I die well to myself today?” There’s no other way I can say it.
When I’m finally dead in the ground, then I am no longer working, and God can finally work in my. My experience of weakness in the utmost, when I’m doing nothing, now becomes my experience of the strength of God as the greatest when He now finally takes a clay and makes a human being. So of course, in the Kingdom of Heaven there’s no marriage or giving in marriage. That belongs to perpetuation of species on this earth.
Inaudible question 2
What I also mentioned is that baptism is a sacramental enactment of our death. Everybody’s going to die. The sacramental action of putting on my death in Christ, which is once for all, is still in anticipation and in imitation and in preparation for my actual death.
It doesn’t preclude at all. And that was my point. Every male or female in this world will die. And the only question is, what are they going to do with that? If I put on Christ in baptism, but live my life thereafter as if I haven’t put on Christ, it’s going to do me no good.
I was saying earlier that until my actual death, I’m caught in the first person singular. Didn’t I die well to myself? I’m learning to let go. Death will finally reveal where my orientation lies. If my orientation lies with the things of this world, i.e., my bicycles, my books, my self-image, my family, death is going to be absolutely painful because it’s going to be a separation from that which I love.
But on the other hand, if through the experience of this life in whatever context you find yourself; you come to know that there’s more, you will be able to say, “Into Thine hands, I commend my spirit.” It’s a metaphor, but it’s real as well. It depends on me living like that thereafter.
I can’t just say, “I’m baptized. I’m going to carry on my life as before.” I do it sacramentally once for all in baptism, but I am continually learning how to do it until my actual death. When my actual death happens, that’s finally real. Then, I’m no longer doing anything, and that goes for everybody.
So there’s no way out of death, and therefore, there is no way out of the encounter with Christ. And then the other question would be, “How do you respond to Him at that time?” And it may well be that a Jew, a Muslim, a non-believer responds infinitely better than we do now.
Questioner 3: We say that God said, “Let there be light, and there was light,” and let there be this, and there was this. And then it’s, “Let us create a human being,” why?
Fr. John: Because it requires that response from my Christ, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” Usually, a very simplistic theological answer would be that it’s referring to the Trinity making a human being, and that’s way back when. But it’s not as simple as that, because what is involved in making a human being is Christ’s act of sacrifice, where He’s now the agent. “Not my will, but Thine be done.” He’s the one now saying, “Let it be.” So it requires a response of sacrificial action from Christ as human to do that. And then it requires a response from us also in that to affect the same.
Questioner 4: If, as male and female, we are thrust into the givenness of this world, and it is only at death that we now become man and woman and recognize one another as full human beings, what is the option for dealing with perceptions of givenness between now and our death? Are we just stuck with givenness until we die, and kind of pick whichever stereotype of sexual givenness?
Fr. John: There’s an awful lot we are stuck with. I can’t be a 1st Century Athenian however much I might want to. There’s simply an irreducible aspect of our givenness. We’re born to a particular time, to a particular place, and so on. And each and every one of us in all of that struggle.
Questioner 4: The givenness associated with being male and female, this is not so clearly viewed as say I can never stop being an Orthodox or a citizen of the United States. I can’t do that. I could, but I won’t. I can’t stop being a female, but I can’t necessarily be a female in the way someone might want me to be a female.
Fr. John: My answer would be that the only real focus should be on being a human in the stature of Christ. That’s why I ended with Eve Tushnet’s comments. Any attempt to draw a list of what it is to be a male or a female or somewhere in between or whatever else it might be misses the point.
Questioner 4: So what does being human look like for you?
Fr. John: It requires responding to God’s will in the pattern of Christ. Now what that actually means in your own life, well I can’t just answer that for here. But that’s what it means.
Questioner 5: You feel that God’s work ended when Christ was crucified, but what about the Resurrection?
Fr. John: The word tetelestai, “It is finished,” is what He says in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John is very, very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is going to take a few minutes, but it’s really worth going through.
It’s really striking how the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke simply and completely fail to get who Christ is. They just don’t understand it. They’re really thick. They abandon Him on the cross. They go and deny Him. The women come to the empty tomb. They don’t know what it means. “Has somebody stolen the body? ” The empty tomb is ambiguous.
When I was at Harvard University teaching, a number of years ago now, I loved telling my students that our Faith does not depend on the empty tomb. The people who saw the empty tomb didn’t get it. So what difference does it make in that sense? It’s got to be empty, but it’s emptiness is not a proof of anything. Someone might have stolen the body.
It takes an angel to tell them. “Don’t you remember? He said He would rise. Now, go and meet him in Galilee.” They go back and tell the disciples, and the disciples say, “You got up too early this morning.”
When Christ appears to them, they don’t recognize Him. Think about the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize Him. It’s been like three days, and they don’t recognize Him. They start telling Him, “Are you a stranger here? Haven’t you heard what’s been going on? We thought this Jesus was going to come and save us from Roman rule, but He went and got Himself killed. And then we found the tomb empty, and we’ve got no idea about all this.”
They’re telling the Risen Lord that after three days. In a real sense, our faith doesn’t depend upon the Resurrectional appearances, because those who saw Him, didn’t get it. They start to get it when the Scriptures are opened and He shows how Moses and all the Prophets spoke about how the Son of Man would have to suffer. They persuade Him to spend the night. Their eyes are opened in the Breaking of the Bread. And when they finally recognize Him, He disappears from sight.
The importance of that is how they come to know who He is. It’s not by seeing Him on the cross. It’s not by seeing the empty tomb. It’s not by seeing the Risen Lord. It’s by understanding all of that by the opening of the Scriptures and the Breaking of the Bread. And the importance of that is that’s what we still do in church.
There’s no historical distance. Being there didn’t help them. They didn’t get it. We’re still on the road to Emmaus in church. There’s no historical distance, which means like that hymn we sang from Holy Saturday, “Today, this happens.”
In the Gospel of John, however, this is a given from the beginning. In the Gospel of John, right at the very beginning, John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” It’s already a given that He is the Lamb of God from the very beginning. And Philip tells Nathaniel, “We have found the one who Moses and all the Prophets speak, come and see.” And Christ says, “You think that’s a big deal? Wait until what I show you now. You’ll see greater things than this.”
In the Gospel of John, He is the Exalted Lord from above. In the Gospel of John, He doesn’t suffer in Gethsemane. In the Gospel of John, He goes voluntarily to His Passion. The Gospel of John holds it all together. In the Gospel of John, He is exalted in glory on the cross. And He’s not abandoned. The disciple and His mother stay at the foot. He is exalted. That is His Ascension.
And after He says tetelestai, in the English, in the RSV, it says, “He bowed His head and gave up the ghost/spirit,” which we tend to hear as, “He breathed His last.” But He gave up His spirit in English. In Greek, it is simply paradoken to pnevma. He hands over the spirit.
So actually in the Gospel of John, in the unitary event, you have ascension and glory and bestowal of the Spirit from the cross to His mother and the beloved disciple, the Church, standing by the cross. He holds together the unity of all of that.
Now, the early Church, for the first three centuries or so, celebrated Pascha as a unitary event. Only when Jerusalem became Christianized, Constantine and Helen and all of that, could you then do Palm Sunday over here; the washing of the feet over here; the Last Supper over here; all the way around to Ascension over here forty days later. Only at that point do you start to do it.
But you have to remember at that point, it belongs together. The best image I can think of is like a pure white light that you can put through a prism to refract into a spectrum of colors to appreciate each color more fully. But you have to remember that it belongs together. So you cannot separate Crucifixion and Resurrection, which is what we often do.
We often say that He died because He was man, but because He’s God, He’s able to get Himself out of the grave. That would help Him, but it wouldn’t help anybody else. What do we sing repeatedly on Easter night? Like all the things in Church, we sing so often that we forget what we’re actually saying.
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” It’s by His death, He conquers death. If it had been any other way, what part could we have had in it? If He had shown us what it is to be God by being a 1st Century Jew, great for 1st Century Jews. If He had shown us what it is to be God by being rich and powerful or by being poor and outcast, again He would have excluded a whole load of people.
The only thing we’ve got in common is that we’ll die. But the life after comes through our death. But it’s not just simply this and something else. It’s coming always through our death. The extent that we decrease, He increases. To the extent I no longer live in Adam, I live in Christ. It’s continuous.
And I would really want to emphasize that and perhaps put it in different words. You could say that we are born into this world as Egypt – in passion, in servitude, in bondage, in death. We leave this world through baptism, the waters of the Red Sea, and we now dwell in this world as a desert. It’s the same world, but we now dwell in it as a desert. And to the extent we conform ourselves to Christ, we are living in this world as Eden, now knowing that the Tree of Life is across.
Questioner 6: Would you consider the Theotokos to be a human being?
Fr. John: Oh yeah! Absolutely! After Christ, she is the one who says paradigmatically says, “Let it be.” Really the divine, “Let it be” of Genesis is paralleled explicitly by Mary. “Let it be to me according to Thy word.” St. Nicodemus says, “The whole world was created for Mary and Mary for Christ.” The whole world was created to produce beings who can say, “Let it be,” so enabling Christ to be made manifest in this world as His Paradise when we know the Tree of Life is across. Thank you.