Theosis, an all-encompassing vision of Christian life

Last night I lectured on St Gregory of Nyssa in my course “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”. A certain amount of time had to be spent on his Trinitarian theology not least because my own interpretation has changed as a result of Fr John Behr’s detailed analysis in The Nicene Faith, Part 2, contrary to my previous understanding as informed by Met. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (a book I’ve mentioned here many times).

I wanted, this time, to expand it outwards from triadology to that which we call “mysticism”, partly because mystical questions keep arising in question time, partly because St Gregory of Nyssa is chiefly famous of late for his “mysticism”, partly because one of the first patristic texts I read was The Life of Moses.

And as I thought about mysticism and the Trinity and the Life of Moses, I couldn’t get the little word theosis out of my head. Theosis, the Greek word for “deification”. You’ll meet this word everywhere in Orthodox circles. Its foundational statement is in Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius: God became man so that man might become God. Theosis, however, is more than just a slogan or saying. And it’s more than just the mystical activities of ascetics like the Cappadocian Fathers and the monks of the desert or mediaeval Mt Athos. It is, ultimately, the all-embracing soteriology and endpoint of all Christian theology for the eastern tradition.

For Gregory, it is stated in terms of participation (he rarely actually uses the word theosis), which is how a modern Orthodox will describe its meaning. We are called to participate in the divine life—the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning on high of the God Word whose life now continues in the Church, the Body of Christ, is the central act of the drama of theosis. Not only are our sins washed away through the waters of baptism and by the blood on the cross—which St Gregory and the rest of the Fathers affirm—we are enabled and empowered to be united to God and to know him more and more fully all the time.

St Gregory argues that the pursuit of perfection, the path of sanctification, is itself part of this participation, not just activities we today would call “mystical” or “contemplative”. Sanctification itself, effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a participation in the divine life. And, as I’ve stated here before, twice in fact, since perfection and holiness are attributes of God, and God is infinite (St Gregory is one of the first to actually argue for the infinity of God), then the path to perfection is itself infinite. This endless journey of perfection is called in Greek epektasis (acute accent on the second e). Epektasis for Gregory is what other Greek thinkers would call theosis, I would wager.

Whereas contemporary Protestant ideas of salvation tend to parse it into helpful categories such as: justification is God setting us free from the penalty of sin; sanctification is God setting us free from the power of sin; glorification is God setting us free from the presence of sin—theosis sees it as all of these and more. Salvation is entering into and participating in the life of God most high through the intervention of God in the incarnation. God is present and available to us today because Jesus died on the Cross. We meet with him through righteous acts, through prayer, through the Eucharist, through meditating on the words of Scripture. And we will never cease growing in perfection and getting to know Him more because He Himself is infinite, and our perfection itself is merely a participation in His life.

I’m teaching a course about Nicaea

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

I am teaching this term — “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy.” It’s an online course with the Davenant Institute, and you can read the official description here. When I approached this course, I did not want it to be simply the fourth century, nor simply, “How did the Arian/Nicene controversy get resolved?”

As a scholar who has spent a lot of time working with the Council of Chalcedon, I wanted this course to demonstrate how the questions being debated from the time of Nestorius’ episcopate to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 were questions embedded in the thought of earlier thinkers, so I wanted to see the course reach a terminus of at least 451.

I also did not want anyone to get the idea that in 381 everything was settled. So extending to 451 helps finish off the Nicene narrative and push us onwards. Of course, the Council of Chalcedon opens up new cans of worms and results, ultimately, in new schisms and all sorts of things going a bit belly-up. There are no living ecclesiastical bodies directly descended from the Council of Ariminum or from Eunomius of Cyzicus, but the opponents of Chalcedon have a strong presence in the Middle East and count themselves part of apostolic succession.

And they all accept the Council of Nicaea.

Anyway, this, perhaps, wider temporal boundary than usual meant that some authors you might expect — Sts Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom, for example — are not covered in depth. Alas, such decisions must be made in a ten-week course.

I also wanted to assign entire works of substance, if possible, and not just excerpts or bits of sermons. I want my students to grapple with the tedious parts of ancient theological works as well as the parts of longer treatises that are interesting but may never make an anthology of texts on the Trinitarian or Christological debates. So they are reading all of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, all of St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, all five “Theological Orations” of St Gregory of Nazianzus (“the Theologian”), etc.

Another thing that I thought was important in approaching this period in theological history, and this is up to me in the lectures and discussions, was to avoid making conclusions into premisses — a perspective gained from Father John Behr here as well as in his book The Nicene Faith. Two examples: It is not straightforward that confessing the God Word as being homoousios (consubstantial/of one substance) with God the Father would obviously be orthodox. Nor is it straightforward that the Trinity is “three hypostaseis in one ousia“. Depending on how you define these words, both of these hallmarks of contemporary orthodoxy were susceptible to unorthodox understandings back then.

A final grand, structural thought was similar to the first. The ecumenical councils move from debating the Trinity to Christology, but the questions of both were abroad at the same time. Moreover, there is more afoot than either of these debates. That is one reason I wanted to include entire works. I also chose to include St Ephrem the Syrian because he represents a very different world than the Greek theologians, both because he is writing poetry and because he is writing in Syriac.

I do not know how lectures on these topics go with different professors. My educational background is in both theology and classics, so the world of Late Antiquity comes forth in my lectures not a little. I have no difficulty keeping the various members of the Constantinian dynasty clear in my mind. I know the political culture and political history of the period. I know the Latin poetry and even some of the Greek philosophy — besides, of course, all the Classical era classics! I love teaching this period and not losing sight of the wider political and cultural environment.

And I love not hiding the fact that I am an Anglican by conviction who has tendencies towards Eastern Orthodoxy.

After two initial weeks of covering the Council of Nicaea and then a blitz through history to 381, we have been and will be looking at Athanasius, Ephrem, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary and Augustine in one week, Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus, and Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon. Hilary and Augustine are unfairly lumped together because I did not want to cut either of them, but I have trouble envisioning a course that devotes attention to Athanasius but excludes Cyril, and I think Augustine On the Trinity is just too large to grapple with here. That’s for next term, when I get to teach St Augustine. 🙂

I have taken great delight in teaching this class so far. I enjoy preparing the lectures, and the students have good energy, come prepared, and have important things to say as well as good questions. We are almost halfway through. I’ll miss my Monday nights with them when it’s done.

But then, soon enough, I’ll be teaching my next course for Davenant. But more on that anon …

Bromance may save your marriage

So, in light of having recently led a study on Genesis 1-3 and what it means for men (hence my post Biblical manhood?) as well as my three-part series about St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship (part 1, part 2, part 3), I thought I’d finally write a thing that’s been inchoate in my mind for a long time, drawing on them both:

Bromance may save your marriage

Genesis – What is a human?

For this to make sense, we need to think first on what it means to be human. From Gen. 1-3, we learn (amongst many other things):

  1. Humans are made in the image of God, male and female (1:26)
  2. It is not good for the man to be alone (2:18)
  3. Living by the sweat of your brow is part of the man’s curse (3:19)

God is Trinity. Among the many things it may mean for us to be made in the image of God, many people believe that being made for communion is part of that. God is Three Persons. Human communions imperfectly reflect the consubstantial Trinitarian life. Metropolitan John Zizioulas goes farther and says that all of creation, in fact, rests on communion as its foundation — see his mind-bending but beautiful book Being As Communion.

We are made for connection — this is part even of the message of 1:26, where we are made male and female together, thus reflecting the image of God as male and female, not as solitary individuals. (I got that idea from Father John Behr somewhere.)

Fallen relationships

The problem is, we live in a fallen world (hence Gen 3). In many cultures, men live out the curse of Genesis 3 by overidentifying with their work. In our culture, as an ongoing outworking of the ill-health wrought by the curse and human sinfulness, by the world, the flesh, and the devil, men tend to have superficial relationships with each other.

This is typified by “bro culture”, the fullest version of which I have never been ushered into, having an aversion to a. locker rooms and b. sports. Without a hint of caricature, drawing on Peggy Orenstein’s article in The Atlantic, The Miseducation of the American Boy, bro culture seems to be a superficial realm of existence, where men relate to each other in a series of games of oneupmanship, mocking those who show ‘sissy’ emotions, and speaking ill of women. And speaking of doing ill to women, in fact.

Many young men find that they can only open to other young women, not their bros.

I am sure the variations are legion.

Now, it is worth pausing to note a salutary aspect of late modern life, which is that many men consider their wives their best friend. This is a good thing. If you read works from even a century ago, it was clear that to many intelligent, educated men wives were interesting creatures worth loving, having around, procreating with, and so forth. But having an intellectual conversation about religion, politics, art, poetry, or anything else like that — well, that was what the club was for, right? Thankfully, not all men have always been like that, and it seems fewer are today.

Yet the problem that I see arising is that our male-to-male friendships, even if not the perversions of Orenstein’s study, are shallow. We talk sports or movies or video games or art or even politics and religion. But our deepest hearts, our fears, our loves, our true hates, our dreams in shimmering gossamer — these precious selves we hide away. Our emotions don’t come into play.

Except, perhaps, with the wife.

What ends up happening, I think, is that all of our emotional burden is laid on our wife’s shoulders. There are no male friends to help with it. She carries it all. And it is too much to bear.

Spiritual Bromance

Bromance, then, is a way forward. That is to say, find a man whom you can trust, with whom you have things in common. But instead of only talking about how excited you are that Star Trek: Picard begins to air this Thursday, or the Superbowl or whatever it is normal guys talk about, you also talk about your real life — your hopes, fears, and dreams. Your struggles.

This is like an accountability partner, but with more than just, ‘Did you do your devotions? Did you look at naughty pictures?’ It is also about the bigger walk with Jesus.

This is where Aelred comes in — you have to test the waters, to see if someone has the character to be trusted with your secrets, to be loyal to you when you do wrong, to grow upwards with you. And to simply be compatible. If our non-spiritual conversation doesn’t move because I like Star Trek and my bro likes boxing, perhaps we should just be friends and find true bromance elsewhere.

Now, I’d like to have some of this in my life.

Wouldn’t you?

Biblical manhood?

I recently led a Bible study about ‘biblical manhood’. We looked at Genesis 1-3, focussing on specific passages, such as the creation of humans as male and female from the beginning, the fact that ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’, and what the curse entails for men and women, and what freedom in Christ should look like.

My inspirations were Fr John Behr on Genesis 1 when considering male and female together as comprising the fullness of humanity in God’s image, as well as Met. John Zizioulas, Being As Communion, for the fact that we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity, and St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship for practical implications. Closer to my Protestant friends filling the room were Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, and Kelly Monroe Kullberg, Finding God Beyond Harvard.

Anyway, beyond these inspirations that lie beneath my interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, chapters that are foundational for biblical anthropology and what it means to be male and female, I realised that there is not a lot in the Bible specifically about being male.

Now, there are many male characters throughout the biblical narrative. But these stories are a variety of things to us — some are good examples, others are definitely not to be copied, while still others are simply things that happened. And of the positive examples, it strikes me that very rarely are they specifically masculine examples, and if we might think they are, is that us reading masculinity into the text or is it already there?

Consider King David: Clearly adultery and murder come on the list of bad examples, whereas killing Goliath and playing the lyre were good things. But what does that say to us? That we are all to become literal warrior-poets? The one thing we know for sure was that he was a man after God’s own heart — so it is the inner life of King David that matters, I guess.

Although the list of good examples could go on, I don’t think that it’s that informative about the Christian view of manhood and masculinity. Generally, the principles we can draw from these examples are applicable to Christians of either sex, male or female.

Furthermore, I think there is a danger in reading the Old Testament this way, because it can reinforce a certain white Anglophone machismo, that real men are burly fellas like Samson, that the ‘great men’ of the Bible were soldiers like Joshua, Gideon, David, and others.

Christian history has actually tended to provide alternative masculinities, partly rooted in and inspired by the ‘household code’ passages of the epistles — you know, ‘Husbands, do x‘, that sort of thing. This alternative masculinity, coupling the household codes with the upside down kingdom preached by Jesus to persons of either sex, is full of men who fight on their knees, turn the other cheek, give up careers in the army, and die obscure deaths.

In the Middle Ages, alternative Christian masculinity found concrete form in the monk, the pray-er. The secular ideal of the Middle Ages is that of the Knights of the Round Table, who spent a lot of time involved in extra-marital sex and fighting with other people, not always for any good reason, or of Orlando/Roland (I’m reading Ariosto in my spare time). Orlando mostly just jousts with people and chases a woman who doesn’t really like him. He is big and strong and mighty. They were tough. They were macho. Knights were bros.

Monks were brothers. They were called to a different kind of life. Whether we’re thinking of monks in the strict sense — those cloistered ‘cenobites’ like Benedictines and Cistercians or semi-hermits like Carthusians — or of their more active brothers, the Franciscans and Dominicans (for example), members of religious orders abandoned their worldly responsibilities, their wealth, their power, the violent lives of their past, and romantic liaisons with ladies. Consider Francis, who went from fighting local wars to preaching poverty and salvation. He subverted the world of courtly love and called people to a better love, to the love of Lady Poverty.

I believe that the ideals of the monastic life are rooted in Scripture (so do monks), and I also believe that we are called to wage peace. We are to fight on our knees in the training of the holy life.

Back, then, to biblical manhood. The Kingdom of the Heavens is the upside down kingdom, where husbands love their wives sacrificially, where men submit to one another and, you will note, to their wives, where they do not provoke their children to anger, and where they give up all worldly pretension for their King. We have a high calling, but we have a mighty Leader.

What does biblical manhood look like? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. ↓

Fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre

Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)

Orthodox thoughts invading my sermon notes

St Gregory Palamas

My sermon notes tend to include square-bracketed thoughts that pass through my mind that are not the preacher’s — a system of differentiation. They are usually intertexts or allusions, sometimes criticisms. Today’s, besides [False dichotomy] in relation to the idea of Hebrew vs Greek thought, I had:

Union of mind + heart

  • Palamas
  • Way of Pilgrim

This was in relation to the fact that the biblical world vision is (supposedly?) not of mind ruling all (as in caricatured Platonism) but of the ‘heart’ in control. I couldn’t help but think of Gregory Palamas and The Way of a Pilgrim and the teaching on the union of the mind with the heart. But I also know that nous is not the same thing as English mind as commonly used.

My next bracketed thought:

[Theophan the Recluse]

This was for the idea that, although we ourselves strive for virtue, it is always only possible through the work of the spirit, as taught by St Theophan in the excerpts in The Art of Prayer.

After [Theophan] came

[Maximus]

this a reference to St Maximus the Confessor and his idea that we are already ontologically united to Christ as Christians, so imitatio Christi isn’t really the name of the game, for all virtue is Christ living in us already.

Finally, there was

[John Behr]

in relation to human sexuality and its goodness — thinking on his teaching about Genesis 1 and the fact that God declares the human being in his image and makes males and females — male and female humans together make the full image of God. I didn’t write it down, but I was also thinking of Solov’iev (Solovyov).

The preacher himself referenced Peter Kreeft, Thomas Aquinas, and Brother Lawrence. (And yes, I go to a Protestant church.)

What does it say that my Christian intertexts are increasingly Orthodox?

The Martyrdom of Marriage

Thomas Becket martyred, roundel at Exeter Cathedral (my photo)

When writing about Jordan Peterson and marriage as a case example of how Christians should have a different approach to life from the world, I made reference to an excellent article by Fr John Behr, ‘From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human‘, in the current issue of The Wheel. In this article, where Fr John discusses the basis of biblical anthropology and what maleness and femaleness have to do with this, he talks about the martyrdom of marriage, as well as the martyrdom of parenthood.

Here is a way of viewing marriage most of us are unused to.

Martyrdom was long regarded in the Christian tradition as the highest expression of faithfulness to Christ. From St Stephen to St Polycarp, St Perpetua, St Cyprian, St Alban, the martyrs were seen as the pinnacle of Christian devotion. Second only were the confessors, those imprisoned but not killed for the faith. Martyrs had a guarantee of heavenly glory, even those as yet unbaptised (these communities believed in baptismal regeneration, remember).

The lapsed, who buckled and gave in, were a problem. Could their post-persecution penitence avail them anything? The traditores, who handed over church property, were even worse. Traitors.

Martyrdom helped shape the church’s image and strength as a community (an unintended consequence).

When martyrdom went away, the monks became living martyrs. They abandoned all to gain everything. They moved to the desert. They suffered to come near to Christ.

The martyr dies on behalf of something bigger than him/herself. The martyr suffers out of love of something better than this present darkness. The martyr is (literally) a witness to the glory of Christ.

In marriage, husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Christ died for the church. Wives are called (controversially) to submit to and respect their husbands.

Marriage is a living death.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?

Speaking as a happily married man with close to eleven years experience, I don’t know that it is. In marriage, I must die. Or rather, ego must die. As a husband, I must love my wife. Love her the way Christ loves the church. Jesus abandoned everything for His bride. He who knew no sin became sin for His bride. He who had the form of God took on the form of a slave for His bride. He who was immortal died for His bride. He who made flesh took on flesh for His bride.

Jesus Christ was whipped, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross.

Out of love for His bride.

Marriage becomes a high calling, doesn’t it?

Out of love for God, I have to love my wife enormously. I have to die to myself for her. Every. Single. Day. What is best for her? What would make her happy? What would make her life easier? Can I care for our son in the morning so she can get some more sleep? (Yes.) Can I bathe him so she can have a break? (Yes.) Can I do some dishes? (Yes.) Can I watch chick flicks? (Yes.) Can I forego Star Trek to give her the quality time she needs? (I mean, I guess so.) Can I do our taxes on time? (Maybe. I mean: Yes.) Can I wash, hang up, and put away laundry? (Yes, but sometimes I forget step 3.)

Bachelor MJH would do dishes only when absolutely necessary. He would stay up late. He would eat too much ice cream. Drink too much beer. Vacuum only occasionally. Watch Star Trek every night. Avoid chick flicks. Marriage is a means of grace that can strip away this ego-centred life.

Instead, I put my wife before myself.

And, of course, two human persons living together are not exactly a binitarian model of the Trinity. Seeking to work out differences and difficulties with love, with humility, with patience. This is also a good place for ego to come and die, and for Christ to come and reign.

Marriage is a living death, but it is a good way to die.

And hopefully, by living this way, my marriage can witness to Christ. Like a martyr.

Jordan Peterson, marriage and discipleship

Every once in a while, someone asks me what I think of Jordan Peterson, usually on the grounds that I’m Canadian. Or that I studied at the University of Toronto. This is akin to people asking me what I think of Pope Francis since I study ‘popes’. I dunno. Don’t really know enough, to be honest. Of course, not knowing enough about the man hasn’t stopped any of Peterson’s critics yet, has it?

In February, I was chatting with some fellow Christians who were interested in Peterson and reading his book Twelve Rules for Life. They spoke highly of the book, saying that, although Peterson is not a Christian, he talks about the Bible and a lot of the things he says are in agreement with Christian teaching.

I’ve been mulling this over, especially after a fellow catholic Anglican called the book ‘insipid’. I’ve also read a few articles on the man, usually via Mark Galli (editor-in-chief of Christianity Today) in his weekly e-mail or First Things. Galli himself is not a commentator on Peterson, he simply links to articles. First Things is careful of Peterson, I would say, delicately critical of him at times but also ready to point out the folly of many of the man’s critics. Anyway, thinking this over, my initial reaction to Christians who see Peterson as an ally remains:

Ally in what?

I don’t want to be holier-than-thou in what follows. I believe that gender, sexuality, men’s issues, etc., etc. are important, and that our culture and civilisation are washing these things away precipitously, in such a way that, in my grimmer moments, I suspect that western culture, despite the good it has brought to the world, is going to commit suicide (much like the Roman Empire is said to have done).

But I also think that our first priority vis a vis western culture — as with Chinese culture, Arabian culture, Sudanese culture — is the making of disciples.

Peterson may support many of the same values of ‘family’ and share much of the traditional Christian worldview on ‘gender’, but do not mistake this for the heart of the church militant here on earth. Our goal is to love our neighbours and help them find their way to the feet of Jesus our Master as His disciples to become citizens of heaven.

Let us consider marriage as a case study, based entirely on hearsay about Peterson.

According to hearsay, Peterson believes that the aimless, drifting, frustrated, infantile, juvenile young men of America would benefit from the stability provided by an early, committed, faithful marriage. This is no doubt true. Indeed, I suspect that white Anglophone society is having a bit of a male crisis that needs to be resolved, and part of that crisis is a refusal to grow up. I once heard a fellow on approach to middle age (if he’s middle aged, then I’m closer than I’d like) remarking that calling his partner his ‘girlfriend’ seems so childish. I’m too nice in person to say, ‘Grow up, commit, and marry her.’

I have two thoughts about this proposal, one about discipleship, the other about marriage.

First, as Christians, we should know that this is but one prescription for but one symptom of a deeper malady afflicting our society and every society of all of history. The real cure for our social ills isn’t marriage. If we want men to grow up and take charge of their lives, while most of us in a very normal way will do this through marriage and fatherhood, this answer is not necessarily that of the Bible.

Becoming disciples of Jesus is the real cure. I know, how old-fashioned of me! I sound like a Bible-thumping Baptist evangelist from the Deep South or something, not the sort of person who just today was praying the Jesus Prayer before the tomb of the Venerable St Bede and has a theology degree!

Awkward as it is, Jesus is the answer.

And when I say this, I mean Jesus the Christ, the risen, ascended saviour, God the Word who became incarnate as a man. The Master of the Universe Crucified for us. One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. To quote Peter the Fuller (not Peter Furler):

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy upon us.

I write this as a married man and a father, but as one who has single friends who lead full, rich lives that do not lack direction. For many of them, this direction comes from Christ. One of my single familiars is changing careers to become a missionary. Another one has found the encounter with Christ in the liturgy and the community of his church to be the great comfort in his life. (And his cat.) Other single friends have found a rootedness in Jesus that they express in art and live out in community.

If we promote Peterson’s solution, we will be telling these brothers and sisters that they are part of the problem, whereas in reality they already found the solution.

Second, then, marriage is not the be-all and end-all of the human state. Our single Saviour never married. St Paul lived in a celibate state. From what I can tell, so did some of the prophets. Marriage can be life-affirming, beautiful, powerful, healthy, and transformative. The asceticism, or the martyrdom (to borrow from Fr John Behr), of marriage can shape us into the likeness of Christ. Theosis can be achieved in the married state. Marriage provides certain circumstances for our growth as disciples.

But the Bible and the tradition are not necessarily that into marriage, are they? I mean, from the cult of marriage in evangelicalism and contemporary Roman Catholic stuff, you’d think that marriage was the best thing ever. In the long Christian and biblical tradition, marriage and sex are approved of, and seen as part of the God-ordained natural order. But Jesus talks about those who are made eunuchs for the Kingdom of the Heavens, and St Paul thinks it would be better if everyone could be celibate without burning with lust.

Tradition is unsure what to do with marriage, probably partly because in most pre-modern societies marriage is very much of this world — a social contract, an economic arrangement, a political alliance.

Without attempting a full theology of marriage and sexuality, it is perhaps enough to note that Scripture and tradition approve of both marriage and the single life. The disciple is to sit at the feet of Jesus in either estate.

But that means that marriage can’t be the answer, doesn’t it?

Indeed, once again, a Christian view of marriage just brings us back to Jesus as the answer. We need to look into Him, plug into Him, and live as His faithful disciples if we’re ever going to see western culture re-evangelised. That’s what society needs, not merely more married couples. How will a growing number of married unbelievers save the soul of western society?

So: Jordan Peterson? I don’t know enough to say. I think he’s probably not wrong on a lot of things, but Christians need to remember that the Kingdom of the Heavens is bigger and stranger than psychology and the things of this world.


If you are interested in thought-provoking Orthodox essays on sexuality, gender, marriage, etc., may I recommend the current issue of The Wheel?

Eros and Anthropology (more on The Benedict Option)

St Teresa in ecstasy by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome (my photo)

I’m approaching the end of these posts about The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. The penultimate chapter of the book is about sex because this is one area that our culture is particularly confused about and contrary to traditional Christianity, and because it is an area that touches biblical, traditional anthropology deeply. I essentially agree about the core thesis of this chapter, especially that we need to grasp Christian anthropology properly if we are to live by Christian sexual ethics and teach it to our children.

In a culture that believes that any sex act between consenting adults is good, with an easy and high divorce rate, that is challenging the biological foundations of the family and gender, it is not enough for us to simply teach a historic Christian moral code. Eros and Venus need to be rooted in the wider philosophy of Christianity, and rooted in what Scripture and tradition teach us about the human person. Simply telling teens, ‘Don’t have sex before marriage,’ isn’t good enough anymore — it may never have been in the first place.

According to the moral code of Scripture, as properly interpreted through the methodology and lens of traditional moral theology, sexual activity is meant for a man and woman in a monogamous union. This, I realise, is a conclusion and not an argument. Nonetheless, it is also a foundation in its way. Human beings are made in the image of God. Whether you take Genesis 1-3 literally or not, this is one of the major takeaways from those chapters of the Bible, one of the things that they teach us about ourselves.

And a remarkable thing, as Fr John Behr points out (in a video I can’t find just now), is that God says, ‘Let us make man [adam/anthropos/homo – generic but singular, thus inexpressible in current English idiom] in our own image,’ and then makes — plural — male and female. Man and woman together, united, are the image of God. Our view of sex must be rooted in our view of humanity, our view of God, our view of marriage.

My friend Tim recently remarked that simply teaching the moral code won’t ever make our congregations moral.

He argued that instead we need to help people reorient their desires.

If your greatest eros is God (who is the actual most beautiful and most good being striven for in Plato’s Symposium, itself an exposition of eros), then you will be willing to live as he recommends, even if it is very hard. This is something that I think Dreher’s chapter on sex could have emphasised more.

Sex, food, material goods, family, community, work — all of these are good desires. Yet all should be subordinated to our desire for God on the metaphysical, ontological grounds not that God wants us to do so (for then He is merely a superhuman despot) but because God actually is worthy of such desire. Having rightly ordered any of these desires for God, we will no longer declare, ‘Confusion is sex,’ but realise that the eros that unites man and wife is good and is beautiful and is itself subordinate to something else so intimate that the Bible keeps expressing it in marital images.

In fact, this is a natural realisation of the western mystics. Most famously, St Teresa of Ávila, but also Julian of Norwich, use erotic language of metaphysical ecstasy. C.S. Lewis once had a mystical experience, and the thing he could best compare it to was sex.

Orient your eros to learn agape.

Sex will take care of itself.

Two lectures by Father John Behr

I first became aware of Fr. John Behr because I want to read his book The Nicene Faith. I haven’t yet because, quite frankly, the enormity of scholarship about fourth-century Christianity makes me shy away from it and stay happy in the fifth and sixth centuries instead!

Nonetheless, I have recently encountered two lectures given by Fr. John. The first I encountered will appeal more to those interested in early Christianity, the core of orthodoxy, and such things; the second is of interest to the same crowd as well as those who do theological anthropology and gender studies.

The First Lecture ‘The Shocking Truth About Christian Orthodoxy’

I found the first through a post on Bosco Peters’ excellent website Liturgy. This lecture was part of Augustine College’s annual lectures (the name of the series escapes me), only one of which I attended whilst living in Ottawa, that given by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft.

The video, which is embedded below, is an hour long; but I highly recommend it. Dr. Behr addresses the two presuppositions of modern scholarship on Christ:

i. We must get behind the crucifixion and the apostolic writings to the ‘real’ Jesus

ii. Orthodoxy claims a strict uniformity and is opposed to any diversity

He deals with both of these presuppositions quite while, observing that all Jesuses are interpretations of the evidence and experiences of the historical events, coloured by each interpreter’s own cultural presuppositions. We will never be able to reach that ‘real’ Jesus of the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

He then makes the interesting shift in interpretation that the early heretics were driven out of a church unwilling to accommodate diversity by arguing that, in fact, people such as Marcion and Valentinian separated themselves from the Church because they found the Church unwilling to silence the symphony of voices and listen only to their monotones.

Orthodoxy contains much diversity. Anyone who has read the Fathers would know this, yet presupposition ii. above lies beneath much discourse about early Christianity. One can only hope Fr. John Behr and others of the current orthodox resurgence in Patristics can help dispel these false visions.

Here it is:

The Second Lecture: ‘Male and Female He Created Them’

With the second lecture, I was a bit more out of my league. I don’t even think I can properly reiterate his thoughts without getting into hot water with gender studies people. But it was a good, challenging talk! He addressed the question of men and women and humanness primarily through the Old and New Testaments, but drawing in strands of thought from rabbinical teachings, modern commentaries, modern Orthodox theologians, and the Fathers. I highly recommend it, especially if matters surrounding gender are important to you. It is available through the lovely people at Ancient Faith Radio.