The Changing Character of the Debate

Tom Krattenmaker, a commentator on religion and public life based in Portland, Oregon, published an interesting piece this week arguing  that sooner or later, most Christians (in North America and Western Europe anyway) are going to have to adapt to a politics and society in which queer people bear and exercise more rights than they have before.  Our rapid political and social progress  on this issue over the last ten or twenty years should not of course be taken for granted—no change is guaranteed, or permanent—but Krattenmaker calls attention to the one and only fact which makes me (very cautiously) optimistic about our near-term prospects inside the Church: a new generation of faithful are coming of age, some of whom are beginning to be ordained, many of whom have quite consciously been formed and educated right alongside their openly queer brothers and sisters.  Pure, distilled, irrational hatred remains real enough, but own experience has been that even the most conservative elements in the Church, who are of my age and background, have substituted for that former hatred a kind of hypocritical and almost regretful condescension.  That may not seem like much just now, but I think it’s telling.  Krattenmaker:

It appears increasingly obvious that social acceptance of gay men and lesbians and insistence on  their equal rights are inexorable. If the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” weren’t enough to signal the turning point, or the classification of several gay-resisting Christian right organizations as “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there came news that [the ex-gay advocacy group] Exodus International was ending its involvement in the anti-homosexuality “Day of Truth” in U.S. high schools. “We need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace,” Exodus President Alan Chambers explained, “while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated, whether we agree with them or not.”

Add it up, and you see a decision point at hand for socially conservative Christian groups such as the Family Research Council that have led resistance to gay rights. Do they fight to the last ditch, continue shouting the anti-gay rhetoric that rings false and mean to the many Americans who live and work with gay people, or who themselves are gay? Or do they soften their tone and turn their attention to other fronts?

Prayerful discernment and simple Christian decency would strongly suggest the latter. The alternative looks worse by the day—a quixotic battle more likely to discredit its fighters and their fine religion than win any hearts and minds for Jesus. Christianity has far worthier causes than this.

"INEXORABLE"

Two points here re: Krattenmaker.  First, the public discouragement of homophobic groups like Exodus—and the private regret of individual priests who feel compelled to enforce church law on this matter, though they would really rather not—are evidence that the “conservative” party knows, on some level, that it has lost the argument, but does not yet know how to make the admission, or what then to do about it.  Fr. Hopko’s book strikes me as falling into this category, too. The honest conservatives are fearful, above all for Holy Tradition’s integrity.

But fear, by itself, cannot long sustain a belief system, or a policy.  It requires too strained an expenditure of energy, to hold it all together.  Or so I found, at least.  Sooner or later a critical mass of Christians are going to yield to the actual logic of natural law; and to the obvious implications of their otherwise positive and entirely harmonious relationships with actual queer people in their own families, schools, and work places.

Second, the institutional churches are, in the great sweep of history, ruthlessly pragmatic bodies.  (Which is a good thing.)  Christians have successfully lived under, and sometimes taken on the trappings of, a wide spectrum of political orders.  An institutional religion which can come to terms with Byzantine and Russian emperors, Germanic feudal kings and kinglets, Islamic caliphs, the commercial republics of the Renaissance and Reformation, the democracy in America, and even conclude concordats with the likes of a Napoleon, Hitler, or Stalin (however distasteful those concordats may have been), can surely come to terms with this one component of contemporary liberalism.

That is not to say that all those different political forms I have just named are equally just or unjust, or equally useful or unuseful for the preaching of the Gospel.  They are not.  But it is to say that prudent people, ecclesiasts included, do tend to know where their real interests lie, and where and when to compromise.

For Christians, the answer to the question of who Christ is, is (truly) a hill to die on.  (So is the question—pace my more radical Protestant friends—of what is the Church.)

Call me crazy, but sexual ethics is not.

vozradujemsja

Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 11:52 am  Comments (7)  
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Reasonable Doubt

At their remoter fringes philosophy and theology have historically tended to degenerate into occultism and magic.  Antiquity—with its profusion of engrossing mystery cults, its dogmatic pseudo-philosophical sects—knew this temptation very well.  And so do we: witness the New Yorker’s Scientology exposé this week.

For the religious, as well as for secular people with a benign interest in religion, this kind of reading is obviously very troubling.  In the first place we are troubled in approximately the same way that a conscientious democrat might be troubled by discovering the word “Democratic” perversely inserted into the official style of the East German or North Korean state.  The false imitation offends.

(Full disclosure of my own bias: civilized countries—like France and Russia—prosecute Scientologists for fraud.)

At the same time, however, those who are religious cannot help but feel the implied critique of their position.  Just as the Scientologists, we make use of “spiritual technologies”—except that they are prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; we, too, practice hierarchically-ordered rites of initiation—the sacraments or “mysteries”; we, too, occasionally practice “disconnection”—that is, excommunication; we, too, have preferred internal disputes to be settled internally, by ecclesiastical courts or arbitration.  The conceptual and real differences between Christianity and Scientology are vast (it should be needless to say); the existence of a superstitious cult should not be deployed as an argument against religion in general (as if Denis the Areopagite or Thomas Aquinas had never lived or thought or written).  But the implied critique—let’s call it the critique of naive, tyrannical credulity, the critique of religion as it is often believed and practiced by people who lack the intellectual humility of a Denis or a Thomas—should indeed be taken to heart.

The New Yorker piece profiles Canadian film-maker Paul Haggis, who publicly split with Scientology at the time of California’s Proposition 8, because of a perception that Scientology is homophobic.  One of the more interesting stories recounted in the article concerns Haggis’ daughters:

The girls demanded to be sent to boarding school, so Haggis enrolled them at the Delphian School, in rural Oregon, which uses [Scientology-founder L. Ron] Hubbard’s Study Tech methods. The school, Lauren says, is “on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere.” She added, “I lived in a giant bubble. Everyone I knew was a Scientologist.”

For one course, she decided to write a paper about discrimination against various religions, including Scientology. “I wanted to see what the opposition was saying, so I went online,” she says. Another student turned her in to the school’s ethics committee. Information that doesn’t correspond to Scientology teachings is termed “entheta”—meaning confused or destructive thinking. Lauren agreed to stop doing research. “It was really easy not to look,” she says. By the time she graduated from high school, at the age of twenty, she had scarcely ever heard anyone speak ill of Scientology.

Alissa was a top student at Delphian, but she found herself moving away from the church. She still believed in some ideas promoted by Scientology, such as reincarnation, and she liked Hubbard’s educational techniques, but by the time she graduated she no longer defined herself as a Scientologist. Her reasoning was true to Hubbard’s philosophy. “A core concept in Scientology is: ‘Something isn’t true unless you find it true in your own life,’ ” she told me.

vozradujemsja

Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Of Note

A friend and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy over at State of Formation has written a brilliant post on the subject of “Communion Secrets: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Money-quote:

When I began learning about the Orthodox Church during college, I was enamored with its liturgy, prayers, music, and icons. And I confess that there was something in me that was drawn to its seemingly monolithic authority. We claim to be the Church of the Apostles that has preserved the faith for two thousand years. Though some may laugh at the seeming naïveté of this claim, Orthodox believers find deep comfort and stability in a tradition that reaches far beyond our current cultural situation. It is all the more painful, then, when our tradition not only fails to adequately address present-day realities but also insists on judging modernity through the lens of antiquity.

The traditional teaching on homosexuality as recounted by Metropolitan Jonah ignores the reality of many Orthodox women and men struggling to understand their feelings of sexual attraction toward members of the same sex. Even if they choose not to pursue sexual relationships and struggle to remain celibate—a path imposed on them by the church, rather than a gift genuinely given by God—His Beatitude believes that they are condemned by virtue of their being in “a sinful state of self-delusion.”

How are homosexual Orthodox Christians to grow in love, virtue, and relationship with God if they are categorically excluded from the sacramental life of the Church?

Good question.

Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 10:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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Disagreement Between Friends, IV

Part 4: On Persuasion

“I myself have reached the point where I am unable to increase my erudition or theological knowledge and I would rather speak about that which has come to maturity in my soul.”

Anthony Bloom said that, in an interview of 1 August 2000, just three years before he died.  A friend recently called it to my attention, and, like most things the man seemed to say, it was well said. For my part I have tried to argue in this place, and will continue to argue, that homosexuality does not contravene natural law, and need not contravene canon law; that it is forbidden neither by the Christian scriptures nor by the Church’s dogmatic authority: so many words. But words clearly will not persuade His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonas, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, who in his most current statement on the topic at my own home cathedral, on the occasion of the National Right-to-Life March, repeatedly associated homosexuality with abortion (without explanation) and repeatedly asserted their incompatibility with the “gospel of Jesus Christ” (again without explanation).

The metropolitan gives the impression of a man whose mind is made up; and important as rational arguments and counter-arguments may be, they do not seem capable, in the grand scheme of things, of persuading a mind already made up.

So instead of debating the extent of our erudition or our formal knowledge about God, “I would rather speak about that which has come to maturity in my soul.”

The problem here, so far as I can see, is one fundamental to any sub-angelic effort at communication. Your mind works on a set of experiences which in their total range are uniquely yours, and likewise my mind on a total range uniquely mine. Of course I do affirm that there exist meaningful inter-subjective or objective foundations for what we tell each other we know or believe. But whether that affirmation itself be the conclusion to a logical argument, or merely an inference of “common sense,” in the first and final analysis all we do have is our own, and separate, experiences. Thus an exercise of sympathetic or at least empathetic imagination—something akin to Cardinal Newman’s “illative sense,” or to the “eye of the heart” of traditional patristic and monastic wisdom—is always required, in order to hear and assent to another person’s account of his or her experience. Logic by itself isn’t enough.

My favorite example of this in the sphere of profane literature (following S. Gregory the Theologian, amongst others) is the Platonic corpus. Now the person of Plato and his dramatic character Socrates are surely the exemplary apologists for the life lived purely according to reason. Yet Plato the rationalist, who spends a good deal of time criticizing poetic mystifications and sophistic wind-baggery, was also a supremely successful literary stylist, who knew how to appeal to the emotions. Fr. Denis Bradley, philosophy professor at Georgetown and priest at S. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, once asked me pointedly, with the usual mischievous grin: “Are you not so much persuaded as charmed by Plato’s dialogues?” A book I read later, about education in the medieval Church, upped the ante still further: was it not the example of Socrates’ dispassionate suffering in his own body which definitively “made” the disciple—chiefly Plato himself, and then all his “footnotes” down the ages who have been lovers of wisdom after him?

Real Persuasion

The point is this. Truth can in part be discerned through the dialectic of argument and counter-argument. But that process—the process of the Platonic Academy, the process of Romano-Byzantine legal procedure—can bear its legitimate intellectual fruits only if the truth is loved to begin with.

And, as everybody can attest, love is not always “rational.”

The complaint we bring against the ecclesiastical hierarchy is, in part, “rationalistic”: it consists of formal disagreements about the meaning of natural law, canon law, and so forth, which we can formally debate. The fundamental complaint, however, is (as ever) extra-rational: it consists of the failure of the hierarchy and of traditional popular culture to communicate with us; or rather it consists of a failure to love. In this fourth and final segment in the series “Disagreement Between Friends,” I will consider the implications of this predicament, and offer some tentative suggestions.

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