Fat pills and Sexbots. Seriously.
I am not sure where to begin with the travesty that David Bradshaw suggests as a “framework” for understanding the teachings of “Scripture and the tradition of the church” on “homosexual intercourse”:
A fat (preventing) pill and sexbots.
Seriously, sexbots and fat pills. Fat pills and sexbots. Fat pills which assume that fat is the result of undisciplined eating (fat-shaming anyone?) and sexbots which will encourage habitual masturbation “that could destroy one’s capacity for real relationship” (and make you blind too). (So, that was sarcasm. To be fair, Bradshaw actually thinks that real masturbation is better than sexbot masturbation).
This is what Bradshaw offers as thought experiments to help elucidate the heart of same-sex intercourse. The token inclusion of “cannibalism, bestiality, and genital mutilation” as somehow related behaviors is almost laughably benign.
The implication, never stated, but unavoidable, is that sexually active same-sex intercourse is an enterprise characterized by an impersonal and utterly hedonistic lack of discipline. This is hardly a new analysis of same-sex sex. What is so utterly shocking, and as a result, so deeply disappointing, is that this summary paper is meant (I assume) to be a substantive Orthodox response to sexual diversity. If so, then its primary virtue is in its honest revelation of exactly where the public conversation appears to be within Orthodox theology.
Sexbots and fat pills. This is what passes for serious Orthodox scholarship on sexual diversity.
Trying to take the argument seriously:
Bradshaw states that our “body is our co-worker in salvation,” and that it is through our body that we come closer to God. While I am hesitant about the dualism injected between my body and … me, I certainly agree that our bodies are essential to our salvation where salvation is understood as participation in God (theosis). Our bodies are indeed the means we have to come to know and love God, our neighbor, and all creation.
Yet for Bradshaw, the liturgical acts of fasting, kissing icons, prostrating, processing, communing, are means by which we “afflict ourselves” in order to “advance that redirection of desire that is essential to any living relationship with God.” I am not sure what is worse in this framework: that worship should manufacture suffering, that there is such insufficient suffering that it must be manufactured, or that suffering is the primary means of learning to love God and neighbor.
To the first, many of the worship practices that Bradshaw names are sources of joy and communion: when I kiss the icon of a saint, praying with the person depicted, I stand with a cloud of witnesses that support and sustain my life of faith. When I receive an anointing of oil, I am receiving the gracious healing of God. When I take the Eucharist, I am receiving the medicine of immortality. None of these acts cause my body suffering. They are a source of healing, of restoration, of communion. Directing our desires towards God may require moments of difficult askesis, discipline. But some acts of discipline are full of joy, of hope, of life, and of healing. Bradshaw’s vision of worship seems to echo the frankly macho and toxically masculine tendencies elevated among some North American converts to Orthodoxy in which standing for hours on end is an athletic challenge which relishes a “militant, butt-kicking Jesus.”
To the second, if fasting, kissing icons, kneeling, and walking in procession are primary sources of suffering, then Bradshaw clearly fails to understand the necessary pair to askesis, ekstasis, that is, directing one’s self out of one’s self towards love of God, neighbor and creation. If one is loving God, neighbor, and creation, there is no shortage of grief and suffering in which one will engage as a part of standing with and among those unloved by the world. Worship does not need to pile more suffering on a suffering world. (As the priest of a significantly African-American parish, I am horrified at the idea.) If we find that we need worship to understand suffering, then, with Mother Maria Skobtsova, I wonder if perhaps liturgical idolatry has replaced loving our neighbor. Perhaps liturgical suffering has become an easy replacement for the heart-rending solidarity with our neighbors that is the call of the Gospel.
To the third, suffering is simply not the only way we learn to love God and neighbor. Perhaps the most effective lessons are not those embedded in loss and grief and bodily harm (a theology which only encourages abuse), but the ways in which we are shaped by the love and care of those around us.
And this is precisely where Bradshaw’s framework fails utterly to help us think about sexual diversity.
For Bradshaw, participating in “homosexual intercourse” refuses “self-denial” of, I assume since he never explicitly states it, sexual continence (that is, celibacy) for those who experience same-sex desire. Where this required self-denial is refused, “homosexual intercourse” is characterized as impersonal sex which disengages “the normal elements of lovemaking from their natural home within the bodily expression of love for another person.”
Has Bradshaw ever met, and truly listened to, a same-sex couple engaged in a loving, sexually-active, faithful relationship? I know many same-sex couples. I know NONE who characterize their sex lives as some kind of “removal” of the other person. At no point does Bradshaw seem to consider that married same-sex intercourse is as full of love and care as married, other-sex relationships, and so just as formative of the “goods of marriage.” As a matter of fact, at no point does Bradshaw seem to consider same-sex relationships; he speaks only of “intercourse” in the most depersonalized of ways. Perhaps, he can only envision the possibility of same-sex interaction as intercourse, not relationship. As a result, the openness of his phrase “the bodily expression of love for another person” is occluded by the refusal to consider same-sex relations as between persons, not … sexbots.
This would explain then, his framework as one entirely based around bodily suffering, and his utter failure to see worship, and the body, as formed by love and communion. Bradshaw starts with the assumption that same-sex intercourse is only about the self-gratification of bodily desire, and then articulates a theology of body and worship that refutes such gratification. But he does so in a way that renders same-sex relationships invisible, turns worship into a source of suffering, and renders the body as simply “raw material” to be punished (Bradshaw might say “disciplined,” but he appears to understand discipline as punishment) into love.
An Orthodox theology is one in which worship helps restore our full-humanity as lovers of God, neighbor, and creation, where relationship is the center of that healing, and in which bodies are the literal place in which all salvific relationships are experienced.
It is only within this framework that same-sex relationships, the intercourse that might be included in such a relationship, and any theological discussion in their regard, can constructively occur.
I sincerely hope that this piece is not characteristic of the ongoing research project that is the “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” especially of those who oppose same-sex relationships. For while I am a supporter of such relationships (I am in one, and it is a joy and fertile field for growth in participation with God, theosis.), this level of engagement with the issue and the lives of same-sex-loving persons is simply embarrassing to anyone who takes seriously robust and thoughtful conversations of Orthodox theology.