Father Pavel Florensky, Philia, and Same-Sex Love
No longer do I call you servants, but I have called you friends.
-John 15:15 (RSV)
Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) is one of modern Orthodoxy’s intellectual giants. The scope of his erudition was breathtaking, covering not only philosophy and theology, but also mathematics, physics, linguistics, art, cultural history…—he is sometimes called “the Russian Leonardo.” A leading figure of the Russian religious renaissance of the early twentieth century, unlike most prominent theologians and Christian philosophers caught up in the Bolshevik revolution and civil war, he did not go into exile, preferring to stay in Russia as a witness to Christ in the harshest persecution in Christian history.
After the communists closed the Moscow Theological Academy, Florensky spent most of the 1920s and early 1930s working for the State Electrification Commission. During these dismal times, he continued both his theological research and scientific investigations and publications. Florensky had powerful protectors in the Soviet establishment, initially Leon Trotsky, impressed with Florensky’s abilities. Florensky made no attempts to conceal his faith or his priesthood; he worked and gave scientific papers in his cassock, much to the dismay of hard-line communists. He was arrested a first time in 1928, but quickly released, thanks to the intervention of Ekaterina Peshkova, wife of writer Maxim Gorky.
But as the Stalinist assault on religion persisted, even Florensky’s protectors could no longer shelter him. Refusing offers to go into exile, he was arrested in February 1933 and sent to Siberia, where he conducted research on permafrost, and then to the White Sea island of Solovki, whose famous monastery was converted to a gulag especially for political and religious figures. Even there he continued his research, developing a procedure for producing iodine and agar from seaweed. But he was a victim of the great purge of 1937, when Stalin ordered the “liquidation” of tens of thousands of “enemies of the people.” Florensky was sentenced to death by an NKVD commission and executed by firing squad on December 8, 1937.
Florensky’s major theological work is The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters (1914). It is a sweeping overview of Christian theology, exploring the relationship between God and the world. Its major theme is that God’s love for humanity is embodied in the Church and reflected in human relationships. In a unique and creative theology, Florensky elevates friendship (philia, the subject of Letter/Chapter 11 of the book) as the culminating embodiment of divine-human love and of human love.
For Florensky, agape (Jn 15:13) is the “greatest love” in the sense that it is the divine basis for other forms of love. However, in and of itself, agape tends towards the general and abstract—for example, love for people “in general,” while sensual love (eros) tends towards passionate objectification. Philia is the only truly personal love, neither objectifying those whom we love, nor valuing them “in general,” but rather, cherishing individuals for their own sakes, in a loving partnership characterized by a certain equality of persons. For Florensky, then, philia is the “living medium” in which divine love embodies itself in humanity; it is “the summit of human feeling.” When Jesus calls his disciples “friends” (Jn 15:15), he is affirming that the essential core of the divine-human relationship is indeed mutual philia between God and each human person, and that human relationships are to be patterned after the divine-human friendship.
Florensky’s vision has radical and even subversive implications for the normative ways in which human love is understood and expressed. If philia is the highest form of love, then everyone in the Body of Christ can aspire to reach that height. Florensky upholds pairs of friends as the means for embodying this love in the ecclesial community. While envisioning friendships as involving members of the same (male) sex, Florensky’s thought does not exclude the possibility of opposite-sex friendship. Indeed, it suggests that what makes a marriage truly blessed is not the erotic union of man and woman, but the friendship that they cultivate. All persons within the Body of Christ, then, can and should cultivate distinct and unique friendships as “icons” through which to see and know themselves, each other, and God as the “friend of humankind” (philanthropos).
While Florensky clearly believes that a same-sex friendship is the quintessential icon of divine-human philia, of God’s love for humanity, interpretation that would reduce Florensky’s subtle thinking to an apology for an Orthodox Christian theology of same-sex love are misguided and erroneous, a reductionist narrowing of Florensky’s high theology of friendship, an opportunistic attempt to enlist this creative and powerful thinker into a cultural war foreign to his theology. Florensky’s thought ennobles human existence and human love, elevating them to the divine, well beyond a simplistic justification of same-sex or even opposite-sex sexuality. To invoke his authority as an endorsement for contemporary sexual politics is to rob his legacy of its potential to transform the way we think about love, both within the Church and in the world.
Certainly, Florensky’s theology has had its share of critics since the publication of The Pillar and Ground of the Truth over a century ago. Critics focus mainly on his sophiology—the complex doctrine of Divine Wisdom—and the absence of a robust Christology in the work. But even his strongest critics do not call into question his treatment of divine and human love. In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia canonized all Christian victims of communism, implicitly including Florensky. ROCOR subsequently denied that the name i. Pavel Fl. appearing on the frame of the glorification icon of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia was that of the great theologian, leaving his canonization in some doubt. Fr. Pavel Florensky would be the greatest victim of a campaign to drag him into the same-sex love battleground. Florensky, “perhaps the most remarkable person devoured by the gulag” in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, was a great Christian martyr, a brilliant and bold witness to divine Truth and divine philia-Love.
Holy martyr Father Pavel, pray God for us!
Feast of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia
Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).
Fr. Richard René is a Ph.D. student at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology. He is the Pacific Regional Chaplain for Correctional Services Canada and the director of St. Silas Orthodox Prison Fellowship (Canada).