Thursday, November 7, 2013

"There is No Sex in the Church!" - An Interview

Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov is the rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia Orthodox Church in Mulino, Oregon and also a noted author of such titles as Break the Holy Bread, Master: A Theology of Communion Bread, Imagine That...: Mental Imagery in Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox Private Devotion, among other works. There Is No Sex in the Church is his latest book and quite an intriguing read. Below is a short interview on this important tome, which is available here. Readers of this interview can use code 2F5G2Z7S at checkout for 10% off.
Father, what prompted you to write this book? What other books of yours are in publication?

This book is a collection of articles, papers and talks that I have written and given at various times and for various reasons. But the main and the newest piece, titled The Problematics of Orthodox Sexuality, was written as a reflection on some questions raised by young people. When I talk to young people about marriage and human sexuality--topics in which they are profoundly interested--I am keenly aware of the strange duality that exists in the Orthodox mindset. On the one hand, we celebrate the sacred union of man and wife, while at the same time we rely on the writings of the most ascetic of Fathers for advice on how the young couple is to build their life together. Even our standard morning and evening prayer rules are exclusively monastic and utterly and completely ignore that fact that the overwhelming majority of those who read the evening rule, for example, are not preparing for an all-night vigil in their hermit cells, but to lie in a marriage bed. Imagine, for example, that we were to use the advice of Saint Mary of Egypt in preparing meals for our family: "Take two and a half loaves of bread and eat a little until you gradually finish them after a few years. Then, for seventeen years, feed on herbs and all that can be found in the desert." Of course, no pastor of a sound mind would ever give this advice to a family--we seem to have enough common sense when it comes to food. But when it comes to marital sex, many continue to quote ascetic Fathers and virgins, as if somehow they have expertise on the matter. And it is this very phenomenon that interested me and prompted to write on the subject.

Among other books I have written are Break the Holy Bread, Master!: A Theology of Communion Bread, and Imagine That...: Mental Imagery in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Private Devotion. The first book examines the history, theology, and praxis of the use of sacramental bread in traditional Christianity. From the Last Supper to the Great Schism, and from Christology to ecclesiology and Christian anthropology, the symbolism of bread has dominated Christian history and belief. What kind of bread did Christ offer to His disciples at the Last Supper? Why do Roman Catholics and the Orthodox disagree on how to bake bread? What is the significance of the symbolism of bread for Christian theology and praxis? This book addresses these and many other questions. The second work examines the use of mental imagery in private devotion in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of prayer. The research is based on the writing of the saints of the two Churches, as well as on analysis provided by some of the best theologians of the Russian Orthodox Church. The findings are to be used as a tool within the ecumenical dialogue between the two Churches. The core of the argument is that the two traditions followed significantly different paths in their approaches to spiritual life. These differences exist in many aspects of devotion. Both are available on

The topics you touch on in this book are quite sensitive. This is a hard thing to discuss with one's priest and people seem to come to conclusions about what is "allowed" on their own. Has this always been the case?

Of course I can only guess, but I do not think so. First, the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity first spread seemed to be quite comfortable with human sexuality and the human body. Greek art of that period appears to bear witness to very liberal and open attitudes of the Greeks toward sex. I would imagine that people were also very comfortable talking about sexuality. One may think that by the Middle Ages the situation was different, but even that can be questioned. There seems to be little if any evidence that medieval people lived as pious ascetics and at least some evidence that they did not. The peculiar preoccupation of confessors with lengthy lists of sexual behaviors about which they apparently inquired their parishioners may point to either the prevalence of those behaviors, or to some peculiar personal struggles of the confessors, or both. Whether every priest had a lengthy conversation about sex with every parishioner at every confession is not at all clear, but it is likely that parishioners did in fact discuss sexual matters with their pastors. Exactly what happened in the Russian Church in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, or how the attitudes of the Puritan settlers in the United States affected their descendants who convert to Orthodoxy in the twenty-first may be an interesting study to undertake, but I feel that it is important to discuss these topics now.

It's striking how many of the prohibitions had their origins in countering pagan ideas and practices. I would think, lacking a historical understanding of what prompted these (sometimes rather odd) proscriptions, that one could easily assume the Church forbids something because it is sinful in itself and know nothing of the initial reasoning. The same could be said for a cursory reading of the Rudder on a whole host of concerns, sadly.

Indeed, many of the prohibitions have less to do with some inherent sinfulness of the act in question and more with things which are no longer understood by modern Christians. Much has been explained about the reasons for not being allowed to be in the same bath house with a Jew or to be treated by a doctor who is a Jew. But we are less comfortable talking about and exploring the origins of the prohibition against the "woman-on-top" sexual position. And if we continue to insist that it is sinful "just because," we are risking placing unnecessary and weird burdens on the shoulders of Christians or fostering an attitude of canonical relativism; either one would not be good.

In reading your second chapter (The Problematics of Orthodox Sexuality) you discuss the married state and holiness. Do you feel there is a misapprehension about the merits and reasoning behind a married couple living as "brother and sister" and/or about the married state as a method of sanctification in general?

Elevating the brother-and-sister model as somehow being the ideal state of marriage, is, in my view, misguided. This appears to imply that those living as husband and wife, rather than as brother and sister, are not reaching for the ideal or worse--living in a lesser or even somewhat sinful state. Put more simply, I do not believe that every monastic is necessarily a saint just by the virtue of being monastic, nor that the path to sanctity is closed to every lay person just because he or she is not a monastic. Monasticism and married life are different paths, and one is not necessarily better than the other. It is true that greenhouse flowers--monastics sheltered from the world by the walls of a cell--may grow larger and more colorful, and that wild flowers--lay Christians who struggle in the world--may not be so impressive at first glance. But the wild flowers are conditioned to withstand the harsh winds, rains, and droughts that would kill greenhouse plants; they are stronger, and some people prefer the wild beauty of field or alpine meadows over the manicured perfection of a greenhouse.

Given that we (in the main) draw our bishops from the monastic ranks and that particulars of marital relations are a decidedly non-monastic topic, how should the Church address the need to provide direction? Would this be a matter for the as yet unscheduled Great and Holy Council in consultation with married clergy advisers? Would anything less not seem to the laity like non-binding theologoumena?

First, I think that we need to be a little less squeamish about this topic. We all agree that discussion and instruction are of great value in Christianity. We expend much time, breath and ink teaching people about the Christian way of life: prayers, services of the Church, fasting, Scripture, and just about anything else. And yet we consistently hesitate to discuss a topic which is of great importance to any young adult and most older adults. Pastors who cover up their own inadequacies or outright ignorance by pretending that there is no sex in the Church or worse--by a high-browed "thou shalt not!" are failing their flock, most of whom will in fact engage in a sexual relationship at sometime in their lives. I am not in any way involved in preparations for the Great and Holy Council and do not know what will be discussed there, but I firmly believe that a comprehensive and affirmative theology of Christian marriage and sexuality is vitally necessary to safely guide our flock through the minefield of modern secular ideas which influence the minds of our young people whether we want to admit it or not. And in the absence of an intelligent Christian argument, the secular voice is the only one speaking to our children. Those who can read Russian, may find an excellent brief note by Vitalii Kaplan on this topic of great interest:here.

Your book also tackles the "gay marriage" issue and more broadly homosexuality in general. Things are moving apace in the same-sex union movement with something written about it almost daily both in large, international media outlets and in small local papers. Is there an easy answer to be had for the layman who wants to understand the Church's position on homosexuality as something other than opposing two people "in love" because of antiquated misconceptions about same-sex attraction?

Unfortunately, I do not have a good answer, and neither does anyone else as far as I know. In my book, I mentioned the difficulty of presenting a coherent Orthodox argument mostly because it does not seem to exist. What we have had thus far, was a two-pronged approach to the problem: 1) the Scripture clearly speaks against homosexuality, and 2) homosexuality is unnatural. The problem with this approach is that the Scripture also says, for example, that it is an "abomination" to eat shrimp (Leviticus 11:10)--the same word that Leviticus 18:22 uses for a homosexual act of lying "with a male as with a woman." And as for the unnatural aspect of homosexuality, there are many things that heterosexual couples do--such as using their feeding orifices for sexual and/or emotional gratification (otherwise knows as kissing)--that this argument simply falls flat is many ways. One of the main reasons for my book was to spark some serious theological work that could help formulate a coherent and convincing Orthodox response to the very successful homosexual movement of our time. I believe that we owe this to our children.

I very much agree, Father. Thanks for your time in answering the above questions. I hope this book does indeed spark conversation on the topic amongst our clergy and the laity as well. While not an "easy" book because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I hope many parishes add this title to their bookstore offerings. We can't ignore the questions asked and assume they will answer themselves in the minds of the faithful or future generations of believers.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, thank you for providing the interview and the discount code. Interesting also that the publisher chose to place Michaelangelo's painting from the Sistine on the cover, as the artist essentially depicts fellatio in Eden, which I have understood was scandalous at the time, and really scandalous theology in general. The painting betrayed Michaelangelo's occult beliefs of the fall and is the Vatican no less. Would be interested to know if the author addresses this subject in the book, or if it was just a random selection by the publisher.