Orthodoxy and sexuality
Posted 09 March 2005 - 01:01 PM
posting this in the appropriate category or
there may well be the answer to my question somewhere else in the discussion community. If
this is the case, I trust someone will point me
towards the relevant posts.
Recently I have had discussions with several
people on the subjects of both homosexuality and
erotic self-satisfaction. As an Orthodox
Christian, I have a considerable amount of
information about the Church's view on the first
topic. However, I was at a loss to argue
persuasively about the sinful nature of self-
eroticism, especially when confronted with
modern psychological theories of 'natural
expression of sexuality', 'harmless and necessary
in the sexual development of an individual', etc.
I have discussed the issue with my spiritual
father who views self-eroticism as one more
form of the deviation of the natural sexual
instinct towards self-love and pride. The
sinfulness lies, as with most carnal deviations,
with the cultivation of emotional and psychological immaturity and the inability in
some excessive cases to form appropriate
relationships with members of the opposite sex.
Furthermore, it promotes an unhealthy fascination
with one's own pleasure, not to mention that
people use it as a justification to avoid more
intense and direct carnal temptations.
I have even personally considered whether self-
eroticism in particular further reinforces a
psychological propensity towards homosexuality
insofar as it provides the means to achieve
carnal satisfaction by stimulating one's own
body and thereby possibly making it more likely
to respond to similar stimulation from a member
of the same sex.
I would like to point out that I am not trying
to condemn anyone in particular as I believe
that we are all guilty of many sins and whether
we have the inclination to sin in this or any
other way is irrelevant to the reality of
our fallen nature. But I would like some more
information on the concept of self-eroticism
from the Orthodox perspective, perhaps by
reference to specific passages from the Scripture
or the Holy Fathers and Saints, or even from
an Orthodox psychological point of view, if there
are any specialists in the membership. Other
views or corrections of my perspective are
equally welcomed as I certainly do not claim to
have any profound knowledge nor expertise on the issue.
Apologies for the long post, especially since I
am a newcomer!
In Christ with love,
Posted 10 March 2005 - 11:24 AM
I have discussed the issue with my spiritual father who views self-eroticism as one more form of the deviation of the natural sexual instinct towards self-love and pride.
Others may pick me up on this, but I will venture to respond to your question despite my informal theological training.
I think your spiritual father is correct in placing autoerotic behaviour within the framework of an Orthodox understanding of sexuality as a whole. I think in a sense it is not the act of masturbation as such which is sinful, but its potential effect in a person's spiritual development (although of course the act and its effect would in most cases be inseparable). The same would be true of homosexuality and other sexual behaviours. It is clear from the Lord himself in holy scripture that marriage is holy, and this is where human sexuality is sanctified according to Fathers like St John Chrysostom. St Paul encourages couples not to deny themselves to each other, but at the same time presents the danger in using sexuality outside marriage, when he writes "better to marry than to burn".
The question of sexuality goes to the heart of Orthodox teaching about human nature and destiny, since different Fathers have given diverging views on sexuality; some said it was the result of the Fall, while others - I'm not entirely sure about this, so please help out anyone who knows - suggested that Adam and Eve did have sexual relations prior to the loss of their communion with God (wouldn't this clash however, with the fact that in heaven "they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels"?). The Biblical use of the word "knowledge" to describe sexual intercourse also suggests the unitive depth of a sexuality which is according to nature, that is in communion with God. Perhaps modern views of masturbation and homosexuality being "natural" therefore rely on a non-Christian assumption, namely that the 'nature' we observe around us is the same as our original nature. As a psychologist myself, I can vouch that guilt is not a healthy way of dealing with sexuality, but I agree that neither is the simple lifting of all inhibitions under the label of what is "natural". Freud himself, by the way, did link autoerotism to narcissistic regression, and did consider adult heterosexual relations to be the true form of mature sexuality; of course others since have heavily critised him for this 'heterosexist' view. The political climate today does not permit the ascription of homosexuality to developmental factors such as you very interestingly suggest, but instead views homosexuality as "natural" because it occurs in certain animals, and looks to various other empirical findings to support the claim that one is born homosexual - even though developmental factors have not been completely disproved, it is "politically incorrect" to research this, and there is unfortunately very little detached science around this and other thorny political issues.
Incidentally, the apparent tension in the writings of the Fathers between uprooting passions and redirecting them or transfiguring them also seems to be related to the question of what our original nature was - and may provide a context in which to understand sexual sin, which we as Christians rightly worry over, but sometimes - it seems to me - pay far more attention to this tangible problem than we do to more abstract but equally (if not more) serious ones, like pride or envy. I for one find it amazing how much we worry about sexual purity or food ingredients, and yet can fight and envy each other viciously over things like jobs, qualifications and property without worrying too much about what that does to our souls!
Perhaps I've confused even more with these thoughts, but I offer them as stimulus for what surely promises to be an interesting and important debate.
Posted 10 March 2005 - 12:51 PM
Maria ... Glory to Jesus Christ ...I have already discussed the issue of Orthodoxy and Sexuality on other threads .. I do not think it
appropriate to re write what has already been written ... I also posted an article unedited as it was originally written and posted for the
Antiochian magazine "The Word" on the Monachos website and can be found
by searching the Monachos threads.... It is entitled "Sex is Holy". An edited version was print published 2004 June. It is archived on the Antiochian website www.antiochian.org. A revised and updated and unedited version was just published on the website of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine Psychology and Religion. www.ocampr.org in the e journal section. Basically ...our sexual
organs and their use are a gift from God whereby we share in his creative act. This models the relational aspect of the love within the Holy Trinity. The pleasure in the completion of the sexual act is to be
viewed as His gift to us for sharing and participating as instruments in His creation. Auto eroticism by definition is a "self-centered" act. There is no relational or 'trinitarian' aspect. After reading the articles please post any other question. May Our Lord bless you on your journey to Him. In the name of the self emptying and ever-giving loving Christ ...Fr George
Posted 10 March 2005 - 01:33 PM
The classic on human sexuality from an early church perspective is Peter Brown's "The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity" (Columbia Press, 1988) He's a Professor Emeritus at Princeton and his work is amazing.
Check out the table of contents and you'll see the incredible range of Fathers of the Church he cover and you'll see what I'm talking about. You won't go wrong with it.
Good reading to you!
Posted 10 March 2005 - 02:24 PM
Your article on the holiness of sex is very enlightening and useful. I am puzzled however, by the emphasis on loving the other, but not oneself. Granted that sex should take place within the context of a loving relationship; what about the relationship to oneself? What kind of love for self should a Christian have (seen as the kind one shouldn't have is much easier to point out)? What does it mean, to love one's neighbour as oneself? Is there, in other words, a positive form of self-love? And if so, why is sexual self-stimulation not part of this positive self-love?
Sorry about all the questions, but I am really curious - is Christian life all self-denial and love for others? How can anyone live like that?
P.S. Anestis, is Peter Brown an Orthodox author? If not, to what extent is the book you reccommend suitable for Orthodox readers?
Posted 10 March 2005 - 02:41 PM
Posted 10 March 2005 - 03:58 PM
One major difficulty here is of language- for example when we say our life is to strive for the spiritual & not just psychological. What is meant is a new or renewed being through the grace of the Holy Spirit & most crucially a life "not of this world." It is this aspect which is most critical for it is in this realm that most mistakes are made in our understanding of our life in Christ. For example from the psychological perspective 'victory' will only be seen as being attained if one can attain to certain reformed behaviour. In the Orthodox Christian life however there is always a great paradox that victory over the passions goes hand in hand with humble failure. It is this last after all which is crucial to the true spiritual life for this brings us to true contrition & repentance.
I bring this up because this is crucial for our spiritual life if it is truly to be a life lived in Christ. The alternative is a subtle temptation, easy to fall into, all the more due to modern ways of thinking about 'personal progress' & (most dangerous of all) the self-satisfaction which comes from attaining some mark of personal behaviour. Compare this to the constant advice of spiritual fathers that the greatest progress is to see ourselves as the greatest sinners.
Both what we have to deal with (sin & death) & the cure to this (a life in & through Christ) are extremely profound. We only understand this from within the context of our spiritual struggle against passion & the constant & delicate balance between victory & defeat. What we seek is a life not of this world, remade through the Holy Spirit in Christ.
In Christ- Fr Raphael
Posted 10 March 2005 - 05:36 PM
Posted 10 March 2005 - 05:42 PM
Byron, I did not find your post confusing in the
least. On the subject of 'political correctness',
I have to say that, being Greek, I do not have
any particular reservations on pursuing the
research of a certain issue in ways that might
perhaps be considered 'incorrect' in today's
superficial and hypocritical society. Concerning
other sins, I agree with you how often we obsess
about the sins of the flesh and overlook the
more serious, underlying spiritual reasons which
move us to sin bodily as well. However, I think
that is another topic because I am not so much
asking whether homosexuality and autoeroticism
are sinful in their isolated carnal expression, but want to understand the spiritual
harm that derives from engaging in such practices;
the same would apply for inappropriate hetero-
sexual physical relationships. I have never,
personally, associated sex with guilt, but I do
attribute that to God's love, grace and mercy in
providing me with the prayers and guidance of my spiritual father who is a true Elder in the Orthodox tradition and I have always seen it as
a gift from God, to be preserved and used within
the sanctioned union of marriage.
The issue of homosexuality and autoeroticism is
one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted
topics in modern psychology. My personal view is
that it is highly unlikely that homosexuality is
inborn - with the exception of serious biological
and hormonal cases such as hermaphrodites, which
are both rare and do not really fall into the
above category. I have several gay friends and
from all the discussions I have had with them,
my impression is that there are specific
psychological aspects which led to their sexual
choice. I have not yet met a gay Orthodox person,
but some of my friends have been devout Christians of other denominations. Unfortunately,
especially in the case of Anglicans, they appear
to believe that, since they are in a committed
and loving relationship, they are acting in
accordance to God's will. It is very hard to
argue with such people on the basis of
theological understanding because they already
have a skewed perspective. This is why I
asked for specific references, including modern
Orthodox psychospiritual interpretations, as it
is more helpful to include psychology when
discussing this with people who are not Orthodox
I agree with you, Fr Raphael, that the problem
is spiritual and has nothing to do with current
appropriate psychological behaviours, but we do
live in a society which has, sadly, turned
from a true understanding of God. It is very
hard to explain to non-Orthodox the concept of
sin, struggle against the passions and spiritual
progress when the majority have very different
notions of all the above compared to us
Fr Morelli, thank you for the references.I have
read your article and followed previous threads
on the topic, but have found nothing relevant
to autoeroticism in particular. Since you and
Byron are also specialists in psychology,
perhaps there is some book or article which one
could read on the issue and gives a balanced
perspective? not necessarily Orthodox, but a
serious academic study would be welcomed.
also, if someone can recommend any
specific church Fathers and modern Orthodox
theologians on the subject of sexuality?
I already have Fr Meyendorff's book on marriage,
St John Chrysostom's on marriage and the family
life and have myself read the Desert Fathers and
saints lives, but would be interested to know
Anesti, thanks for your suggestion, but I already
know and have read Peter Brown's book although
it was some years ago when I was doing my Master's degree. I have to say that I am currently completing a doctorate on Late Antique/Byzantine history at Oxford and am
familiar with all of Brown's academic work.
I would not,personally, recommend his book for
an Orthodox understanding of sexuality as he is
not Orthodox himself and, frankly, I feel he has
little understanding of the issue he is discussing. Though perhaps illuminating for non-
Orthodox and western readers, any marginally
theologically read Orthodox reader would find
little of interest. As far as I can see, the
only useful thing is his collection of the
views of several fathers and saints, but these
are treated from a very secular perspective
and with the usual, 'jaundiced' academic attitude
that plagues all modern historical interpretations of hagiology and theology. His
other books on more secular topics are perhaps
more appropriate. I would agree with you that he
is highly revered by academics worldwide and many
of my own professors here have been his pupils.
I will have another look at his book, since i read it so long ago, but I do not think I will
change my opinion.
Thank you all again.
Posted 10 March 2005 - 06:55 PM
Posted 11 March 2005 - 10:42 AM
Thank you for your extensive and comprehensive response to my questions regarding self-stimulation and love of self.
One holy elder said "All that I do that is good I attribute to God, all I fail I attribute to myself."
This is also an issue which confuses me, at the level where I am in my spiritual development (btw I agree with Fr Raphael that for Christians, the goal of life in Christ is theosis, not behavioural, or even only moral change; nor, I would suggest, is theosis a psychological event like the resolution of an internal conflict - though it may well bring such resolutions about as part of the whole process). To return to the issue of being made in God's image and aided by His Grace, as the elder in the quotation suggests; if we do ascribe a negative value to ourselves, and conclude that we are only good insofar as we are bearers of His Image or Grace, will this not eventually lead to a sense of human nature as beyond repair, in the manner of Luther? If creation has value in its own right, if it is good and very good, why not consider ourselves, but for our fallenness, at least basically OK, if only as creatures? I sometimes wonder, as I keep repeating how worthless and impure I am in prayer, whether I am doing myself any good on the psychological level...do I really need more guilt and shame in my life?
I know that the spiritual life and psychological development are different, and operate according to a different set of principles; I don't doubt that the holy elder quoted above spoke from a level of humility that the carnal or psychological mind cannot begin to grasp; I trust, also, that there is value in continuing to pray personally and collectively(but surely also in discussing spiritual matters with other Christians, in a discrete format like monachosnet). But must the ordinary sinning Christian walk around with slumped shoulders and a dark cloud over his head (and a demon snapping at his heels)?
"We can only love God to the extent we can love the most despised, despicable person we confront in our lives"
Again, why can't we also apply this profound wisdom, which strikes me as overwhelmingly true, also to our own miserable selves? Can a person who hates himself love God?
Maria, your doctoral research sounds very interesting. One book on sexuality from an Orthodox perspective I can reccommend is Philip Sherrard's "Christianity and Eros". It is a work of speculative philosophy more than Church teaching, but it is interesting and respectful, I feel, of Orthodox beliefs on this issue. You may also find the following website interesting: The Stephanos Project.
Posted 11 March 2005 - 10:52 AM
When talking to a child, for example I recommend teachers and parents tell the child "You did that (Specify the task) well, now see if you can do this (Specify) a little better." "Good job." I never recommend telling a child "You are good" etc. This is a statement of being, is abstract and provides no real information. Psychologically such statements can lead to irrational and over evaluations of self worth (spiritually this could lead to pride and vainglory).
This is a very good point, and one which as a parent and clinician I can endorse. I wonder, however, if the emphsis on external achievement may also lead to a lack of introspection and an overly goal-oriented attitude to life?
Posted 11 March 2005 - 01:17 PM
The answer, of course, is 'no.' This has not happened in Orthodox theology. The reason, perhaps, is because we believe that mankind is still created in the image of God; the likeness of God is what has suffered from our fall.
Byron asks: "I sometimes wonder, as I keep repeating how worthless and impure I am in prayer, whether I am doing myself any good on the psychological level...do I really need more guilt and shame in my life?"
This calls to mind a passage in the 'Unseen Warfare' that I find helpful. It tells us that we are always to combine the thought of our sinfulness with a daring trust in God's forgiveness. Certainly, our liturgical texts from which one would base their prayer routine are replete with language of God's forgiveness for us. For some reason, many people tend to focus on the parts about how worthless we are. Perhaps this is because we live in a society that is generally not open to honest criticism.
Posted 11 March 2005 - 01:55 PM
Posted 11 March 2005 - 03:04 PM
Sorry I have not had the opportunity to respond to your insights in several days. I am most grateful for your comments and insights and am very much inspired by your studies.
I am in disagreement with your assessment of Brown and of non-Orthodox academicians in general. I don't find them jaundiced generally, and when they are, I tend to overlook it as I feel that the information they provide to be valuable in understanding the various attitudes and beliefs of the times and places they are speaking of.
In my classes with Fr. Meyendorff, plenty of non-Orthodox writers were read.
It, of course, maybe a cultural thing. I have friends who are from Thessalonika and Crete who live and London and describe the church there as being fundamentally an immigrant one. In the states, our churches are primarily 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation as we struggle to create an American Orthodoxy. We are more apt, therefore, to view things a bit differently, I imagine.
That's my take, at least.
One thing that I don't think has been mentioned is that fantasizing about someone else is a way of exploiting and demeaning them. I think that this is true even of those who allow themselves for whatever reason - to be exploited. The issue, thus, ultimately is an interpersonal one.
Posted 11 March 2005 - 03:09 PM
Just to clarify- my remarks above were meant to be about the role of what is psychological in our spiritual life- not about psychology. The comments were also not meant as a criticism but rather just to try to point out something about our life in Christ. Otherwise Fr George & others have already explained very well about why & how these sexual sins are destructive.
St Theophan the Recluse deals with the psychological aspect of our life in Christ & stresses how this must become a life of the spirit enlivened by the Spirit. In this way he distinguishes between spirit & soul in a way not all of the Holy Fathers do; but nevertheless to distinguish this is crucial if we are to understand what the purpose of our life in Christ is. Another text which points this out beautifully is the Conversation of St. Seraphim of Sarov with Motovilov.
Byron sees what I was trying to point out about the psychological in comparison to the spiritual. For example the psychological is when we feel offended by someone and someone says to us, "don't worry, they probably didn't mean it." There is a whole spectrum of attitudes we can adopt here all the way to having a compassionate attitude: "they were probably having a hard day."
The spiritual however is something beyond this. Here we are talking about forgiveness & love - virtues which come only from Christ. On the other hand to attain these virtues, psychological attitudes probably must come into play in the sense that grace will never come without our human effort to love & forgive. As Fr George has also pointed out there is also environment (his example of an Orthodox home for children). The crucial thing I would wish to point out however is that the psychological in this sense must be part of our effort to combat selfishness in ourselves & not become 'psychological' in a mechanical, coldly therapeutic sense. Put another way, we know we are on safe ground if the psychological leads us to repentance; and we know we are on dangerous ground if it brings us to a mechanical understanding of ourselves; or worse if it leaves us blaming others & feeling sorry for ourselves.
What does any of this have to do with sexual sin? Others have already explained very well how this type of sin is destructive. Even though it's going off on a tangent I just wanted to add another point about what healing means for us, especially as we enter this most Holy Season of Great Lent. Thanks to all for their comments.
In Christ- Fr Raphael
Posted 11 March 2005 - 03:46 PM
fantasizing about someone else is a way of exploiting and demeaning them.
Yes, absolutely. Isn't it also self indulging in fantasy images produced by the fallen self? If so then the physical passion is a mirror image of the passion of the intellect.
Sexuality encompasses so many aspects of the human being besides the obvious physical attraction. There is the emotional & feelings of self-worth. To spot what is fundamentally fallen in this & distinguish it from what is not is so difficult- humans after all are social & deeply communing creatures by nature.
But fallen sexuality of any sort is a distortion of the true relationship of love- and its replacement by selfishness. I have often heard that fallen 'love' will always be carnivorous. In this sense the Church needs to be trusted as to what is 'right' & 'wrong' for it is extremely difficult to discern this without long term struggle. In any case the Orthodox Christian as an ascetic creature of God does not throw out love for others. Rather his/her interactions beome gradually true relationships, true & selfless love that in turn build up others in love.
In Christ- Fr Raphael
Posted 11 March 2005 - 04:07 PM
Sexual desire is a natural faculty given to us by God, like the desire for food or drink, and there is nothing wrong with them. Our self-love however tends to abuse any natural faculty for the purpose of self-pleasing. Erotism is a way pleasing oneself by exploiting the natural sexual desire. (Eve ate the apple because "it was pleasant".) The way of following Christ is the opposite - it's denying oneself, denying to focus attention on oneself and on one's pleasures, seeing one's self-pleasing self-love as a sin that separates us from God.
Posted 11 March 2005 - 04:10 PM
On the subject of 'political correctness',
I have to say that, being Greek, I do not have
any particular reservations on pursuing the
research of a certain issue in ways that might
perhaps be considered 'incorrect' in today's
superficial and hypocritical society.
It is very refreshing to hear this. I am glad to hear that the latest secular version of pharisaism has not yet reached Greece.
Posted 11 March 2005 - 04:36 PM
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