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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Disagreement Between Friends, III

Part 3: The Law of Nature and the Law of the Church

To understand and make use of the perduring sense of “the two laws”—the lex naturalis and the lex christiana—is our central challenge.

In earlier posts in this series, “The Necessity of Dogma” and “The Priority of Scripture,” I tried both to defend the value which conservatives attach to the traditional sources of authority in the Church, and also to defend the skepticism with which liberals point out that these sources of authority do not settle the Queer Question.  For the infallible teachings of the Church are indeed few and far between, and the New Testament does not talk about anything that we would regard as a monogamous homosexual relationship.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Church’s canon law and penitential discipline, and the traditional understanding of natural law or natural right which the Church has assumed, do prohibit any sort of homosexual relationship, as well as any non-procreative sexual activity generally.  The rhetorical legacy of “the sin against nature” still trickles down, moreover, even into the most secular of contemporary contexts.   In its amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the American Psychiatric Association found it relevant to cite a 1999 study demonstrating the existence of homosexual behavior in approximately 450 different animal species.  (Not the least of them being the chinstrap penguins, made famous by the years-long courtship of Silo and Roy at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo.)

For the queer Christian, two problems arise.  The first is the tendency to reject altogether and even belittle the Church’s tradition of natural-law ethical reflection.  John Boswell seems to do just that in his introduction to Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, where he asserts that “[t]he scientific, philosophical, and even moral considerations which underlay this [natural-law] approach have since been almost wholly discredited and are consciously rejected by most educated persons.” [1] Not only would that be astonishing news to a (politically diverse) host of twentieth-century worthies—in the English-speaking world alone, names like Finnis, MacIntyre, Nussbaum, Bloom, Strauss, Voegelin, and Arendt, all spring immediately to mind—it would also belie the public’s evident interest in mentioning penguins in connection with opposition to Texas’ anti-sodomy law.

The second problem is the tendency in the other direction, that is, adhering to the letter of traditional natural-law theory and canonical law and discipline, without regard for their spirit, or awareness of their historical context.  Fr. Erickson, in the introduction to his anthology The Challenge of Our Past, caricatured such people in the Church, and accurately, as believing that “the Pedalion fell from heaven on Pentecost, along with the Typikon and other such vital compendia of rules and regulations.” [2] Sad to say, but when Pope Benedict XVI—or at any rate his fan club—characterizes anything in modernity which falls short of his idea of Christian society, as a “dictatorship of relativism,” as if there were no intermediate positions, both he and they are no more persuasive than the bearded Orthodox zealot who labels a modest reform of the liturgical calendar as heresy.

Born Under the Law: The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, January 1st

I will make some preliminary comments about each problem in turn.  Given the problems’ extent, and centrality, I expect I will return to them again and again.

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Published in: on January 16, 2011 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Disagreement Between Friends, II

Part 2: The Priority of Scripture

But since, in our weakness, we cannot yet follow the path of the perfect, let us talk of what edifies, and speak of such things with reference to the words of the fathers, without undertaking to interpret the scriptures; for this latter is fraught with dangers for the ignorant.  The scriptures are written in the language of the spirit, and men of the flesh cannot understand spiritual things.  It is best to use the words of the fathers in our conversations; then we shall find the profit they contain. [1]

So say SS. Barsanuphius and John.  I quote them by way of cautionary preface. For a Roman Catholic reader of this blog (a convert from Protestantism) has asked me to speak about holy scripture, as it relates to the queer question.  I expect his query stems partly from a sort of post-modern Western curiosity about Eastern attitudes to sacred text and authority, which are rumored to be different.  The Orthodox accept a third and occasionally a fourth book of Machabees, as well as the Prayer of Manasses and the 151st Psalm, as canonical; meanwhile the Apocalypse of S. John, which is visually much in evidence in an Eastern church’s iconographic program, is never in fact read in church aloud.  Certain of the Eastern fathers caution laymen against attempting to interpret any scripture at all.

The second, and probably larger reason for my inquirer’s curiosity, is the obvious one: submitting to scripture’s authority, it is widely alleged, precludes participating in or condoning homosexual relations (or any other sort of non-procreative sexual behavior).  The traditionalist Orthodox Christian Information Center, for example, lumps its discussion of homosexuality into its discussion of abortion, euthanasia, and genetic cloning, and to do so it repeats the usual scriptural proof-texts—the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. xviii and xix); the Levitical prohibition of homosexual relations as an “abomination” (Lev. xviii and xx); and the Pauline condemnations of homosexuality (Rom. i and I Cor. vi).  A traditionalist Catholic blog does the same, and more, raising up a specter of “homosexual totalitarianism” which, if unchecked, will drive the Church “underground.”

The Church in modern history has, however, already weathered any number of philosophical and scientific challenges to its theology, and notably to its theology of creation.  Evolution by natural selection, also once regarded as a theory precluded by scriptural authority, is no longer generally controversial—such that Patriarch Bartholomew, a respected environmentalist, may simply absorb Darwin into traditional Christian cosmology: “The dynamics of evolution are henceforth linked with death—entropy, monstrosity, disintegration….  Of course the laws of nature, which make salvation history possible, witness to the cosmic covenant concluded between God and the world after the flood.” [2]

That the ecumenical patriarch regards the specific wastefulness of the evolutionary process as something continuous with human sin, is not the immediate point.  Rather, he still perceives a natural end to that process cooperative with the divine will; and he is able to take the new evolutionary account of biological reality for granted, without any particular comment.

Why, then, such frequent ferocity of opposition to accepting homosexuals?

Disagreement Between Friends

In Part 1 of this series, “The Necessity of Dogma,” I suggested that traditional dogmatic theology is neither merely optional (contra Christianity’s “cultured despisers”); nor is it necessarily incompatible with homosexual love (contra the ecclesiastical hierarchy).  I began with a discussion of the significance of dogma because it is dogma primarily which imparts to the Church its visible unity: a symbolon, the symbol of the faith “unites.”  We may disagree about most other things (including even what constitutes the complete canon of holy scriptures), yet through such disagreements we are able to say that we are still one Church, because we confess the same faith—because we answer the question “But whom do you say that I am?” (Mc. viii. 29) with the same formulas.

I now turn to consider the priority of scripture.  I hasten to add that I am not any kind of biblical scholar.  Still less do I have the spiritual gifts which SS. Barsanuphius and John (perhaps quite rightly) consider as the pre-requisites of biblical exegesis.  This essay is offered therefore in a spirit of humble uncertainty; and I am eager for those who know more than I do, to contribute their knowledge and sources.

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Published in: on September 3, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (2)  
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Disagreement Between Friends, I

An Orthodox reader of this blog has asked me about the “problem” of tradition, as it pertains to the queer question.  How do I reconcile my contention that homosexual unions may be ethical and holy, with the Tradition and traditions of the Church, seemingly so hostile?  This “problematization” of tradition arises in other contexts, too: in plans for reunion with the Oriental (Monophysitic) Orthodox churches, stalled over the thorny problem that their saints are our heretics, and our saints their heretics; likewise in dialogue with the Roman church, which recognizes, and is not about to stop recognizing, a full fourteen additional post-Schism councils, as ecumenical in status.  What, then, is to be done?

One approach has been for the “conservative” and “liberal” parties in the Church to throw caution to the winds, and to assert themselves in despite both of each other and of whatever elements within the Tradition (in the broadest sense) which might challenge them.  That seems to be pretty much what is now going on in the Anglican Communion; and the best conciliating efforts of Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury aside, the Communion’s dissolution is to be expected.  At one extreme, the Anglican bishop of Karamoja in Uganda supports the death penalty bill for homosexuals.  At the other, the dean of the Anglican seminary in Cambridge, Mass., calls abortion a “blessing” and an “holy work.”  Violence proliferates.

Some of that violence is committed in the context of the Church’s pastoral and penitential disciplines.  I myself have, on more than one occasion, been threatened by an (Orthodox) priest with refusal of communion—for no other reason than that I happen both to be openly gay and also happen to disagree with a traditional but non-infallible moral teaching of the Church.  I expect that this may happen many times in my life.  Fr. Hopko says that a person in my condition may not receive the sacraments; Metropolitan Jonas (Paffhausen), archbishop of Washington, DC, and primate of the Orthodox Church in America, the night of his election to the primacy declared that if an ecclesial body “endorses gay marriage” (amongst other controversial political questions), it “abandon[s] … Jesus Christ and the Gospel.”

Never mind that the Gospel says not one word about gay marriage: many ordinarily faithful people are, almost without discussion, to be treated in the same way as would heretics and unbelievers.

And yet, Christ calls us “friends” (Jo. xv. 15).   And “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (Jo. xiii. 35).

One of the most politically resonant icons in the Church’s iconography is that of SS. Peter and Paul embracing.  They may have disagreed about important doctrinal questions, as the apostles and fathers generally have disagreed: “And some coming down from Judea, taught the brethren: That except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.  And when Paul and Barnabas had no small contest with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of the other side, should go up to the apostles and priests to Jerusalem about this question” (Act. xv. 1-2).  Therefore the apostles are depicted as friends.

Disagreement Between Friends

If we (Orthodox and Roman Catholics) are to avoid some of the snares into which the Anglican Communion has fallen, we must take care to imitate Peter and Paul, preserving our unity where the dogmas of the Church are concerned, but permitting a legitimate diversity of theological opinion elsewhere.  We must take care to remember that we are friends.

This essay will constitute the first part of a series, “Disagreement Between Friends,” proposing some initial ideas for how to manage the problematization of tradition and, no less important, how to continue living in catholic love and reconciliation.

Part I: The Necessity of Dogma

When reasonable people call the Church “dogmatic,” they are not, usually, being complimentary.  As the Slovak church historian and Orthodox convert Jaroslav Pelikan noted shortly before his death in an NPR segment “The Need for Creeds,” this perception, right or wrong, can pose a tremendous obstacle to the Church’s evangelism.  Queers especially are often suspicious (and understandably so) of the Church’s dogmatic system.  I can well remember my feeing, just for example, on a certain winter night some years ago, listening to an outwardly very pious layman—oblivious of his audience, and alas only half in jest—as he expressed his wish he had a faggot to burn.  That is the sort of obviously negative encounter which does lead reasonable people to hold a negative assessment of dogma.  A fine example occurred recently in Andy Sullivan’s exchange with Ross Douthat about Judge Walker’s ruling on Proposition 8 in California:

[Ross] is not a homophobe as I can personally attest.  But if he cannot offer something for this part of our society except a sad lament that they are forever uniquely excluded, by their nature, from being a “microcosm of civilization” [and thus from participating in the institution of marriage], then this is not a serious contribution to the question at hand.  It is merely a restatement of abstract dogma….

When dogmas are reduced to the level of mere abstractions, they die, and those who cling to them are justly censured for their “dogmatism.”  On the other hand, as V.S. Soloviev wrote in an essay on “The Significance of Dogma”:

When Christian dogmas were taking shape at the general church councils, for the true representatives of the church they were neither that mind-game by which the last Byzantines were carried away nor that alien and forgotten word, which they pronounce for present-day hearing.  True dogma is the word of the church responding to the word of God when such a response is required by course of history and the development of religious consciousness. [1]

Dogma correctly understood is not abstract and dead, but historical and living.

Just as a philosopher might proceed by asking what must be true of the mind such that we are able to interpret the realities we experience, in the same way a theologian proceeds by asking what must be true of God (dogmatically speaking) such that we are able to interpret our experience of eternal salvation.

So it is that what the Church claims to teach dogmatically, infallibly, turns out to be relatively little.  There are the declarative, frequently paradoxical theses of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, in the East, and those of the Apostles’ and Athanasian creeds, in the West, mostly having to do with the relations which subsist between the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  In the East in the eighth century, the appropriateness of venerating icons was made into dogma; so too, in the West, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.   But to venture much beyond these few items with any certainty one would be hard-pressed.  Good reason for such dogmatic reticence was given first of all by S. Vincent of Lérins: “… all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.  For that is truly and in the strictest sense ‘Catholic,’ which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universality.” [2]

The theological opinions which can meet this test are not numerous.  The theological opinions which, in course of time, have indeed met this test, then act as a groundwork on the basis of which all further inquiry is made possible.  They are, in other words, the indispensible core.  As the Apostle reasons: “For if the dead rise not again, neither is Christ risen again.  And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, and you are yet in your sins” (I Cor. xv. 16-17).  For such reason is belief in the resurrection, as set forth in the Creed, properly called “dogmatic.”

Granted that, I cannot conceive how homosexual love or unions do any injury to dogmatic theology; nor can I conceive why the queer community need be suspicious of dogmatic theology.

On the contrary, the most striking political consequence of dogma is to set limits to all earthly authority.  An authentic dogmatism is thus also the aboriginal classical form of liberalism.  The Christian does not deny the dogmatic definitions of faith, even on pain of death; the sovereign conscience of the individual martyr in the arena is to be obeyed before corporation, class, or committee of public safety, is to be obeyed.  The Byzantine basileus or Russian tsar might aspire to reign together with Christ, but could never replace Christ, and buried in the recesses of the Church’s pre-imperial memory lies Tertullian’s old dictum about the blood of the martyrs.  As Jaroslav Pelikan states bluntly on the first page of the first volume of The Christian Tradition, “polity transcends organization because of the way the church defines itself and its structure in its dogma.” [3]

This is a justification of dogma, at once as deeply conservative as the early African church in which the likes of Tertullian could flourish, which can at the same time be embraced by the queer community, and likewise by any persecuted or marginalized group suffering at the hands of Pharisees and Caesars.  I have written about Orthodox seminarian Eric Iliff here, but the names and stories are without end.  The martyrial witness of the Church’s queers does not threaten the Church’s dogmatic system; it helps, like all martyrial witness, to support and explain it.

vozradujemsja

Victor de Villa Lapidis


[1] Politics, Law, Morality: Essays by V.S. Soloviev, trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 108-09.

 

[2] Commonitory ii. 6.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 1.

Published in: on August 20, 2010 at 7:45 pm  Comments (8)  
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