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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Loving Our Enemies, Not Killing Ourselves

On October 15th the Roman Catholic archbishop of Denver, Colorado, Charles Chaput—who (in)famously averred that voting for John Kerry for president in 2004 was mortally sinful, requiring penance—spoke to a diocesan conference in Victoria, British Columbia.  His basic point—that since the 1960’s American youth and popular culture have been noticeably losing control of any coherent “moral vocabulary”—is fair enough.  The same phenomenon has been diagnosed with considerable intellectual subtlety in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).  (And though both men have long been darlings of the Right, neither was / is “conservative” in any conventional sense: MacIntyre’s proclivities run to Marxism as well as Catholicism; and Bloom was a cold classical rationalist and agnostic, in addition to having been fabulously gay.)

But reading Archbishop Chaput’s remarks I was seized by an intense schizoidal feeling.  The words, by themselves, were fine; their probable intended meaning was dreadful:

The central issue is whether we ourselves really do believe….  If we’re Christians, we’re each called to be teachers and missionaries….  If we’re embarrassed about Church teachings, or if we disagree with them, or if we’ve decided that they’re just too hard to live by, or too hard to explain, then we’ve already defeated ourselves.  We need to really believe what we claim to believe.  We need to stop calling ourselves “Catholic” if we don’t stand with the Church in her teachings—all of them.

Simon.  Simon.  I have somewhat to say to thee … [1]

Perhaps I’m being uncharitable to the archbishop, but I’d like to hazard a guess here.  When Chaput insists on youth needing to not be embarrassed by, and needing to obey, “all” of the Church’s teachings, he ain’t talkin’ about the teaching against usury.  (Which sin might better have been militated against by a vote for John Kerry, than by a vote for George W. Bush.)

Of course, truly we ought so to stand with the Church in her teachings, all of them.  But what does a pious statement such as that mean?  The Church teaches many things, and not all of them with equal authority, or even with equal clarity; and their truth depends on more than the mere fact that certain hierarchs have subscribed or do subscribe to them.

Reading the text of Chaput’s remarks, a passion darker than righteous indignation takes hold of me.  It frankly borders on hatred.  Something I do not think that the comfortably straight world often realizes, is both the extent and the omnipresence of internal division in even self-accepting queer Christians’ minds.  At its dullest such division is like the toothache you can never simply forget or be rid of.  Frequently we are compelled to regard our own natural families, and also our spiritual families—the priests and bishops who minister to us—as the practical enemies of our temporal happiness; and we must be quick to fear the vicious meanings veiled behind their outwardly-ordinary words.  Continuing to demonstrate love to them nevertheless is one of the most important forms of queer Christian witness.

The trick is to reprove Simon as does Our Lord, without hatred.  And this is not easy to do.

To Chaput, With Love

Hating the “Ick” Factor, and the Humility to Let It Go

If you will suffer a personal example: in recent months I have slowly begun coming out to my extended family.  To my immediate family, of course, and to any of my friends worth the name, I have been out for years, and one supposes that casual observers, too, have always perceived what I am, more or less.  With my extended family, however, I have until now remained closeted, principally due to the wishes of one of my parents, whom I know to be ashamed that I turned out gay.  This parental unit’s shame, I hasten to add, is not the fruit of any great intellectual understanding of, or allegiance to, the Church’s traditional teaching, which if it were I could respect.  It is, by the said parental unit’s own, and repeated, admission, entirely the fruit of the “ick factor.”  (Certain uses for certain orifices are too gross to be imagined; the imaginations of the family must be spared.)  (As if I had not already lived 18 very homo-*sexual* years under your own roof, God damn you to hell.)

… thou a man of one mind, my guide, and my familiar … [2]

Hatred, like any unbridled passion, lends itself to overstatement.  The reality, in my case, is that I have ordinarily loving parents who have nurtured and privileged me far above what most parents in the world are able to do for their children.  They never hit me.  They educated me extremely well.  I am not a victim of any wider social persecution.

And yet—recalled by the recent spate of gay teen suicides, including some only perceived to be gay—I cannot stop my ears from hearing,

“EWWW … IT’S [my name]!”

That was my first day of school of the fifth grade, when I walked into homeroom.

Humans characteristically need to be publicly honored more than they need to be fed.  The fundamental political precondition for being able to correct the bigot without hatred, is public honor—such as legal gay marriage, for example, would help confer.

Honor Before Food

But the fundamental spiritual precondition for correcting another without hatred, for doing anything at all without hatred, is, of course, humility.  And humility is not some “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed” assertion of one’s own extreme badness, made while secretly knowing oneself to be good, or at least not so bad as all that.  Humility, rather, is knowing yourself accurately for who and what you are.  Anthony Borisovitch Bloom, archbishop of Sourozh, of blessed memory, and the beloved long-time pastor of the Russian Orthodox diaspora in England, makes this point:

The word “humility” comes from the Latin word humus which means fertile ground.  To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that.  Humility is the situation of the earth.  The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour all our refuse, all we don’t need.  It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed. [3]

Being gay surrounded by anti-gay society is the most marvelous school of humility I have (speaking for myself) yet encountered.  You know yourself to be helpless—helpless to change your desires, on the one hand, and helpless to quit your society, on the other; helpless, in a deeper sense, to do or to be other than as God would have you.  And—O mystery!—you know yourself to be therefore, potentially, just as helpful.

vozradujemsja

Victor de Villa Lapidis


[1] “And one of the Pharisees desired him to eat with him.  And he went into the house of the Pharisee, and sat down to meat.  And behold a woman that was in the city, a sinner, when she knew that he sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment; And standing behind at his feet, she began to wash his feet, with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.  And the Pharisee, who had invited him, seeing it, spoke within himself, saying: This man, if he were a prophet, would know surely who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.  And Jesus answering, said to him: Simon, I have somewhat to say to thee.  But he said: Master, say it.  A certain creditor had two debtors, the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.  And whereas they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both.  Which therefore of the two loveth him most?  Simon answering, said: I suppose that he to whom he forgave most.  And he said to him: Thou hast judged rightly.  And turning to the woman, he said unto Simon: Dost thou see this woman?  I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she with tears hath washed my feet, and with her hairs hath wiped them.  Thou gavest me no kiss; but she, since she came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet.  My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but she with ointment hath anointed my feet.  Wherefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much.”  (Luc. vii. 36-47)

[2] “For if my enemy had reviled me, I would verily have borne with it.  And if he that hated me had spoken great things against me, I would perhaps have hidden my self from him.  But thou a man of one mind, my guide, and my familiar, Who didst take sweetmeats together with me: in the house of God we walked with consent.  Let death come upon them, and let them go down alive into hell.”  (Ps. liv. 13-16)

[3] Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (New York: Paulist Press, 1970), p. 35.

Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 5:11 pm  Comments (7)  
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