Monday, December 27, 2010

Undemonic Desire: Homosexuality and Orthodox Spirituality

The following post was written by a reader and contributor going by the name Bishoy. It is a brilliant commentary on sexuality and desire, and the misattribution of desire to negative spiritual forces. To the author, thank you for taking the time to write this.


Many responses against any sin by Coptic Orthodox clergy and servants who are responsible for teaching in the Church always go back to the troubles that the demons create. In the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), the majority of evil thoughts that these monks and nuns fought against came from the demons, especially as described in the Apophthegmata Patrum. With the renaissance of this literature among the contemporary monastic movement in Egypt and its wide reading among clergy and laypeople living in the cities, many people have mistakenly assumed that the demons mentioned in those stories and sayings of the ancient Desert Fathers (and Mothers) are indeed what everyone experiences in their spiritual lives. If the holy St. Macarius, in the middle of the desert, could get the thoughts of fornication because of a demon, then that same demon can influence the youth today in giving them thoughts of fornication. The clergy and servants then teach that it is necessary to fight off this demon by inhibiting the sexual desires - and they would often teach this by saying really negative things about sexuality.



More importantly for the discussion in this blog, the Coptic Church responded to the issue of homosexuality - that is, the experience of Christian people who happen to have a homosexual orientation - as though it is a deception from the demons, and as such needs to be fought off through prayer, fasting and communion. Nevertheless, many Christians who happen to be homosexuals will inform you that no matter how much fasting, prayer, and communion they’ve engaged in, they are still convinced that they are homosexuals. This does not imply that they have engaged or want to engage in homosexual behaviour, but it is just how they view themselves based on their experiences and desires. This leads to the following questions: is homosexuality from the demons? Is the understanding of the Christian person who participates in the sacraments and spirituality of the Church being deceived by the thought of being a homosexual through a demon?

The straightforward answer is: No.

The Church, unfortunately, has missed the whole point of the psychology and spirituality of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). The Church has mistakenly attributed all human desires to thoughts from the demons. This is not the teaching of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), and it is based on a misreading (or lack of accurate reading and study) of the literature. There is a huge difference between “desire” and “thoughts,” and unfortunately the Church today has confused the two things as though they are one. So, let’s get back to the basics:

Every human person is naturally endowed with desires. According to the philosophy of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and Church Fathers and Mothers, those desires are morally neutral. They are given to us by God, and are in fact a part of the soul. In contemporary language, these desires are our senses, personalities, feelings, and emotions.

Take, for example, the feeling of hunger. This is the desire for the body to eat. Morally speaking, the fact that you are hungry and that you desire food to satisfy this hunger is neither a passion nor a virtue - so it is morally neutral. How you choose to act to satisfy this hunger could either be a passion or virtue: if you decide to gorge yourself with food, then that is considered gluttony, which is a passion; but if you decide to eat in moderation, then that is considered continence. If someone is a glutton, then there is need for repentance and spiritual exercises (ascesis) to practice and finally reach the virtuous life of eating with continence and sharing in love with your hungry neighbours.

So, remember that there are three things mentioned here:
1) Desire: Morally neutral, and is a part of the human soul, which can be used either:
2) In Passion: Sin.
3) In Virtue: God-like

Where do the thoughts come into play?

The thoughts coming from the demons, according to the Desert Fathers, are basically conceptual images that come to their minds and that causes their natural desires to act in passion, and therefore sin. St. Evagrius of Pontus, who is known as the “Psychologist of the Desert,” explains: “All thoughts inspired by the demons produce within us conceptions of sensory objects; and in this way the intellect, with such conceptions imprinted on it, bears the forms of these objects within itself” (Texts on Discrimination in Respect of Passions and Thoughts #2, in The Philokalia, Vol. 1, 38). Thoughts, also, are not similar to what we today would call an “idea,” or “theory,” or anything that has to do with the human understanding of one’s existential self. There is certainly much more to say beyond what I could discuss here about the topic of thoughts, whether they are from demons (which lead to passion), from the Holy Spirit (which lead to virtue), or just plain human thoughts, and I encourage further reading of the Desert Fathers and the Philokalia in order to learn about and discern the different kinds of thoughts.

So, let’s say a monk in the desert is very hungry (which, we’ve shown above to be a natural human desire), and a demon gave that monk a “thought” of a magnificent dinner in a comfortable palace that he used to live in back in Rome before he became a monk. The monk now has to either fight off that thought, which is a conceptual image of a banquet in a palace, or give up on his monasticism and return to the old comfortable life he once had as a prince. So, this is an example of a “thought.” It would seem silly to insist that the monk has to fight off his natural desire of hunger - that is impossible, and would lead him to death. For this reason, the spirituality of the Church has always been careful so as not to confuse “desires” with “thoughts” - the monk ought to fight off the thoughts coming from the demons or from his own memories, but not his own natural desires.

Now, how does this tie up with homosexuality?

A person with a homosexual orientation is like a person who is hungry. That is a natural sexual desire. Human sexuality is a natural desire, and the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) have never spoken as though they were against the sexual desires, which is a part of their souls, but only against the thoughts of fornication. They also never spoke of the virtue of moderation in sexual relationships, because they were speaking in their own contexts of living in chastity.

If a person who understands him or her self as a homosexual fantasizes of having sexual acts with people they do not intend to be in relationships with, then one could say that such conceptual images are thoughts brought about by demons to let that person fall in the sin of fornication. However, just knowing, through the intellect, that a person is homosexual is in itself morally neutral, and such it is not a thought by a demon.

So, a person with a homosexual orientation is not someone who has been convinced by a demon that he or she is a homosexual. Such a person is not expected to fight off their natural human sexual desire, because it is morally neutral, and just as in the case of human sexual desire between heterosexual couples, it should not lead to the passion of fornication, but should be practiced as the virtue of moderation.


In conclusion, the homosexual orientation is a human desire. As a human desire, and part of the human soul, it is morally neutral. It is not a thought from the demons, because demons cannot affect the soul (or mind) of the human person and convince them of their own nature. The demons are not telling anyone they are homosexuals, and homosexuals cannot be told by the Church that they are possessed or influenced by demons to believe that they are homosexuals, and must fight off those thoughts through repentance and prayer. Demons can, however, give thoughts (that is, conceptual images) to any human person in order to lead them to fornication, whether in their minds or in reality. In the latter case, it would be recommended that the person practices the spirituality of the Church and participates in the sacraments, so as to avoid such thoughts that would result in sin. Participating in the sacraments and praying do not remove the homosexual orientation because it is a human desire and is a part of the soul, but they will allow for the person to grow in Christ and avoid the thoughts that would lead to fornication. In the former case of human desire, it is the Church that should be aware of its own Tradition of teachings that demons cannot affect the soul, that human desire is morally neutral and cannot change (until death), and that no one ought to attempt to change those desires, because that would be destructive of the human person as a whole.

6 comments:

  1. The natural extension of Bishoy's argument is that the church should fulfill its moral obligation to support (and perform?) same-sex marriage in order to help keep gay people from the sin of fornication (cf. 1 Corinthians 7.9).

    In his essay, "Trinity, Marriage, & Homosexuality," Eugene F. Rogers Jr. makes a similar case, arguing that the church has a spiritual obligation to provide the sanctification found in marriage marriage to people whose morally neutral desire (to use Bishoy's words) is homosexual. He argues well that forbidding gay marriage constitutes real spiritual deprivation and harm to gay people.

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  2. i'm most definitely not implying anything. I am not suggesting that they were gay. They however represent a pure companionship honored by God. I love what they represent. I have a very committed best friend who is straight, and we are inseperable, and yes there is nothing sexual between us, however, this sort of companionship is the root of any pure homosexual relationship.

    I definitely don't want to get into the S&B argument, well at least right now, and I don't want the image to distract folks from this post. I will remove it.

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  3. Good questions, Mike. Paraphilia is a learned behaviour, and as such it is treated psychologically as a disorder. Think about it in very simple terms: a child is not born as an adult wanting to have sex with other children. It's a behaviour associated with heterosexual men who see (or have a "thought") the other child as an image of their own lost childhood.

    Homosexuality and heterosexuality, however, according to science, are inborn. A pedophile is either homosexual or heterosexual. Translated into Orthodox spirituality, this would mean that homosexuality and heterosexuality are sexual desires that are morally neutral, whereas sexual behaviours (that are mostly the result of the environment) are passions.

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    Replies
    1. Christ's Seeking SlaveFebruary 14, 2012 at 12:14 PM

      Hey Bishoy, JADm and Mike,

      I very much enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for posting it. I would like to say that I disagree with Homosexuality, but I am fully supportive of the people. I love my brothers and sisters. Just A Dude, May God bless you, and guide you to the truth, and I hope that you feel comfort which only the Holy Spirit can give.

      That being said; Bishoy, I strongly disagree with what you have said about Homosexuality being biological, as there has not been one single conclusive piece of evidence that claims that homosexuality is so. I think that it is a slight leap in faith to assume that it is all about nature.

      Still, I can understand the possibility of psychological issues. I'm not sure if I support such things as ex-gay therapy to try to "reverse" the orientation, but I still have no solid reason to accept that homosexuality is biological. I have heard such things as statistics relating to the body and the homosexual population, but I think, as any educated person does, that correlation does not imply causality.

      And tbh, I do not think that your answer to JAD hypothetical question is valid. You didn't explain why homosexuality is not the paraphelia, but you simply said that it is not.

      Also, JAD, I think that you hit the nail on the head with Ss. Sergius and Bacchus. I do not believe that they were homo-sexually engaged. I have taken a look at the work of John Boswell regarding them, and have found it to be biased and inconclusive especially when read in light of the works of such people as David Woods, Robin Darling Young, and Brent D. Shaw. However, they are a good example of true companionship. Nothing romantic, but brothers who worked together to lead each other to Christ. Maximous and Domadious are another example.

      Forgive me if I was offensive, I did not mean to be so. God Bless you, and please remember me in your prayers.
      :D

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  4. Just to get the juices flowin:

    Bishoy, based on that perspective, why couldn't it then be inferred that the neutral desire is just the desire for sex, regardless of gender, and then the homosexuality becomes the paraphelia? Just being a devil's advocate, however, I think it's an important question to address.

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  5. @Mike: It depends on what you mean by "inborn"? There are "inborn" habits that may be passed on through inheritance that may be confused with desires of the soul. Your question needs to be more specific.

    @JAD: No, since sex is always seeking the other, and the other, depending on one's orientation, is either a man or a woman.

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