Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Poetry: "Nightmare Lyrics," Sonnet VII

I'm working on a collection of poems, which I am hoping to self-publish this summer, fingers crossed. (Self-publish, partly out of a love of cutting out the middleman, and partly because the mixture of overt sexuality with overt religiosity would demand a publisher of such exceptionally broad mind that I do not really expect to find one.) This is the seventh of what, I hope, will be ten sonnets contained in said collection; I'm fairly pleased with it, and it is representative, so I've decided to make it my Thursday non-essay post this week.

"If any man do his will, he shall know of the doctrine." The Gospel according to Saint John, VII.xvii

Broken with beauty in a lover's arms,
Sweetly distressed and stricken down by pleasure,
Exalted by pains splendorous past measure --
And then collapsing in his salt night-charms.
Sleep comes and goes; the Moon looks through the veil
Drawn round incensate touching in the dark.
Fingers on drowsing skin can feel his spark
Of icon-deity, with sweat grown stale.
Is this my heart's desire, this my delight?
I turn to face my own edge of the bed
And bitterly think how the god has flown,
While he, Thy substitute this single night,
Sleeps on. My prayers are mute with things unsaid:
With Thee, without Thee, I am yet alone.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part VI: Behold Thou Art Fair

Go to these links for Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

Sorry this one's taken me so long! The last several days have been stuffed to the gills, and I think I bit off more than I could chew in trying to do full updates twice a week. I'm now planning to scale it back to a post on Mondays and link to something cool, &c., on Thursdays. Now then.

So I've been talking about my trek into the Catholic Church mostly from the perspective of philosophy. Except that one interlude about how bad it sucked to realize I was gay, growing up a Christian. So what's the connection?

I really think that the Catholic Church is the only place for a gay man who wants to be a Christian, personally. And that's only partly because I'm convinced that Catholicism is in fact true. I hinted, in the post that I mentioned, that the ritual flourish of Catholicism, and especially its more traditional forms, was something that would attract a gay man (and, not to put too fine a point on it, I have occasionally found this to be confirmed by experience). And this isn't a new thing. The association of LGBT persons, especially gay men, with the arts and with extreme sensitivity to beauty, is a cheap stereotype; but things become cheap stereotypes for a reason: the high availability keeps the price down, as it were.

As to why queer people should be highly aesthetically sensitive, I have no idea. I have one or two half-baked theories: I wonder whether some part of homoeroticism is a subconscious desire to experience oneself as beautiful, the same-sex aspect of the desire stemming partially from a desire to see an alternate self embrace one's own self. But I digress. Whatever the cause, what does seem true (to judge from my own experience and that of most of the queer people I've met) is that there is a high correlation between homosexual attractions and aesthetic receptivity; and among Christian traditions, there is no replacement for Catholicism when it comes to beauty. Catholic art, music, literature, architecture, sculpture, and ritual arguably contain a majority of the most glorious work in western history, from Dante's Divine Comedy to Bach's Mass In B-Minor, from Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa to Chartres Cathedral, from the splendor of the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to Michelangelo's Creation of Adam that graces the top of the Sistine.

I remember an occasion, before my conversion, when I was reading an article written by a noteworthy Calvinist about Rome Sweet Home, the popular, slightly syrupy testimony written by Scott and Kimberly Hahn about their transition from Presbyterianism to Catholicism. He made some remark about their having been seduced by the beauty of Catholicism, rather than attending to reason. (Actually anybody who reads the book can see that they provided a formidable body of reasoning for their conversion, but never mind.) What broke on me in that moment was the realization of what this said about the Reformed faith. Rightly or wrongly, people do talk about being drawn in by the beauty of Catholicism. Nobody ever talked about being drawn in by the beauty of Calvinism. The very phrase, entering my mind at that moment, made me burst out laughing. The only form of Protestantism that even pretended to have a beauty to rival, let alone surpass, that of the Catholic Church was Anglicanism; and of that, I had to agree with Chesterton's verdict when (years later) I read it in an essay in The Well and the Shallows: that Anglican beauty is consistently beautiful and indeed thrilling, because it says and does things that Protestants, Anglicans included, have all but ceased to do and say, and that only Catholics still preserve; and that Anglicanism's more modern attempts at compelling the soul have failed in direct proportion to their being modern rather than Catholic.*

It isn't simply that I was willing to put up with disagreements or uncertainties for the sake of ritual or artistic enchantment; I couldn't do that at all. I don't know how any self-respecting person could. It was that I thought, and think still, that, while other tests are necessary, beauty is one of the tests that confirms the objective rightness of an idea. Buckminster Fuller, an architect and engineer, once remarked, "When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But if when I have finished, the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." The sort of problems I tend to think about are very different, but I work on similar principles.

God made man for truth and beauty, and these two things are naturally allied to one another; Keats was right.** Now, in a broken world such as we live in, there is not a clear one-to-one correspondence between the true and the beautiful; yet to deny that our natural desires tell us anything about reality comes close to the risk that C. S. Lewis noted as his objection to the doctrine of total depravity: namely, that if we are so depraved that our minds and hearts have no relation to God's at all any longer, then we cannot even really mean anything by calling Him good, and Christianity runs the risk of becoming a form of devil-worship. And that risk has at times been actualized; Westboro Baptist Church springs to mind.

God's image in man has been obscured -- but not erased; the natural longings of the human heart may not tell us what they told Adam, but they tell us something. And it was my observation that whatever weight beauty had was firmly on the far side of the Tiber from me. The way to reach it was to swim across the Tiber.

*I have left Orthodoxy (another non-Protestant Christian tradition), which has a formidable and distinctive kind of beauty, to one side. This is partly because Orthodoxy has had little direct impact upon the West, and I am quite definitely a Western man, though I have drawn on some Orthodox sources (I have a particular taste for Eastern icons); it is also in part because, though I have a nodding acquaintance with it, I am not really competent to discuss Orthodoxy in any detail. And even some of what I know about the Christian East is filtered through friends who are Eastern Rite Catholics, rather than Orthodox proprement dit, so I would surely only make a fool of myself in trying to address its role in Christian aesthetics.
**"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." -- John Keats.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Excuses, Excuses

Hey folks, sorry I didn't get the new post up yesterday as usual -- I seem to be stuck vis-a-vis my current series. Please pray for me about that. If you're new to the blog, these are some good introductory posts -- popular and representative of the particular flavor of angst in which I indulge myself -- arranged in order of publication.

The Deplorable Word

Thoughts on Gay Marriage (Part One)

Rethinking My Gay Celibacy (most popular to date)

Mudblood Catholic, Mark II

Out of the Whirlwind (one of my favorites ... for lack of a better word than favorite)

All Roads Lead To, Part III: The Monster In the Dungeon

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Reblog: Justin Lee

There have been a few ripples in the blogosphere (once again) over gay Catholics discussing their orientation openly, since Fr. Gary Meier of the Archdiocese of St. Louis came out of the closet. This is something of a pet peeve of mine, as I've often mentioned before, because of the lack of intelligent sympathy with which most Christians approach the issue -- not that most of the Christians I've ever known intend to be jerks, but that they are trying to do too many things at once: show love to people (uh, usually), convert non-Christians, win a kulturkampf, practice chastity themselves, and maintain orthodoxy. Combine that with a history of bad blood and with not understanding the experiences of LGBT people from within, and you have a dangerous exposure to FIMS (Foot-In-Mouth Syndrome).

Justin Lee, author of the excellent book Torn and founder of the Gay Christian Network, wrote this essay recently when Jason Collins came out, and it addresses certain of the problems in the dialogue between Christianity at large and LGBT folks.

Monday, May 20, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part V: Deicide

This is Part V. Go to these places for The Interior Castle, The Blasphemous Saint, The Monster In the Dungeon, and The Consolation of Philosophy.

So I had gone from rationality to theism; but I wanted more. I had been raised a Christian, and I wanted to remain one, even while at the same time I wanted to repudiate Christianity. At any rate, I couldn't simply ignore Jesus. Unhistorical, or misunderstood, or what the Church claimed He was, or some combination thereof -- whatever the truth might be, He was too compelling to ignore.

The intellectual question was actually rather easily settled. The notion, popular in some circles and especially among those whose knowledge of the New Testament is wholly at secondhand, that Jesus probably never existed, may for convenience be described as a lie.* The number of scholars who seriously believe that there was no Jesus hovers somewhere around none of them. Nor was the hypothesis ever an obvious one: if there were no Jesus, why would the primitive Church (which everybody admits existed) bother to come up with Him? More particularly since it had a tendency to get them somewhat killed? I think that really the idea that there was no Jesus is merely a relic of an intellectual fashion -- academics have fashions like anybody else -- for deconstructing things, dating to the nineteenth century. But I digress.

The martyrs do not prove that Jesus was who the Church claimed He was. They do prove that the Church believed He was who they claimed, and that belief may be considered as evidence about Jesus (though not as exhaustive or unimpeachable evidence). For of course that belief must have come from somewhere, whether from Him or not.

Looking at the Gospels -- our only direct evidence about Jesus (unless one counts a passing reference in Josephus's history, which was almost certainly in the original but has also almost certainly been doctored by a Christian redactor) -- we do get a distinctive picture of a fascinating Person. Their testimonies do diverge at some points; very occasionally (chiefly in the timing of events during the Passion narratives) they are inconsistent with each other, and far more frequently they give differing, but not incompatible, information -- as when a parable is recorded in Mark but left out of the other three Gospels, or when John records lectures in the Temple and in synagogues rather than the mostly open-air addresses of the others. Indeed, their divergence rather strengthens than weakens their testimony; a lie must be circumspect, but the truth, seen from different perspectives, will be fundamentally consistent and still have a hangnail here and there.** The commonplace belief, popularized by such academic and respectable sources as The Da Vinci Code, that the Gospels are grossly inconsistent with one another and totally incredible to a critical mind, is -- how may I put this politely? -- about as accurate as this:

What's even better is that this is apparently part one of eight.

So they present, truly or falsely, a picture. In considering that picture, I couldn't help noticing that, if one accepted the possibility of miracles -- which, since I was already a theist philosophically, I couldn't prima facie rule out -- there was really nothing else at all difficult to believe about the Gospels. The people represented in them were extremely credible; if they were fabrications, they were highly accomplished ones, presenting people more realistically than Aeschylus or Virgil had done: every word and action of every person made sense in view of their attested character. And as for the miracles, I could see no reason in the abstract to assume them impossible. The only grounds I could think of for believing that miracles were categorically impossible were those of scientism -- the assumption that there is no supernatural realm, and therefore nothing to invade and reorganize the natural realm -- and I had already dismissed scientism as self-defeating. I therefore felt that I had no real grounds to suppose that the Gospels were presenting a false picture; so the natural thing to do was to accept it as a true one.

This then confronted me with Jesus' claim to be God. And it is indeed His claim to be God; it has been asserted that this was claimed for Him by His followers later (a less-than-plausible idea, given that all His earliest followers were devout Jews and kinda had the monotheism thing down), but this is not true. Most explicitly in the Gospel of John, but also in the first three, He attributes divinity to Himself, both by direct assertion and implicitly, e.g. in His claim to forgive sins or His calling Himself the Son of God -- this last being specially notable, in that it was the basis of the blasphemy charge that He was finally executed upon.

The three-horned dilemma, sometimes known by the nickname "Liar, lunatic or Lord," expresses the logical options fairly well at this point. If He wasn't God, and knew it, He was -- well, a very bad man, and a rather baffling one. If He wasn't God but thought He was, he was a whackjob. Lying, and maintaining the lie to the point of death, simply didn't seem credible to me; and reading the sort of man He was, lunacy seemed equally unlikely. That left me precisely with the Christian explanation.

And that brought me up to the threshold of faith. But not across it.

Thus far, the whole question was one of what I thought was true; what opinions I was convinced were true. But at this point, that question receded. From evaluating a philosophy, I had suddenly been put in the position of judging a Person. The Gospel of John is a good model for all this: from the beginning, it puts the reader in the position of judge -- its constant refrain of witnesses and testimonies, its setting forth of miracles as evidence, and its lingering over the two ecclesiastical trials and the cross-examination of Pilate; all closing with an imprecation to the reader to judge rightly, a gentle reminder to attend to the subject -- the Person of Christ -- rather than to curiosities, and an affidavit that the Gospel is indeed the truth. I, like Pilate, was asked to deliver, not a philosophical opinion, but a verdict.

I could draw back. I could accept Christianity as a fascinating and probable hypothesis, continue my Christian practice as the sensible response, and never engage with Christ as a Person, but only as an idea. I could wash my hands in that worthless water, that threatened nothing because it did nothing, conveyed nothing, cost nothing.

Or I could wash my hands in blood. I could accept who He was, and make myself His executioner. For that is part of what it means to be a Christian and mean it: it is to charge oneself with Deicide. We are, all of us, Pilate; we who choose to believe, confess that we are also Judas. People talk about a "personal relationship with Jesus" as though it were easy. But that is what it means. It means a great deal more than that; not less. To relate to God in Christ as a Person, that is the cost. And to trust Him -- i.e., to have faith -- is by definition a personal act, not an abstraction. That is why we refer to it, not as changing one's mind, but a change of heart.

*I say "for convenience," because I do not consider it my business to impute deliberate deceit or malignant irresponsibility to others. Some people who claim that Jesus never lived, &c., may in fact know better and be lying; however, the matter is adequately explained by the more charitable, if still unflattering, supposal that they just don't know what they're talking about.
**Due to space considerations, I've left out a thorough treatment of whether the Gospels as we have them are 1) the same as they were originally written, and 2) written within a reasonable period after the events they describe and based on eyewitness accounts. To the first, we can simply say: Yes. The manuscript tradition of the New Testament is literally the best in existence from the ancient world; it is orders of magnitude better than even the second best manuscript tradition, that of the Iliad. As to the second, it was quite fashionable during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to ascribe all of the Gospels to the late second or even the third century after Christ. So far as I know, there are now no reputable scholars who take this view; even the latest Gospel, John, has been unarguably dated to the beginning of the second century at the absolute latest -- early enough that direct eyewitness testimony would still in principle be a possibility. For a standard of comparison, imagine a book written today about the Second World War.

Friday, May 17, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part IV: The Consolation of Philosophy

This, as you can see, is Part IV. Here are links to Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Considering the turmoil I was in, apostasy would have been a very understandable reaction. I did try to abandon my faith; but it would not abandon me, for three reasons. One of those reasons was, obviously, God -- He does have a tendency to land at the top of the initiative roster somehow.

A second was that being religious was simply the sort of person I was. Interestingly, that seems to be something I've partly grown out of only as a Catholic. Catholicism is so mammoth, so blatantly and entirely independent of me, that it enables someone of my type to let go of being religious. I'm not espousing here the "Jesus without religion" stuff that you see among some Protestants, from the quite appealing Rick James to the insufferable Rev. John Shelby Spong; but there is a personality, a type, that is religious in mode and not simply in belief -- the sort of Protestant who litters his conversation with "Praise the Lord" and posts Bible verses as pointed status updates, or the sort of Catholic with five pro-life bumper stickers who shakes his head in disgust if he sees somebody wearing a Rosary like a necklace. But I digress. My religion was woven into me, and so was my religiosity -- to abandon those things I would have had to undergo a metamorphosis as extreme as a caterpillar going into the chrysalis and emerging as a butterfly, and I just wasn't ready for something that drastic. Handling the realization that you're gay is hard enough without anything else in the picture.

But the third reason was that, after examining Christianity, I believed it. (I did also believe it during the examining, but I did my best to keep objective and not let my beliefs determine my conclusions.) I went from rationality to theism, from theism to Christianity, and ultimately from Christianity to the Catholic Church -- foundation, pillars, arches, and bell-bearing spire.

My reasons for progressing from rationality to theism were mostly variations on a firm belief that nothing comes from nothing. This not only means that there always had to be something: Bertrand Russell may, for all I know, have been right in saying that there could have been an infinite regress of dependent beings (though my instincts definitely side with Aristotle in feeling an infinite series of things, other than numbers themselves, to be ridiculous). It also means that all things that exist must have a cause at least as great as, if not greater, than themselves.

Where this becomes problematic for the scientific materialist, I feel, is the phenomenon of intelligence. St. Augustine's memory, intellect, and will* seem to me to be manifestly non-material things, and human beings, if nothing else, exhibit these things. For conscious intelligences to exist: there must always have been a series of other conscious intelligences bringing them into being; or they must have been self-existent; or there must be some intelligent being capable of bringing them into existence who has done so. For me, the first two explanations seemed quite unsatisfactory, and also, being many rather than one, seemed to violate Occam's Razor. I chose the third, and was content to call that conscious intelligence God -- the word seemed no worse than any alternative. It was from there that my thin theism progressed into the more robust form set forth by most theists in the West, drawing on Judaeo-Christian and Platonic roots.

Other arguments could be cited -- such as the cosmological argument, that the universe exhibits order, and that order which can be discovered by a mind has been put there by some mind.** Or the argument from aesthetic experience, put best (to my mind) by Peter Kreeft: "There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Therefore there must be a God. You either see this one or you don't."

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

But I shall leave those arguments aside; they can be found in the works of C. S. Lewis, as everybody doubtless knows, and in numerous other works such as the above Kreeft's collaborative work with Ronald Tacelli SJ, A Handbook of Catholic Apologetics.

I leave these aside because I want to discuss argument itself. One of the things that I think is of paramount importance here is precisely the power of argument to convince. In the fifth century, a Roman named Boethius, who had been ruined on suspicion of plotting against a usurping, barbarous Emperor, wrote a book called The Consolation of Philosophy, in which he puts himself into a perspective of (in his own view) appropriate detachment towards earthly fortunes, exploring the whole question of fortune, Divine omniscience, Divine justice, and free will. A historian called Gibbon, several centuries later, sneered at it, saying that ideas had no power to subdue the human heart. But another author countersniped, saying that no one ever thought they would subdue Gibbon's, but it sounded as though they had done something for Boethius -- leaving out the implication that since Boethius was the one who was both suffering and sublimating that suffering into philosophy, we might perhaps give Boethius more credit than Gibbon for knowing what he was talking about.

I am not altogether sure whether everybody can process ideas the way Boethius did: internalizing them until they really and truly have the power to change, even heal, the soul. But I think a lot of people can, and I suspect that a lot of people who think they can't, can. I don't believe ideas are mere abstractions. I am enough of a Platonist to believe in the independent reality of certain archetypes -- ideas exist just as men exist. And men can relate to ideas as men relate to one another; I have been in love, more than once, and I have observed that something of the same feeling runs through romantic love as runs through the serious contemplation of certain ideas. Beauty, for instance, and justice, and love itself. It is of course this which makes the line in V For Vendetta so perfect -- ideas really are bulletproof.

It is because of this that I was willing to be persuaded even in the midst of anguish. It wasn't simply that the anguish didn't count. It was that the truth was not just weightier than the anguish, but more radiant: more real.

*I get the impression from my very sparse reading on this subject that the great African saint, when he said in Latin memoria, meant not so much what we mean when we say memory, as something more along the lines of what we express by the word consciousness; but I am not competent to address the question.
**Not to be confused with its popular vulgarization, the argument from design. Intelligent Design theorists seem to waffle between the cosmological argument proper and the vulgarized form, which maintains not only that there is order in the universe but that that order is beneficent. The existence of order is quite easy to prove, and the beneficence of that order more or less impossible to prove. It has therefore been subjected to scorn by scientific materialists and also by some theists, with some justice.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Quotation: Brideshead Revisited

On Wednesdays I usually post reblogs or songs I like. Today I'm putting up a passage from Evelyn Waugh's magnificent Brideshead Revisited, which I just finished. Spoiler alert, it is from the last chapter of the novel. If you don't believe in books, the BBC miniseries with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews is outstanding and accurate.

"I didn't know till today. Oh, my dear, if you could only understand. Then I could bear to part, or bear it better. I should say my heart was breaking, if I believed in broken hearts. I can't marry you, Charles; I can't ever be with you again."
"I know."
"How can you know?"
"What will you do"
"Just go on -- alone. How can I tell you what I shall do? You know the whole of me. You know I'm not one for a life of mourning. I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable -- like things in the schoolroom, so bad they were unpunishable, that only mummy could deal with -- the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I'm not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God's. Why should I be allowed to understand that, and not you, Charles? It may be because of mummy, nanny, Cordelia, Sebastian -- perhaps Bridey and Mrs. Muspratt -- keeping my name in their prayers; or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won't quite despair of me in the end.
"Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand."
"I don't want to make it easier for you," I said; "I hope your heart may break; but I do understand."

Monday, May 13, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part III: The Monster In the Dungeon

Go here for Part I, and here for Part II.

While my mind went its way through intellectual labyrinths, there was also a horrible secret inside me. I kept it as secret as I could -- notwithstanding a few people's accidental discoveries of it.

I had been anticipating adolescence for years before it arrived. I was excited at the prospect of falling in love, getting married, raising a family; I wanted a lot of kids. The pageantry of the wedding was an exciting thought, too; which might have tipped me off, if I hadn't been so generally odd anyway.* But when adolescence did arrive, my interest in girls was minimal even at its highest ebb, and even then it was emotional, not sexual -- indeed, when I learned about sex, and when I looked at girls as a teenager, I was nonplussed that other guys were apparently so thrilled about this. Good for them, I supposed, though not without twinges of jealousy that they were in on a secret I couldn't understand. What happened to me was a slowly flowering interest, one that abruptly burst into an overpowering, intoxicating bloom, in those other guys. I didn't grasp what it was at first; for a brief period I wondered whether it was a private idiosyncrasy -- perhaps it was rather funny. Perhaps it was quite innocent.

But it wasn't long before I had learned -- without deliberately revealing my quirk to anyone -- that it was a dangerous, horrible, wicked thing. Something to be disgusted at and ashamed of. Something punishable, in the Scriptures, by death.

So I shut that monstrosity in a dungeon, deep in the recesses of my heart. It was very accessible; I visited the monster daily, fascinated as I was by its appearance. Fascinated, too, by why it was a monster, which I didn't understand. But I was the only one with the keys. I unlocked it for visitors, on a very few occasions; but the monster was to be kept out of sight, while I sent my intellect as a knight-errant to find some way of breaking the spell that was, evidently, upon it, to turn it back into a person. God only knows how ferociously I searched for a cure. I was in counseling for that very purpose (among others) for three years; I read every book I could lay my hands on, which wasn't very many, and those were remarkably poor. Once I got to college, I dabbled in Exodus, the famous ex-gay ministry** run by Alan Chambers; I attended seminars at retreats; I immersed myself in prayer and the Scriptures and accountability groups and devotionals.

Changing from gay to straight didn't happen. What did happen was an increasing, devouring hatred of myself. A lot of people told me that the problem was "identifying as gay," but it wasn't. Mere vocabulary was not what was making me scared to be alone, because I might fall; what was making my face hot with shame and self-disgust, whenever I saw a guy who was even moderately attractive; what made me take a knife to my flesh, because I was such a repulsive thing; what made me hope that God would kill me in my sleep.

And then I would wake up, morning after morning. Still me. Still gay. And I'd swallow the bitter disappointment of being alive, and brace myself for the restless anguish that the next eighteen hours were going to be. All that before even getting out of bed.

No, it wasn't because I was using the word gay. It was because of the church.

Note that I say church, not Church: the latter I use specifically of the Catholic Church, and I don't hold her peculiarly responsible. Note also that I say church, not doctrine: I don't know that my difficulties stemmed from the mere belief that gay sex is wrong. But the actual conduct of Christians -- I don't even know what was worst. The universal assumption that everybody either was, or could become, straight, and that the only fate anybody needed preparation for was marriage? The vitriol, repeated in every magazine, every pamphlet, every conversation it sometimes seemed, directed at The Gays And Lesbians? The categorical (and, to me, still baffling) hostility to coming out of the closet, up to and including punishing us when we did -- bizarrely combined with an almost technical pity applied to homosexuals, within or without the church? They're so brave to leave The Lifestyle, someone might say; and then, almost in the same breath, Can't Those People see how disgusting it is? And then the stereotypes of masculinity and effeminacy, the AIDS statistic scare tactics, the arguments linking homosexuality to drug abuse and pedophilia and suicide. Was any of that supposed to be helpful? With all that piled on them -- that's what people like you are like -- who wouldn't daydream about working up the nerve to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills, or cut their flesh because the physical pain was a welcome and relieving distraction from the incessant psychic pain of being a pervert?

Why couldn't You just leave us alone? I thought, over and over; at times I think so still. We aren't hurting anybody. We just want to be left alone.

The church fell down on the job. What should be one of the safest places in the world for a hurting, scared teenager to simply tell the truth, has become the one of the most terrifying, and everyone knows exactly why. Or if they don't, they should.

What has any of this got to do with my conversion to Catholicism -- and not only that, but my predilection for traditionalism? Well, a wise priest I know has pointed out that the superabundance of damask and lace at traditional Masses could hardly be expected only to attract heterosexuals.

Nothing fabulous about this.

Yet there is more to it. As usual, I will go into more detail later. But for the present, the chief thing is that this is the person God is working upon. And, I'm sorry, a person's sexuality is inseparable from who they are. It doesn't constitute their identity, true; but to treat it as though it were an extraneous quality is not just insulting, it's deeply damaging. It implies that their most powerful passions and affections are at once filthy and insignificant. Bad or good or indifferent, the one thing that gayness can't be is unimportant. You can say our hearts need fixing; but this is still how they beat.

*Besides, I dare say a lot more heterosexual men than would care to admit it are excited to have the wedding they've been dreaming about ever since they were little girls.
**Famous, or at any rate notorious. I did not know at that time that Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, two of the ministry's founding members, had left the group (and their wives) to be with each other only three years after Exodus was founded; nor that John Paulk, another once-prominent member, was caught at a gay bar in 2000. Paulk has recently made a public apology for his involvement in ex-gay programs; Cooper and Bussee have also become decades-long critics of Exodus since their departure. Chambers himself has shown a marked withdrawal from orthodox ex-gay thought in recent years, even drawing fire from other prominent figures in the ex-gay movement, such as Anne Paulk, Joe Dallas, Andy Comiskey, and Dr. Robert Gagnon.

Friday, May 10, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part II: The Blasphemous Saint

For Part I, go here.

I am eliding much of my history for the sake of clarity. Human lives are jumbled together, like adventures in Neverland, and it is only by examination or preoccupation that we come to notice its patterns -- patterns that are really there, but shy and retiring. I started building the Castle (discussed in my last) when I was fifteen; work continued, with a few important modifications, for the next two or three years.

Considering how rationalistic I was, and how much motivation I had to abandon Christianity as a left-leaning gay man, it may seem odd to some readers that I didn't become an atheist. Actually I was an atheist for about twelve hours; but my reasons for that were irrational -- not the sort that would likely interest a lot of atheists: my faith just fell away from me for that short space. I didn't know why then, and I don't know why now. My equally unexpected journey back into the faith might possibly interest them, not because of any interest in Christianity on their part, but because the return journey was rational; my abrupt conversion to atheism was, if you will, entirely mystical.

I'd like, though, to stop and examine atheism for a moment. Its contribution to the human conversation is important. The habit displayed by many Christians, of talking of atheists and their disbelief in God as though both were intellectually contemptible is disgusting to me, as well as exhibiting a shocking blindness to the history of thought; while the charge of desiring to justify immorality by their atheism is not only a violation of Christian charity, but a slander on the real conduct of the atheists I, at any rate, have known.* I'd therefore like to situate it in a more appropriate mental atmosphere for what follows.

Most atheists for the past couple of centuries have been scientific materialists; i.e., they have believed that no world exists except that which is known through our five senses and can be analyzed mathematically. The implications of this worldview, sometimes called scientism, are profound, and subtly affect the religious as well as the irreligious -- I think it's why so many devout believers tend to scoff at the Catholic view of the sacraments -- but these implications need not detain us. The psychic, spiritual, and divine planes are by this scientistic view taken for granted to be non-existent, on the grounds that the sciences show no evidence of their existence. Why only the sciences are allowed to demonstrate anything, I cannot answer for; it has not been demonstrated by science.

I personally find scientism totally incredible, chiefly for the logical reason set forth by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane: "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms." But it's worth noting as an example that Haldane, an atheist himself, was not deterred from his atheism by his rejection (in this quote, anyway) of scientism. The commonplace belief that departing from scientific materialism amounts to converting to Christianity, is a fantasy. The human mind is capable of more than two categories of beliefs.

I think that the real and vigorous case for atheism lies elsewhere. It has sometimes been said, almost casually, that the problem of evil is the only real argument against the existence of God. It does happen to be the only convincing one that I know of. The arguments for the existence of God, and why they convinced me, are something I will get to later.

When I say that the problem of evil is a real argument against the existence of God, I mean it. I have difficulty at times believing that God is real; more often, that He is good.

C. S. Lewis says, in Miracles, that a certain author's apologetic "nearly admits parodying in the form 'You say that the behavior attributed to the Christian God is both wicked and foolish: but it is no less likely to be true on that account for I can show that Nature (which He created) behaves just as badly.' To which the atheist will answer -- and the nearer he is to Christ in his heart, the more certainly he will do so -- 'If there is a God like that I despise and defy Him.'" Theodicy, i.e. the attempt, in Milton's phrase, "to justify the ways of God to men," is too lightly undertaken. I have come back and back to the book of Job this year, and it is the saint at the center of the book who cried out in apparent blasphemy; and the three friends who had assurance without sanctity and theology without wisdom -- against them the divine anger burned, and Job was made their intercessor. Spe Salvi** says in para. 42, "The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is ... a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God ... It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested." The sentimental defenses of God, that invoke His compassion upon the suffering seemingly without noticing that He could after all put a stop to it at any moment, are despicable; the more philosophical defenses of God, that make Him a sort of Chessmaster, may be more credible but do not cease to horrify.

What then? Is there no defense to be lodged for God?

Well, we might consider that. According to the Bible, in all human myth and history together, God has suffered Himself to be cross-examined twice: once by Job, and once in the small hours of Good Friday. On the first occasion, He replied only in irrelevant and terrible riddles; on the second, the riddles were a little less terrible -- "Are you saying this of your own accord, or did someone else tell you this about Me?"

But the question that Pilate raised then -- "What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" -- remains; or, to put it in His words, "Who do you say that I am?" When the question is not one of defending God from others, but of what charges of existence, or non-existence, or irresponsible existence we may choose to level against Him, in the privacy of our own spirits: then the matter changes.

I ultimately decided to leave the mystery of iniquity a mystery, for four reasons.

1) I did examine the arguments for the existence of God, and, in total, found them persuasive. Whatever problems might follow from that, I would deal with on their own terms; the conclusion that God was real was inseparable from the rules I had set myself to think with, combined with the data I had available.

2) I did ingest some of the intellectual theodicies I poured such scorn upon earlier in this post, and, at the time, found them comforting and satisfying. It's been a long time since I thought they were anything like a complete answer; but to the extent that the problem is intellectual, an intellectual response is appropriate, and they were consistent arguments. Those, I shall treat of in a later post. But I must admit, one part of that partial defense was the honest recognition that I couldn't wash my hands of the mystery of iniquity. They were soiled with it; any charge I leveled against God had to include myself, for things I knew I'd done that I knew had no excuse. This did not eliminate the moral question, but it did eliminate the knee-jerk assumption that I had the moral high ground.

3) I was still a Christian nearly all this time. And there, in the middle of Christianity, was the crucifix. A bleeding Deity, a dying Deity; a Deity who died with a complaint on His lips that God had abandoned even Him. Beyond my belief in His personal presence at every point in time and space, such that He suffers every pain ever inflicted -- even beyond that, there hung the God-Man, crying out in anguish with the language of an atheist. An answer to the problem of evil? No. But did I find a Divine Passion answerable? Also no.

4) This last reason was really more of a wager; like Pascal's. Whatever else is true, the world always has been full of the most terrible suffering. I could choose either to believe that it had a meaning that I did not understand, or that it had no meaning. It was Christianity, or at any rate religion, that offered the possibility of the first; it was scientific materialism in particular, and atheism more generally, that offered the second. Given the choice, I would take meaning.

Once again this was not an argument, properly speaking. But, like the crucifix, the concrete sign of contradiction, of which this wager between contraries was an abstract shadow, it gave me the space to stop and listen more closely to the arguments proper.

*This is not to say that I have not known atheists sometimes to be jerks. That, however, is a separate problem, and jerkdom is notable for being open to all creeds.
**Spe Salvi, or Saved In Hope, was the second encyclical of then-Pope Benedict XVI, issued in 2007.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Reblog: Elizabeth Smart & Tara Culp-Ressler

Having read Jon Krakauer's brilliant work on Mormon Fundamentalism, Under the Banner of Heaven, I became acquainted with Elizabeth Smart's case some years after it happened. Here she points out a serious defect in the conservative cultural approach to sex education and its consequences for victims of abuse. I don't know that other means than abstinence need to be stressed, because I'm not competent to judge that question; but the problem of shaming anybody who, willingly or not, has had extramarital sex, certainly does.

Monday, May 6, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part I: The Interior Castle

I have promised an explanation of why I'm a Catholic in the first place, multiple times; I shall now begin making good on that promise.

Conversion stories are a popular genre in their own right, within the Catholic Church as well as outside of it. Mine is not wholly atypical, except that the example and conversation of Catholics I knew before my conversion had nearly no impact upon me, negative or positive -- my journey was almost exclusively intellectual. In order for that journey to make sense, I'll therefore outline some things I have decided to take as my basic principles of thought.

Around the age of fifteen, I had a sort of awakening. At twelve or thirteen, I had been dabbling in philosophy, from curiosity, and followed Descartes' Cogito ergo sum to the conclusion that real knowledge was impossible: for, though I didn't know the whole of the great Frenchman's argument, and likely couldn't have followed it if I had, I could see that strict logic will not actually allow you any conclusions from that premise, and strict logic was the only thing I was inclined to admit as having worth. Then it occurred to me that I didn't technically know that thoughts couldn't have some sort of independent existence -- I couldn't conceive of them having any, but my inability to conceive of that did not prove it impossible. And then the final step of realizing that I could not prove the reliability of logic itself, except by logical argument, which was circular, came into my mind. By fourteen I was philosophically, though rather inconsistently not in my religion, an absolute agnostic.

I do not recollect exactly how the next step in my intellectual development took place. The fact that it took place was, necessarily, the important thing. But I think I can attribute it to G. K. Chesterton, whose spell I first fell under at thirteen when I read The Man Who Was Thursday. Hitherto I had rejected the use of everything except logic; and logic, thus isolated from its fellows, had destroyed itself. I now realized I could reasonably start over; as a man whose house has burned to the ground may realize that he has good reason to move to a new house. Plainly the way I had used at first led into nowhere and nothing, and I was not willing to reside there. It was depressing, it was pointless, and I could see no compelling reason to darken rationality itself. His brilliant Orthodoxy cured me by enabling me to think toward sanity for its own sake. Though I did not read Chesterton's Saint Thomas Aquinas until years later, my experience was very like a passage in it:

"To this question, 'Is there anything,' St. Thomas begins by answering, 'Yes'; if he began by answering, 'No,' it would be, not the beginning, but the end. That is what some of us call common sense. Either there is no philosophy, no philosophers, no thinkers, no thought, no anything; or else there is a real bridge between the mind and reality."

I decided to insist on treading that bridge. Man does not live by word alone, but by every bread that proceeds from the hand of God. I had seen the solipsist irrationality of rationalism: it was dark, and cold, and internally inconsistent (for it used logic to cut logic's own feet out from under it). Indeed, it was so horrible that I believe it made a major contribution to my difficulties with depression. I chose sanity, health, light, without insisting on understanding and justifying them first; I made what some people would regard as an act of faith. It is certainly not faith in the Christian sense -- either in terms of content, or in terms of making specifically Christian faith inevitable; it is a sort of natural faith, corresponding on the level of the mind to the supernatural faith that takes place in the spirit, as natural affection corresponds at a natural level to supernatural charity. But I digress.

Thenceforward, to defend my newly founded sanity, I built an interior castle. This castle was constructed on the following principles:

- Reality is knowable -- not entirely, maybe, but parts of it can be known.

- That which is the case, is the case; or, put another way, the Law of Non-Contradiction: If A, then not not-A. Or, more simply still, A = A.

- Granted the Law of Non-Contradiction, if a thought looked paradoxical but was not actually a contradiction, it might nevertheless be true, and could not be categorically rejected merely for being odd; it was to be given a chance to prove itself. (For instance, the Trinity: God professes to be one and three at the same time, but not in the same sense, so that it is not a contradiction; it might, nevertheless, still not be true, but it was marked for further examination rather than merely thrown out.)

- When once a thought has been admitted as true, those thoughts which are inconsistent with it will be turned away from the castle -- unless they can prove themselves in clean battle upon their predecessor, showing themselves more credible than he; in which case he shall be shown the door. In other words, whatever system of thoughts I construct demands internal consistency, again based upon the maxim A = A.

- Those thoughts which depend on eliminating one of these rules to be true will be refused admittance to the castle. If they have been admitted already, while the guardian Mind was at unawares, or because they had not explained their real business, they shall be expelled, with violence if necessary.

- If it isn't possible, at least in principle, to live as though a given thought is true, that thought too will be refused admittance or thrown out. As Melinda Selmys put it, "If they were true, then truth didn't matter." The way I put it is that philosophies which cannot be lived out are beneath the dignity of the human intellect -- philosophies like skepticism (which should not be confused with atheism or even agnosticism; atheism in particular, at any rate in our age, usually maintains pretty strongly that certain things can be known, typically on a scientistic basis, but that's a story for another time).

- Those thoughts which cause a man to go stark raving mad shall be shot on sight.

The whole edifice depends on this foundation. Nothing, not even Christianity, was (in the long run) to survive, unless it proved that it deserved to survive upon this basis. Faith might be a good deal more than reason, but unless it could show that it was not merely less than reason -- unless it could show, by adhering to these rules, that it was not just whistling in the dark or a mental muddle -- my mental drawbridge would be raised against it.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Fire In My Bones

I've sometimes been asked, and more frequently of late, why, if I believe that celibacy is impracticable, I don't adopt a different theology. There are, as they are described on the Gay Christian Network, "Side A" Christians: believers who fully accept the Nicene Creed, but who do not believe that homosexual sex is immoral. This runs the gamut of everything from people who just don't think that sexual mores are that important, to devout and earnest believers like Justin Lee, John Boswell, or Matthew Vines, who have analyzed the Scriptures and come sincerely to the conclusion that they have simply been misinterpreted on this subject.

Now, I don't think that most, or even many, of my friends and other interlocutors who ask me why I don't adopt a progressivist stance on sexuality are implying that I ought to adapt my beliefs to what I find easy or appealing. That would be despicable. At any rate, intellectual dishonesty is nearly the only vice for which I feel nothing but contempt, and I do my best to give it no quarter in myself. I dare say there are plenty of people who do choose their beliefs thus dishonestly, based on their desires; but it is none of my business to disparage anybody's character by suggesting either that they have done this or that they would encourage others to do so. I therefore decline the motive game and resume my topic.

I think, rather, that what they are suggesting is that if a moral project is as hard as this, if it raises in me such questions about the generosity and benevolence of God -- might that not be grounds to reconsider whether I am not believing it merely out of habit or unexamined ancestral prejudice? Is a theology that effectively shuts me and most men and women like me out of erotic love, one of the loveliest and most powerful of all human experiences, right? The thought has crossed my mind, more than once; I spent a year trying to convince myself of Side A theology.

But in becoming a Catholic, I accepted the teaching office of the Church. My reasons for becoming a Catholic I will explore in future posts. If I were a Protestant I wouldn't object (in principle) to reinterpreting Scripture; but it was precisely that libertarian approach to the Scriptures that I found myself finally unable to accept. Indeed, that's the reason I became a Catholic rather than a high Anglican. For the Bible doesn't exist in a vacuum. It was recognized by the Church -- which means that if we accept the canon, we implicitly accept that the Church did have the right so to recognize divine revelation. And once that is granted, it seems odd, to say the least, not to accept equally her authority to interpret that revelation. If there is no authority that can define, then I am essentially left to myself; for I can get pretty nearly any meaning I want out of the Scriptures. I have done.

Many believers will answer that I am guided by the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture, since I am after all a believer. Well and good. And what about all the other believers? Aren't they, equally, guided by the Holy Spirit? Am I to believe that the Spirit guides us each individually, but that the Church (i.e. all who coinhere mystically with Christ) is not guided by the Spirit -- that it is actually less than the sum of its parts? I couldn't take that proposition seriously. Does that, by itself, make the Church infallible? No. But it does mean that, when I set my conscience against the united testimony of the Church, I might at any rate consider the possibility that it is I who am incomplete and the Church that is universal; that is, catholic.

There is an exchange in the brilliant film A Man For All Seasons (I'd put it up, but YouTube fails me) where Thomas More's daughter is trying to talk him into signing the Act of Succession, through some intellectual sleight of hand or other, and thus obtain his freedom. He calmly refuses, giving ground after ground, until she at last bursts out, "But in reason! Haven't you done as much as God can reasonably want!"

Placidly, tenderly, he lays his hands on her shoulders and says, "Ultimately, it isn't a question of reason. Ultimately, it's a question of love."

To a certain extent, that is where I find myself with the Catholic faith. Admittedly, my fidelity is a fidelity of belief; my practice is unlike St. Thomas More's. But what fidelity I can practice, I want to. I cannot pretend that I don't believe what, in my heart of hearts, I am convinced of: that the Catholic Church, for all her horrible flaws, bears the truth of God. I can't do anything else. I said, 'I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name. But His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

St. Communist!

Happy Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, everybody. (My current plan, by the way, is to put up posts of my own on Mondays and Fridays, and put up songs, reblogs, and so forth on Wednesdays.)