“Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: Answers and…People”

I have just finished reading a slim volume by Fr. Vasileios Thermos, an Orthodox priest in Greece, entitled, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: Answers and…People. It is more a booklet than a book, consisting of less than eighty pages of actual text, but its small size belies its importance. It deals with the topics of homosexuality and gender identity, and was written as a handy non-technical summary of his more massive and technical opus Attraction and Passion: An Interdisciplinary Approach of Homosexuality. This latter 700 page tome perhaps not surprisingly was too large to be easily understood and digested by a popular readership, and this current booklet is Fr. Thermos’ attempt to summarize his earlier work and make its conclusions more widely available. The English translation is by Vasileios Tsangalos; and is published by Sebastian Press. At a mere $10.00 it is a bargain.

It is certainly easy to understand, and is written in a popular and readable style in the form of answers to a series of questions. In keeping with his goal of offering a more readable summary, there are no footnotes and no bibliography. The author bends over backwards to be fair to the science involved in his work and to avoid the twin extremes of LGBTQI propaganda and fundamentalist demonization of homosexuals. He succeeds so admirably in his goal that there is a good chance he will be vilified by those on both sides in this war. This, I suggest, he should regard as high (if backhanded) praise, and he perhaps might remind himself of the Lord’s warning, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). I enjoyed the book immensely and am happy to join those recommending it. In the spirit of irenic dialogue that Fr. Thermos is keen to foster, I would like to focus on several things in this book, some of which I agree with and some of which I would like to dispute.

First, the happier task of agreement and concord. Fr. Thermos took pains to point out how complicated is the science involved in trying to understand the causes of homosexuality, and he cautioned against the easy and overly-facile assertions that sometimes characterize both pro- and anti-homosexual positions. In particular he denied the pro-homosexual rhetoric that insists that all homosexuals were “born that way” as well as the anti-homosexual rhetoric that insists that all homosexuality is self-chosen or that “It’s all the parents’ fault”. He asserted that homosexual orientation is the result of multiple causes and that there are several kinds of homosexualities rather than just one. “Research has shown so far” he writes, “that both biological-genetic and familial-environmental causes participate, each in varying degrees, in every individual case of homosexual attraction”.

He noted the extreme paucity of real scientific studies in this field, especially studies “that correlate homosexual attraction to other coefficients like the autistic spectrum, personality disorder, personal traits, organization of the self and identity according to Erikson and so on”. Also, he wrote, “To do justice to the issue of homosexuality subtypes, we need to recognize the inherent technical difficulties of any such systematic study. Like almost all of the studies so far, a retrospective study actually requires the excellent taking of detailed history…These are designed to last over a long series of years, which is technically too difficult”. He noted that the popular media “thirsts for slogans” and so distorts and over-simplifies the science involved. Taking the science seriously will save one from falling into either of the “two pathological stances, namely militant homosexual activism on the one hand and anti-homosexual fanaticism on the other”.

I was happy to see that he disputed the oft-trumpeted statistic that homosexuals constitute about 10% of the general population as “an unrealistically high percentage which facilitates the pursuit of their claims”. In fairness he observed that the conservative wing of society was also keen to play with the numbers to lower the proportion of homosexuals in society to “discredit the vindication of its movement”.

I also note with approval that he wrote that “experience has not shown that children risk adopting a different sexual orientation if they socialize with homosexuals”, so that parents need not fear contagion if their kids play with other kids who are gay. He did, however, note that “exposure to similar stimuli or practices has the power to activate inclinations which were latent and would otherwise find no outlet to emerge”. He also wrote that “there has been no proven higher frequency of sexual abuse of minors among homosexuals”. This is true as a rule, though the instances of pedophilia in Roman Catholic clergy might have deserved at least a footnoted mention.

He observed with alarm a growing totalitarianism in the West in its promotion of homosexual legitimacy, and spoke of “a slowly emerging criminalization of opposing views” which equated criticism of homosexuality with Holocaust denial, and deplored the trend of “measures unprecedented in democratic societies: punishment for mere opinions!”

Despite his rejection of the traditional exegesis of Holy Scripture (which see below) he asserted with St. Maximus the Confessor that “the heterosexual union, and consequently heterosexual marriage, [is] the only ecclesiologically acceptable position”, affirming that same-sex attraction, though not the fruit of sin or result of conscious rebellion against God, was “an aspect of the broad decay of human nature”. He opposed the legalization of gay marriage, and said “we need to preserve the association of marriage with having children” and “deliver to coming generations the sense that the existence of each one of us is naturally found in the marriage of two people of a different sex” (italics original). Regarding the adoption of children by gay couples, he said that “almost all available studies conclude that no specific psycho-pathology is found in these children”, but also cautioned that “not enough years have passed for us to better know the long-term effects of this new situation. On the other hand, most of these studies are made by homosexual researchers who have reasons to push the issue the present findings compliant with their wishes”.

Regarding gender identity, he was even more uncompromising. He welcomed opposing mindless sex stereotyping which would insist that boys should not play with dolls, but he also denounced the “premeditated dressing of children in opposite-sex clothes or the abolishment of sex-denoting pronouns or any other extreme measure which is essentially targeted to promote gender fluidity”. These measures, he declared, constitute “a dangerous betrayal of education” and “undermine the sense of identity in children which is valuable for a child’s normal mental development”. Such things he described as “ominous”, as “pedagogical crimes” and “unspeakable initiatives”.

I also found some things in his volume which I would dispute, especially in his interpretation of Scripture. He acknowledged that Scripture and the Fathers condemned homosexual practice, but averred that this was the result of their insufficient knowledge of the causes of homosexuality. “The dominant interpretive pattern during the New Testament and Patristic times held that all people are born heterosexual and a person can only become homosexual by a distorted decision” (italics original). Homosexuality, he said, was viewed by the New Testament writers as solely the result of a person’s sinful refusal to limit himself to the joys of legal marriage. This pattern, Fr. Thermos said, referred to men only, so that “It was male homosexuality [that] they found intolerable”.

In looking at Romans chapter one, he contended that St. Paul gave no reason for condemning homosexuality. “Most Scriptural passages condemn homosexuality without a rationale…We should not forget that both the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers always elaborate a rationale for all rejectable passions….nowhere in the Holy Scriptures or the Fathers is there an answer why this is rejectable.” In his view, St. Paul included homosexuality along with the other sins of idolatrous paganism as part of “the general environment of that age”. Thus homosexuals reading St. Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in his epistles “will only read that they are excluded from the Kingdom of God with no explanation offered to them”. Indeed, there was, Fr. Thermos contends, nothing in homosexual practice that is harmful to the human soul: “all in all, there are no passions connected with homosexuality per se”.

What can we say to this? Two things.

The first is hermeneutical. That the Biblical writers of Leviticus and the New Testament were unaware of the causes of homosexuality is true, but ultimately irrelevant. Fr. Thermos quotes as parallels the Biblical writers’ ignorance of the role of the woman in the creation of a child’s DNA, of the heliocentric nature of the solar system, and of the fact that thought originates in the brain, not in the heart. All true enough, but irrelevant to the points the Biblical writers wanted to make about child-birth, the cosmos, and human thought, for no Scriptural truth depended upon the accuracy of their ancient science. In the same way, the point that the Bible makes about the moral dimensions of homosexuality remain unaffected by the writers’ ignorance of homosexuality’s causes. It is the same with the Biblical prohibition of bestiality in Leviticus 18:23: doubtless the ancients reading the text were ignorant of the causes that might provoke such behaviour, but their ignorance did not detract from the force of the moral prohibition. They might not have known what would cause a man to lie with an animal, but they knew it was unnatural and wrong.

I also suggest that Fr. Thermos is being perhaps too kind to the ancients: some of them certainly did embrace homosexual practice out of pure lustfulness and decadence and from a refusal to remain within the limits of legal marriage. Rich men often used their slaves for sex, both girls and boys, precisely from such lustful decadence. I acknowledge that some men today are not motivated by lust in their homosexuality; historical honesty compels one to acknowledge that some men in ancient times were motivated by lust in their homosexuality. One size does not fit all, either now or in ancient days, and the New Testament writers should not be blamed if they focused upon the easier targets in their denunciation of the pagan world. They were not writing a scientific study of society, but declaring that the world had lost its way.

My second criticism is exegetical. It is simply untrue that the New Testament passages “condemn homosexuality without a rationale”. In Romans 1:26 St. Paul declares that homosexual practice is “against nature” [Greek παρα ϕυσιν/ para physin]—and here he was referring to women, so that it is untrue, as Fr. Thermos alleged, that “it was [only] male homosexuality [that] they found intolerable”. Male homosexuality is further described as “males having left the natural use” [Greek φυσικην χρησιν/ physiken chresin] of the female”. It is not hard to imagine that a similar view is latent in Leviticus 18:22, which says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman”—i.e. lying with a woman was natural; lying with another man was not. No one reading the New Testament need wonder why homosexuality was condemned. It is not true that there was “no explanation offered”. The words and the culture of binary sexuality made the rationale clear to all without further elaboration.

And it is also untrue that “there are no passions connected with homosexuality per se”. The current trend in Gay Pride parades to glorify what is sometimes called “kink” is indeed a passion not unconnected with homosexuality. Such “kink” may not be accepted by all homosexuals, but its consistent presence in the movement is significant nonetheless. Once again Fr. Thermos is assuming that one gentle and healthy size fits all.

Fr. Thermos further contended that “the annihilation of Sodom is surprisingly connected not with homosexuality but other passions and vices”. In fact 2 Peter 2:10 describes the sin of Sodom as “the lust of defiling passion” [Greek επιθυμια μιασμου/ epithumia miasmou], and Jude 7 describes those in Sodom as those who “fornicated and indulged in unnatural lust [literally, “gone after different flesh”, Greek σαρκος ετερας/ sarkos eteras]”. In the thought of the New Testament writers, Sodom was destroyed precisely for its homosexuality, though of course not for it alone. Its homosexuality was singled out as the worst of its many sins and emblematic of its rebellion.

Much more might be said, both in praise and dispute, but I would prefer the reader to examine Fr. Thermos’ book for themselves. I would like to leave the last word to Fr. Thermos: “By acknowledging homosexuality as a reality explainable through the vicissitudes of human nature we are armed with the necessary presence of mind and compassion for an effective pedagogical and pastoral handling of those brothers of ours…It is very comforting for them to realize that God loves, rather than abominates, them, as He loves all people”.

8 comments:

  1. Irregardless of what any of us may think, it is God who said, “Man shall not lie down with man as with a woman.” (Lev) More or less here or there isn’t so much of an issue as to the fact it shouldn’t be taking place at all and those with these sexual tendencies, might come to healthier terms within themselves by achieving peace through conversion and sincere caring counselling. Several homosexuals have made this step without regret saying they didn’t even know there was a difference to consider – meaning they just thought being bi-sexual or homosexual is the way it is! When they learned differently, then with opened eyes, minds and hearts were they ready to convert and change their lifestyle and relationships.

    1. Maria, you know what just occurred to me when you quoted that passage from Leviticus? It is physically impossible for a man to lie down with a man in the same way as he would lie down with a woman. A man does not have female genitalia.

    2. Amen! Their “temporal” relationship changed with each other and their “eternal” relationship changed with our merciful God.

      God implores all of US to REPENT from our sin and accept HIS forgiveness. He assures us that He will be merciful to our contrite and penitent hearts.

      For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12 ESV)

      Any sin – ANYTHING that is contrary to sound doctrine will be forgiven.

      Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (I Timothy 1:8-11 ESV)

  2. Interesting and thorough book review of the work Fr. Vasileios Thermos has published. I can see how cultural ideas about what is natural contribute to people’s interpretations of Scripture.

    Should I happen to meet Fr. Vasileios in Crete next month at the Orthodox Academy, I would question him on his stand on marriage being: that the church define marriage as an “association” for the purpose of “having children” and “deliver to coming generations the sense that the existence of each one of us is naturally found in the marriage of two people of a different sex” .

    I agree the church needs to preserve and lift up the idea that each child born should be loved, wanted and protected as a child of God who is the offspring of a father and a mother.

    However, I would argue, not all loving heterosexual couples who do marry, marry solely for that purpose. Moreover, some cannot have children biologically…and God finds a way to bless them with children in a miraculous way that some would say takes a lot of faith and imagination to realize just how God does that!

    Love brings older couples together (where the woman can no longer have children) who are widowed or divorced and who already have grown children or none. For “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37) Where two people love one another and want to form a loving, covenanting, or legal reason to be together…and a third person witnesses this…I think the church the ecclesiastical worshipping body should bless them and honour their marriage as one that God has brought together.

  3. I have received in my email a very kind letter from Fr. Thermos in response to my blog post, who requested that I post it in the comments section, which I am happy to do. Fr. Thermos wrote:

    Dear father Lawrence, rejoice in the Lord!
    I did not have the joy to know you in person so far, yet I enjoyed your ‘Following Egeria’ which I read in Greek.
    I just read your commentary and am grateful for the attention you paid at my book, as well as for the praise you posted. I also thank you for the polite critique which always helps us improve. Kind manners reveal a gentle soul.
    As for the disputes, please allow me to clarify some points which may facilitate those reading the book.

    -Whereas it is true that most Scriptural passages condemn homosexuality without a rationale, this is not the case with Romans 1. Saint Paul is clear about the reason he attributes homosexuality to, namely rebellion against God, which (to me) is not valid anymore. So my point is not that NT and the Fathers condemned homosexuality because they ignored its etiology, but because they had in mind a wrong etiology. Therefore I don’t blame them (after all, they did the best they could in terms of their era and through their sanctity); instead, what I do is to refuse to rely on that ancient rationale in order to shape a contemporary theological and pastoral view.
    -The reason that the ancient religious found intolerable the male homosexuality was not the so-thought rebellion which was equally considered for women too. The real cause, still valid today, is psychological: men get upset by male homosexuality, not by the female one. Reversely, women usually are more tolerant to both.
    -I think I nowhere argue that ‘one size fits all’, in terms of ancient homosexuality. It’s exactly the opposite: what I do struggle for is to undo some faithfuls’ false conception that ‘one size fits all’ today, when they apply the NT rationale to all homosexuals.
    -A relevant topic to this is about passions. I realize that my idea sounds very daring. However, we have to be very careful if we wish to trace any passions linked with homosexuality itself. What we notice in gay parades (which I have strongly criticized in Greece and thus have undergone cyber-bullying by LGBTQI movements) are certain manifestations of passions which characterize many of the participants. It does not say something about homosexuality as an entity; besides, we all know gay people who disapprove those provocative demonstrations. Those behaviors are rather informative about postmodernity or about particular activists’ personal history.
    -Indeed the two verses you cited condemn Sodom for homosexuality. Unexpectedly though, many biblical excerpts exist which attribute the Sodom annihilation to other causes or don’t mention the cause at stake (Wisdom 19: 13-14; Sirach 16: 8; Ezekiel 16: 49-50; Isaiah 1: 11-15; Sophonias 2: 9-10; Jeremy 23: 14; Matthew 10: 14-15, 11: 23); I have cited them in the big book. Also Clement of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, Theodor Studite, Gregory Palamas explicitly don’t associate the punishment of Sodomites with homosexuality. At the other side, Apostolic Constitutions, John Chrysostom, Makarios of Egypt, Cyril of Alexandria, Isaac the Syrian, Augustine, Gregory the Great share the opposite opinion. So things don’t seem so easy to decide.

    Obviously it has been my failure to avoid misunderstandings, perhaps because of the concise nature of the book. In the big one I expose both conservative and liberal arguments, as well as all (accessible to me) orthodox theologians’ ideas, on which I comment. The issue is so complex that no one can claim monopolizing the truth, either theological or scientific, and that’s why I hope that other contributors in the future will correct and complete my efforts.
    You may post my response if you think it will be helpful to the readers.
    Wishing you a blessed and fruitful ecclesiastical year,
    +Vasileios Thermos

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