Would the True “Nature” Please Stand Up?

by Rev. Dr. Vasileios Thermos

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

Thomas Aquinas

Does anyone still believe that the biblical “confusion of tongues” (cf. Gen 11:1–9) refers only to the proliferation of human languages? Popular discussions about homosexuality and gender dysphoria today suggest, similarly, that what seemed commonplace about human sexuality to previous generations is not so common anymore.

Contemporary moral objections to phenomena like homosexuality or gender dysphoria often rely on what we might call the “nature argument”: “this is unnatural,” “this is against nature,” and so on. Such an argument is not confined to those outside the Church. Orthodox Christians, too, make it. Indeed, one crucial hindrance to the Orthodox Church’s efforts to shape a more constructive attitude towards homosexuals and trans people is the idea of “nature” held by many of her members.

Should the Orthodox Church, however, cherish the same logic used by those outside the Church, some of whom invoke the nature argument not only to exclude homosexuals and trans people but also to rationalize hostility or even violence towards them? Is Orthodox theology at all compatible with such an idea of “nature”?

I fear that by adopting the nature argument as a theologically sound one, the Orthodox Church misses a decisive opportunity to look with critical eyes on her unacknowledged indebtedness to the most eminent theologian of medieval Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas, indeed, is widely regarded as the father of natural law theory, provided that “nature” is defined in scholastic terms as a fixed set of “forms” or “essences” underlying reality and generated by human reason. According to Aquinas, sin is considered a violation or undoing of this “nature”— to more or less detrimental effect. On this foundation, Aquinas built a hierarchy of sins and passions, from which certain moral assessments stem.

From this perspective, something like homosexuality would be considered an objective sin (ST, II-II, q. 154)—insofar as it oversteps the boundaries of a once-and-for-all determined human nature. Aquinas’s view, therefore, is essentialist: by proclaiming such fixed “nature” the ultimate criterion for order in the world, he shifts concern for the person, as sinner, to the “form” or “essence” purportedly corrupted by sin.

Yet following his own ranking of the negative impact of certain sins upon “nature,” Aquinas ends up at absurd and arbitrary moral assessments. Masturbation, for instance, he considers worse than incest—autoerogeny prevents procreation, while heterosexual intercourse, even among relatives, does not.

In the modern era, nevertheless, the Catholic Church has persistently addressed sexual mores on Aquinas’s basis, that is, as insults against a divinely established “natural” order of essences.[1] Speaking frankly, this pervasive mentality, along with the legalism that often accompanies it, is suffocating to myself and many other human beings today.

So far, Orthodox theology appears largely unaware that when it has recourse to the nature argument, it is playing the part of a loyal Thomist. In a recent personal communication I had with Metropolitan John Zizioulas, he rejected this argument without any hesitation. This line of thought, he pointed out, if followed to its rigorous conclusion, can destroy ecclesiastical life and spirit: “Is monasticism and celibacy natural?” I now add to his rhetorical question: Is asceticism natural? Is altruism natural? Let me push it a bit further: Is medicine natural?

*         *         *

In contrast to Aquinas’s rigid naturalistic framework, for St Maximus, the Father who most highlighted the logical character of human nature, cosmic order stems instead from the divinely implanted logoi in creatures. Rather than fixed once and for all, such dynamic logoi are oriented fundamentally towards the world to come. Nature, according to Maximus, has thus been endowed with God’s intentions, which enable it progressively to conform to the biblical call for “likeness” with the divine Logos, the Son himself (cf. Gen 1:26–28).

Here nature derives its preciousness not from pre-existing forms or essences with an inherent structural teleology, fixed once and for all and supposedly threatened by homosexuality and gender dysphoria. Nature rather is to be venerated because of its derivation from the divine Logos and, in cooperation with grace, its increasing conformity to the same Logos as history unfolds. In this Maximian view, nature is indeed logical—not in the Thomistic sense of a restrictive barrier but in that of a gift, a capacity, a movement, an eager longing for promised goods.

To make a long story short, Thomas’s “nature” differs markedly from Maximus’s nature. Such a distinction understandably gets overlooked in homophobic contexts outside the Church. That Orthodox theology continues to ignore it is not only disheartening but highly alarming. Indeed, as long as the Orthodox Church continues to reject homosexuality and gender dysphoria on the basis of the nature argument, she contributes to today’s rising threat of forcefully implemented dystopias. It is easy to justify any arbitrary social project in the present when “nature” is assumed to be something fixed once and for all in the distant past. Who determines this fixing?

In many circles, the rigidness of medieval essentialism has met its demise with postmodern deconstruction. If only the same could be said about the latent Thomism in the Orthodox Church! Where Thomistic “nature” focuses on the supposed origin of things, Maximian nature orients us always towards a future known only to God. What better theological framework is there to convince non-Christians that Christianity does not deal necessarily in nostalgia? After all, Christians should be the visionaries in society—with an eye towards a divinely wrought future.

*         *         *

Contemporary LGBTQI movements have strongly undermined traditional gender distinctions. One might even get the impression that such movements aim to redesign human nature from the ground up. Bodies and psyches are now treated as prime matter in a frenetic global laboratory and, due perhaps to a fantasy of omnipotence, assumed to be adaptable to any experimentation or modification imaginable.

Although these emerging issues are extremely thorny, I am convinced that they provide a promising opportunity for Orthodox theology. We Orthodox Christians do have a theological heritage that enables us to cope with these issues with a great deal of sophistication. Yet coping here does not mean that we have ready-made solutions that would downplay the complexities of such contemporary issues. It means rather that through hard work we will be able to derive from our rich tradition criteria that will give us some much needed direction in these conversations.

Given the pervasiveness of the nature argument both within and outside the Church, it is clear that homosexuality and gender dysphoria need to be considered afresh through other theological lenses, the Maximian included. We do not know the outcome of this consideration, yet such an endeavor will enable those of us engaged in public dialogue to avoid the common “fight or flight” reactions and to reject the false theological distinction between “Conversative” and “Liberal.” Theologically speaking, it is my conviction that both “Conservatives” and “Liberals” disregard the truth and suffer from severe shortcomings—an overly strict construal of “tradition” on the one hand, and an uncritical adoption of postmodernism on the other.

I absolutely acknowledge that this post is too cursory and merely visionary. But it aspires to contribute to the indispensable preliminary task of mapping out a way forward. Could we, for instance, facilitate pastoral applications of the Maximian view of nature expounded above, particularly with an eye to the blossoming of human potential? As an alternative to the prevalent caricature of “nature”—a given that imposes order on the cosmos in a Procrustean way—Orthodox theology could thus offer the promise and responsibility of working with God to make nature become what it could be.

[1] John Slovikovski, “Homosexuality and the Formation of Conscience: An Examination of Catholic Anthropological, Theological, and Ethical Evaluations in Light of Contemporary Moral Markers” (PhD diss., Duquesne University, 2011), 16–28.

Rev. Dr. Vaseilios Thermos is a psychiatrist, professor, and priest of the Church of Greece.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Fordham-Exeter project leaders, the conference as a whole, or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.