Orthodoxy, Queer Identity, and the Need for Meaning

A few years ago I took a course on early Christian theology where I read On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius of Alexandria. It was interesting: contemporary with the Council of Nicaea it can be read as a kind of Christian manifesto on the meaning and purpose of the god-man, Jesus Christ.

As a convert to Islam, the discussion was personally relevant. It is in section 54 of this very book that I meet, once again, the epigram: “for he became man [ἐνηνθρώπησεν] that we might become divine [θεοποιηθῶμεν].”

Needless to say, it was the reason for my departure from the Orthodox Church and all the rest of Christianity for that matter. It was also the reason for St. Athanasius routinely being banished from Christian Alexandria. This was thanks to Arius, also in Egypt and a contemporary, who simply could not accept the radical belief that Jesus was divine. Athanasius would then go out into the desert and hang out with the monks (hence his biography of the paradigmatic monk, St. Anthony the Great) who presumably were the anointed caretakers of true Christian doctrine.

So it was an interesting class time–made more interesting by the fact that my professor is a convert and Orthodox priest while I am technically an apostate in the eyes of the Church he serves. Granted, this class would have been impossible had it not been for his incredible openness to theological discussions. The first time we talked directly about Christian versus Islamic doctrine was over the summer. It was such an enlightening interfaith conversation that I ended up coming out to him, after which he cited his wonderful conversations with his gay uncle. It reminded me of talks with my Turkish friend: characterized by openness and respect but  reverence to orthodoxy, and careful, measured thought on sexuality and gender.

So when Athanasius seems to randomly quote St. Paul’s admonishment of same-sex sexual activity, I had to talk about that too. At the end of Section 5, he writes: “Not even acts against nature [παρὰ φύσιν] were alien to them [humans], but as the witness of Christ, the Apostle, said:

‘Their women changed the natural use for that which is contrary to nature [παρὰ φύσιν]; and in the same way also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned with their desire for each other, men with men doing what is shameful, and they received in themselves the recompense which their error deserved.’ ”

Romans 1:26-7

My professor explained that homosexuality is viewed here as being contrary to nature. But professor, tell me something else that evangelical Christians don’t already know! He explained further: look at the context in which St. Athanasius quotes Paul and you’ll find that he’s describing creation. He writes of the creation of human beings which becomes tarnished by the blemish of death. After all, for Athanasius, the big thing isn’t “sin” but rather what he sees as the larger issue, death itself (the fear of which is the ultimate cause of sin). The abolishment of death must occur if humans want any chance of returning to their nearness to God, hence the Incarnation: the death of the immortal God (in the flesh, of course) annulled the death of mortals. As the Paschal hymn has it: “trampling death by death.”

So the point is, our bodies become purified temples for God to dwell in each of us. Things would return to how it used to be, when a certain man and a certain woman dwelled as a couple in the Garden. As Jesus reportedly said: “Have you not read that he who created them in the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt. 19:4) That is the “natural” state of people. There is only the biologically female and male. And it’s not just about the evangelical quip “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” When Jesus Christ lifts them up out of death he is renewing creation, which is as much a spiritual deliverance from Hades as much as a return to the model re-presented by the new (male) Adam and his spouse the new (female) Eve. Homosexuality simply doesn’t read into the narration. And my professor adds: not to mention the sacredness of pregnancy and having children.

My professor wondered if Paul, having mentioned homosexuality in his epistles, might have been gay himself. He was, after all, a former rabbi who had never married, besides the point of him being quite keen to criticize the Greeks for their “practice” of homosexuality. If that was the case, he probably viewed his homosexuality as reflecting his own imperfection. It was not at all natural, much less god-like. In his own words: “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted beyond measure” (2 Cor. 12:7).

In my more religious (and more orthodox) past, either as a Christian or newly converted Muslim, I would have bought into this. And in fact, I did for quite awhile. My homosexuality–pronounced: “the thorn in my flesh”–became a spiritual means of reaching God. That is, if I could resist the temptation, to, in Christian terms, crucify my desire so that, with arms wide open on the cross, I’d become filled with God. Or, as a Muslim, “my homosexuality” changes slightly in pronunciation to: “my jihad,” struggling against my desirous nafs to submit to God rather than lust, to destroy the idolatry of my same-sex desire and replace it with the worship of the One True God.

“Then seest thou such a one as takes as his god his own vain desires? Allah has, knowing (him as such), left him astray, and sealed his hearing and his heart (and understanding), and put a cover on his sight. Who, then, will guide him after Allah (has withdrawn Guidance)? Will ye not then receive admonition?”

Qur’an 45:23, transl. Yusuf Ali

Today, I find this ideology quite homophobic and self-hating.While it is celebrated by doctrinally sound orthodox believers it becomes debilitating for people who are gay, lesbian, or bi themselves. It also renders more open and hopeful conversation nearly impossible. Everything above reminds me why it is so difficult to talk about homosexuality (or even what ought to be less problematic: bisexuality). It’s even hard to meet halfway with socially conservative religious people. We can’t just say: it’s completely natural but you can’t act on it. Just to say homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon in people, brought forth by biology is problematic. It contradicts the way the arch of human history is seen in Christianity. It’s as if we are claiming that God has made a mistake in the creation, accidentally installing a malfunction into our hardware.

Hence my related critique: it’s as if we are calling any sexuality or gender that is opposed to heterosexuality, contrary to our biological sex, or outside of the strictly male and strictly female dichotomy as a mistake for which we are to blame. Born into an imperfect world, our deviancy in sexual orientation and gender is only a symptom of that imperfection.

Which leads me to another critique: sense my homosexuality was an imperfection I never took ownership of it as my homosexuality. If I had fallen deeper into the anti-gay rhetoric I would have probably favored the term “same-sex attraction” (SSA). I pathologized it as a spiritual imperfection–I thought of it as a flesh-based handicap that I’d have to struggle with for the rest of my life, like deafness. But this fear of identifying with one’s “handicap” is the real handicap. Running away from it becomes mentally exhausting. Imagine being deaf and trying to function as a “hearing person.” Your experience of the world is partly defined by this handicap yet you are specifically told to reject it. Existential crisis then ensues.

At the time I was rejecting a gay identity, I was being confronted and challenged by reality. Freshman year of college, my roommate came out to me and many stereotypes of what it meant to be gay were disproved. There was also the experience of falling in love–this was not supposed to be the symptoms of a sinful nature. Then I made friends who were gay. And a contradiction of sorts looked at me right in the eyes: how can you say this “gay thing” is so evil yet experience what good is associated with it? Here I was, made to believe that I was being tested by God, but in actuality, it felt as if scripture and real life were challenging me in unexpected ways. I was being forced into asking uncomfortable questions about myself, my faith, and my relationship to God and others. A line from Rilke’s Book of Hours comes to mind: “God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night” (transl. by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows).  Truly, in our encounters with real life do we hear the invisible God silently speaking to us.

Coming out to myself–i.e. putting “my” next to “homosexuality”–was the answer to the crisis I felt. I demanded this of my religious tradition: my sexual orientation has to mean more than just a mere desire to fight. It has to mean something more. And actually, shouldn’t it mean just as much as the heterosexuality these orthodox interpretations of scriptures assume?

In my internal dialogues, the fundamentalist in me, always straight, answers: “we all have desires. I don’t act on mine. And when I get married I will still have to ‘lower my gaze’ when I am tempted.”

To which, I will repeat: “my homosexuality should be equal to your heterosexuality. They both have the possibility for goodness, for love, and for family. The worth of a gay man’s sexuality should not be based on yours that insists on a strictly straight sexuality.”

Ultimately, we are questioning human nature, aren’t we? What is it and what should it strive for? That’s why homosexuality is such a flammable topic in religion. It’s possibly putting to question core ideologies and spiritual narrations as seen in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. But whether that human nature be made perfect in belief of the Incarnation (in Christianity) or sincere submission to God (in Islam), we learn that this perfection is made complete with the body: with God dwelling in the flesh or with us physically prostrating. Spirituality is not just a practice of the spirit. It must engage our whole being and whole becoming. It’s not about leaving our sexuality or gender identity in the dark, undeveloped, only there as an enemy. It’s about acceptance, authentic self,  and becoming better people as whole human individuals, sexual orientation included, that is, we see the possibility for goodness in it and strive for that.

This piece was published on the OnBeing blog after submitting it as a guest contributor. The link can be found here.

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