Look Homeward Angel

It's not easy to address one thing, one "issue" in Orthodoxy. The question of sexuality touches on the Church, the Holy Mysteries, the Scripture, the Saints... I converted to Orthodoxy two years ago - as I wrote this essay -  after nearly 20 years as a nominal (at times) or inactive (at other times) or very active (some few times) Episcopalian. During that same 20 years I was also quite active in the gay-rights movement. My big stumble, on the way in to Orthodoxy was what to do about my lifestyle. How could I, who identified himself as gay, find a way in this Church?

A number of things did it for me. But nearly every step on the way in has required a redefinition - or a rethinking. The teachings of the Church are so different from our cultural expectations that, at times, it seems they just don't fit in to the categories of the questions we ask. At times it seems - rightly so, I think - as if this is a totally different religion than anything "Christian" to which I'd been exposed before.

One thing I had to adjust to was the Orthodox teaching that sin is not a breaking of a law, per se, but rather a sickness we all have: we get it from our parents. Laws are hard to keep, I confess, but living into this other teaching has been even harder. At times I wish there was a list of dos and don'ts. When I get the flu, and get all congested, nothing tastes right, I can't talk, I don't feel social, and sometimes just normal sounds feel as if they are causing pain. My perceptions of things is edited, if you will, by my sickness: I can't trust my perceptions to be the "real thing" even as 'real" as they seem to me. The same is true of Orthodoxy's teaching on sin. We can not trust our perceptions - even our emotions and desires are disordered. We come to Church for healing.

What that calls into question is, of course, the idea that one's feelings may or may not be right, may are may not be "God given". In other words before I can ask such questions as "What is good?" "What is whole?" or "What is right?" I need to answer this question: am I qualified to answer?

I had to answer that last question with a profound "no" after a whole lifetime of saying "yes, I am qualified." It's an American Truism that we can answer such Questions ourselves. It's an Orthodox truism that we can sometimes - but not others - and it is also true that no matter what the answer, we should run it past the Church to make sure we're right.

That's where I found myself: because an answer may be right or wrong - why risk being wrong when there is a ready resource? I had lots of desires, lots of wants, lots of plans, lots of ideas.... the Church asked me to double and triple check them against Her doctrines. Did I dare?

Now... is homosexuality a sin? Well, the Church doesn't teach that it is: for all that someone may quote Leviticus or Paul, others are very right to note that the other commandments - sometimes in the same verses - are not kept: but we can not read the Bible alone, in a personal vacuum, as we must read it as the Church teaches it. The Church does teach that sexual acts committed outside of the Mystery of Marriage are sins, yes, but being attracted to people of the same sex? That's part of the fallen human condition. Same-sex attraction is not a sin. It is a temptation - just as much as any other temptation in this society of physical temptations. But the Church asks us who live with same-sex attraction to say "no" to that desire, just as She asks those who are married to say no to desire for parties other than their spouse. It doesn't matter who you are attracted to - if it is not within the bounds of matrimony, it is a sin. That may sound as if I'm playing semantics. But I'm not.

Giving in to temptation is a sin however. We are taught to struggle with sin, to wrestle with it, and by God's grace, to win. But the giving in is the bad thing. And yes, sexual acts committed outside the bounds of Holy Matrimony are a sin.

In today's world, however, we've come to classify sexual attraction as a quality of "being". We refer to people as "straight" or "gay" as if it were "what they are". That's not a position the Church holds. People are either male or female. After that, there are moral choices to make. I have to say, in all honesty, that this teaching was harder than the "sin" teaching for me to deal with. I mean, in this society we "really are" what we say we are. I've had 20 years of activism to deal with, many many friends and a cadre of "exes" to deal with. "I am straight" or "I am gay" are, in today's world nearly doctrinal statements. I've said them too, as if they are doctrinal statements, defining folks by what I assumed they did. We modern folks rightly say that neither St Paul nor Moses would have known "being gay" as we know it today. Does that mean we are right? Do our current constructs of sex and orientation (50 years old or less) outweight the last 6000+ years of human experience, as well as the last 2000+ years of Church teaching? I think not.

This issue of "being" is seen not only in how we speak about it, but how many (who I would classify as homophobic) react to the issue itself: they act as if, on the moral scale, there is murder, genocide, global thermonuclear destruction and then gay sex. They talk about things "those people" can't do in Church - and I fear that you may hear some Orthodox people using the same language and for this I need to ask your forgiveness. Yet, in the Church there is no scale as such - neither are there "gay people". It's not a case of a person "being a sin". But teaching that something (any thing at all) is sinful is not the same as discrimination. I'm not sure how it could be seen as a discrimination issue - by which I usually mean oppression. To me it seems more oppressive to abandon a person to their own desires and longings and say, "That's ok, dear". That's what happened to me in the liberal churches. It was "ok" - go have fun. One (Episcopal) vestry member even opined that we needed to come up with ceremonies blessing gay men with their multiple partners. Her words were, "We need to find a way to bless what it is you do."

It really is a world-view question or a paradigm shift: this view of sexuality. It is a twist I never expected to encounter: rather than tell me I was wrong, sinful, evil, the Church told me to change my filters, get new glasses. The Church said I wasn't looking at things right. Of course not - I was using my own internal senses as a guide, unguarded, unfiltered.

The Trinity requires us to live in open communion with each other, to stay away from unjust acts, to work against injustice in a non-judgmental way. To many in today's world it is unjust to say "you can't do that". To the Orthodox it is unjust to encourage someone to live driven by desires that pull one into immorality. It is unjust to say, "that's ok" when it's not.

In that Trinitarian light, judgmentalism also must be avoided. My own experience as a man living with same sex attraction in the Orthodox Church is that I've never been accepted more warmly, from friends and strangers, to my priests, to my fellow praying folks. There is a warm love there that I've never felt before - and that after 20 years in churches as well as various newage groups. We are all sinners: if I think I have any room to judge anyone, I only need to look at my own life to see something just as bad. The sickness of sin takes root in pride, or anger or judgment or greed or whatever. We all fall - even if the fall is only judging others for their faults. As we pray during Lent, "Grant me to see my own faults and not condemn my brother". No one has judged me for "being gay", neither can I judge anyone.

Likewise the church has always spoken out against discrimination in the real sense: there is no reason to deny housing or medical benefits or jobs to persons based on their situation.

Our culture doesn't like Rules. We hate to be told "must" "have" "shouldn't" and "don't". In some ways that is our cultural cross to bear. We picked it up, I think, with the 1960s stuff. The culture has removed rules at nearly every turn and insisted instead on "rights" and "desires" and "personal space". My short experience in Orthodoxy has been a removal of those things, a slow stripping down until I was left as a Person in God's Image. That's the only way I could come (or stay) in the Church. But, to return to the sickness analogy, I was the sick one and God was the Doctor and the Church was the Hospital: it wasn't up to me to dictate the treatment to the experts.

My own experience was fleeing from theological liberalism (no virgin birth, no resurrection, etc) and realizing that the same liberalism that allowed for me to be a sexually active non-married person also allowed for tossing out the other parts of the faith. If I wanted the faith of the last 2000 years it also came with sexual morality. I didn't see it as discrimination but as rules of the road.