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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why Hast Thou Thus Dealt With Us?

It is the rarest thing in the world to hear a rational discussion of vivisection.1 Those who disapprove of it are commonly accused of ‘sentimentality,’ and very often their arguments justify the accusation. They paint pictures of pretty little dogs lying on dissecting tables. But the other side lie open to exactly the same charge. They also defend the practice by drawing pictures of suffering women and children whose pain can be relieved (we are assured) only by the fruits of vivisection. The one appeal, quite as clearly as the other, is addressed to emotion, to the particular emotion we call pity. And neither appeal proves anything. If the thing is right—and if right at all, it is a duty—then pity for the animal is one of the temptations we must resist in order to perform that duty. If the thing is wrong, then pity for human suffering is precisely the temptation which will most probably lure us into doing that wrong thing. But the real question—whether it is right or wrong—remains meanwhile just where it was.

—C. S. Lewis, God In the Dock, ‘Vivisection’

And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.

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Before I return to more regular content, I want to address a particular argument for Side A theology2 that, I feel, helps no one. Roughly summarized, it’s the argument from agony: how could God demand celibacy of gay people? It’s stated with great clarity and pathos by Constantino Khalaf on his blog.

The uncomfortable truth is that many gay Christians who can’t reconcile their faith and sexual orientation often slip into promiscuity. … Committing to someone of the same sex would mean committing to a life of unrepentant sin, whereas the ‘trip up’ involved in casual sex is an offense from which we can easily seek forgiveness. … Scripture and human experience reveal that celibacy is a gift reserved only for some. I implore our straight brothers and sisters to imagine being told you must permanently abstain from sex (not only until marriage, but for life), while in your hearts you don’t feel called to celibacy. Imagine spending years praying that God will either change your sexual orientation or numb your desires for intimacy. Imagine trying one therapy after another, often at severe emotional and financial costs. Imagine praying for just one thing, but the one thing you ask for is the one thing God continuously denies.

‘Well, Lord,’ you might say, ‘I’ve done everything I could to give up this need. If you won’t help me; if I’m on my own; I give up. If you’ve turned me over to illicit desires, then I’ll give in. Goodbye.’ This is tragic, and I can’t imagine it pleases God. In fact, I can’t think of a better example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing than a theology that, in its practical application, favors promiscuity over monogamy. ‘A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.’ You cannot build a healthy sexual ethic on just ‘don’t do it.’ Gay Christians have never been given a framework for God-honoring sexuality, and this is the reason why so many use sex less ethically than non-believers.3

I hope that anyone who reads this does have a pang of compassion: no matter the details of your theology, other people’s suffering is a tragic result of the Fall, and is rightly mourned. Further, it's absolutely true that a theology consisting merely in No is unlivable, and that the Church has made a fairly shabby showing thus far in terms of giving her LGBT children something more. And to dispose of one very bad counterargument, when he speaks of sex, I don’t think Mr Khalaf has the mere physical act in mind; the piece as a whole make it clear he is talking about erotic fulfillment, of which sexual intimacy is the crown; to go without that involuntarily, even if we think it’s morally necessary, is a terrible hardship. 

Nevertheless, the syllogism drawn by Mr Khalaf (and many others) from the data is gravely flawed, and there are sounder reasons to take Side A views. There are certain details which merit discussion in their own right—for instance, what the criteria of discernment are; does everyone feel called to what God in fact calls them to? or are there objective, ‘external’ touchstones upon which to make that judgment? Is the fact that God refuses something to the earnest suppliant evidence that that thing is, intrinsically, undesirable or unnecessary? or might He have other reasons for refusal? But I don’t propose to treat these other questions, because the chief argument here is the argument from agony. Would God really consign someone to a lifetime of self-denial with respect to eros? Would He allow—no, require—that kind of suffering?

I think the answer is a totally unavoidable Yes. And not just because I’m Side B: when, for a brief period some years back, I was Side A, I’d have given you the same answer. To say that God would not allow that kind of suffering makes a mockery of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Lubyanka, Vladivostok, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Sirte. If these things do not make belief in a benevolent God untenable, unwanted and unhappy celibacy certainly won’t.

But would He impose that kind of suffering? Why? What for? Well—as hackneyed and unjustly applied as the topic usually is—we already know He does in the case of pedophiles. The two cases are extremely different: two women or two men can give meaningful consent, while a child can’t; and consent (that is, the intention of mutual self-gift, regardless of any attendant imperfections) is even more central to sex than procreation on Catholic premises, for sex that doesn’t happen to result in a baby need not be immoral, whereas rape always and necessarily is. But, as soon as we admit any case in which some person is simply not allowed to ever have the erotic relationship they most desire, full stop, the possibility of another such case emerges by the terrible force of logic.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to hold that there is in fact only one such case, or that there are multiple cases of this kind but homosexuality isn’t in fact one of them. Arguments about the meanings of Greek and Hebrew words are well and good; arguments about whether and how much ancient cultural expectations of the genders influenced sexual mores, and whether we ought to retain those expectations or modify them or reject them, are well and good; even arguments about progressive revelation are well and good. These deal in facts. But let us have none of the argument from agony, for there is no doctrine, no religion, no total view of the universe, that can eliminate the fact of agony. Only the Second Coming can do that. The Christian may espouse many things, but he cannot espouse the doctrine that obedience will never make martyrs, not when his God was martyred, in life and death. Perhaps the gay Christian need not crucify his erotic desires; but he will most assuredly have to crucify something, and it will be at least as appalling as the terrible call to unwanted celibacy. Take thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest …

If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor-camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

—Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

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1Vivisection is the practice of performing surgery on living animals for purposes of research, as opposed to the medical purpose of treating some ailment. Conservatives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were for the most part horrified by the practice—for instance, Dr Samuel Johnson (of dictionary fame) wrote a severe denunciation of vivisection, quoted by Lewis near the end of this essay—while Darwinian scientists generally defended it. C. S. Lewis, though not an activist, was an unwavering opponent of the practice.
2If you don’t read this blog regularly or don’t travel much in gay Christian circles, Side A is a sort of nickname for progressivist theology on the subject of homosexuality: i.e., the belief that God blesses homosexual unions on the same basis as heterosexual ones. Whether and to what extent marriage is involved varies somewhat among different Side A theologians, though most of those I know of consider it just as necessary for gay people as for straight.
3From ‘Pious Promiscuity’ on Dave and Tino.

Monday, July 24, 2017

GCNow What?

It has been claimed here that forgiveness is a mutual act, but a disposition towards forgiveness is a necessary preliminary towards that act. The mutual act depends on two (or more) single dispositions; we are not excused from our disposition because our enemies refuse to participate, nor is theirs less holy because we will not admit it. He who will claim the supernatural must claim it wholly; its validity cannot be divided; like the Blessed Trinity Itself it lives according to its proper complex method, but it altogether lives as a unity … But if one of us does not wish to be? if we refuse coinherence? ‘Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.’ If a man will be separate from the love which is man’s substance, he can; the ancient promise holds: ‘I will choose their delusions.’

… The labor towards our enemy, individual or national, is a continual duty—all Christians say so. Christian publicists indeed, in that as in so many other things, are apt to sound as if they thought they performed their moral duty merely by teaching it; it is easier to write a book repeating that God is love than to think it; it is easier, that is, to say it publicly than to think it privately. Unfortunately, to be of any use, it has to be thought very privately, and thought very hard.

—Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins

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I’m pausing my series for a moment to address some news. The Gay Christian Network and its founder Justin Lee recently parted ways, citing ‘irreconcilable differences’ between him and the rest of the board.

GCN is one of the few Christian groups that doesn’t take a specific stance on the morality of same-sex behavior. There  are progressivist groups in plenty, like the Reformation Project or New Ways Ministries; there are also a large number of traditionalist groups, like Courage and Spiritual Friendship. The only ones I know of that do not devote themselves to one side rather than the other are the Marin Foundation, which deliberately avoids all discussion of the issue, and GCN, which has sought to provide space for both sides.1 The effort to unite people of explicitly differing views in mutual respect, charity, and coöperation is a rare thing, and I’ve long been glad of GCN’s presence and especially of Lee’s work: regardless of his own firm Side A convictions, he has been an outspoken advocate for the Side B community, and especially insistent that we should have a home in the Gay Christian Network.

Now, I don’t claim to know what the irreconcilable differences between Lee and the GCN board are. I will go as far as to say that the decision not to disclose what those differences are, and the (I’ll be blunt) rather boilerplate statement of ongoing friendliness to Side B from the board, have me … less than reassured. Side B has been a minority at GCN for a long time; the bulk of the speakers and resources GCN offers are distinctly Side A; and a lot of Side B folks who used to frequent the community have withdrawn on account of hostility shown us by some Side A members, both online and in person. The fact that Lee is setting up a new project (Nuance Ministries, which, I love the man but, not gonna lie, I hate the name) is really exciting, but the fact that it seems to be doing exactly what I’d understood GCN was for is again worrisome to me for Side B’s future at GCN.

So, here, I’d like to do three things. First, to thank Justin Lee for the years of hard work that he has devoted, and is continuing to devote, to respectful conversation among Christians of differing beliefs. The integrity, kindness, and courtesy he’s displayed are hard to rival. I admire him.

Secondly, please pray for GCN: the board, the Side A members, the Side B members and ex-members. I don’t know what the future holds. I’m by no means ready to give up on an organization that has done me personally and many other LGBT people so much good; but I am concerned, even skeptical; and the mutual distrust, wounding, and bitterness between B and A is not going to go away quickly even if everything goes as well as it possibly can. Time, nerve, brains, and charity will all be needed if that rift is to be healed, and human beings have a knack for not spending those things wisely.

Lastly, I’d like to share something that Sarah of A Queer Calling wrote on the subject.

I don't have much to say about the recent goings on with GCN other than what I've already said, but I do want to point out something troubling I've noticed in conversations about the situation. It seems that within the social media discussions, people within one minority group have been more than willing to suggest that other minority groups should be excluded for the sake of greater inclusivity. I've also noticed a tendency to suggest that one group's concerns are real safety issues but another group's concerns are just discomfort, and that comfort should be secondary to safety. I'm concerned that we've reached a point where people believe that other people with different perspectives should come with trigger warnings, and that further marginalizing one minority to lift the voices of another minority is acceptable. That's a scary place for the conversation to be. A Friedrich Nietzsche quote comes to mind: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." All of us ought to take care when advocating for our own inclusion that we do not at the same time promote the oppression of those who are different from us.2

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1Though it originated at the (now defunct) site Bridges Across the Divide, the very terms ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’ were originally popularized by GCN. I mean, to the extent that they are popular.
2It may be worth noting that Sarah has more particular, and more negative, views of the GCN-Justin Lee situation than I do (at least for now); what she wrote is, and was meant to be, of much wider application.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Dona Eis Requiem, Part VI

He knew that they called Ferreira the Apostate Peter and himself the Apostate Paul. Sometimes the children had gathered at his door chanting the name in a loud voice.
‘Please hear my confession. If even the Apostate Paul has the power to hear confessions, please give me absolution for my sins.’
It is not man who judges. God knows our weakness more than anyone, reflected the priest.
‘Father, I betrayed you. I trampled on the picture of Christ,’ said Kichijiro with tears. ‘In this world are the strong and the weak. The strong never yield to torture, and they go to Paradise; but what about those, like myself, who are born weak, those who, when tortured and ordered to trample on the sacred image …’
I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. Even now that face is looking at me with pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. ‘Trample!’ said those compassionate eyes. ‘Trample! Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.’
He had lowered his foot on to the plaque, sticky with dirt and blood. His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment.

—Shūsaku Endō, Silence1

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You can go here for Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

Apologies to my readers for the protracted radio silence here. The past month has been a strange one with some unexpected changes, not least of which has been finding out (much to my surprise) that The Vampire Diaries isn’t crap. But to return to the series.

The normal calling of LGBT people in the Catholic Church is celibacy.2 There’s no way around this, and there’s no dressing it up as anything but an incredibly hard path—no amount of righteousness, beauty, or being worthwhile can possibly make celibacy easy. I’ve written already about some of the support we need in this, including, among other things, apology from Christians for the abuse and neglect we’ve frequently suffered at their hands; as well as firm and active opposition to homophobic violence both here and abroad—not just words about how the Church cares for everyone equally, but deeds of charity, like taking in homeless LGBT teens or funding refugee programs for those whose home countries put them in serious danger.

Photograph from a protest held in Chechnya, where in the last six months more than a hundred men believed 
to be gay or bisexual have been consigned to concentration camps; an unknown number have been killed.

What I’ve said very little about thus far is what, in my experience, Christians usually think of when they picture the trials of a gay person who’s also trying to be a faithful Catholic: i.e., the challenge of refraining from gay sex. The truth is, I’m not sure I know a single gay believer for whom that’s the costliest aspect of their faith. Faith itself is far costlier; loneliness is far costlier; perseverance is far costlier. And even those things aren’t always costly for the reasons you might suppose. Permit me a lengthy quotation.

I met a guy who was smart, attractive, and well-versed in theology. Like many gay people who grow up in the church, he’d been on a rollercoaster as he came to terms with being gay. He’d gone from having accountability software on his computer, to dancing for tips in a speedo at a bar. By the time we met he was cautiously returning to the church. Compared to my other relationships, this guy barely registers—we dated long distance for all of two months. But it was a rollercoaster of its own. We were sexually active when we first started dating, and then a few weeks in, he suggested we stop—he said it didn’t feel right and that he wanted to wait until marriage. He was sweet, and then he became callous. And after our breakup he did a complete turn-around in terms of his own sexual ethics—he even got into an open relationship.

I puzzled over this for months. … The explanation stems from the notion that we are all sinners who can’t escape our weaknesses; it is only open rebellion—being unrepentant—that is unforgivable, what dooms us to hell. Combined with the doctrine that all same-sex relationships are sinful, it gets warped into a theology that says promiscuity is better than monogamy. Committing to someone of the same sex would be committing to a life of unrepentant sin, whereas the ‘trip-up’ involved in casual sex is an offense from which we can easily seek forgiveness. You can meet a stranger for sex and never see him again, have a threesome or two, and even live a season of debauchery and lust, as long as you repent. This is a familiar cycle for many gay Christians, and while forgiveness of these acts is real, so is the guilt and shame that compounds in their hearts over weeks, months, and years.

Setting aside the dangers inherent to a promiscuous lifestyle, this cycle carries an even graver consequence: It drives people away from God. Scripture and human experience reveal that celibacy is a gift reserved only for some. I implore our straight brothers and sisters to imagine being told you must permanently abstain from sex, while in your hearts you don’t feel called to celibacy. Imagine spending years praying that God will either change your sexual orientation or numb your desires for intimacy. Imagine trying one therapy after another, often at severe emotional and financial costs. Imagine praying for just one thing, but the one thing you ask for is the one thing God continually denies.

‘Well, Lord,’ you might say, ‘I’ve done everything I could to give up this need. If you won’t help me, then I’ll give in. Goodbye.’ This is tragic, and I can’t imagine it pleases God. ‘A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.’3

This is where the going really gets rough. When you look at the consequences of behavior that you’ve tried and failed to control, consequences not just for yourself but for the men you fuck, and you start asking yourself whether it wouldn’t be better to compromise rather than go on hurting people—that’s when hope and perseverance in the pursuit of chaste celibacy start to look pointless, foolish, and cruel.

I can’t plead this defense. It’s myself I want to spare: if other people suffer but I don’t know about it, I find I don’t actually care that much, but if I find out about it I’ll feel empathy for their pain, and that’s a nasty feeling that I want to stop; what’s more, I always thought of myself as a virtuous person, and if I just can’t be chaste then my ego doesn’t have to break. But there are others, both LGBT Christians and allies, for whom the fundamental problem really is one of what the morally best thing to do is in these wretched circumstances. And they deserve an answer.

I shrink from saying that the right answer is, always and for every person, to stick to your guns no matter the cost. The mysterious concession given to Naaman the Syrian seems inconsistent with that; and the Church does sometimes tolerate irregular situations, as being the best on a list of bad options—I think that’s partly what Amoris Lætitia was getting at.

Yet consider the martyrs. It’s hard to blame a man for apostatizing in under torture, especially if (as depicted in the novel and film Silence) others are being tormented to provoke his apostasy. But greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends; and it is that greater love which we are challenged to practice. If the consequence of martyrdom is not too severe to change what the right thing is, what consequence possibly could be? To be sure, here I exercise myself in great matters, in things too high for me. But the interior martyrdom of a life lived in continual, acknowledged imperfection, the daily crucifixion of one’s sense of dignity and control … I’m starting to believe that that is what loving God and my neighbor might look like. It’s frightening. It’s humiliating. It’s also, somehow, exciting. I’ve said flippantly before that if the Church is the Bride of Christ, asceticism might be our BDSM; given how extreme and weird submission can get, I’m starting to think the analogy holds.

And what is this to you, gentle reader? I’ll tell you: the thing that has been most discouraging to me in my attempts at chastity has never been the shameful apathy of the hierarchy, the derision of non-Christians, nor even the malice of the homophobic. It’s been the decision made by friends of mine to surrender their beliefs, not out of intellectual analysis, but out of that pity which cannot bear to watch me or others suffer4; not because pity is a bad thing but because, when it’s separated from the commitment to truth at all costs, it isn’t a reliable thing. Such friends may well wish to support me in my convictions without sharing them—but when someone has more pity for me than loyalty to reality, it wounds my power to trust them. Because at that point, are we still pursuing the same work? And where will your pity draw the line? This is what Flannery O’Connor was talking about when she said Tenderness leads to the gas chamber.

If you want to show me love, show me the kind that helps me bear the suffering. Taking away the suffering isn’t always the answer. Any addict can tell you that.

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1The plaque here is a reference to the fumie, images of Christ or the Virgin used by the authorities in seventeenth-century Japan to test suspected Christians: those who showed reluctance to dishonor the image on the fumie outed themselves as the faithful, while those who trampled were accepted as apostate.
2Normal, because canon law discourages gay men from becoming priests (wisely or not, it does this in fact), and most lesbians and gay men aren’t likely to desire marriage to somebody of the opposite sex. There are exceptions; bisexuals are, naturally, in a partly different position regarding marriage; and trans and intersex people are in a still more difficult position no matter what validity we give or don’t give to trans identities.
3Constantino Khalaf, ‘Pious Promiscuity,’ Dave and Tino. I’ve edited it down to a manageable length, but to the best of my ability and knowledge, I’ve preserved Mr Khalaf’s meaning intact.
4I will not name names. Nor do I claim that all or most of those who adopt Side A beliefs do it for shabby reasons.