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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Gay and Catholic, Part VII: Defiance

If I judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it. If I attempt to solve a problem, at least I must not by that very solution conjure away one of the terms of the problem. … There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something.
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

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This piece deals with a different aspect of the theology of sexuality than the rest of this series. In the preceding posts, I’ve been dealing with the doctrinal basis for, and details of, my Side B principles (along with a little background to the discussion in general). But this piece is picking up where my last left off, which was with the question: given the apparently pointless suffering that being Side B can involve, how can God—who is supposed to be love—require it of us? How can we believe in a God who would do this to us?

I consider this a specified form of the problem of pain in general. After all, it’s loneliness and the fear of loneliness that make Side B objectionable, together with the apparent meaninglessness of that loneliness (since God could presumably have either made homosexuality innocent or spared us from enduring it). And loneliness and meaninglessness are, perhaps, two of the greatest sources of pain in all human life. So that I think we may reasonably rephrase How could God do this to us? as, How could God, who is supposed to be perfectly good, make a world full of suffering?

And it isn’t a specially gay problem, obviously. Even forgetting the rest of history, the great-grandchildren of the women and men who saw—or forged—the camps at Dachau and Treblinka and Buchenwald, the thermonuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the prisons of Lubyanka and the Gulag, the carpet-bombing of Dresden, and the Rape of Nanjing, should know something about the terrible gravity of the problem of suffering.

When I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from three to fifteen minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. … We had two S.S. doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. These would be marched by one of the doctors, who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit to work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. … Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated.1

Knowing that that happened, and that what Christians mean by God could have stopped it and didn’t, can you believe that He exists? There must be a hundred religions in the world, but the reality of suffering justifies a hundred atheisms. The man who can't see that has a cold black pit where his heart was supposed to go.

Atheism and mysticism are the only two really satisfying answers.2 I’ll explain what I mean by mysticism here a little more in a moment, but I want to emphasize this point: there can be no mere waiving of the problem. We Christians do that too often and too easily—in this country, at least, where (for all our caterwauling) we are so comfortable, both in our persons and in our religion.

Whether the horrible reality of suffering is a fatal flaw in Christianity as such, or a mystery that the human mind is simply too limited to plumb, it is not an arithmetical puzzle with an easy, uncomplicated answer. Pretending so—being a Job’s comforter, explaining to the sufferer that it is secretly his own fault; or a pedantic busybody who just recites doctrine and refuses to acknowledge, still less to care for, the needs and aches of the heart, refusing to practice compassion in any sense of the word; or a religious blatherskite3 spewing pious idiocies about everything happening for a reason and opening doors and all that obnoxious crap—is an outrage and a scandal, and deserves to have its face spat in.4 It is noteworthy that Jesus never, even once, does any of these things. Or, if we insist on taking His remark that This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God in the manner of the third jerk, we may at least observe that He promptly backed that up by raising someone from the dead.

Guercino, The Raising of Lazarus, 1619

When I describe mysticism as one of the two possible responses to the problem of pain, then, I am not for one second proposing to whitewash the world, à la Chesterton’s optimist. The kind of mysticism I mean is the kind which says that God is so powerful that He can take evil—real, hideous evil—and use it to make a lovelier, richer good: a good that, with our inevitably limited perspective, we cannot see from here and now; a good that makes it worth our while to have endured injustice and pain, without pretending that injustice and pain are not important or not real. I mean, there’d be no question of redeeming them if they weren’t ugly.

For the alternatives would seem to be that suffering is too trivial to be worth correcting, a profound insult to all who suffer; or, that evil is finally victorious. Suffering is an unavoidable and indisputable fact. The Christian doctrines of redemption and judgment, the doctrine that what Hoess did can be made an instrument of good, is saying that evil never gets the final word, that it will be truly and really defeated on its home turf, that it has no right to be here and will one day be expelled.

As far as I can tell, the facts are consistent with both the atheist interpretation and the mystical. As I’ve written about a little bit before, I have other grounds for finding the mystical interpretation more satisfying.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint John of the Cross, 1655

Yet honestly, even if it came down to which view I prefer, I’d refuse to give evil the satisfaction of triumphing in my head. (I could never decide my views based on what I like better; but I do, in fact, like this one better, and we are talking about the response of the heart here.) The same revolt against suffering that makes me sympathize with many kinds of atheism makes another part of me unwilling to be an atheist, because that would mean letting suffering win. Fuck that. Loneliness and meaninglessness and mass murder and all the rest of it are evil, they’re ugly, they’re horrible, and they are going to lose. I consider that a damn fine world to live in.

This is exactly why Jesus chose to die. I mean, also a whole bunch of other reasons, but this one too. In choosing to be crucified, He was taking on the whole depth of human suffering, drinking the cup to the last drop, because He knew—no, as a man, He believed that His Father was greater than all of that, and could transfigure it all into glory, could see to it that the corrupt reverends, the oppressive officials, and even His own dear and cowardly friends would not have the last word.

Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. … Ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than the blood of Abel. … Now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.5

So the agonies that being Side B can provoke are something that I’ll neither deny nor surrender to. To pretend it doesn’t hurt would be a lie. To let the hurting change what I believe would be a defeat that I can’t countenance. I’m sure other people operate differently; that doesn’t bother me. Every person has his or her own battle to fight. But this one is mine, and this is how I fucking fight.

From Margaret Hodges' version of Saint George and the Dragon, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.

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1From the deposition of Rudolf Hoess at the Nuremberg Trials, quoted by William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, pp. 968-969.
2Unless of course one finds the case for Side A intellectually satisfying. This would not be waiving the problem, but discovering that the problem had been only a sort of optical illusion. I don’t find Side A finally convincing, which is why the problem arises; but, on the one hand, if I did, the problem wouldn’t arise over this, while on the other, it would arise over some other example of human suffering.
3From Old Norse blaðra ‘to speak inarticulately, talk nonsense’ and Anglo-Saxon scite ‘dung’ (whence ‘shit’). Thanks, Wiktionary!
4They don’t let you do that, it turns out.
5Hebrews 12.1c-2, 22-24, 26b-27, in the King James because it sounds way more badass.


  1. I think I deleted a comment that I meant to publish on this one. If so, I apologize, and please feel free to say what you said before and I will try not to mess it up this time!

  2. I can see the appeal of believing that evil will be overcome by good .... but I don't see the evidence. Seems like most evil doesn't tend to some final goal of eventual good -- most of the evil in the world looks pretty meaningless. And why assume that the same person who included evil in his plan for the world is going to get rid of it -- if he's ultimately responsible for it, how can we know he doesn't like it?

    And of course when you get down to the nitty-gritty of individual evil things, it's hard to see how even some kind of eventual improvement could justify them. If God was capable of creating a world in which parents didn't lose children, in which everyone had enough food, in which heartbreak did not exist -- what in the world could justify his not doing it, even a promise of better things later? It's as if he didn't care about us in the present, only about our future selves.

    And of course so much of the suffering in the world isn't so much allowed by God as caused by him -- your suffering is caused by him directly, because if you ignored his rules you'd probably have a lot less suffering.

    My feeling about it is that, if all we know of God is what we see of the world now, there is no reason to believe the next world will be any better -- not if the same person created both.

    1. I certainly agree with your closing paragraph. The reason I don't altogether agree with the preceding three is that I believe we can perceive something more of God than simply what we now see of the world. In particular, I believe that the person and teachings of Jesus are a statement of the character of God, far more illuminating than what we know solely from creation without His personal self-disclosure; and, more specifically still, that the Catholic Church has preserved those teachings -- and even, in the Blessed Sacrament, that Person -- not without her own sins, but without losing any part of them.

      Now, it must be said, I do consider the defiance I describe an act of *faith,* not an act of knowledge. And while faith should not be irrational, it isn't synonymous with reason -- it's something other than just assenting to a truth that any reasonable person could learn. It is a gift, and a supernatural one at that. The Christian hope is precisely to obtain knowledge; we walk by faith, not by sight, but that faith teaches us to look forward to a time when faith itself will be unnecessary because we will enjoy union with God directly. "Meanwhile we groan," as St Paul says. The point is: I do believe there's enough evidence to justify faith as an adult decision to trust, and not (necessarily) a decision to throw out perceived truth in favor of something nicer; but that decision of faith is a decision of trust, not a mere acknowledgment of indisputable rationality. Until the Second Coming, I suspect, it'll always be rationally defensible to refuse faith, not least for the reasons you put forward.

      As to the problem of suffering -- well, obviously, what I've written above is part of my personal response to it. The difficulties you raise seem to me to be more intellectual, and with regard to those, the answers I've come to accept are a bit different. The main points of them are, roughly:
      1. That God created not only a material world, but a world with conscious, free beings (angels and humans);
      2. That free beings are ipso facto capable of abusing their freedom to turn away from God and reject the good, thereby introducing every kind of evil and suffering into the world;
      3. That some angels, and all men, have done just this, making victims of both themselves and others (which is one reason that the truly or comparatively innocent so often suffer unjustly);
      4. That God allows this to happen partly because even this is a world more worth making than a world of automatons;
      5. That God will, one day, bring creation as we know it to a close, and in so doing deliver those who will accept Him from every evil and suffering, and shut away evil -- along with any who refuse to abandon it, as their freedom makes them able to do -- in a place where it can no longer hurt anybody else, whose theological name is hell; while, for those who accept His love, He will give them a supernatural and incomprehensible good which will make every suffering that they endured worthwhile.

    2. Once upon a time I'd have found the fifth point rather unsatisfying -- isn't it a little *convenient* that the good which God will theoretically provide to redeem the evil of the past should be unimaginable? But on reflection, it occurred to me that nothing else would be a very good answer. Having thought and thought for centuries, none of the imaginable explanations for that redemptive good have been satisfying at all, and in fact they've felt more than a little insulting to those who have had to suffer. If anything is going to make suffering worth its cost, it'll *have* to be something we can't now imagine.

      I also felt that there's some justice in reflecting on two more points:
      6. That cursing "whatever brute and blackguard made the world," while satisfying, does nothing to alleviate suffering (either my own or other people's), and that taking responsibility for *my* part in the total reality of human suffering, and trying to improve myself and amend for my faults as best I can does far more real good than any amount of fulminating (or blogging!);
      7. And, above all, that the Christian doctrines of both creation and Incarnation involve God in evil and suffering in a different way than we often realize. We frequently look heavenward and ask how He could sustain the officials of concentration camps in existence; we sometimes ask how He could sustain the prisoners in existence, instead of mercifully killing them. What we almost never wonder about is the fact that, if pain exists in any created thing, it exists in the consciousness of God. If He created everything and all being is continually, deliberately kept in existence by a pure act of His will, then every instant of pain that has ever occurred -- and every offense against His goodness -- exists more intimately in His own heart than anywhere else. He has suffered and been victimized, personally, in literally every instance of suffering in the history of existence. The Crucifixion highlights a truth that was already there. Christianity is a religion of a suffering God, a God who knows and permits the totality of suffering to fall on *Himself.*

      That is by no means an answer. But it does, for me, alter the terms of the problem somewhat, as well as making the unimaginable good I've been talking about a little easier to believe in. Put in a crude and rather silly form, I can't see why He'd put Himself through that much awfulness if He didn't have something more to offer Himself.

    3. Sigh. I wish all this convinced me.

      Part of the issue is that the God of revelation is just as hard to understand as the God of nature. I mean, does he care about one nation or all of them? Would he ever command genocide or not? Would he kill all of a person's children to show off to the devil? Who even knows?

      If all the suffering in the world could be traced to the free choices of humans, it would make a lot more sense. But of course it can't. No one's free will choice made you gay. You were born that way, it isn't your fault. It might be God's fault.

      And for God to cause us to suffer and then turn around and cause himself to suffer makes him .... sympathetic, I guess, but not really rational. Because if he didn't want us to suffer, he could stop it rather than partaking in it, and I'd appreciate it a heck of a lot more, you know?

      I understand why faith works for you. In a way it's a tradeoff, where you have to follow some very difficult rules but receive in turn a friend to accompany you and a sense of meaning for your life and much more. But it does not work for me. I do not have that gift. And more frustratingly, I do not even know if it would be *right* to believe even if I could -- because just because one CAN believe in something doesn't make it the truth, you know? So how would I know it was?

      But I do know faith would be helpful to me right now. I recently found out I'm pregnant, AGAIN, despite almost total abstinence and many good reasons not to be. And oh how I wish I could believe it was part of some beautiful plan. Instead it seems like so much more proof that there IS no plan, that crap just happens, like it has happened to people I know so many times, with no good arising from it, just more pain. If God does not stop child abusers from having babies, why on earth would he intervene to make sure *I* only have them when it would be good to have them?

      But it sure would be nice to believe otherwise.

    4. I'd like to congratulate you on your upcoming child, and offer my sympathies that he or she is coming at such an unfelicitous time in your life. I'm not sure whether the congratulations or the sympathies are more needed, but I offer both as much as I can (and, if it helps at all, I'm more than happy to include you and your family in my prayers).

      Regarding the origin of evil, I neither wish to believe, nor believe in fact, that it has its whole origin in human choice. Even if it did, there would be plenty of innocent suffering to go around: as the pastor of my mother's church in Scotland said, "If I hit you, I'm a sinner for hitting you, and you suffer -- which is not fair." But C. S. Lewis rightly pointed out that Christianity goes far further with the Dualist systems, like Zoroastrianism, than many people realize, and that much of the suffering and evil in the world can be attributed to the devil and his angels, directly or indirectly. That they will be (1) punished and (2) prevented from doing further harm, come the Judgment, is a small consolation, though I'd mostly look to the other things I've written above in considering depraved angels as well as depraved men.

      But you're quite right that the mere fact one can believe something doesn't make it true. And that's a difficulty.

      For me personally, the clincher is the story of Jesus. I can't imagine how to explain stories like the command of Deuteronomy 20, the massacre at Ai, or the mutilation of Agag; even the theory (a likely enough one in itself) that these essentially historical accounts have been much embellished by legend, and that the genocides depicted were not really enacted, is not very satisfying, since it leaves the inspiration of the Scriptures and their apparent approbation of the depicted genocides exactly where it was. But even considering those things, I still find it easier to believe that there is an incomprehensible -- or at any rate unknown -- explanation of those things, than to believe that Jesus was something other than what He claimed to be; and for me, that's the clincher. To repurpose something Douglas Adams wrote, that Jesus was God, with all that that implies about Himself, Judaism, and Christianity, is merely impossible. That He was a lunatic or a fraud is, in my opinion, hopelessly improbable. I *can't* believe it; or, if you prefer, I can more easily accept the problems implicit in the Tanakh being inspired than I can accept the problems implicit in some other explanation of Jesus than the Christian explanation.

      This is of course a very personal theodicy. I've no idea what value it has to others; I share it in case that value is greater than zero. Whether it's *nice* I don't really know, mostly because it involves me and many other people in a great deal of hard work aimed at achieving things we don't want very much -- but, on the other hand, you're right, it *does* lend a great meaning and beauty to that hard work, and in fact everything, even if we don't always appreciate it. So I guess it is nice. As to its being a tradeoff, well, everything is.

      "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." There is more to life than that, but not less; Westley was not wrong, even if he was not exhaustive.

    5. See, I used to be in a cult, and so I well know how thoroughly people can be convinced of the divinity or the inspiration of quite an ordinary guy. (Or even an evil guy -- but I don't think Jesus was that type, at least.) And how in a few short years the legends about the person can get wildly out of control, steeped in miracles and mysticism that seem to arise from nowhere.

      I am not really interested in convincing you of this (faith works for you! yay!) but if you read the gospel stories while at the same time remembering all the ways in which you've been convinced to believe, falsely, all sorts of similar things .... well, it makes the whole thing very difficult. I guess I'm just particularly aware of how thoroughly people may be deceived. Heck, 12 men swore in writing they'd seen Joseph Smith's golden tablets, which I'm almost certain never existed at all. So I have to deal with the reality that people are not as trustworthy as we usually assume -- even when their lies are pious ones which they tell for the good and half-believe.

      So you see my non-belief story is as personal and non-transferrable as your own faith.