From Russian Orthodoxy with love? Christian marriage, after the 5th anniversary of Obergefell and now Bostock, faces cultural totalitarianism

A young convert at our Russian Orthodox Christian Mission in Northern Appalachia told me one day after Church that he found it impossible to have respectful online conversations any more on sexual ethics. His traditional views left him targeted as a “hater” and ostracized in cyberspace. That same week, an Orthodox friend in another state told me that a longtime professional mentor had just ended their friendship. My friend had publicly signed an online document opposing introducing the ordination of women deaconesses in the Orthodox Church. His friend, not a believer, called it hate speech. Simultaneously, our small college town of about 5,000 people was debating on social media and in in-person meetings a proposed “Human Relations Ordinance,” echoing the campaign for a U.S. Equality Act to redefine civil rights to include categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender expression.” Provisions would make it illegal to aid and abet illegal discrimination, raising questions about free expression of traditional Church teachings. Meanwhile, at the university, faculty and students were circulating a “trans-affirming” statement online, referencing violent neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic violence in the U.S., and implying that not signing was a form of hate, too.

Saints Peter and Fevronia, patrons of an honorable and loving marriage

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Such incidents reflect a growing cultural totalitarianism of sex in the global West, present even in conservative central Pennsylvania. This movement emerges from an ethos of individualism with deep historic roots, energized by new technological networks. Today, in the fifth anniversary year of the Obergefell U.S. Supreme Court decision, American culture increasingly has embraced a sexual politics of power. Sexual anarchism has quickly moved from the same-sex marriage of Obergefell to transgenderism, polyamory, and nihilistic queerness, seen most recently in the watershed Bostock Supreme Court decision’s effort to redefine the meaning of the term “sex.”

But on the other side of the world, Russian Orthodox Christianity, in its ascetic patristic roots and historical resistance to Communist persecution, surprisingly has nurtured an experiential “apologetic theology”— based in patristic cosmology more than moralism—that has helped Russian Christian culture resist twenty-first-century sexual anarchism emanating from the “global West.” The different position of Russian culture is seen in the pro-marriage constitutional amendment approved by Russian voters in a referendum late last month, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the judicial granting of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in America.

The Russian exile Prof. I.M. Andreyev in his classic Orthodox Apologetic Theology wrote in the 1950s of how experiential faith helps demonstrate the “complete organic unity” of Christian truths. Andreyev survived the notorious Solovki Communist prison camp in Russia’s far north, to find refuge after World War II at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodoxy Monastery and Seminary in upstate New York dairy country. He drew on ascetic traditions of Orthodoxy with three distinctive emphases: 1. Identification of uncreated grace with natural law. 2. Realizing human being in theosis or oneness with God’s energies. 3. Finding human community in sobornost (“catholicity”), or spiritual unity, in the Church. Such emphases, which may sound strange to Western Christian ears, nonetheless mesh surprisingly well with Christian foundational aspects of the American republic.

First, it’s worth briefly comparing American and Russian public cultures of sex today.

Secular Transhumanism in the Global West

Transhumanism in the “Global West” today seeks to over-ride physical and traditional forms of the human body with technology, to establish a new type of all-encompassing culture of secular identity.  Contraceptive technology and the technologically shaped affluence of postwar American culture nurtured this tendency in the West. Social data frame this change. The U.S. birthrate in 2019 reportedly hit a 32-year low, and the percentage of Americans over 25 who have never married has nearly doubled since 1960. The percentage of adults who have never married in the U.S. (20 percent), percentage of unmarried parents (25 percent), and number of unmarried adults cohabiting (18 million), are at all-time highs in America according to recent studies, with a sharp increase in “involuntarily celibate” young men. Only 65 percent of U.S. children now grow up in homes with a married mother and father, down to 36 percent in African-American households.  Medical developments supporting these trends include refined forms of artificial conception and surrogate mothering, aborting births to increase desired characteristics in children, and techniques for changing male or female body forms from one to another “gender.” Online search engines generate algorithms by which searches for the phrase “men can…” produce hits such as “men can have babies.” Virtual culture meanwhile heavily engages men with cyberporn and its latest innovation, “sexbots.”

The weakening of traditional family structure in the U.S. parallels a decline in the organic non-governmental social networks, including religious communities, that supported non-governmental traditions of sex. A survey in 2019 sowed that “nones,” those Americans who do not belong to any particular religious body, now equal the percentage of the population who identify as either Evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic.

Legally, sexual anarchy pivots on the paradox that each individual’s ability to pursue his or her identity, unencumbered by traditional anthropologies of sex, marriage, and family, should be coercively enforced. It culminates the judicial dismantling since the late 1940s of America’s “soft establishment” of Christian values. Since Obergefell, an establishment of secular transhumanism has emerged. Gay Pride celebrations in some cities now eclipse the Fourth of July. The U.S. government in recent times has exported its sexual politics aggressively to other countries through foreign aid and influence. Decades ago, political scientist Eric Voegelin warned of the emergence of such a technocratic culture in the West, embodied in an administrative state and enforcing a modern “gnosticism”—a culture of disembodied individual will, dominated by elite experts, wielding technological control, in revolt against created reality. Bostock may in the long term well mark a watershed break in the American constitutional fire wall protecting religious expression.

Russia’s Christian Cultural Dissent

By contrast, post-communist Russia, with a renewed Orthodox Christian public culture on issues of sex and family life, is resisting secular transhumanism. The Russian Orthodox Church’s Synod and leaders in the past two decades promulgated crucial documents on The Basis of the Church’s Social Concept or “Jubilee Document” in 2000 and the Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights in 2006, strongly supporting a traditional Christian anthropology of sex and family, reflected in recent state policies. Russia in 2013 passed a law prohibiting promotion of homosexuality to minors, which has resulted in restrictions on media, businesses, and public events. Although often labeled an “anti-gay law” in the West, Russian officials term it an “anti-gay-propaganda law” designed to resist secular Western influence on young people, noting that it reflects social mores that existed in Western countries until recently. Simultaneous with the fifth anniversary of Obergefell on June 26, Russian voters overwhelmingly approved amendments to the Russian Federation’s Constitution to uphold marriage as being between a man and a woman, in a vote across several days that ended July 1. (A similar proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the early 2000s never emerged.)

It is no coincidence that much of the hostility directed by the secular West today against Russia involves its status as the world’s largest traditionally Christian nation, rejecting sexual identity politics. Between the fall of communism in 1991 and 2019, the number of Orthodox churches in Russia has grown from 6,000 to an estimated 36,000. In 2019, an estimated 1,593 candidates for the priesthood were expected to begin training, up 19 percent from the previous year. The civic culture has become majoritarian Orthodox in support of traditional family life and sexual anthropology.

In a controversial 2019 Financial Times interview, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin said liberal governments in the formerly Christian West had failed their peoples by pursuing “sexual diversity” in undermining their traditional cultures: “They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles…. Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”

Russian cultural resistance, on the basis of Christian tradition, to codifying LGBTQ+ agendas into law, has encouraged American Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham, son of the leading Protestant preacher Billy Graham, to visit post-Communist Russia, as if on pilgrimage.  Russian leaders also support efforts globally to shore up traditional families, such as the World Congress of Families organization. This has drawn fire from the influential U.S. Southern Poverty Law Center, which has all but labeled the Russian Orthodox Church a hate group, despite SPLC’s own struggles with alleged bias and corruption.

Reflecting decades of history under communism, followed by a disruptive transition to an era of Western-dominated capitalism in the 1990s, abortion and divorce rates continue to be high in Russia. Its population remains in decline, amid an economy hurt by Western sanctions. But longer-term cultural trends are moving in a more traditionally Christian direction, as seen in government promotion of large families and the legislative initiatives mentioned above.

Similar efforts to shore up traditional ideas of sex and family in other non-Western countries cast sexual transhumanism as a type of Western neocolonialism. African and Asian United Methodists in 2019 engineered a surprise rejection of their worldwide but American-based denomination’s expected endorsement of homosexuality and transgenderism. Many Asian and African Christians argue that secular Western sexual mores follow American interests today.

No efforts against secular transhumanism in any way justify, from a Christian standpoint, violence against people in various societies over sexual issues, as seen for example in some traditional Muslim societies. Such acts have been condemned as sinful and beyond the pale of Christian mores in Russian Church statements, however imperfectly Russians like others may practice Christian teachings. Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on why and how Russia is the one major world power today whose public culture evidences a traditional Christian approach to sexual anthropology.

Orthodox Emphases

As mentioned, three distinctive emphases of Russian Orthodox Christianity help account for its staying power in resisting current sexual anarchy. These include:

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  1. An emphasis on identifying natural law with grace, stressing a mystical otherworldly asceticism, in the grace-filled Christian “queerness” of chastity. The late American Orthodox bioethicist H. Tristram Engelhardt in his The Foundations of Christian Bioethics summarized it thus:

Natural law is, after all, the spark of God’s love in our nature, not the biological state of affairs we find in broken nature. Natural law is not an objective external constraint, but the will of the living God experienced in our conscience…. The Christian moral-theological reference point for the appropriateness of sexual behavior is the creation of humans as male and female and the restoration of the union of Adam and Eve in the Mystery of matrimony.

Engelhardt based his description on a statement by St. Basil of Caesarea on how “the spark of divine love latent within you” is enkindled by ascetic effort in synergy with grace, toward theosis. The influential Orthodox Christian theological writer Vladimir Lossky further observed, “The Eastern tradition knows nothing of ‘pure nature’ to which grace is added as a supernatural gift…. grace is implied in the act of creation itself.” Natural law is founded in the Cross, the intersection of grace with ascetic suffering, as the basis of Christian identity.

As St. Maximus the Confessor wrote:

He who apprehends the mystery of the Cross and the burial apprehends the inner essences of created things; while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the Resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God first established everything.

In his Ambigua, as translated by Fr. Maximos (Nicholas) Konstas, St. Maximus wrote of how within the logoi or words of God in Creation, the infinite energies of God can be contemplated: “God—Who is truly none of the things that exist, and Who, properly speaking, is all things, and at the same time beyond them,” mystically present in the logos of each thing and all logoi together, manifesting the uncreated energies. In that mystery (beyond understanding), St. Maximus wrote, the Logos and the logoi are one, but in an incarnationally Christian sense, not a pantheistic one.

St John of Damascus noted in the eighth century that “it is of the nature of all things that they may be apprehended through industry and toil, and before all and after all by the grace of God, the Giver of grace.” To “apprehend” with the mind’s eye, St. John argued, one must “knock hard, so that the door of the bridal chamber may be opened to us and we may behold the beauties within.” Marriage thus becomes the master figure for understanding identities as relational in Christ.

The Russian Orthodox philosopher-exile S.L. Frank in his book The Unknowable wrote,

Since all concretely existent things are rooted in the total unity of being and are permeated by the “juices” of the total unity, the element of primordial freedom is present, to varying degrees, in all concretely existent things.

“True freedom,” for Frank, must also involve what he calls unforced service to universal Truth, in the person of Jesus Christ, or active love in Christ. This differs in emphasis, though overlaps in part, with modern Western definitions of freedom as simply individual right and choice. The latter, when emphasizing self-will without God, nurtured secular transhumanism from its secularization of rights.

In Orthodox tradition, law is associated with logos meaning “principle” but also with another meaning of logos, “harmony,” ultimately identified with the dynamic uncreated grace or energies, yet shaping and redeeming embodied Creation. These divine energies transfigure materialistic sexual passions. That is compatible with what the historian Peter Brown notes of how, in first-millennial Christian tradition, sex “was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways…profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body.” Western culture moved, across centuries, to a more individualized sense of both the body and the self, “from seeing the body as microcosm reflecting in itself a cosmic story, to seeing the body as interpreter of human inwardness,” according to the Orthodox patristic scholar Fr. Andrew Louth.

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  1. A teleological emphasis on theosis, which finds inner unity with God in the divine energies, though not in His unknowable Essence. St. Athanasius the Great famously concluded: “God became man so that man could become a god.” Christian anthropology thus, as emphasized in Orthodoxy, defines sex in the context of an otherworldly reality, yet expressed iconographically in the physical bodies of males and females, a type of the embodied union of Christ with His Church. St. Maximus described the “mean” of human nature in Gen. 1:27, in which it was revealed to Moses how man was created male and female, as embedded in the simultaneous “extreme” of God creating man in His image and likeness in Gen. 1:26, in Whom “there is neither male nor female,” as the Apostle Paul put it. Both realities overlap in the asceticism of both marriage and monasticism in Christian history. This is not the fluid consumer-materialism that today emphasizes autoeroticism and sexual activity, divorced from reproduction and face-to-face sexual complementarity. An ascetic Christian view of sex (in Orthodox emphasis) is based at once on the cosmology, anthropology, soteriology, eschatology, and ascetic-liturgical practice of theosis. Secular transhumanism by contrast essentializes the passions, seeking to form them anarchistically into isolating auto-identities.* * *
  2. The Christian alternative to secular anarchism and totalitarianism: Sobornost, or spiritual unity; conciliarity coupled with mystical hierarchy. Sobornost (by the fourteenth century in adjectival form the Slavonic gloss for “catholic” in the Nicene Creed) “means togetherness, wholeness, communality; it emphasizes a oneness, but without uniformity or loss of individuality,” wrote the Russian émigré scholar Nicolas Zernov. It “means a symphonic Church which forms a harmonious unity out of the diverse gifts of its different members; like a well-conducted orchestra it produces one harmony, although each musician plays his own part on his own particular instrument.”

Marriage is a type of sobornost, as expressed both in the family and in the country, and basic to Christian societies on both physical and spiritual levels. This is why the second President of the United States, John Adams argued, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  According to his son John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States:

[T]he social compact, or body politic, founded upon the laws of Nature and of God, physical, moral, and intellectual, necessarily pre-supposes a permanent family compact formed by the will of the man, and the consent of the woman, and that by the same laws of Nature, and of God, in the formation of the Social Compact, the will or vote of every family must be given by its head, the husband and father.

America had its “soft establishment” of Christianity in what was essentially a Christian republic. Traditional cosmic meanings of marriage were central to the ideal of self-government as a basis for the American republic. They remain so today in aspirational renewal of a Christian Russian culture. In Byzantium, within a Christian meld of Roman republican symbolism and empire, the symphonia of Church and State was the ideal–sobornost symbolized in the double-headed eagle. Russia today in many ways continues that tradition. Meanwhile, the internal contradiction in Western secular sexual ideology, between sex as socially constructed and sexual passion as essential identity, remains largely unexamined. To prevent such self-examination arguably is the goal of today’s sexual totalitarians.

To secular transhuman anthropology, the Orthodox Christian view of the purpose of the human being as theosis stands as not a reproach, but an antidote, in a shared heritage of Eastern and Western Christianity. The propounding of an inner “conciliarity” of man and God in theosis mirrors the outer conciliarity of sobornost in community. This is reflected in the close identification of grace with natural law. The deeply Christian sense of synergy of asceticism and uncreated grace promotes a type of Christian transhumanism, a kind of otherworldly “queerness,” with neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality nor any other sexuality as its final goal, in affirmation of free community with God. Yet the coming together of man and woman in marriage symbolizes in embodied form the mystical union–in anthropological, cosmological, and soteriological terms–between the transcendent God and the nurturing community of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The prayer rope or Lestovka (“ladder”), a rosary of Russian Old Believer Christians used today increasingly by Russian Orthodox Christians as well, symbolizes this spiritual unity. Its “steps” and flaps evoke symbolism of the incarnational history of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Its prayer cycle, punctuated by the “Jesus Prayer” with parallel breathing and prostrations, is embodied and performative, like the iconography and incense and chanting of Orthodox worship spaces. It serves as a reminder of the scriptural teaching revered traditionally by all Christians, that our bodies through His Incarnation are the temple of the Holy Spirit, engaging in the Church the mystery of the intersection of hierarchy and conciliarity, symbolized incarnationally in the Cross.

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This reflection draws on longer scholarly work forthcoming in an article in the journal Christian Bioethics and in a separate essay appearing in the forthcoming book Healing Humanity: Confronting our Moral Crisis (Holy Trinity Publications).

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