“Medicines for the Soul:” Theology and Pastoral Compassion in Gender and Sexuality

The matter of marriage and ordered sexual relations is found throughout Scriptures, not only in the Old Testament but also in the New.  Those who are interested in more foundational papers on the issue of marriage and same-sex temptation and erotic activity may consult the shorter articles reprinted on my webpage at edithhumphrey.net, or the more lengthy article, “Same-sex Eroticism and the Church: Classical Approaches and Responses,” in The Homosexuality Debate: Faith Seeking Understanding, Ed. Catherine Sider Hamilton, Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2003, 37-94.

The following paper was presented at a recent Symposium that took place in the Netherlands. The purpose of the symposium was for academic clergy and laity in the Orthodox Church who have a special interest in sexuality to gather together to discuss their research and their concerns. Though we agreed to the “Chatham House Rule,” this rule does not prevent members from making our own views public, which I am happy to do in this time of questioning and concern. Our general topic in the conference was “Pastoral Care in an Age of Sexual Questioning,” and so this paper does not present the Biblical and Traditional foundation for faithful, heterosexual marriage, which I have written on extensively elsewhere, as detailed above.  Instead, I make a plea here for sound teaching in the Church as an essential part of our compassion for those experiencing same-sex desire, or asking questions about sexuality and the Church’s stand on these matters. I also probe the shape of the questions that are being asked today, in order to help us think carefully about how we may answer those who are confused or conflicted. As an academic paper, it is  lengthy, and contains citations not usually used in a blog: I hope that, despite its genre, it may be of interest to some of my readers.

 My presence at this symposium feels odd for several reasons. First, I am in a déjà vu moment, having attended numerous think-tanks, conferences, round tables and discussions on the issue of sexuality in my former incarnation as an Anglican; I had hoped, naively, to have left the controversy behind, at least within Orthodox circles.  Second, I am a Biblical scholar, not a pastor, though in my youth I was a Salvation Army officer, a female with pastoral responsibilities, at the time when Anita Bryant was aggravating the newly emerging gay and lesbian coalition with what many took to be a hard line. Still vivid in my memory is my encounter with Mary during our tavern ministry in Hespeler, Ontario, and the difficult line I had to walk in my ensuing close friendship with her: she was pursuing an erotic attraction, while I wanted to introduce her to Christ.

And today, while I am hired at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to teach the New Testament, the pastoral calling can never really be left behind, for I aim to teach to the heart as well as to the mind.  Those who are formally my advisees, plus others, regularly seek me out to talk about this and other divisive topics in their Protestant contexts; others who do not seek me out  remain of great concern to me, particularly when I am teaching on, say, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 or the pastorals. I am concerned both for the preservation of what remains of the catholic faith among Protestants, and for the health of my students, many of whom have become dear friends.

I have been particularly touched in the past four years by two students who are pursuing a same-sex life-style. “Angie,” as I shall call her, has been both alternately upset and responsive to my teaching, and we are on close personal terms; “Luke,” as I shall call him, is a brilliant but nervous student who embarrassed me by referring to our close relationship in one of his chapel sermons, saying that we will never agree, but that he adores me.  With these two dear ones, and others, I long to get beyond the love-hate tension that is inevitable given our ideological differences and the disparity of power-relations which is complicated by Title IX regulations: I  want to listen to their desires, and speak my heart to them, as well.  This vulnerability, though, is not entirely possible, both from their perspective (can they risk disappointing their professor?) and from mine (can I risk entire honesty given the current political climate?).  The pastoral context is, to say the least, less than ideal.

But I do not think that pastoral matters can, or should be separated neatly from cognitive ones. After all, we are brothers and sisters with the one who encouraged us in the “renewal of the mind” as we present our entire selves to the living God.  This paper, then, will plead for the integral place of faithful biblical hermeneutics and Orthodox theology in the compassionate pastoral guidance of those who are asking questions concerning gender and sexuality.  This connection between transformed thinking (which is, of course, metanoia) and overall health is assumed by St. John Chrysostom, who in his ninth homily on Colossians, directs us to ample “medicines for the soul”:

Listen, I entreat you, all that are careful for this life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul…get at least the New Testament, the Apostolic Epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers. If grief befalls you, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take from there comfort for your trouble, be it loss, or death, or bereavement of relations; or rather do not merely dive into them but take them wholly to yourself, keeping them in your mind. (Hom. IX On Colossians)

I take it that the kind of questioning to which we are referring in this symposium is not simply of an academic sort, but one that springs from the depths—an existential, deep questioning that indicates, in many cases, a situation of stress or even of grief, “a bereavement of relations,” as St. John puts it. I take my cue from my friend and colleague Wesley Hill (Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge), who, in his searching as a young Christian was unable to find “a book…that tries to put into words some of the confusion and sorrow and triumph and grief and joy of the struggle to live faithfully before God, in Christ, with others, as a gay person” (Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality [Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2010] 22). He wrote one himself, vulnerably disclosing his own experience. IN the book, Washed and Waiting, he neither argues that practicing same-sex erotic actions can be faithful, nor claims that he has been “healed” and is now a formerhomosexual man. His book is “written mainly for those gay Christians who are already convinced that their discipleship …commits them to the demanding, costly obedience of choosing not to nurture their homosexual desires…” (24), but also for those who seek to befriend such Christians. As he invites the reader into his experience, he describes himself as “in the midst of an agonizing and confusing period of trying to forge an identity for myself as a Christian who wrestles with homosexuality” (26). He concludes: “At the end of the day, the only ‘answer’ I have to offer to the question of how to live well before God and with others as a homosexual Christian is the life I am trying to live by the power of the gospel” (26).

Certainly, there is a kind of questioning that is inextricably connected with sin.  Consider the primal question induced in Eve by the serpent, “hath God said?”, which was accompanied by an exaggeration of the divine Proscription. The serpent uses the question as a means of highlighting or perhaps producing a tension of desire in Eve, which is followed by the process described by the apostle James—desire becomes a lure and an enticement, which conceives and gives birth to sin, which leads finally to death. However, not all questioning leads to temptation or sin, but it can also lead to growth. The questions presupposed by my brother Wesley are joined by many others in our day, who pose both superficial and trenchant questions about anthropology, inter-relationships, individual identity and ethics, all interconnected with matters of sexuality. Love constrains us to heed these questions.

For the next few moments, I encourage us to hear the challenging cries of three well-known writers who have not followed the route suggested by Wesley—Carter Heyward, Sarah Coakley and Eugene Rogers, and finish with reflections upon what we can learn from them about the pastoral importance of faithful teaching and living. None of these are Orthodox scholars, but the last two of the trio are well aware of patristic theology, and engage with it as they ask questions and offer suggestions.  I hope to show that these three are propelled on their quest as they seek solutions to three basic human needs—the need for intimacy in the case of Heyward, the desire for ecstasy (standing outside of oneself) in the case of Coakley, and the search for deep hospitality in the case of Rogers.  If I am right in my hunch that these expressed needs are foundational, then attending to them may perhaps place us in a better position to respond, with biblical and Patristic medicines, to these and others who articulate such questions concerning sexuality.

Carter Heyward, an ordained woman in the American Episcopal Church, is also the author of Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (New York: Harper and Row: 1989). In this book, she argues: “The erotic is our most fully embodied experience of the love of God…Our erotic experience of the power of God is the root of our theological epistemology.  It is the basis of our knowledge and love of God” (99). This is a strong statement, and would, I think, raise eyebrows among those of us who might order philia or agapē above eros, though the latter is admittedly an important drive, and perhaps not simply redolent of the material world.  Her insistence upon embodied-ness is well taken, considering that God’s love for humanity is shown in His assumption of all that it is to be human.  Erotic love may well be a reflection of God’s love for Israel, the Church, or the believer, which is expressed frequently in erotic metaphors in both the Scriptural and patristic tradition. However, to ground theological epistemology in eros betrays a distorted understanding of intimacy with God. The embodied is important—but it is not basic in the way that Heyward imagines.  We see how her understanding of the Creator is skewed by her use of the verb “to god”: when we enter into intimacy with others, she insists, “God moves among us…She is born and embodied in our midst” (Touching, 102). Humans, according to Heyward, can “parent” God, rather than simply becoming God’s children or the Incarnate God’s siblings: the relationship between creature and Creator, at its best, she implies, is entirely symmetrical and reciprocal.  Yearning for intimacy, Heyward re-imagines a world in which the distinction between the Creator and the created is obliterated.  Sadly, in making this move, she actually short-circuits the astonishing intimacy to which we are called, and ends up bowing the knee to an elusive experience that she calls “the Sacred,” rather than revering the One who loves us, and perhaps even climbing upon His knee.

Heyward’s picture is eccentric enough that it may well be dismissed by serious Orthodox: what we see by looking through her lens, however, is a deep yearning for deep reciprocity and intimacy.  This remains instructive.  Our second figure, Sarah Coakley, is a substantial theologian who taught at Harvard, and now is at Cambridge. She is of interest to Orthodox both because of her delight in the apophatic experience and because of her respect for tradition, such that she has not followed the current fad of dropping the divine Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Though she understands that to see a connection between sexual desire and desire for God may be dangerous, she insists that there is “a deep entanglement” of these things:  “we need to understand sex as really about God, and about the deep desire that we feel for God” (“Living into the Mystery of the Holy Trinity: Trinity, Prayer and Sexuality,” in ed. Eugene Rogers, The Holy Spirit: Classic and Contemporary Readings[Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), 44-52, here page 50).  Certainly, she is correct that sexual desire provides a deep clue to the reality of the one who seeks us. In describing this entanglement, she calls attention to our human drive for ecstasy—literally, to stand “outside” of ourselves.  When human beings, in prayer, in relations with each other, transcend themselves, such experiences “are analogously related to Trinitarian divine relations” (46), relations that themselves, she says, display eros. Despite her desire to exercise care, she moves too quickly, it would seem, in reifying the experience of ecstasy, and naming it divine.  In pressing her point, she approves of the poignant words of Luce Irigaray, who says, “we are at least three…you, me, and our creation of that ecstasy of us among us” (“Living,” p. 50 cites “Questions to Emmanuel Lévinas,” in M. Whitford, ed. Irigay Reader [Oxford: Blackwell, 1991], 180).

And so Coakley valorizes the ecstasy or transcendence experienced in eros, and, it seems, also during prayer, as though it is a good in itself.  Indeed, she goes so far as to describe the ecstasy as a kind of “breath,” or even a spiritual being with its own existence, which can (and should?) be celebrated by those who experience it.  As I hear her enthusiasm, I am left with serious questions.  It seems to me that the luminosity of such ecstatic moments may be undeniable, but there is an unforeseen consequence when we focus upon experience.  The “other” may well be left behind, whether God in our prayers, or the beloved in our love-making, and put aside for the adoration of the rapture.  Further, as she appeals analogically to the Trinity in trying to understand human experience, the matter is further complicated. To attribute eros to the ineffable inter-relationship of the Persons of the Holy Trinity certainly has no biblical basis (and, little or no patristic basis), though philia(friendship-love) and agapē (altruistic, divine love) may indeed be seen in various inter-Trinitarian descriptions, especially as we meditate upon the fourth gospel.  There is surely a reason that God-seers avoid this language for God.  Coakley assumes, citing Augustine’s De Trinitate 8.14, that this is because the inter-Trinitarian relations are not in the body.  She dismisses this as substantive, however, and goes on to with abandon of how the Trinity must experience “at the very least” an “equality of exchange” and “the mutual ekstasis of attending on the other’s desire as distinct, as other” (“Living,” 50). How would she know?  And does not such language impose a distinction of volition within the Persons of the Trinity?  Indeed, it might be inferred from her description that the Father, in seeking the Son, or the Spirit, in moving towards the Father, individually meet and supply a felt need for ecstasy, rather than engaging in the ineffable and unconstrained perichōresis that astounded the fathers.   Coakley knows the danger—yet it appears that, in articulating our human need for self-transcendence, she has dangerously co-opted the Trinity into a mascot for ecstasy, whether prompted by heterosexual or homosexual desire.

We finish with Eugene F. Rogers, Professor of Modern and Medieval Christian Thought at University of North Carolina. A graduate of Yale, he is even more speculative than Coakley, and extremely engaging.  Rogers is of particular interest to our community because he delves into the work of St. Ephrem, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Evdokimov, Stăniloae, and others.  Further, his work has been, for some time, directed towards the normalization of same-sex eroticism, which he attempts specifically by his analysis of spiritual theologians. The key idea in Rogers’s work, both on the NT and in theological discourse, is that of “hospitality,” as seen in his understanding of God’s inclusive gospel.  This theme he connects this governing precept: “Marriage is primarily a structure for the transformation of the human being by the grace of God….Since the point of marriage is training in holiness, there is no reason why same-sex couples should not also participate in it.” (After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, 188-9). We might comment that he has fastened upon one facet of marriage upheld by the fathers—how training in fidelity works for our theosis—but forgotten about procreation and the sacramental nature of the marital state.  But this is not the sole reason for marriage, according to Scripture and Holy Tradition. Marriage is not only for the individual sanctification of each partner, but is also for the sake of the world, both enriching it with members and showing forth the mystery of God.  Rogers’s wholly pragmatic and individualistic approach curtails such mystery.

Taken together, the themes of inclusion and training in holiness make, however, for an interesting combination of expansiveness and practicality. They disclose a human need for and desire for transforming hospitality, of which we should take account.  Rogers argues in his Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Oxford; Malden, MI: Balckwell, 1999) that though in Romans 1 St. Paul is hampered in seeing the utter extensiveness of the gospel, he glimpses it in Romans 11, where God himself acts “contrary to reason” in his engrafting of the Gentiles into the vine (Romans 11). Such generosity “against nature” should be a clue to us, he argues, in our sexual questions of the day! Besides that, Rogers imaginatively responds to the imagery of Stăniloae, who pictures the Spirit resting upon the Son, and Nyssa’s description of the mystic who enters, like Moses, into the “back” of the Father, who dilates generously for the benefit of the meditating human.  God “transgresses” in love, showing us a new way of being and living. What to say? Those of us who are parents know that sometimes to be merciful is to pass by, or, if you will, transgress against pre-set family rules for the sake of a wayward child. We know that rigor is not always love.  And yet, this picture of a hospitable God who colors outside the box cannot, in the end, satisfy our deepest longing for true hospitality.

Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out, reminds us:

[R]eceptivity is only one side of hospitality. The other side, equally important, is confrontation…. Space can only be welcoming space when there are clear boundaries, and boundaries are limits between which we define our own position. …We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it anyway they want. An empty house is not a hospitable house. …When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions, and life style clearly and distinctly. … Receptivity and confrontation are the two inseparable sides of Christian witness.” (Reaching Out: The Three Moments of the Spiritual Life,Garden City: Doubleday, 1975, reissued, 1986) 82

Part of the pastoral task, I would suggest, is being hospitable to those who ask questions, hearing the needs reflected in those questions, and responding to those needs as we find the medicine of which St. John speaks, available in the Scriptures and, by extension, in the teachers of the Church who address these questions by means of reading the Scriptures.  How, then, can we take seriously these needs for intimacy, ecstasy and hospitable living that have been expressed by our three sample theologians as they think about eroticism?  First, I think we need to take seriously Coakley’s intuition that what we say about sex is tied up with what we say about God.  Theology, anthropology, and lifestyle are inextricably linked with each other.  Recently I have been reading Esther Lightcap Meek’s fascinating book Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology Esther Lightcap Meek (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011). Amidst some errors—for example, her superficial depiction of perichōresis— she sets forth some important principles about knowledge and full living.    She declares: “Knowing…is not information so much as it is transformation. This makes sense if knowing Christ the Truth—having been known by Christ the Truth—is central epistemically.  It isn’t about mere information, but about being transformatively known…. Doctrinal profession is of a piece with all truth claims” (63).  In effect, she is indicating the same connection as we saw initially in Chrysostom—the Scriptures, and other sources of theological knowledge are in themselves transformative medicine, when approached as a meeting place with Christ, who is himself the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Teachers, she insists, offer themselves, not simply knowledge to their student; our pedagogy must be understood as a kind of hospitality (137).  Part of our pastoral and teaching responsibility is to hear, to be responsive, and indeed to “offer an account of anticipative knowing— knowing on the way” (137).

This kind of anticipative knowing both induces excitement in the quest, and is also humble and reserved—we must recognize that at times we only have a half-understanding of matters, upon which we must rely for the time being. There are many things that we do not yet know about God’s will for creation.  We have only the foggiest notion of the joining of new heavens and new earth, and what the new creation will be like— despite the joy of Christ’s resurrection, the vivid account of the Apocalypse, and the direct but ephemeral vision of the hesychasts.  Moreover, we do not yet have a full understanding of human sexuality, either the relationship between male and female (which Paul puts in the realm of “mystery”), or the consternating mystery of same-sex desire in our fallen world. The jury is still out on the place of genetic hard-wiring, nurture, the similarities and dissimilarities of various alternate sexual yearnings, and so on.

As we seek to learn more, I pray that in fact the challenges that we face will help us to come to clarity on other related issues. Without Arianism, there would not have been the treasures of Nicaea or Chalcedon.  Perhaps without our current barrage of questions, there cannot be a deeper piercing of the mystery of our humanity, a further probing along the lines, say, of an Evdokimov, who may be wrong, but is brave enough to ask questions about the charisms of male and female.  I have been myself deeply moved by the story told by Richard Hays, whose dear friend “Gary” came to him, dying of AIDS, and desperately in need of some answers from Scriptures.  Hays and Gary covenanted together to publish their findings, so that Gary’s experience would count for something in the church. Gary died of AIDS before the plan was completed, but Hays relates the compelling story and the hard thinking that both of them did together. His friend Gary had experienced his own homosexuality as a “compulsion and an affliction” for over 20 years, and had searched many current books affirming gay activity in the churches, (by McNeill, Mollenkott, Boswell, etc.); he found in them only “wishful interpretation.” Caught between gay rights activists in the Church, and fearful traditional reactionaries, Gary turned to his friend and the Scriptures for truth and for comfort, and finally made this discovery: “Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith? Certainly not. But anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged” (Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation HarperSanFrancisco,1996 ,401).

Surely Gary was searching for a Church that would be faithful enough to be truly inclusive: inclusive enough to call every member of her body to ongoing repentance and fullness of life, while all of us await the full redemption of our bodies. No doubt Gary would have dismissed as condescending those ‘half-way’ strategies that admit homoerotic unions to be less than God’s perfect will, but the best that some can manage, given their present condition. He held out for the hope that there was truly no male and female, no gay or straight in Christ: and this meant, for him as well, being brought into God’s very own life of purity and health. However, life in Christ did not mean for Gary a reorientation towards heterosexual desire. Some Christians today do speak of this kind of healing in their sexuality; this was not Gary’s experience, yet he was content with God’s grace as he committed to abstinence. Professor Hays pictures his friend for us a powerful symbol of God’s power made perfect in weakness, embodying our present situation ‘in between the times.’ God’s Spirit is at work among us, yet full glory remains a future hope. Gary’s integrity, and the faithfulness of others like him, reverse the symbol of disintegration featured by Paul in Romans 1. They witness redemptively to all of us about Christ’s grace, love and fidelity.

The humility of learning to live between the times is also modelled remarkably by the courageous Wesley Hill. He also is well aware that there are not full answers to the desires and the questions of his life. And yet, there is enough, he thinks, for a wayfarer.  He concedes: “The church’s no to homosexual behavior makes sense to me—it has the ring of truth…when I look at it as one piece within the larger Christian narrative. I abstain from homosexual behavior because of the power of that scriptural story” (Washed and Waiting, 77).

In the end, then, I want to plead that we not make a “disconnect” between our pastoral care and sound teaching from Scriptures and the tradition. The two are not separate compartments, or even separate phases, in our engagement of the questions, but they must come together.  As we register the desires for intimacy, ecstasy and hospitality, as we come to deeply befriend those who are urgently asking the questions, we must foster not only open hearts, but sound minds.  Love means telling the entire story of salvation, with its holy Creator and good creation, its tragic fall into sin and our disordered, dying condition, its call of Israel and giving of the Law as a pointer to God’s will, its revelation of the IUncarnation of God among us, and its radical inclusion in the Holy Spirit—an inclusion that does not contradict the created order, but completes it.  Love means exposing spurious readings of Romans that present a God who works against nature and who contradicts Himself.  Love means showing the tendentious nature of the arguments by some scholars who misrepresent ancient “adelphopoeic” liturgies (medieval services that celebrated the holy partnership of monks) so that they can be used for the ungodly naturalization of same-sex erotic relations in religious communities today. Love means showing, despite the subtle argumentation of the likes of Rowan Williams, that there is a distinct difference between advisedly and rarely chosen prevention of pregnancy and expanding the definition of marriage to apply to same-sex erotic relations.  Love means reading the psychological and scientific data as carefully as we can.

Love also means finding within the Church’s repertoire different ways of encouraging those who are in the position of Gary, “Angie,” “Luke,” Mary and Wesley to see and realize their own God-given potential for intimacy, ecstasy and hospitable living within the faithful following of Christ, who himself was single. And so love is not only giving, but also receiving. Those who determine to follow, whatever the cost, are an irreplaceable gift to us, as they show a faithful watchfulness that is not asked of all of us in this particular way. Some have argued that celibacy by circumstance is not the same as a deliberately chosen calling—indeed, it is not, but in some ways it may be seen as an even deeper surrender which we must surely celebrate when we see it gracefully exhibited among us. As Wesley Hill perceptively reminded me in a recent phone conversation, Jesus speaks of some eunuchs who are born that way, others made that way by others, and still others who choose to live singly for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12).  For the single person who cannot find a faithful spouse, the widow or widower who is lonely after having lost a life-long collaborator, the gay or lesbian Christian determined to remain chaste in an over-sexualized age, I am more grateful than I can say!  As much as the celibate bishop, such brothers and sisters shine their light in a time of turmoil, reminding me that our final end is in the great Lover of all; they help me to see more of the grace of the Triune God than I would otherwise glimpse. “Medicines for the soul” come by way of Scriptures and the fathers, but are applied in our living with those whose challenges are other than our own.

Written by
Edith Humphrey

Edith M. Humphrey is the William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a member of St. George Antiochian Cathedral in Pittsburgh, and author of seven books. Besides teaching, she plays piano and oboe, sings in the parish choir, and plays with her twelve grandchildren.

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