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.


Pages: 1 2 3

A Queer, Byzantine Appreciation of Bl. John Henry Newman

A fourth-edition copy (1885) of John Henry Newman’s Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, is perhaps the most precious article now in my possession (though not in my ownership).

On the leaf opposite the appropriately-yellowed title page, in the upper left-hand corner, there can be found the elegant signature of one Walter Pater, fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, tutor to Oscar Wilde, and sometime owner of the volume.  In the bottom left can be found a dedication, in pencil, by my freshman-year literature professor, who first taught me Wordsworth and Goethe and Pushkin.

Since first learning of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s life and example, way back when freshman year, I have had a great reverence for the man, including physical reverence.  There is a stained-glass window of Newman at his desk in Littlemore, in the rear of Georgetown’s college chapel; I made a habit of kissing it as I entered and exited, as I might an icon.  I remember one morning very distinctly when I went to visit him in his window: I was in the midst of an emotionally immature, but utterly sincere, attachment to another boy; and learning that Newman’s last will and testament had been to be buried in the same grave with the “friend of his heart,” Fr. Ambrose St.-John, some sense of compulsion drove me to go say thank-you.

So it is with gladness that I hear tell of the papal beatification in Birmingham today.

I would like to make two observations, one about the cast of Newman’s mind, and one about his sexuality.

Newman, like myself in some way, was personally a scholastic, in the broadest sense—a schoolman, a man of reason, governed in his thinking and writing by scholarly criteria of evidence and proof and probability.  But what is interesting to me, both from an Eastern Orthodox and from an ordinary psychological point of view, is that Newman exercised his refined personal scholasticism on, and in creative tension with, commitments of a very different order.   He was not, after all, especially moved by scholastic theology, that is, the elaboration of theological propositions (all be they divinely revealed) using academic-philosophical means.  Rather he cared primarily for patristic theology—theology as it had been practiced before the rise of the modern (medieval) university, when one’s right to speak of divine things was still supposed to be earned in the sweat of much (monastic) ascesis, and when philosophy was still supposed to embrace a whole way of life.  Augustine, so to speak, and not Aquinas, converted Newman.  This fact should make him, and the patristically-minded pope now beatifying him, central figures in contemporary Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism.  There is much in Newman for the Orthodox to appreciate.

Cor ad cor loquitur

I will cite one example of what I mean.  In his Grammar of Assent, Newman dilates on what he terms the “illative sense,” which he closely identifies with phronesis, the “prudence” or “practical wisdom” of ancient Greek philosophy.  The illative sense, for Newman, is something more than abstract ratiocination.  Not for nothing did he choose a quotation from S. Ambrose of Milan for the book’s dedication: Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum; “It did not please God to save his people through logic.”  Rather, the illative sense is above all concerned with judgment “in concrete matters,” [1]—it is a sense for real life, for vitality (the same sense so near and dear to Russian religious thought), and hence its articulation inevitably entails some awareness of our subjectivity.  Translating and transforming pagan Greek philosophical terms into Christian theological ones, we might indeed draw an analogy between classical phronesis, Newman’s illative sense, and “the eye of the heart” of the Eastern fathers—the latter being that perceptive faculty which belongs to our most essential nature as persons, created in the image and likeness of God.

Newman, distinguishing our human nature, did not choose to emphasize our reason, or in patristic language, “the eye of the mind.”  Now that humanity’s exclusive claim to rationality seems to be breaking down, this seems prescient.   He emphasized instead our moral freedom, that is, our educability and perfectibility, as creatures in the image and likeness of the Creator:   

What is the peculiarity of our nature, in contrast with the inferior animals around us?  It is that, though man cannot change what he is born with, he is a being of progress with relation to his perfection and characteristic good….  Nor is this progress mechanical, nor is it of necessity; it is committed to the personal efforts of each individual of the species; each of us has the prerogative of completing his inchoate and rudimental nature, and of developing his own perfection out of the living elements with which his mind began to be.  It is his gift to be the creator of his own sufficiency; and to be emphatically self-made. [2]

Compare, Russianly, the thought of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov:

The freedom that creation experiences is not proper to God, for He is above freedom.  God’s suprafreedom, which is limited by no given and which is perfectly adequate to His nature, can signify in Him only the character of His self-positing by an absolute act.  Creaturely freedom is precisely incapable of this absoluteness of self-positing.  However, the image of God is preserved in creaturely freedom by the fact that this freedom is nevertheless a self-positing, though not an absolute one, and human life is marked by continuous personal self-creation.  The image of God is therefore manifested, first of all, in the person, which is the principle of creativity and freedom.  However, because this creativity is not absolute but presupposes a given in human nature, the image of God in man is a task requiring realization…. [3]

These two thoughts, Newman’s and Bulgakov’s, seem to me to be quite similar.  Both are obviously endebted to their time and place, and their language has obvious limitations.  But both do seem to be attempting to give coherent voice to a permanent tendency in Christian theology and philosophy, that tendency which rightly privileges the religion of the heart as more complete and comprehensive, than the religion of the mind (even as it highly values and employs the religion of the mind).   One recalls Newman’s motto: Cor ad cor loquitur; “Heart speaks to heart.”

Lest the modern historical context seem too much for conservative skeptics of subjectivity, compare, patristically, S. Gregory of Nyssa:

But having come to the very top of the mountain, [Moses], like a good sculptor who has fashioned well the whole statue of his own life, did not simply bring his creation to an end but he placed the finishing touch on his work. [4]

Newman, Bulgakov, Nyssa.   All three insist that we do have something to contribute, freely and concretely, that is, properly personally, to our own religious life.

Newman’s Sexuality

Much is currently being made of Newman’s probable homosexual orientation.  Peter Tatchell, deserving of all praise for submitting to the blows of neo-Nazis at Moscow’s Pride, has nevertheless been making himself generally obnoxious; the Hungarian-born atheist Frank Furedi “gets” Newman much better.  A traditionalist Anglo-Catholic blog out of Oxford makes the entirely legitimate point, that we cannot know for sure what Newman’s orientation was; but both by its exaggerated rhetoric, and by its seeming uncomfortableness with the very idea that a saint might have been “that way,” the blog undermines its own moral credibility.

One comment about this.  It is a pious tradition, and a venerable one, for Christians to adopt patrons on the narrowest of pretexts.  The Bible does not say that Mary Magdalene, for example, was a prostitute—and yet she is patron saint to prostitutes.   Nicholas of Myra was not a sailor—and there he is, patron saint to sailors (in addition to children).  Some saints may never have existed historically at all—George, for example, patron to soldiers, or Christopher, patron to travelers (Christopher being spectacularly represented in Eastern iconography, with the head of a dog).

Christians have always kept such pious traditions.  I like to think that queer Christians, who object in conscience to their Church’s teaching, will take Newman, a great apologist for the authority of conscience, and one (in?)famously described in his day as having possessed “a woman’s soul in a man’s body,” as one of their heavenly patrons.  A Russian might call him porjadočnij—fair and decent, with a strong connotation of meek and gentle.

Blessed cardinal-deacon, pray to God for us.


Victor de Villa Lapidis  

[1] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates & Co., 1870), p. 346.

[2] Newman, Grammar, pp. 341-42.

[3] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002), p. 135.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 134.

Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm  Comments (45)  
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