Chapter 6: “Creation, Redemption, and Nature”
In the sixth essay, O’Donovan again turns his focus squarely upon the errors of liberal moral reasoning about the homosexual issue, showing that it leads to theological, and indeed logical, dead ends. This review should be quite straightforward (I know I’ve said that before and still written 2,000-3,000 words, but I really mean it this time). There’s not really anything that even Donny could argue with in this chapter, but I’ll resist the urge to just breeze right through it because parts of it lay some groundwork for what O’Donovan wants to do in chapter 7, which does require close attention.
O’Donovan’s central task in this chapter is to defend a traditional Christian realism which insists that there is a unity between the good and the real, between how God created the world and how he calls upon us to live in it. Liberal defenses of homosexuality, in attempting to deny the charges that it is unnatural and contrary to creation, have basically tossed out any relevance or meaningfulness of the concepts of “nature” and “creation.”
Among the most vapid forms of this theological suicide was the report of the General Synod of the Church of Sweden in favor of the sacramental celebration of homosexual marriage, which O’Donovan quotes as saying, “Here the distinction between what belongs to creation and what belongs to salvation loses its significance.” (86) O’Donovan responds, of course, that if this distinction has lost its significance, so has any traditional articulation of Christian theology, which depends upon a narrative of creation and redemption as the basic background for any claims about God’s work with man.
Much of the current quest for revisionism on the homosexual question, it seems, is inseparable from a dangerous, full-scale doctrinal revisionism, and if there is to be any chance of making genuine progress in our understanding of homosexuality, it must be separated from this milieu: “Is doctrinal revisionism a frontier reached by gay Christians in pursuit of their moral challenge to the church? Or is the gay movement a frontier reached by a liberal church leadership in its pursuit of a doctrinal-revisionist agenda? Nobody can speak for gay Christians about doctrine except gay Christians, and until an intellectual gay voice is as widely heard in the Christian community as it has long been outside it, there is little point in anyone asserting what gays do or do not believe in.” (87-88) In other words, do gay Christians really want to rebuild Christian theology from the ground up, or is theirs a more modest goal? This is a central question of O’Donovan throughout the book.
The central problem of this doctrinal revisionism, O’Donovan moves on to say, is “historicism”--”confusing the good with the future,” rather than rooting it in creation. (88) To unpack this problem, he turns to consider a particularly well-respected example of this problem in the work of moral philosopher R.M. Adams. A critique of Adams occupies the rest of this chapter.
First, he tackles Adams’s attempt to deny that the distinction of “natural” and “unnatural” can be morally normative. What we normally call “natural,” contends Adams, is merely that which happens to be more prevalent in a given time and place, so “in discriminating between good and evil behaviour, as we must, we should not confuse genuine moral intuitions with subjective likes and dislikes.” (89)
O’Donovan’s reply is basically, “Ok, so what?” Just because a thorough account of what is unnatural and what is natural is not empirically self-evident does not mean that such an account cannot be given. O’Donovan gives examples of many things that most people would consider “unnatural”--for a human to be brought up by chimpanzees, for deaf parents to want their child to be deaf too, a diet that clogs your arteries with trans-fats, etc. These are all “subject to the same line of criticism as calling homosexuality unnatural--and that does not make all, or any, of these moral intuitions wrong; it merely means that they require further explication and justification.” (90)
Moreover, argues O’Donovan, the notion of “nature” in traditional moral philosophy “can be seen to do a fairly precise job, and to do it tolerably well. That job was to focus attention on the dual constitution of the human being as body and soul....The virtue of ‘living according to nature’ was precisely that of harmonizing the demands of these two aspects of one’s being.” (91) This, he says, has always been the substance of Christianity’s concern with the body, which has not been a matter of dissing the body, as commonly charged, but of insisting that the requirements and instincts of body and soul be properly harmonized. In reflecting on this harmony, O’Donovan says, “the erotic body, in fact, stands out as the exceptional moment in the repertoire. Here the body conveys a hint of eternity that calls us from beyond it; here it reaches out to point beyond itself.” (93) If we fail to take note of this point, a point that the Western moral tradition has consistently insisted upon, then we treat the erotic body as an end in itself, and run into all kinds of trouble. “If we fail to inquire what the erotic body is a medium for, then we end up investing our perfectly ordinary experiences of sexual attraction with an ontological weight that is, in fact, a borrowed transference, and in our confusion we fail to understand either ourselves or our bodies. We cannot and should not take that moment of rapture in the presence of the beautiful body quite at its face value--though we cannot and should not ignore it, either. We must interrogate it for its meaning.” (94) This little section is something of a digression from O’Donovan’s argument at this point, but it lays important groundwork for the seventh essay.
Returning to his critique of Adams, he addresses Adams’s reticence to use the category of creation to ground the “natural” and provide moral norms. Adams feels that since we must talk of a creation that is fallen, it’s impossible to tell what of the world around us is a natural created good and what is an unnatural fallen evil. “We can only pretend to do this, he fears, on the basis of ‘presuppositions’ about the purposes or commands of God, which look as though they are smuggled in to make sense of a creation that, on its own, is unable to tell the difference between good and evil.” (95) “But this,” O’Donovan counters, “is altogether too skeptical. There are some value distinctions we may make quite clearly simply by reflecting upon the way the world works.” (95) If we are not to discard our basic intuition that life is better than death, something that only the most radical nihilist is prepared to do, then we may make considerable progress in discerning the differences between created goods and fallen evils by determining what things lead toward death and what things avail towards life. The ruddy cheek after a healthy jog and the flushed cheek of a high fever are not indiscriminable, to use O’Donovan’s example.
This being the case (and we might add, with the addition of Scripture to clarify our intuitions--something O’Donovan fails to mention here, but which he would certainly insist upon, given his statements about Scripture earlier in the book), we may look to creation to discern God’s purposes for the world. That which coheres with the structure of God’s good creation is morally good; that which appears to contradict it, such as homosexuality, would seem to be unnatural and therefore morally bad, unless we can discern some purpose of God in it which reconciles the apparent contradiction.
Refusing to root the good in creation, Adams thinks that the three basic purposes of sex--procreation, union, and cooperation, can be separated, so that each of these goods can be pursued in isolation from the others, ungrounded in observed created reality. This “construes God’s purposes in a purely voluntarist and arbitrary sense, detaching them from the philosophical task of understanding the goods of human existence as we find it....Once we separate God’s purposes in creation from the inherent goods of creaturely existence, there is little reason to hold on to the view that God meant anything at all by making the world.” (98)
Since the good cannot be found in created “beginnings,” Adams seeks to locate the good in “the future,” in the revelation of God’s eschatological purrposes, but paradoxically these are “then assumed to be immediately accessible to moral judgment!” as O’Donovan incredulously exclaims. How are we to discern the future revelation of the good but through a narrative of an eschatology that begins in and fulfills created goodness? “For without the love of what is, the ‘new creation’ is an empty symbol--or is it a clanging cymbal? New creation is creation renewed, a restoration and enchancement, not an abolition. Not everything that can be thought of as future can be thought of as the kingdom of God. A brave new world of cyborgs is not a kingdom of God. God has announced his kingdom in a Second Adam, and ‘Adam’ means ‘Human.’” (99)
This final triumphant broadside leaves Adams’s arguments in ruins, but O’Donovan, always the gentlemen, moves in at the end to pick up his opponent, dust him off, and see if he still has anything valuable to contribute. O’Donovan finds something valuable to glean from Adams’s defense of homosexuality--Adams attempts to articulate the gay identity in terms of vocation. This, thinks O’Donovan, may prove to be fruitful. However, it must be subject to the strictures articulated in this chapter--a Christian vocation must be a truly and properly human vocation; it may well be a unique fulfillment of the created goodness that belongs to us all, but it cannot be a contradiction of it. “A ‘vocation’ is a special calling to a distinct good, different from that to which others are called” but it must be “a true way of realizing goods that are for all humankind.” Goya, he says, may have had a legitimate vocation to depict the horrific in his art; Hitler and Attila did not have a legitimate vocation to realize the horrific in their actions.
If we are to find a place for homosexuality within a Church bound to respect the goods of creation and to pursue their fulfillment in new creation, then we will need to discover a way in which gays may contribute distinct goods to the community of faith without abandoning the general good which all are called to respect. This is O’Donovan’s task in the seventh essay.
There is, I think, nothing that is controversial for us in this defense of creation and nature, so I am tempted to hasten on and deal with much more interesting and potentially controversial seventh essay. However, I am going to wait until the end of next week, until after I meet to discuss the homosexuality issue with a well-respected Anglican priest here who is a defender of homosexual ordination. In this meeting, I am trying to follow the model of dialogue that O’Donovan sets forth in chapter 2:
The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced.
The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.
I look forward to sharing any insights that I may clean from this dialogue, and I will do so when I put up the review of O’Donovan’s chapter 7, next week.