Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Kintsukuroi, Part III: Guydentity Crisis

Over the past decade, I've heard the word identity about enough times that at this point, every time I hear it, I feel like renouncing pacifism and beating the speaker to death with a shovel.* Unfortunately they don't let you do that, I've found.

One of the reasons the word causes such difficulties is that it means different things to different people, and even, at times, different things to the same person. Substituting a phrase like "This is who I am" reveals something of the problem: who I am in what sense? Ontologically? Emotionally? By conviction? By upbringing?

Catholic sources (with the exception of heretical ones like Dignity) have for the most part avoided and discouraged any use of LGBT language. A lot of people ascribe this to groundless homophobia, but I don't. The stated concern in the relevant documents published by the Church is of people reducing themselves to their homosexuality by identifying as gay; and, while I don't believe that that problem is nearly as prevalent as many of the Catholic authors and priests I've interacted with have supposed, it bears saying that the problem would be worthy of their attitude if it were. And after all, some of us do reduce ourselves to our sexuality, and it isn't a pretty or dignified sight. Seeing a grown man flirting like a high school sophomore, because he's stuck in the mindset that his worth depends on the rapidly decreasing number of fucks he can score, is deeply pathetic.

Desperation doesn't look good on anybody.

But this isn't a peculiarly a problem of the LGBT community. It's a general problem of American society -- in my experience, even when I was a gay activist, it was no more prevalent among us than among anybody else -- and narrowing our attention to queer-identifying people is in my opinion extremely unhelpful. In addition to creating a double standard between homosexual and heterosexual people (which, to do them justice, some Catholic authors have begun to pay attention to), it feeds into an unfair and frankly very damaging stereotype of gay people: namely, that gay sexuality is solely about having sex, that any notion of gay identity is constructed entirely around sex, and that any and all people who identify as gay (or whatever) are, in a more or less clinical degree, obsessed with sex.

I don't think that any of this is true, and I think that a gay identity, properly understood, is as capable of "baptism" as any other element of a culture. Now, it's that properly understood that is the linchpin of all this, so I'm going to take a moment and explain it.

One strategy taken by much of the LGBT community in the fight for gay rights has been to insist on homosexuality as immutable and inborn. The equivalence often drawn between sexual orientation and race or ethnicity is the result: if gay people are members of a natural minority, the reasoning goes, then they are entitled to the same legal protections that are rightly given to other minorities. In some circles the argument is carried further, asserting a metaphysical or transcendental difference between gay people and straight people -- Matthew Vines, for instance, in his viral video on the subject, states that while for most men an help meet for him is a woman, for a gay man a suitable companion can be found only in another gay man, which at least suggests that the difference between gay and straight is a difference of being rather than of quality.

Adam and Eve, Jan Mabuse, ca. 1510
Nice 'fro, Father Adam.

I don't take this view -- partly because the only difference of being among humans that the Church recognizes (to my knowledge) is that between women and men; partly because the highly variegated history of homoeroticism, and the existence of sexual fluidity in some people, suggest otherwise; partly because gay essentialism looks to me like a bald assertion, and certainly an indemonstrable one. It isn't the universal orthodoxy within the LGBT community that people outside that community often suppose, either, but that need not detain us.

However, I do take the view that another definition of the word identity can be meaningfully, and usefully, applied to LGBT experience. It is the definition we use when we say things like "I am a Catholic," "I am an American," "I am a barista," and so forth. It is the sense of self, the collection of experiences, feelings, and ideas that make us who we are in a psychological rather than an ontological way. Identity, in this sense, is a statement of what is most deeply important to us, that through which we relate to others and to ourselves and to God. It isn't necessarily inborn or immutable, but it can't just be changed at will, either; nor should it.

The Catechism has the following to say about sexuality:
"When God created man, he made him the in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created." Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others. ... Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality ... and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man's belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.**
On the face of it, this would appear to exclude any fully Christian expression of sexuality other than marriage, which the Church obviously doesn't maintain. Sexual integration is as necessary for a celibate life as any other, if not more so. But what are its implications for homosexuality?

To start with, sexuality here is more than just the desire for sex and reproduction -- that desire doesn't exist in isolation, and it doesn't seem relevant to our general tendency to form relationships with people, either. Sexuality includes the desire for sex, but (as far as my understanding goes) it encompasses the whole embodied-ness of human love in its various forms, some of which involve having sex and some of which don't. That this is called sexuality is, I think, due to the fact that being a man or a woman is one of the chief defining features of our embodied-ness.***

And where does being gay lie in all this? Well, I think one of the key points is that being a gay man (for example) can't be reduced to wanting to boink other dudes, for the same reason that being a straight man can't be reduced to wanting to sleep with women. There's a whole world of feelings and experiences that goes with it -- a world that differs from man to man, as much as one man does from another, but in any case a real one that should be respected. The experience of embodied-ness and relationship for a gay man need not be all that different from the experienced embodied-ness and relationships of a heterosexual, though it appears to me that they generally are; the point is that these things make a profound contribution to our sense of self, and, in that specific sense, to our identity.

But doesn't this construct an identity -- in however limited a sense -- around sin? Let's parse that a little.

To begin with, a sin is always a choice; sexual orientation is a disposition, i.e., part of the raw material out of which we make choices. Even when our dispositions are bad or undesirable, they aren't sins per se.

Second, unless you displace everything else in order to make more room for your sexual orientation (which strikes me as a pointless, weird thing to do), just to acknowledge that you happen to be gay doesn't mean you're building your whole sense of self around it. People sometimes do, of course; but I think the only response to that is to encourage prudence and balance, not to do away with the idea of sexual orientation as such. Sexual orientation is admittedly a construct, but it sums up what is, for a lot of us, a vast area of shared experience in terms of relationship, self-image, and so forth, that isn't easy to state concisely any other way. And because the stuff it's tied into is so deeply important to the human person -- as the text from the Catechism suggests, with its references to affectivity and to the general capacity for forming relationships -- I think we need a way of talking about it.

Lastly, I rather think that the advice "Don't identify with your sin," in this and many other contexts, is not altogether satisfactory in the first place. It is quite true that this can impose false mental limits and inhibit growth. But then, so can an insistence on a theology of victory that makes inadequate room for human frailty, and for being honest about that frailty. St Paul was not confined by his past as a religious terrorist, but he positively went out of his way to bring it up, to embarrass himself with his weaknesses and flaws; or rather, to boast of them.
There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Japanese pottery has a technique called kintsugi or kintsukuroi, for which I've named this series. If a ceramic vessel, like a tea bowl, is broken, rather than throwing it out or repairing it invisibly, the cracks are mended in a way that draws attention to and beautifies the damage -- for instance, with gold or silver seams.

This is part of a larger Japanese aesthetic philosophy called wabi-sabi, in which the history and imperfections of an object are embraced as part of it. This may sound very strange to Western, classically-formed ears; but I believe that it is, fundamentally, hardly different from the triumphant lines of the Exsultet: O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

This is a hard saying, and not many can accept it. In this, and indeed in most things, it's far easier to join with those who would reject imperfection -- whether by trying to do away with it or by pretending that it doesn't matter. The mental and spiritual balance required to achieve kintsukuroi of the soul is a delicate thing, and I for one am no master at it; but I believe that this, rather than either getting a new bowl or saying that a broken bowl isn't broken, is the task at hand.

**Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 2331-2332, 2337, italics original.

***In saying this, I don't mean to ignore the difficult and subtle questions that attend intersex people or trans issues. I take the integral significance of sex to the person to be a starting point, from which we may seek to address these matters, not a pretext to pretend that they are unreal or unimportant. However, it's both off-topic and quite beyond my competence to do so here.

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