On the Incarnation of the Word of God

I used to be a heretic.

Not of course that I subscribed formally to the doctrines of Arius, or of the Manichees, or of any others of the legion of false prophets who have attempted in the course of two millennia to rend the unity of the Church.  I was a heretic not by formal subscription, but by seemingly-irresistible psychological suggestion.

For I did not actually believe in the full logical implications of the Incarnation.  I was happy to acknowledge God’s radical transcendence, indeed nearly to the point of an extremely studied agnosticism (all you neo-Thomists out there who suspect the Eastern Orthodox of being closet-case nominalists about metaphysics are probably right … !); but God’s immanence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth I never made much of.  Again, I was happy to acknowledge the unicity, sanctity, and apostolicity of the Church; but her catholicity (not to mention her evangelical mission to assorted social undesirables, “welfare queens” and the like!) … not so much.  Above all I mistrusted the theological opinion, normative within Christianity as a whole, that created time and matter are by nature good.

In other words I was an average college freshman of right-wing prejudice who had been exposed to a little Plato.  And, I was gay.

Christianity at its best, I recently heard someone say, is a religion of praxis.  S. Maximus Confessor, whose writings comprise the largest part of the Philokalia, the great summa of Greek monastic wisdom literature, puts it very succinctly in his “Two Hundred Texts on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God,” which I have been reading as an Advent devotion this year:

22.  … [T]here are two forms of knowledge.  First, there is academic knowledge, which is theoretical information, gathered merely from habit, about the inner principles of created beings, and which serves no purpose because it is not directed towards the practical execution of the commandments.  Secondly, there is actively effective knowledge, which confers a true experiential apprehension of created beings. [1]

Now Maximus Confessor is a stern one, like Augustine, and like Augustine should be approached with some delicacy.  But the point here is a good one.  Knowledge which serves no purpose is not real knowledge.  To say therefore of something “it does not work,” is a devastating indictment of that thing.  Moreover, it seems to me significant that Maximus chose to make this point in a (very theoretical) treatise on the Incarnation.

An important thesis of this blog is that several of the opinions traditionally held by Christians about sexuality do not work, or work no longer.

By saying so I do not wish to detract in any way from the witness of Christians, gay or straight, who have chosen the “white martyrdom” of a perfect (and fundamentally happy) continence.  Amongst Christians who have not rejected or belittled their queer identity, Eve Tushnet seems to be an especially admirable example.  But such witness is no more possible or desirable for the majority of gay Christians, than it is for the majority of Christians generally.  If I took one lesson from my study of classical and Christian natural-law ethics, it is that natural ends cannot ultimately be thwarted.  One may, either by government policy or by intense private asceticism of the perverser sort, attempt to stamp out homosexuality, or the taking of interest on loans, or other relatively natural activities which at times have been deemed unnatural.  But one cannot truly succeed in stamping them out; nature ensures there will be consequences.  Amongst the consequences for gay Christians are, almost (if not quite) inevitably, a paralyzing contempt of self, and of God and creation.  “For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it,” says S. Paul (Eph. v. 29), furnishing us with the typical Christian natural-law argument for marriage.  He did not make an exception for queers.

As a society we do collectively say and hear too much about “self-acceptance” and “affirmation,” as if vices did not have to be fought and virtues obtained, sometimes bloodily.  But we must take care, lest we misunderstand each other.  It is no vice to live according to one’s nature (however “nature” may be structured by biology and psychology, however mediated by history and language).  And it is no virtue to accuse God of defective handiwork in his creation. 

All those things I used to mistrust—time and matter most of all—become trustworthy in light of the Incarnation.   Maximus Confessor may have been a sterner sort, but he also endured persecution at the hands of Monothelite heretics whose doctrine would have reduced the fullness of Christ’s human nature to a mere abstraction.  And likewise with Augustine, you get the sense that, for all their neuroses, of which there are many, they nevertheless believed that things are by nature good, and that life is at bottom worth living, because they too had stood in the Cave of Bethlehem, and marveled at the virginal birth.

Trop. t. 4: Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, shineth forth the light of Reason over the earth, for in it they who served the stars were by a star taught to adore Thee, the Sun of Truth, and to see Thee from the heights of the East; O Lord, glory to Thee!

Another person recently reminded me of a remark of Fr. Glagolev’s: we know “no theology, except the theology of Wonder—of Marvel, of Amazement, of standing with your mouth gaping like a total idiot.”  To be true to the experience of such wonder—to the engagement with multiform, eccentric, delightful reality—everybody has got to come out of his or her closet, has got to stop hating him or herself, whatever forms his or her particular “closet” and hatred may take.   Doing so is an indispensible precondition of any serious spiritual development.  Grace perfects nature, let us never cease repeating to ourselves.

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Compiled by St. Nikodomos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. G.E.H. Palmer et. al., vol. 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 118.

Published in: on December 25, 2010 at 5:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bl. Andrew Warhola, Fool-for-Christ

Current controversy concerning the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video “Fire In My Belly” from the “Hide/Seek” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington has generated two interesting open letters from The Andy Warhol Foundation. Wojnarowicz’s video, which uses a crucifix being swarmed by ants to speak about suffering through the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, was judged by Bill Donohue of The Catholic League to have been “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” (Andrew Sullivan makes a go at explaining the inexplicable, here.) I would like to weigh in on one aspect of the controversy.

The Warhol Foundation, which has funded several Smithsonian exhibitions over the last three years to the tune of $375,000, has responded to this act of censorship by threatening to withdraw all future support from the Smithsonian. The open letters may be found here and here.

Both statements, unsurprisingly, emphasize the value to society of freedom of expression. What they do not emphasize, however, but might well have done, given Warhol’s legacy and the specific nature of this controversy, is the queer contribution to Christian or Christian-inspired art and iconography. For it is a fact to which indeed some art historians and museums have called attention (notably Jane Daggett Dillenberger in her monograph The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, James Romaine in an essay “Transsubstantiating the Culture,” and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens in its exhibition “Warhol/Icon”), but of which the general public probably remains mostly unaware: Andy Warhol was a pious Christian.

That fact is for me of some personal relevance, as it is “all in the family.” Andy grew up in the Russian Dolina in Pittsburgh. His ancestral village, Mikova, is not so very far to the east of Kamienka and Bardejov, my own. And reading the eulogy delivered by John Richardson at his April 1987 memorial service in New York played a small but significant role in my own decision to come out of the closet.

What Richardson’s eulogy offered me was one possible model for a way forward. Here was a queer man, culture-maker, from his youth a producer of homoerotic images …

Reclining Male Torso

… hailing from my part of the world moreover, and an Orthodox Christian in the Roman obedience, a Uniate …

The Last Supper

… whose individual form of witness, largely silent but hugely stubborn—attending the liturgy, occupying a place toward the rear of the church, hiding behind big celebrity sun-glasses, but attending, day after day, year after year, irrespective of what clergy said or whether they deigned to communicate him—whose form of witness, as I say, could perhaps be imitated:

Although Andy was perceived—with some justice—as a passive observer who never imposed his beliefs on other people, he could on occasion be an effective proselytizer. To my certain knowledge, he was responsible for at least one conversion. He took considerable pride in financing a nephew’s studies for the priesthood. And as you have doubtless read on your Mass cards, he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and the hungry. Trust Andy to have kept these activities very, very dark.

The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he was cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at face value. The callous observer was in fact a recording angel. And Andy’s detachment—the distance he established between the world and himself—was above all a matter of innocence and of art. Isn’t an artist usually obliged to step back from things? In his impregnable innocence and humility Andy always struck me as a yurodstvo—one of those saintly simpletons who haunt Russian fiction and Slavic villages, such as Mikova in Ruthenia, whence the Warhols stemmed. Hence his peculiar, passive power over people; his ability to remain uncorrupted, no matter what activities he chose to film, tape, or scrutinize. [1]

If I may gloss the text of Richardson’s eulogy, what “the world” mistook for callousness in Andy’s personal relationships and attitudes, was in fact the supreme ascetic virtue of apatheia, “dispassion” or perhaps “purity of heart”; and the spiritual motivation for much of his pop-art was “foolishness for Christ’s sake,” that is, the hard-earned right to (constructive) criticism, irony, and satire.

There are two points here. One is academic. Concerning Warhol’s artistic “detachment,” which I have glossed as ascetic apatheia, I think we can situate the implicit philosophy behind his artwork in the long and venerable tradition of Christian realism which stretches all the way back to the unpolished, popular prose of the Bible itself, and to the encaustic and tempera mummy portraits of the Egyptian Faiyum. In a world sanctified by the Incarnation, where God may be located “betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,” no detail of history, be it material or psychological, and however obscure a detail it may be, can be utterly without genuine human interest. The Incarnation means, amongst other things, that Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles may be suitable subjects for artistic representation.

The second point here is experiential. “The artist who held the most revealing mirror up to his generation,” as Richardson called him, was in some sense Christian because he was queer, queer because he was Christian. His whole life confirmed an ancient precept, dressed in modern garb, that it is not necessary to preach using words, especially not loud or angry words; there are subtler ways to get one’s point across. At the same time, his whole life also confirmed that we are who we are (“just look at the surfaces of my paintings and films and me, and there I am”) and that we are not going away.

These seem to me to be some of the deep issues which substantiate and humanize (or ought to) The Warhol Foundation’s commitment to the principle of free expression.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, ed. Cyrus M. Copeland (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), pp. 23-24.

Published in: on December 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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