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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Holy Sodomy: Incarnation and Desire in Russian Religious Thought

By Sarah J Young, on 27 February 2014

The Place of Christianity in History, by V. V. Rozanov

The Place of Christianity in History,
by V. V. Rozanov

Modern theological studies into the nature of embodiment, desire and sex could enhance contemporary scholarship on Russian religious philosophy, especially in its studies of love and homosexual relationships, argues Adam Ure.

I started writing this on (Orthodox) Christmas Day, and it seems appropriate to consider one of the most contentious issues facing contemporary Christianity: the evaluation of homosexual love, as well as of homosexual sex. I mention Christmas Day, as a prominent strand in current academia is focusing primarily on Incarnation Theology in a re-examination of how Churches should appraise same-sex relationships.

Although many studies have concentrated on questions of love and sex in revolutionary Russia, little work has discussed homosexual relationships during this period. Here scholars of Russia should, as in other areas, perhaps start drawing on other fields of study to enhance their work: bringing recent developments in western theological scholarship into Russian studies could help provide new approaches to the questions which faced pre-revolutionary religious philosophers (and contemporary scholars), most particularly how to overcome apophaticism (the conception that knowledge of God is only accessible in terms of what He is not) in Russian Orthodoxy and the resulting bifurcation of religion and culture, which in turn affects the appraisal of homosexuality. Here the body might well be key: a reconsideration of the nature of Jesus’ flesh should help in a reinvestigation of the axiology of the human body (Christ, according to Chalcedon, was of both divine and human nature), and could possibly assist in the Church’s reappraisal of homosexual marriage, as well as answering important questions in Russian studies.

Prurience might provoke reticence amongst some; people are sometimes squeamish when discussing matters of the body – and what the body does. To discuss bodily matters relating to the Holy Family, including birth and sexuality, is more contentious. Yet for us to understand the Incarnation, we should accept that it was a human birth. Jesus was a normal human male and had a penis. But what did He do with it? And what, if any, is the nature of the desire Jesus felt? Can desire be understand as something sacred, where normally in Christian thought it is disregarded or considered something base and even demonic?

I do not have time to consider all these questions, but they provide a starting point for my present research. The somatization of God, the very point where He becomes (hu)man, is a focal point in contemporary theological studies into how embodied humans should relate to each other, as well as how love can be expressed in physical terms. The attempt to use Christology as a basis for our understanding of creation and of created nature does of course lead to further severe complexities: theologians should consider whether Christology can provide an adequate basis for the relatedness of created things, and in our case specifically the relatedness of humans as sexuate beings. This is pertinent particularly for Russian thought and the problems scholars in this field must still tackle.

Immediately, however, we come across a fundamental problem. Any consideration of the relatedness of created things must also take into account the relatedness of creation to the Divine whilst preserving a true relationship between substance and person, ousia and kerygmata. I have in the past made two bold claims: questions about the authenticity of personhood and the authenticity of sexuality in Christian scholarship cannot be answered through a focus on ontology, but must account for what theologians would call oikonomia or ‘economy’, the way God acts within human history to ensure human salvation. In addition, economy also demands an economic (in its religious sense) response, in other words how humans answer this through their own soteriological praxis (i.e., their actions designed to help achieve salvation). My second claim is that there is a strong strand in pre-revolutionary Russian religious thought which anticipated many developments in western theology, especially the focus on practical religion.

This demonstrates a culture where thinkers, contrary to the perception of Russian religious culture as passive and meditative, were keen to stress the need for praxis in order to change themselves and the world around them. And this is why, for me, Vasilii Rozanov is one of the most important Russian philosophers and cultural practitioners; he understood the ability for Russian culture, even that culture outside the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, to be the medium for spiritual renewal. This is what I – following contemporary theologians – would term Russia’s ‘cultural economy’, the ways in which cultural activity responds as a creative force to the possibility of salvation within the context of God’s interaction with human history.

Hence the importance of sex to Rozanov. Sexual activity was for Rozanov the fundament of oikonomia, the supreme act of religious and cultural transmission. An imitation of God’s act of creation of the world, sex was for Rozanov was the ultimate way to reaffirm the divinity of humanity (during copulation the human is deified), and also for humans to continue God’s creative work through procreation.

Clearly Rozanov comes up against a major problem here; sex is a way of responding to desire, the necessarily physical encounter between embodied people who are naturally separate. The encounter of flesh with flesh justifies our embodiment and hence is the supreme act of love, but more important for Rozanov is the potential for conception and the possibility of prolonging life on Earth (life, not being, is the ultimate category of his consideration). For Rozanov, desire is transformed into a positive force, unlike its usual treatment in Christianity where it is considered shameful and even malevolent (not so much the possession of sexual organs, but what one does with them).

This brought him into conflict with many Christian thinkers, as revealed by recently published correspondence with his close friend, Orthodox priest Pavel Florenskii. Neither Florenskii nor Rozanov was able to publish such explicit writings, but their letters go into unexpected depth about the consideration of homosexuality within Christianity. Both thinkers are surprisingly holistic (I, contrary to existing scholarship on Rozanov, have argued that he is a consistently schematic philosopher with an integrated worldview), but it is the debate over homosexual relations that allows them to elaborate on schemes explaining the relationship between high theology (theologia, the internal life of God) and how this relates to the life of humans.

Florenskii is highly suspicious of Rozanov’s attempts to disregard any aspects of abstract love and of his focus on physical coupling between man and woman. Florenskii insists in his correspondence to Rozanov that the entirety of human reality is not consummated totally by its embodied state: physicality marks an impure state of being, the ideal of holy flesh as epitomized within Jesus remains impossible to normal humans, and we must all die in order to be born. Florenskii suspects therefore that semen – the key to birth – is in fact the key to death, but its physicality must be sublimated in an eventual denial of the body. He spots in Rozanov a deep dissatisfaction in embodiedness, and at the same time insists that this possible sublimation of the body means that sexual activity must be accompanied by a love which enables this potential divinization of the flesh. Strangely enough, this hope for a transfiguration enables Florenskii to evaluate homosexual sex – which does not involve conception – in many ways more highly than heterosexual congress, which includes the possibility of future birth, life, and inevitably death.

In contrast, Rozanov rejects the schematization of Christianity as intellectual theology (in short, he rejects the reduction of Christian theology to theologia, theories about the internal life of the Trinity) and argues that the core of religion should be procreation. He criticizes prominent Christian figures for discouraging marriage, and even condemns Jesus for not having children (in short, for not using His penis correctly). For Rozanov, the physicality of Christ is vital. Rozanov is fixated on the baby Jesus’ birth and the action of flesh upon flesh: Jesus passed into the world through the vagina of Mary and in return his own body was probed by Thomas’s doubting finger. However, he argues that the true meaning of these doubly interpenetrative acts has been distorted by Trinitarian theology. Rozanov’s conclusion is that Christianity is essentially a form of homosexuality, in that it privileges spiritual love over the physical and rejects conception.

This is more than gratuitous rambling from Rozanov, but marks a crucial investigation of penetration which for him removes all doubt about the reality of creation. But as Florenskii says, this is not enough for Rozanov. Rozanov insists that all physical acts should ideally aim towards the birth of new children in the supreme act of imitatio Dei. Florenskii admonishes his friend for wanting to go further and replace God as Creator, for wishing to create his own world; here he fails to understand the significance of activity in Rozanov’s approach.

Their debate does raise questions about the nature of creativity which I do not have room to investigate further here. For all Rozanov’s at times extremely anti-modernist stance, he is fixated on the creation of the new (I must leave for now to what extent he favours production or reproduction over re-production). However, what does emerge from their correspondence – in Rozanov more than Florenskii – is a clear prioritization of praxis over ontology. In short, it is not enough to have a penis, as Jesus undoubtedly did, or even to love or feel desire: it is crucial to respond through a procreative economy in which, owing to the substantive unrelatedness between God and person, the embodied human has no choice but to act like God in order to become divinized.

And as scholarship into Russian religious thought develops and hopefully incorporates aspects of western theology, especially in tackling the issues of love and sex and the evaluation of homosexuality, the importance of praxis in the approach of Russian philosophers will require increasing investigation. Noting my primary interest in how Jesus was born and what He did with His body, such an approach might also mitigate against the predominance of ontology in the examination of Russian religious thought.

Adam Ure completed his doctorate on Russian religious philosophy at SSEES in 2009. His specialist interest is the religious thought of Vasilii Rozanov, and he is the author of Vasilii Rozanov and the Creation (Continuum, 2011) as well as other articles on Russian philosophy and intellectual history. He is currently writing a monograph on the St Petersburg Religious-Philosophical Meetings.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

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