Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Chastity and Abstinence

Our present culture, speaking through a thousand movies, magazine articles, and television shows, takes it for granted that people will be sexually active, and that sexual activity has little or nothing to do with marriage.  This activity is called “hooking up”, and there is apparently a kind of behavioural code governing it—for example, one is required to check back with one’s sexual partner after a day or two to see how they are.  People not sexually active by the time they are twenty are regarded as abnormal, and as slightly comic, which is why “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin” is the subject and title of a comedy.  Avoiding sex before marriage is no longer regarded as required by all in respectable society, but as at least quixotic, and perhaps as slightly pathological.  What was once the virtue of chastity and self-control is now derided as evidence of retarded development, for all adults are sexual active, by definition.  Abstinence is not regarded as a laudable but impossible goal (like running a three-minute mile), but as a kind of defect or disorder (like an inability to see colour or experience taste).  She’s never ever had sex and she just turned twenty-one?  Poor thing.   Who can we fix her up with?
The mores of present culture notwithstanding, the Church continues to insist that self-control is a virtue, that this virtue is attainable by anyone who really wants it, and that sexual activity is best experienced when confined to marriage.  As C.S. Lewis once observed (in his book Mere Christianity), this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct as it now is has gone wrong.   In our day, all our impulses, instincts, and desires are declared to be “natural”, and therefore good.  We “naturally” want to have sex, and so therefore we should.  We use the word “natural” as a term of unqualified approval—“natural” food is better than artificial food, and “natural” ways of getting exercise are preferred to artificial ones.  If something therefore is “natural” it by definition cannot be wrong.
This argument however must be used with care, for not all our instincts and desires are good.  For example, we “naturally” want to overeat, but this desire, if continually indulged, will result in obesity, heart disease, and possibly early death.  Some people “naturally” find themselves drawn to sexual perversion (such as bestiality), even though many will still say that such a desire is not a good one.   Apparently by “a natural desire”, our culture means nothing more than “a desire we happen to have”—which constitutes no great commendation of it.  It is possible to have a natural desire to overeat, to lay around and get no exercise, and to view pornography every day, but the fact that we have these innate desires does not justify overeating, being a couch potato, or an addiction to porn.  We therefore need to challenge the use of the term “natural” as a synonym for “innate”.  We have innate desires for all kinds of harmful things, but this does not make them natural desires.  A natural desire, according to Christianity, is a desire which God implanted in us as a part of our nature and as part of how we were meant to function, but it is possible for these natural desires to become inflamed or diseased.  The natural desire for eating food, for example, can be inflamed so as to lead to gluttony, overeating, and obesity.  Why cannot the natural desire for sex become similarly inflamed?  In fact, the Church says, that is precisely what has happened to it.  The desire for sex is natural, but like the desire for food, it must be limited and contained if it is not to do us harm.  People have no trouble with acknowledging that we must exercise self-control when it comes to food; why the cultural hysteria when the Church counsels the same self-control when it comes to sex?
So, it is possible that even though sexual desire is natural, it need not be indulged every time it presents itself.  But it still needs arguing that the Church is wise and correct in counselling such chastity and abstinence.  To put it bluntly, what’s wrong with fornication (or “hooking up” as it is often called)?  If two consenting adults want to have sex, what’s the problem?
            The answer is that the Church forbids fornication because fornication gets in the way of one of the main purposes of authentic human sexuality, frustrating the first intended goal of sex, and diluting it.  Note that I deliberately use the phrase, “authentic human sexuality” to differentiate it from animal sexuality.  Obviously, “hooking up” presents no moral problems for animals.  Cats and dogs regularly “hook up”, and that is pretty much the beginning and end of it.  All things being equal, lots of feline and canine hooking up produces lots of kittens and puppies, but apart from the release of the moment and the eventual birth of offspring, nothing more is involved.  Cats and dogs do not feel the necessity to exchange phone numbers afterward, or to call in a few days to see how the other is doing.  There is no emotional baggage, and no psychological or spiritual connection.  In other words, there is no possibility for love, self-transcendence, sacrifice, or growth.  After the moment is concluded, Fido and Mitzi go their separate ways, and that’s about it.
            Looking at the limited components of animal sexuality (or “mating”, as most people call it), gives us an opportunity to better understand the components and possibilities and goals of authentic human sexuality.  The tragedy and glory of being human, of course, is that nothing is automatic with us, as it mostly is for the animals.  We are not compelled by our human natures to grow, or to become holy, or even to become nice.  We can become self-sacrificing and loving, or we can refuse and become self-indulgent and selfish.  We can use our sexuality as a vehicle to grow in authenticity, or we can choose otherwise.  Animals have no choice.  Moral choice (and with it, the possibility of sin) is peculiar to humanity.  We can treat our sexuality as a part of what separates us from the animal kingdom, or we can simply “hook up”.  But God invented sex as a pathway to human growth, and merely hooking up does not set us upon this path to authenticity.  People tend to forget that the Church teaches that God is the One who invented sex, and that He thought it was a good idea.  Read Genesis, and the Song of Solomon.  The Church is not “down on sex”, merely down on its misuse.
            The reality is that sex involves what was once called “becoming one flesh”.  This mingling and unity occurs whether one is married or not, and whether one intends it or not.  Presumably those deciding to casually hook up have no intention of becoming one flesh with the partner, or of having any real long-term relationship.  But becoming one flesh (or “one organism”, to use more modern language) occurs anyway, even if the hooking up is simply with a paid prostitute.  St. Paul informs us that this is the case in 1 Cor. 6:16:  “Do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute [Greek pornÄ“] becomes one body with her?  For He says, ‘The two will become one flesh’.”   
One can deny St. Paul’s assertion all one likes, but the heart and the emotions know differently.  “Casual sex” is a contradiction in terms.  All sexual union involves opening up parts of one’s innermost self to another at a tremendously intimate and vulnerable level.  That is why one instinctively seeks to “get a room” for privacy.  That is why one feels the obligation afterward to say, “I’ll call you”, even when there is no real intention of doing so.  Our secular culture does its best to deny this, and bombards us with movies, celebrity examples, books, and magazines which insist that casual sex is possible, and that no such inner connections are established by the sexual act.  The secret inner history of young people, however, tells a different story, one of heartbreak, misunderstanding, and longing.  In this as in so many other areas, our secular culture is lying.  Any sexual act unites on a basic and lasting level.
            As said above, nothing is automatic for human beings.  The sexual act establishes an inner emotional connection with the partner, but one is not forced to nurture it.  One can choose to instantly sever the connection, to pretend that it was never established and does not exist, and so to go cheerfully from partner to partner.  But there is a cost attached to such pretending, and by this I do not refer to the possibility of unwanted pregnancy or sexually-transmitted disease, though these should not be discounted.  I refer to the secret cost to the inner ability to make connections, to the creeping insensibility to the other, and the denied possibilities for growth.  We see this insensibility in an advanced degree in those suffering from sexual addiction to pornography—for such persons, sex is no longer about love.  It is no longer even about the other person with whom one is having sex.  Sex has become distorted and diluted to such an extent that it is simply about having an orgasm.  One such sufferer who had become addicted to pornographic fantasy described such sex with one’s partner as simply masturbating with another person.  In such extreme cases the divinely-intended purpose of sex has been entirely overthrown.  Sex was always meant to be about love and to nurture human connections. 
When it is used the way God intended, repeated sexual union opens up the possibility of mutual long-term enrichment.  By having sex with one’s marital partner, one has the possibility of investing in the other person, so that each is strengthened by the other, moulded by the other, given deeper identity by the other.  Of course this is not automatic, and can be thwarted by selfishness and sin.  But the possibility remains, and this is the goal of sexual union.  (Having children is of course another goal, but I am speaking now merely the unitive power of sexuality, not its ultimate fruitfulness in creating other persons.)  Even our culture recognizes this to some degree, in its fascination for couples who have been married to each other for many years and retain their love for each other.   
            Casual sex, therefore, involves sundering the act from the relationship and from love.  Love is almost completely misunderstood in our culture.  We define it as a feeling, an emotion, and speak of infatuation as “being in love”.  In fact, love is not an emotion, but an action.  We love the other not by feeling strong emotions of attachment, delight and infatuation (lovely as these emotions are), but by serving them and meeting their needs.  If we love someone, we refuse to abandon them, but will stay with them despite the cost.  This is the definition of marriage—to commit oneself to another in service and self-sacrifice, “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer”.  This commitment provides the framework and the possibility for love to endure.  Love says, “Even if you become old, and sick, and wrinkled, and poor, I will not abandon you.  Nothing but death will drive me from your side.”  Since we may become poor, and certainly will become old and sick and wrinkled, this assurance and the promise are necessary if love is to endure.  Sex is meant to serve this love, and to bring the two lovers closer in a continually-reinforced emotional bond.  That is why the Church insists that sex be reserved for marriage, for sex was created to lead the couple to this lasting fulfillment.  Fornication short-circuits the real purpose of sex.

            One last word about sex:  the center of Christian morality is not here.  Fornication is a sin, since it takes sexuality and wastes it on lesser things, and lessens our capacity for lasting joy.  (That is partly what St. Paul means when he says in 1 Cor. 6:18 that the fornicator sins against his own body.)  But there are worse sins than the sexual ones, and these involve the spirit and its temptations to pride more than they involve the body.  To quote C.S. Lewis once again, “a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.  But of course,” he says, “it is better to be neither.”

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dying Like a Disciple

Every year on August 15 the Church bids us come to the final bedside of the Theotokos and learn how to die.  It is an important lesson, and all the more important because our secular culture offers us no clue.  Indeed, our culture seems intent on denying the reality of death.  In earlier and saner ages, everyone mostly died at home, surrounded by loved ones who would pray with them in their final hours and wash and attend to the body after death had occurred.  Even young children knew what corpses looked like and had contact with them.  The phrase from the old Latin hymn Media vita in morte sumus, “in the midst of life we are in death” resonated for everyone, whether they had heard the old hymn sung or not. 
            Now all has changed.  Most people do not die at home but in the hospital, surrounded by professionals and strangers.  After death they are whisked from the hospital room to the hospital morgue and from there, all too often, to the crematorium.  In many funerals the corpse is not present, only a photo of the deceased taken while they were alive.  And the final rites are not even necessarily called “funerals”, for the word is thought to savour too much of death.  The rite is now called “a celebration of life”—one might imagine that the title indicated not the rites of death, but a birthday party.   In short, our culture has created the funeral industry, whose main function seemingly is to sanitize death and save the survivors from its horror and trauma.  The room where the casket may be found (if there is a casket) is called “the slumber room”, though no one ever sleeps there.  And no one ever uses the verb “die”.  No one now ever dies.  They pass on.  In every funeral chapel I have entered, soothing music is played in the background, often sentimental renditions of Protestant hymns that no one has sung in most Protestant churches for at least a generation.  The function of the music is not liturgical, but anaesthetic.  Not surprisingly in such a death-denying culture, no one knows how to die.  That is perhaps why most people don’t want to talk about death, though the certainty of death hangs over them all.  They have no clue.
            But the Mother of God has a clue, and she knew exactly how to die:  surrendering up her soul to her Son, surrounded by His Church.  In this her final act on earth she gives us a lesson for eternity.  This lesson consists of four parts.
            First of all, dying for the disciple of Jesus consists of turning from this world with all its glory and heartbreak, with all its beauty and betrayal, to face the Lord.  Of course we rejoice and find comfort in the love of friends and family that surround us in our final hours.  But dying means that at the end we say goodbye to them all, and turn from them to face the Saviour, the eternal Fountain.  Every day we have followed in the footsteps of the Theotokos and have said, “Behold, I am the handmaid (or servant) of the Lord”.  On our final day we remain His servant, and we commit our soul to His hands one last time.  We die as we have lived, looking to Jesus.
            Secondly, for a disciple of Christ dying means dying in love and charity with all men.  St. Paul tells us of the folly of letting the sun go down on our anger (Ephesians 4:26); how much more foolish is it to end our whole life in anger?  The Lord is crystal clear:  if we do not forgive men their trespasses, God will not forgive ours.  We say this each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and this truth must guide us at the end.  Before death silences are voice and stops our heart, we must freely and fully forgive anyone who has ever hurt us or sinned against us. 
            Thirdly, dying as a disciple of Christ means that we receive the Eucharistic Gifts one last time before embarking on our journey to eternal life.  A wise person will not wait until after their Christian friend has died to call the priest, but will call for the priest while there is still time for their friend to receive Holy Communion one last time.  That is the point of the petition asking God for “a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ”, for our good defense comes from this final sacramental bestowal of forgiveness.  We step through the dark door of death as those freshly pardoned and at peace.
            Finally, the death of the Theotokos teaches us that Christian death should come as the culmination  of a Christian life.  There is no sense living like a worldling, intending to repent before the end comes in what some have called “an eleventh hour repentance”.  For one thing, we have no guarantee that we will not die at 10.30.  But more than that, the decision to delay repentance and faith brings its own dangers to the human heart.  If we spend year after year saying no to Christ and pushing away His daily offer of grace, our heart does not remain unchanged by such denials and apostasies.  Denying Christ makes the heart colder and harder, and at the end we may find ourselves incapable of turning to Him—which is the ultimate and eternal catastrophe.  There was never a moment when humble maiden of Nazareth turned from God and rejected Him.  With each breath she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord”, and that was why she could die in peace and triumph.  Taught by her death, we can one day die in peace and triumph too.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Is LGBT a New Reality?

The battle between those who condemn homosexual activity as sinful and those who celebrate it as a valid alternative is heating up, and the sound of its fury is shaking the walls and rattling the windows even of the Orthodox Church.   It’s like Dylan prophesied long ago:  the times they are a’changin.   And though our official Church pronouncements remain consistent with our Patristic past (such as the episcopal pronouncement on marriage, circulated by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America over two decades ago), our praxis has changed, and in many places now reflects secular norms, in that we now have openly gay couples receiving Holy Communion with the full knowledge and blessing of their priest.  This is not consistent with our official pronouncements and our old praxis.  This is new.
            Obviously those celebrating homosexual activity as valid and giving Holy Communion to practising homosexuals are aware of the official episcopal pronouncement along with the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers it is based on.  They know as well as anyone that in Romans 1:26f St. Paul denounces homosexual activity as “contrary to nature” (Greek para physin) and as a “shameless act” (Greek aschemosunen).  They realize that in 1 Corinthians 6:9f Paul included homosexuals (Greek arsenokoitai) along with the other unrighteous who will “not inherit the kingdom of God”.  And they do not simply say that St. Paul or the Fathers who echoed him for the next two millennia can all go hang.  Rather they say that St. Paul and the Fathers were talking about one thing, and the present LGBT community now being affirmed and blessed is something else.  Thus, the apostles and the Fathers were okay for their time, but their writings are now irrelevant to ours.  According to this reading of the Scriptures and the Fathers, the pugnacious question, “You talking to me?” if addressed to St. Paul would be answered by him, “Well, no.  I was talking to someone else.”
            This then is the question:  is the present LGBT reality really new?  It is granted by all that the terms of the present discussion are new.  We now use terms like “orientation”, and distinguish between a person’s “orientation” and their actual actions.  In some sense this is helpful, if by “orientation” one simply means “inner desires”.  We all have inner desires, some good and some bad, and we do not have to necessarily act upon them or indulge them.  Most men (‘fess up, guys) have an inner desire or “orientation” to have sex with as many women as possible and thus commit the sin of fornication, but the presence of this desire does not mean that it should be expressed or acted upon.  Inner desires can be disordered, and become passions.  In this sense, the concept of “orientation” is not new.  But people promoting a homosexual cultural agenda usually mean something more than inner desires when they speak about orientation.  They assume that the inner desire for persons of the same sex is not disordered, and is a part of their inherited make-up, like left-handedness or eye colour.  That is, they assume that it is an unmalleable part of them, and not subject to fluidity or change. 
This, they say, is a new insight, and if Paul had the benefit of this insight, they suggest, he would have written with greater nuance.  In this understanding Paul wrote to condemn lustful irresponsible acts of homosexuality, but did not have in mind faithful and responsible monogamous homosexual unions such as we find today.  To apply Paul’s condemnation of the homosexuality he knew to today’s situation is invalid, and is like comparing apples to oranges.  Paul knew nothing about orientation; he was accordingly responding to first century debased homosexual one-night stands.  We are now dealing with something else.  We leave Paul to talk about his apples; we need to deal compassionately with our oranges. 
            Of course to assert this is not to prove it, however many times the assertion is made.  One sometimes gets the impression that the concept of “orientation” is a valid one simply because it has so often been asserted and assumed.  The concept may or may not be valid, but the way to prove its validity has to involve more than simply repeating it endlessly like a parrot and denouncing those who challenge its validity as fundamentalists (or worse yet, as “converts”).  Much evidence exists in history and in contemporary experience that sexual desire or orientation possesses a certain fluidity, and that “straight” people will engage in “gay” sex if (for example) incarcerated in a same-sex institution.  One’s inherited genes may perhaps have something to contribute, but all this simply means that the subject is more complex and mysterious than the apologists for the LGBT community suppose.  Science (that sovereign and unchallenged cultural arbiter) has yet to give the final word.  And even when it does, one may still wonder a bit.  If history teaches us anything, it teaches that each generation gets the Science it wants.  Perhaps the final verdict of Science should be deferred a bit until the cultural war is over?
            But even if the new concept of “orientation” is ultimately validated, this still does not prove that St. Paul was talking apples and we are talking oranges.  How do we know that the homosexual world of Paul’s day was not more or less identical to what it is now?  And that some people then engaged in homosexual acts out of a kind of BDSM kinkiness, and others engaged in the acts because they had only ever been attracted to the same sex?  The fact that Paul in his polemics refers to the former doesn’t in the least mean that he wouldn’t have applied the same condemnation to the latter; it simply means that in his polemical writing he chose the larger target.  All that is really new today is our current vocabulary about “orientation”; the actual sexual reality now is exactly what it was then. 
            In fact the LGBT community is guilty of what C.S. Lewis once called “chronological snobbery”—the notion that each generation is at least a bit smarter than the previous one, so that our society grows smarter and more enlightened with every passing generation.  Evolutionary models aside, there is not a shred of evidence to support such a notion.  No generation is really wiser than previous ones; each one simply has a different blind spot.  We suppose ourselves to be wiser than St. Paul and his generation because we can talk about orientation and assert that same-sex attraction is God-given and therefore valid.  But our supposed wisdom is far from proven.   Our use of a different vocabulary than St. Paul’s does not necessarily mean that we are dealing with a different reality than the one he knew.  The snobs can stand down until the fact of two different realities has actually been proven.
            When one looks at the larger Biblical picture of sexuality in general, we see that St. Paul condemned homosexual acts because they were deviations from the norm articulated in the creation stories:  “From the beginning, God made them male and female, and said for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 1:27, 2:24,  Matthew 19:4-5).  Sex is an expression our deepest human nature, and this nature is gendered and binary.  Procreation cannot be validly sundered from sexuality as definitively and aggressively as our culture has done, for sexuality finds its ultimate expression in procreation.  That is, sex is the engine which drives the world; it is how God continues to create.  To sunder sexuality from procreation as the LGBT community has done is to estrange oneself from the primordial rhythms of the world.  Paul and the other Biblical writers (we haven’t mentioned Leviticus yet) and the Fathers do not prohibit homosexual activity because it can sometimes be lustful and irresponsible.  They prohibit it because it is always disordered, deviant, and opposed to the natural order of creation.  To suggest that Paul, who was rooted in the Biblical binary understanding of sexuality, would have under any circumstances blessed homosexual activity because it can be used within a loving monogamous relationship is absurd.  It is to prefer current fashion and political correctness to Biblical faithfulness and political courage.  It is to prefer darkness to light.  The LGBT reality is not really new.  It is the same old darkness that Paul had encountered.  And his word to the Church then may stand for us today:  “Awake sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Do You Know Who You Are?

          One of the Church most pressing needs today has nothing to do with money, or with weathering scandal, or with achieving greater importance in the eyes of the governing powers.  The Church’s most pressing need today is for its members to rediscover who they are.  I say this because there is every evidence that many Christians have forgotten who they are.  They think they are primarily Republicans or Democrats—or anyway, Americans.  Or they think they are consumers, part of the famous 99%.  Or they imagine themselves to be conservatives or liberals, or any one of a multitude of labels which the world is only too happy to fix on us.  It is possible that such labels have their uses (though I am inclined to doubt it), but these verbal tags do not define us Christians or adequately describe our fundamental quality.  That is, we need to remember that we are fundamentally the servants of God, a holy people, a royal priesthood, and as such we belong not to this age with its warring categories and labels, but to the age to come.  In this age we are simply passing through—or (as Jesus People singer Larry Norman once put it), “only visiting this planet”.
            It is crucial for us to rediscover this fundamental eschatological fact about ourselves, because we usually behave consistently with who we imagine ourselves to be.  This can be seen in a brief dialogue from the 1987 film “Moonstruck”, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage.  In one of the film’s subplots, the mother of the character played by Cher, Mrs. Castorini (played beautifully by Olympia Dukakis), is speaking with a womanizing man with whom she has shared an innocent supper at a neighbourhood restaurant.  He walks her home, intent on sleeping with her, and says hopefully and suggestively, “I guess you can’t invite me in?”  She replies, “No.”  “People home?” he offers.  “No,” she says,  “I think the house is empty.  I can’t invite you in because I’m married.  Because I know who I am.”
            Because I know who I am.”  That is, she did not resist the temptation to adultery because she was afraid her husband would find out, or because she was afraid that God would punish her for her sin.  No; it was simpler than that.  She just knew who she was.  She was married, and married women did not cheat on their husbands by inviting in strange men.  Mrs. Castorini didn’t need to read a theological treatise to do the right thing, and she didn’t have to win an arm-wrestling match with temptation.  She just had to know who she was and act like it. 

            The same applies to us.  Who are we?  The New Testament gives us the answer:  we are saints, the people of Lord, servants of the Most High God, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  We belong to God and His Kingdom, and here in this age we are strangers and sojourners—people who are only visiting this planet.  If we really believe this, we will act like it, and the rest of our interactions with the world will take care of themselves.  Temptation to act like the world does and betray our calling will come soon enough.  When it does, we don’t need to screw up our courage and ride out to a hopeless battle to overcome worldliness and sin.  We just need to know who we are.