Bourgeois “Conjugal Friendship” and American Ethnophyletism

Public Orthodoxy’s recent post by Giacomo Sanfilippo on “Conjugal Friendship” claimed to take a postmodern approach to sacramental conjugality in Orthodox Christianity, but ended up falling into ethnophyletic and gnostic heresies from an Orthodox standpoint.

The article raises outdated questions of modernist sexual identity in the name of postmodernity. It then answers them wrongly from the standpoint of Holy Tradition:

“To the question, ‘Can two persons of the same gender ‘have sex’ with each other?’ we hear from Holy Tradition a resounding no,’” it states. “Yet if we ask, “Can two persons of the same gender form a bond in which ‘the two become one?’” the scales begin to fall from our eyes.”

The scaly eyes seem part of a straw man view of the Body of Christ, however. For the Orthodox Church does not call it impossible for two persons of the same gender to engage in sex with each other. Recognizing that possibility in her teachings on love and anthropology, she does not equate secular Western definitions of gender and sex in her response to any forms of sexual activity in fallen human nature. Nor does Orthodoxy privilege Western individualism by identifying a certain definition of gender with personhood. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos notes that Holy Tradition sees Personhood (Hypostasis) in the mystery of the All Holy Trinity, not in individual will of a fallen human nature open to transfiguration by God’s grace. In the Personhood of Christ we are made, according to Genesis 1, not as persons making ourselves.

The piece casts itself as a postmodern query but leaves unasked the postmodern question that would deconstruct through queer theory its own bourgeois sexual identity politics. The better question to have started with from that standpoint would have been as follows:

Question: What does sexual orientation (of any kind as understood in 21st-century identity politics) have to do with marriage in the Orthodox Church?

Answer: Nothing.

Any view of essentialist identity is not part of Orthodox Christian teaching on the purpose of man as theosis. Theosis is achieved through unity with the uncreated energies of God, not in any essentialist view of human beings or Creation. That’s not through heterosexual, homosexual, intersexual, transgender, or other categories.

To the contrary, secular essentialist views of human beings have led to the categorizations of identity in modern totalitarianisms, in the “death wish” inherent in modernist materialisms, and their destruction of human beings and the environment on an unprecedented scale.

So any effort to find a sacramental Orthodox basis for conjugal same-sex relations, or any essentialized view of marriage based on an objectified view of identity, whether heterosexual or homosexual or any other category, runs counter to Orthodoxy as a living tradition.

Instead, the “Conjugal Friendship” piece reflects what the late Jaroslav Pelikan called traditionalism—an effort to find the self within a construct of Church based in ritual without theosis, in institutional organization without noetic transfiguration. It would try to force the noetic life of the Church’s living tradition into an individualistic model of the self in accord with American ethnophyletism, an emphasis on individual or tribal identities rather than ecclesial communion.

The mystery and beauty of Orthodox Christian marriage is a living and transfigurative symbolism–not an empty rite to be filled by individualistic desires in the style of neoliberal consumerism, an ethnophyletic heresy of the West.

Orthodox Tradition of marriage involves a profound encounter with the other iconographically in biological sex, a Christian fulfillment of the Daoist yin-yang. Its living symbolism links the story of Creation in Genesis to the marriage of the Lamb and the Bride in Revelation. The marriage of the Lamb and the Bride involves the community of the Church as the Body of Christ, her holy living Tradition, and not just an atomized will individuated from His Body.

In this sense, Holy Orthodox Tradition involves neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality, and approves neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality as an identity to be expressed in marriage. Rather, it is the two who are gathered in His name with whom He is in the midst, the complementarity of male and female from Genesis through Revelation in Scripture as realized by the Incarnation and the Church.

Kathryn Ringrose in her study of “the social construction of gender in Byzantium” found in Byzantine Orthodox society simultaneously a “single-sex” structure of complementarity (the “one flesh” of marriage) based on performativity of the two biological sexes, thus with a “two-sex” model as well, and in addition a “three-sex” model in which the third sex included both ascetics and eunuchs and the intersexed and asexual. St. Maximus the Confessor in his Ambigua put this in the context of spiritual anthropology as the “extreme” of Genesis 1:25 (made in one image, Christ) and St. Paul’s writings, and the “mean” of Genesis 1:26 (male and female).

The simultaneity in Orthodox anthropology of a one-, two-, and three-sex model is based both in the performative ascetic chastity of marriage and monasticism, and in a performative manliness and womanliness that in Christ are one but not erased even in the afterlife (signified by the Ascension of Christ and the Dormition of the Theotokos). This is an iconographic and not a gnostic anthropology, a performative iconography based in Orthodox terms on embodied physical forms and not in gnostic disembodied individual will and desire, except inasmuch as they participate ascetically, hesychastically, and liturgically in the divine energies through theosis.

The “conjugal friendship” article draws on notions of adelphopoiesis developed by the Blessed Martyr Pavel Florensky in his book The Pillar and the Ground of Truth. Yet the article’s interpretation of adelphopoiesis involves an appropriative Western neocolonial view of it based in the late twentieth-century scholarship of John Boswell. Boswell’s scholarship on that tradition has been shown to be seriously flawed by both secular scholars and the Church (see the article on “Adelphopoiesis” on the Orthodox Wiki, which offers a brief survey).

Fr. Florensky’s 20th-century view of this early form of spiritual brotherhood stressed the spiritual brotherhood aspect and not any non-canonical sense of sexual incest in opposition to Church Tradition of the chaste nature of spiritual kinship lines. For him this was chaste brotherhood, and his life story shows his performativity of sex within Orthodox Tradition, contrary to implications in the article. Fr. Florensky’s whole explication of identity in his book is relational and not essentialist, in keeping with Orthodox Tradition. He rejects the Fichtean Western philosophical basis of identity, I=I, for a sense of mystical identity, in which A=Not-A. This articulates a traditional understanding of Orthodox marriage as well.

Thus in some ways Orthodox anthropology is closer to today’s queer theory than to identity politics, though culturally and experientially it involves a very different experience from the ultimately atheistic grounds of both. Secular Western sexual theories today find their basis in anthropologies of atheistic socialist-communism, with their longstanding historical goal of subverting non-materialistic anthropologies of sex, evident in efforts of cultural genocide against Orthodox communities by both Nazism and Leninism, and in subtler but perhaps even more dangerous forms of neocolonial and neoliberal consumerism since.

Orthodoxy can draw a limited typology for marriage from Foucault’s idea that pre-modern sexual behavior did not involve essentialized sexual identity. In this Orthodox anthropology draws on a sense of natural law in Orthodox theology that the bioethicist Dr. Herman Engelhardt describes as a transformative sparkle rather than a static matrix of identity, an energeia entis rather than an analogia entis. The mix of apophatic and cataphatic approaches to God in Orthodox Tradition includes a dynamic sense of identity being transformed neptically in theosis, yet always also in an embodied way because of the Incarnation.

In the Orthodox Tradition of marriage’s own playful yet ascetic performativity, such “queer Christianity” (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis), identity is relational and not essential. Marriage is a holy living symbol of the relational synergy of theosis, involving both askesis and koinonia participating in the uncreated energies of God through the marriage of Christ and His Church. It is “queer” in the sense of sensual but ascetic monogamy, union of different biological sexes, reproductiveness in commitment to transgenerationality, living embodied iconography of Scriptural typology involving Christ and His Church, and in its shaping of a “little church” and “little kingdom” of the household in resistant to materialistic society. This is the Orthodox realization of queerness, which includes the Tradition’s expression of sustainability and social justice in the mystery of marriage and commitment to the transgenerationality of the Church and her incarnational otherworldliness in the world.

The “Bill Nye Saves the World” show recently sought to celebrate the “queerness” of human sexuality in its fallen state by a cartoon showing scoops of different-colored ice cream learning to blend together in a bowl. Bill Nye, trained in engineering and not biology, in celebrating secular sexual materialisms did not address biological aspects of male and female sex and reproduction. Even so, the silly melding of the ice creams could in a very limited sense be transformed in the Orthodox context of embodied chastity into a type of non-essential sexuality and transfiguration of identity in the Body of Christ. Yet how much more beautiful is the Church’s mystery of marriage as iconographic performance, an incarnational participation in the God Who is Love and the Church’s Bridegroom, than Western secular-bourgeois “conjugal friendship” of all kinds reduced to slurping up melting ice cream.


  1. I would encourage this article or a related one to be submitted to ‘First Things.’ This level of analysis needs a broader academic readership to generate more discourse.

  2. This is a great article, but one minor point. Fr. Pavel Florensky is not considered a saint that I am aware of. He advanced some odd ideas, like Sophianism, and so he has never been added to the list of the New Martyrs of Russia.

  3. The original article was a bunch of fluff. “Conjugal friendship” is basically a ten-dollar word for “bromance.”

  4. Here here, Nicholas. I would like to see the ideas in this piece fleshed out more. While there is little in the Orthodox tradition that would place our sex (male or female) in the category of essence, neither should we place it in the category of personhood (despite some readings of Maximus and Zizioulas). The sex of humans exists in some third category that has not yet been fleshed out fully in the Orthodox tradition. As far as I can tell, Dr Siewers agrees with these points. In my reading he places sex in the category of identity, which is relational but neither essential nor voluntary. As such, it seems he would say that we possess a sexual energia that exists in relation both to God and others (???). In the end, the strength of the argument lies in the acknowledgement that marriage participates in the union of Christ and his church. A and not-A become identical in this union. Presumably, two men or two women who inherently share in the same sexual energia would not express this mystery and so “conjugal friendship” fails. This is a fruitful line of inquiry but also requires honing our terms in ways that approach the honing done on physis and hypostasis leading up to the 4th Ecumenical Council.

  5. Certainly identity is relational, but how can it not also be essential? We are created as human beings, with material bodies coded as male and female; how is that not an essential aspect of our identity? “Male and female made He them”?

    It seems to me that this argument against secular (and in this case sexual) essentialism attempts an end run around claims that homosexuality is “who I am,” but the end run veers out of bounds in making identity entirely relational, as if our essence is relationally irrelevant.

    1. OK. Now you’re just trying to sprain my brain, but lets break it down. Does a feral human being who has been raised by, say wolves have a human essence? Yes, absolutely. Does this same feral person have an identity? That is the hundred dollar question and it is not an easy one to answer as we have few examples and none that were not, at least to some extent, socialized. My instinct tells me that a feral human probably does not have an identity within themselves. Identity really and truly is relational. It is something that you develop in harmony with, or in opposition to, other people. It requires some form of culture or symbolic thinking that is passed on from person to person. Without people to compare yourself too and without some sort of symbolic way of organizing thoughts and ideas, there is simply no way to define or understand your identity. What you are lefty with is simply your essence.

      1. One’s identity is ultimately a relationship with God, and God does not relate to us as blank slates. He creates each of us to be the particular person specified by the various logoi of our being, which determine both what we began as and what we are to become. Our part is to assume the tropoi designated by our logoi—the way of being consistent with God’s intent for us.

        1. “One’s identity is ultimately a relationship with God.” Not out of bounds 🙂

  6. Would anyone be willing to “translate” this essay into language that I and my sheep (and perhaps the average person on the street) could understand? It would be helpful for those of us who are not trained in philosophy.

    1. Check out the introduction, the section of quotes from the Church Fathers, and many of the articles in Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage, which I co-edited with David and Mary Ford (S.t Vladimir’s Press, 2016). My piece here is based on the longer article I wrote there, and both are based more in academic discourse that is very dense to read but is part of specialized discussion, my apologies for that. Most of the book collection is not written in that way, but my article was specifically written to try to give some encouragement to Orthodox Christians in the middle of such discourse in higher education either as undergraduates, graduates, or academics.

  7. Yes, Nicholas, I would really like to see this re-tooled and then submitted to “First Things.” One thing that could be fleshed out for that audience is Dr. Siewers’ passing statement “……Orthodox anthropology draws on a sense of natural law in Orthodox theology.” Many of the contributors to FT come at this with reliant on a notion of “natural law” to which the culture is frankly impervious. I mean, the culture has gone well beyond being able to grasp assertions that male-female sexuality “just makes sense,” which seems inherent in all the appeals FT makes to natural law, because volition has now become more “natural” than restraint or self-denial. I don’t mean to over-simplify the complexities or ignore the merits of natural law concepts, but the very word “natural” has become “what I feel like doing” in the dominant culture. More generally, I would encourage readers of this blog who also happen to be FT subscribers to squawk loudly at the editors (as I have) about the paucity of Orthodox contributors they feature. We got guys who can.

    1. The book Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage (St. Vladimir Press), co-editors David and Mary Ford and myself, includes a discussion on the Orthodox senses of natural law, related to Dr. Herman Engelhardt’s discussion of this in his book The Foundation of Christian Bioethics (362-366 in the marriage book). Dr. Engelhardt points up the difference in the Orthodox sense of natural law versus the more static sense in natural law as it is known in the West through Roman Catholicism and derivatives. I think this is part of the difference in emphasis and terminology between Fr. Dn. Patrick’s writings and my own on the topic, in that the Western sense of natural law encourages a greater emphasis on essential human identity (and ultimately individualism in the Western sense including individual sexuality, rights, and social justice etc.).

    1. Fr. Dn. Patrick and I have been talking about our mutual approaches, which overlap but differ in emphasis and terminology, and on which we both see dangers in getting “out of bounds.” My criticism of his approach has been that in my view he seems to be under-emphasizing the whole of St. Maximos the Confessor’s approach to these issues in seeking to correct or clarify the Confessor through Fr. Dn,’s “new concept” of “archy” in his writings. I question that type of solo effort to conceptualize a new approach, although he is working that out in his current doctoral project, which I expect will be well done!

      It may be productive to think in effect of both a cataphatic and and an apophatic approach to human nature in a sense: Apophatically human nature is a mystery, made in the image of God, in Christ, and thus relational; and also in the likeness of God, which emerges in the synergy of His grace (uncreated energies) and ascetic struggle in the Church. Cataphatically we can know man made male and female in the Incarnation and in Creation (even though fallen). I think that Metropolitan Hierotheos’ writings on problems of “personalism” indicate issues with an overly cataphatic approach: An emphasis on the essence of human nature can lead to a kind of essentializing of human will, rather than the experience of the human being as made in God’s image, in Christ, who is Person. Likewise an over-emphasis on the essence of being male and female can lead to getting off track (as some Orthodox writers have) on emphasizing the “eternal male” and “eternal female,” sometimes leading into Jungian psychology and tantric sex and Sophianism etc.

      So while I think Fr. Dn. Patrick’s emphasis can go “out of bounds” as he does mine, I also acknowledge that an over-emphasis on the apophatic aspects of anthropology can lead to co-option by various secular materialisms as well without discernment.

      St. Maximus as noted writes about the extreme and the mean of man in the image of God, and of man as male and female (Genesis 1:26, Genesis 1:27, and St. Paul’s writing about neither male nor female in Christ, with the middle citation in the Confessor’s view as the mean and the others as extremes).

      St. Maximus’ writings about logos and tropos can also be a help here, as well about the relation of logoi to the divine energies.

      So there is much to study and prayerfully consider in working on further apologetics on these issues, and of course from many other Fathers. But discernment and balance within the whole of Holy Tradition and the noetic life of the Church and her saints is really needed to prevent these conversations from getting merely esoteric or even harmful. The need for prayerful apologetics and catechesis on these issues for both the faithful and our neighbors in society (and especially with our younger people in mind) is very apparent nonetheless!

      1. I’m afraid this comment makes it sound like we are in more agreement than we are, and I do not want people to be misled. My complaint about the article above is that it appears to dismiss the body—and with it the distinction of male and female—as an essential component of human being. Queer theorists like that idea because it frees them from the onerous binary of male and female. Some Christians also like the idea because it relieves them of having to say that there is something wrong with people who don’t behave as male or female: They can limit themselves to saying that some forms of sexual intercourse are allowed and others are not.

        This idea that we should all really be sexless has already been fleshed out more fully in First Things. In fact, the article of mine to which Hieromonk Herman has provided a link was written in response to an article in First Things denying the essentiality of male and female. For anyone interested, here is a link to another article of mine, setting forth the shamelessly novel concept of “archy,” which isn’t really that novel and which fits very well with the Church’s traditional respect for male and female:

        1. I don’t at all dismiss the body as integral with the soul to human being in Orthodoxy. Part of what we’re working toward here is wording and definition for current catechesis and apologetics in English in accord with Holy Tradition I think, and I appreciate very much Fr. Dn. Patrick’s care and work in this. But I think the use of modern terminology of categories such as heterosexual in identification with our anthropology is not so helpful. St. Maximus in Ambigua 67 writes of human beings as both male or female and as neither male nor female, drawing on Scripture and in line I think with Orthodox Holy Tradition, citing Gen. :26 and Gal. 3:28 on the one hand, and Gen. 1:27 on the other. Igumen Damascene Christensen has noted (p. 203 of Genesis, Creation, and Early Man) that at the time of the bodily resurrection “human beings will bear some kind of ‘imprint’ of maleness or femaleness,” noting Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Most Holy Theotokos beyond death “still in some sense man and woman.” But he cautions that given the lack of elaboration on this in our Tradition, “one should be careful not to try to define this point too precisely.” Both those ultimate examples are of course also of incarnational virgin chastity, which does not fit any modern secular categories. The Soviet state upheld materialistic heterosexuality but against Christian anthropology, and likewise in the West we saw popular “icons” (or anti-icons) of materialistic heterosexuality emerge (such as Hugh Hefner etc.) as the sexual revolution developed and then morphed into other sexualities. Modern categories of sexual identity do have a relation I think to Roman Catholic natural law as it emerged, in a kind of sexlessness, and Fr. Andrew Louth has written about changing ideas in the Western Christian idea of the body that I think express that (in his article “The Body in Western Catholic Christianity”). Without emphasis on theosis and uncreated energies, and with the filioque and scholasticism, there emerged more a sense of the body as the individual possession as it were of an interiorized individuality or personhood, rather than of the body as being more part of a cosmic interconnectedness, or so I poorly try to paraphrase Fr. Louth. At any rate, I would agree wth Fr. Dn. Patrick that the modern secular sense of sexual categories tends toward gnosticism because they tend to center on a certain sense of individual personhood rather than on an incarnational connectedness with Christ in the Church. Where I think we differ in emphasis and articulation is in whether or not today heterosexuality as a category or term fits with that modern secularism and is or is not helpful in Orthodox catechesis and apologetics as a result. These points are discussed further and with citations unworthily in my article in the Glory and Honor book linked above, but it is a very imperfect and ongoing work for sure. Lord have mercy.

          1. Why do you keep citing Ambigua 67 without mentioning Ambigua 41? The former tells us nothing without the latter, and the latter, as you know, is highly problematic, so problematic that scholars cannot agree on what it means, so problematic that the Church has ignored it until very recently. Can Maximus really mean that the first step toward the reconciliation of all things is the eradication of male and female such that all difference of sex and gender disappears? How can that possibly be reconciled with Orthodox tradition, which obliges us to practice the distinction of male and female in so many ways (e.g., no priestesses)? Surely, some say, Maximus must mean something less, but others take him at his word, saying male and female must go and so must heterosexuality, which they dismiss as “nothing but a particular brand of temptation to sin.” (Michael Hannon in First Things, mentioned in my Touchstone article)

            These are dangerous ideas you are helping to popularize, made all the more dangerous by your vagueness and ambiguity, which confuse the faithful and embolden and empower the errant, who are free to use your words as they will.

          2. Fr. Dn., with respect I think you are being confusing here. You seem to think the views of St. Maximus and others (such as that quoted above based in research of the Fathers in the Genesis and Early Man book) need your clarification. You propose your own term “archy” to clarify the Tradtion, a term that you use theologically to describe the All Holy Trinity. Yet you indicate that you still are working these issues out in your continuing graduate work. These issues of the Church do involve a mystery that’s not academically resolvable. I’ve been reading the new book “The Departure of the Soul” published by St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona. It’s a great resource, and also includes near the back a listing from iconography and the Life of St. Basil the New of traditional tollhouses. Included are adultery, fornication, and a man lying with a man. Considering what is essential to man as essential also beyond death, what you are terming heterosexuality or heterosexual desire and attraction would seem to be so in marriage as a sacrament of the Church, in that relation between a man and a woman. But the term heterosexuality encompasses so much in terms of modern ideas of sexuality, including lust of thought and deed in all the ways those play out woefully in today’s culture, including the binary of whether you are “gay” or “straight” (now expanded out to many other modern secular sexual identities, as if they are all equal on a menu). That doesn’t seem to me to convey our Tradition. It seems to mean something more or other than simply that God created man male and female in Christ according to Orthodox Tradition, that marriage is a sacrament uniting a man and a woman and is a type of Christ and His Church, and that men and women have special roles in the Church–on which we agree (I hope). It was pointed out before that the Fourth Ecumenical Council had to resolve issues of terminology such as the Orthodox meaning of phusis and hypostasis. Maybe that’s needed at some point today, although above our pay grades! Meanwhile heterosexuality as a term/concept for essential identity seems to me a poor vehicle for apologetics today. I think we do agree on basics, though.

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