Questions of Gender, Sexuality and Marriage  

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Some Orthodox think that Western Patristic writers had a more negative attitude toward sexuality and marriage than did Eastern Patristic writers. Compared to modern ideas, all Patristic writers tended to be more negative toward marriage and sexuality. And the differences between Eastern and Western writers may be more of degree than of kind. Roman Catholic scholar Lars Thunberg in his study of St Maximus the Confessor states that Maximus had a more positive view of marriage than did the man who influenced him, St Gregory of Nyssa (one of the few Patristic writers thought to have been married rather than a monastic), but being in the Eastern monastic tradition he still saw gender and marriage as not being part of God’s original creation, but having come into existence due to the Fall of Adam and Eve:

“According to Maximus, sexual differentiation (that is to say that part of sexuality which is related to procreation, sexual intercourse), or at least a great part of it, was brought in by God because of the fall. Before the fall another form of procreation would have been provided for man. . . .

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Yet, his general view of sexuality as the instrument of procreation is negative, since, as we have seen, he regards this form of procreation as a secondary phenomenon, a substitute in time (due to the fall) for the persistence and immortality that God wanted to give mankind. Consequently, sexuality is necessarily linked to the fatal dialectic between pleasure and pain that appears in man’s life as a sinner. The very manner in which man is born today is marked by his sin. … The masculine and feminine elements are not destined to disappear, only to be subsumed effectively under the principle (logos) of the common human nature.”

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[Maximus like Augustine and other Western Patristic writers saw all humans as tainted by sexual procreation since it involved lust or pleasure (concupiscence), and thus sin.  He believed sexual procreation was sort of God’s “plan B” for humans to prevent them from going extinct due to sin resulting in death.  God does provide for marriage and sexual reproduction, so neither is ungodly, but both are connected to the human inability to control sexual desire, which was viewed negatively by most Church Fathers. Sex and procreation are thus part of God’s concession to human weakness – God blesses marriage but it wasn’t God’s original idea for humans according to many Church Fathers who thus tended to see procreation in a negative light.

Christ being conceived without sex and born of a virgin is in their mind what God intended originally.  With the virgin birth of Christ and His resurrection from the dead, sexual procreation is not needed to prevent the human race from going extinct. Thus sexual procreation really only belongs to the world of the Fall, but was not God’s plan for human life in paradise nor is God’s plan for humans in His Kingdom.]

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“But what does Christ do to carry out this mediation? First of all – and now the theandric dimension is obvious – Jesus Christ was born of a woman as is every man, but he was conceived without sensual pleasure and without destruction of the virginity of his mother. In this way Christ broke the slavery of death for himself and was free to accept a death that was not forced upon Him, a voluntary death. Secondly, in his exegesis of Galatians 3:28, maximus identifies the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with anger (thymos) and concupiscence (epithymia) because the sexual relationship has become the symbol par excellence of the life of passions. When the apostle says that in Jesus Christ there is ‘neither male nor female,’ this means that he has conquered the passions and subordinate subordinated the forces of man under the logos of his nature –and that is exactly a true mediation between the sexes. . . .

[For Maximus death comes with procreation by sexual means and is spread to all humans since all humans are conceived by sex – an idea similar to St Augustine’s. Except of course, Jesus, who is conceived without the male seed, without intercourse, and because of their understanding of how conception took place, Mary is simply the fertile womb in whom the divine seed which becomes Jesus is planted.]

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Marriage is not rejected; it is instituted by God Himself. But Christ has indicated a more noble form of relationship between man and woman, a relationship in the common logos of human nature.  . . .

This mediation is carried out by Christ through his ascension into heaven in His earthly body, consubstantial with ours, thereby manifesting the essential unity of sensible nature beyond any separation. This realization also implies man’s restoration to his original vocation of carrying out this kind of mediation. Man should, as much as possible, let his life resemble the virtuous perfection of the angels. Through the suppleness of his spirit he should surmount his bodily heaviness in a permanent and spiritual ascension toward heaven, as he desires communion with God. At this point Maximus is attached to a whole complex monastic tradition that describes the spiritual life as an ‘angelic life,’ but he also combines this tradition with his own reflections.  . . .

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‘Thus He united, first of all, ourselves in Himself through removal of the difference between male and female, manifesting us –instead of as men and women, considered primarily from the point of view of distinction –simply, in principle and in truth, as human beings, totally conformed to Him and carrying that image of His sane and entirely intact…’ (St Maximus).” (MAN AND THE COSMOS, pp 81-82, 90)

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The attitude of Patristic writers towards sex, gender, the human body and marriage is quite different from the modern scientific understanding of these issues.  There probably needs to be more scholarly studies on these issues to see how the Patristic ideas of sexuality, gender, the body and marriage compare and contrast with modern ideas, including modern Christian ideas which tend to see sexuality and marriage in a more positive light and as God’s original plan for humans. The Fathers tended to think the human goal was to live a more angelic life, and so many did not think the physical human body (and its bodily functions) was part of God’s plan for salvation. Marriage, in their mind, was lawful, but basically a concession to human sexual desire, and thus a somewhat secondary life as compared to monasticism.

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