Sexual Identity & the Passions



The Orthodox teaching on "the passions" was out of my grasp.  It's not like the western idea of "sin" nor is it anything at all like saying "I have a passion for good art" or "French cooking is a passion of mine."  It is nothing at all like "Follow your bliss" or...perhaps... it could be, if you mean "do what makes you happy even if other people say it's wrong."

When I heard Mtr Kallistos speak a few years ago this concept became more clear.  He underscored the word, "Passion" from the Late Latin, "passio" and before that, the root, "pati", both meaning "to suffer".  One suffers a passion.  One doesn't do a passion, the way one might steal a loaf of bread or a keg of beer.  One has a moment of passion in exactly the way a "Crime of Passion" is committed: momentary insanity.  This thing takes hold and drives. A passion, properly understood, makes one feel as if one has no choice, as if, almost, it is oneself.  But it is a false self: a fake idea of "who I am" created by the demons.  If you would understand Orthodox Anthropology, you must study revealed wisdom: our very understanding of "self" is limited unless we are willing to look from beyond to see what God wants of us.

Is same-sex attraction a passion?  Well now, that's a hot-button topic if there ever was one. I am same-sex attracted.  I am speaking from the inside here, not from an abstract theological or pastoral point of view. In Orthodoxy we speak - at every communion service - of "sins voluntary and involuntary, known and unknown, committed in knowledge or in ignorance." I would suggest that SSA falls into the category of "involuntary and unknown and in ignorance" and as such fits our definition of a Passion.

No one wakes up one day and says "I want to be same-sex attracted."  There have been times when one might have pretended (as to get out of military service) or when one might have felt no choice (as in prison) or when one thought it might be fun for a night (no scandal intended, but those last exist, too). But in the truest sense of it no one "chooses to be be gay" (counterpoints in The Nation aside). Everyone I know who experiences same sex attraction went through something of a painful process of self-discovery.  Even the people without religious roots felt a peer pressure to be be just like everyone else.  In the end, none of us can answer the "born this way" question without some hedging, but all of us know something different happened from "normal" somewhere along the line.

Perhaps it is really a problem with our language: there is no word for "gay" in Chinese.  They had to import it.  In Irish one doesn't say "I am hungry". Rather one says "Tá ocras orm." Literally, "there is a hunger upon me."  One says this also of an illness or a chill, a cold.  It comes from outside. Perhaps, in Irish, we might say "Tá 'gay' orm," There is 'a gay' upon me.

We have become so entrenched in this illusion that sexual attraction is a "real" part of human identity that we have created a name for it: orientation.  For a while we thought there was a "normal" orientation and abnormal ones.  Then we decided that one (or more) of the other orientations were also "normal".  All these "normal" orientations are valid - yet we never question the idea that there is no real thing called "orientation".  Our concept divides us one from another, creates false classes of people that are "oppressors" and "oppressed".  We have created a whole, modern concept of personal identity based, as it were, on one's preferred condiments for french fries. Who I find hot defines me.

We treat "sex" as something that comes after this fact, as proceeding from this "identity". We can turn it on or off, we can "have sex" or not, outside of this question and so avoid sin.

This is one place where RC and EOC theology seriously differ.  In the Roman Church one's will must consent to sin.  But, as I noted above, the the Orthodox understanding, we confess, "sins voluntary and involuntary, known and unknown, committed in knowledge or in ignorance." It is possible to commit an unknown sin, in ignorance and without volition.  That, my friend, is a passion.  There is a sin upon me. This is not a moral issue, as such: Orthodoxy's conception of sin is not a "moral violation of a legal code" but rather a violation of the very nature of what it means to be human, to be man or woman in God's image.

The post-schism West doesn't seem to have this concept.  I don't know why that is.  Our concept of sin in the west seems to be limited to "Did you break a rule" and/or "Did you hurt someone".  The concept in the East is more along the lines of "How is your Icon of God damaged and what are you doing to repair it - without breaking rules or hurting others?"

This is a far cry from meaning that we can "pray the gay away".  We struggle with all our passions until we die.  It's only when we give in to the struggle, when we stop struggling, that it becomes sin. One doesn't need to look far on the internet or in bookstores before one hears that any human or legal "no" to any question about same-sex attraction or action is a denial of self.  But what if it is, in fact, a false self? What if the idea that "this is really me" is only an illusion?

This is why I hesitate to say "I am gay" even though I am attracted to men.  I don't think I am either of these things, although that is the way my own sexual temptations run.  Is Same Sex Attraction a passion?  Well, in that it is not part of the revealed order and, in fact, denies the created order, that it calls one as if from within one's very self to do something not part of the pattern: yes, it would be a Passion.

If SSA is a passion - a thing from outside, a corruption, a part of the Fall, a weakness - can it be used for good?  Yes. That is part of what the Death and Resurrection of Jesus has done for us: our passions, our weaknesses become the making-perfect of the revelation of God's strength.  St Paul tells us that the Thorn in His Flesh (what ever it is) is not taken away, but that God's grace is sufficient.  Jesus tells us to "Take up our cross daily" that doesn't mean that if we pray a lot it'll suddenly be made out of balsa wood.

We can find good in this, we can make good come out of it: we can take the damage it does and make good happen. To do so we must first change our minds about what this is: it is not our identity.  If we resort to legal language, it is "our temptation" but that's not, pardon me, passionate enough. It is our weakness, our brokenness.  It is our Cross with which we will work out our salvation.  One day - by God's grace - will we die and rise without it.