Niall Ferguson's Empire continues to baffle and dismay. It's almost as if he wrote his introduction before he set out to work on his book, and then never went back to revise it. Supposedly, his goal was to vindicate the British Empire against its harsher critics, to show that it was "on balance a good thing."
And yet the tale he has told has been one of almost unremitting greed, oppression, exploitation, deception, and murder. Perhaps "unremitting" is strong...after all, it obviously wasn't Genghis Khan's empire; it obviously exercised restraint and chivalry, but so do most bands of brigands, it turns out. As the story of British expansion in Africa dragged mournfully on, I found myself, at the outbreak of the Boer War, enthusiastically cheering on the Boers, and wishing them success against the evil empire. Of course, I knew it was vain, but I didn't know just how appalling the outcome was to be.
After a costly and difficult defeat of the vastly outnumberd Boer forces, the British occupied their capital of Bloemfontein, only to find that the Boers were not ready to surrender, but would continue fighting on in the countryside. The solution? Burn down all their homes and farms, and herd their wives and children into concentration camps, camps where nearly a third of them would die in the next two years. Meanwhile, the British officers dined and danced in Bloemfontein, waiting for the Boers to give up. Ferguson provides this nauseating vignette:
"Meanwhile, at the Bloemfontein residency, the band played on. Eventually, after several months of the Gay Gordons and Strip the Willow, the ballroom floor began to wear thin. To avoid any mishaps befalling officers' wives, the old floorboards obviously had to be replaced, and so they were. Happily for the accounts of the officers' mess, a use was found for the old ones. They were sold to Boer women to make coffins for their children, at the cost of 1 pound 6 shillings a plank."
By the end of this narrative, I found myself eagerly wishing the British to get their comeuppance in the First World War.
Apparently sensing that his reader may be feeling this way, Ferguson interrupts his narrative to defend the empire shortly before beginning his narration of World War I. The important thing, he insists, is that, for all its faults, the British Empire was considerably more benign than the other empires at this time--the French, Germans, and French were far more brutal in their treatment of their African colonies, and the Russians and Japanese had horrible track records in Asia. Indeed, it was by expending its strength in nobly and self-sacrificially resisting these much more evil empires, rather than by being rebelled against by angry subjects, that the British Empire collapsed. The first claim holds, I think, little water. I should scarcely justify my personal sins by pointing out that at least I am not quite as wicked as my neighbor next door. And I do not think that, as Christian, we can successfully argue (as Ferguson tries to do) that an evil and oppressive institution should be supported and and defended if it serves the important purpose of restraining even more evil and oppressive institutions. This seems to be the Neuhaus defense of the American Empire: Sure we may be wicked and exploitative, but if we weren't monopolizing the exploitation business, other, much more sinister people would be doing it instead. We can thank God in his providence for allowing the lesser rather than the greater evil to hold sway for a time, but we can scarcely join a marching band and start cheering on the lesser evil, or assist in a PR campaign trying to prove that it's not so bad, after all.
As far as the second claim--Britain's noble self-sacrifice in the struggle against the more evil empires--that may be so. Certainly, there was more self-interest than self-sacrifice in Britain's conduct of foreign policy from 1914-1950...the sacrifices were more necessary than voluntary. But perhaps it is so that Britain did, in some measure, atone for her previous imperial sins in these years by the staggering sacrifice she bore in the struggle against a considerably more amoral Germany (twice) and Japan. And for that, whatever our reservations about the justness of the wars, we may offer her some somber appreciation and respect.
In my ongoing research on OT economic laws, I came across a book called Theonomy: An Informed Response in the basement of the New College Library. A blast from the past, if ever there was one. Theonomy was all the rage in my little circles during my first years of theological awareness (2002, perhaps?), though my little circles were rather late to the party, and theonomy was certainly already on its way out. It has since disappeared with scarcely a trace, another victim to the changing tides of theological fads. Its leading adherents have scattered to the four winds, and, except for a few die-hards laboring on in obscurity, have shoved their old theonomic garments into the dark recesses of their theological closets and have emerged well-clad and well-shaven, trying their best to look respectable.
One such former theonomite was the now Right Reverend Ray Sutton, and it was his article in the book, dealing as it did with issues of poverty and economics, that caught my eye. Turns out that it was a response to objections that theonomy didn't have much concern for the poor, indeed, was downright callous about the problems of relieving poverty. I was intrigued. After all, from my study of OT economic law thus far, I would think that if anyone was concerned about the poor, sensitive to their plight,a and aggressive about helping them, it would be those who wanted to return fully to the laws of the Torah. After all, there has been scarcely any law code in history which did so much to try to help the economically disadvantaged. How could theonomists be accused of such things? Surely Sutton would vindicate their cause!
Well, not really. In fact, he quoted George Grant more than he quoted the Torah, and although he repeatedly insisted that theonomists cared very much about helping poor, he repeatedly spoke of the need to give aid only with conditions attached, and to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Only the deserving, it seems, should be the objects of our charity. Now where do you get this in the Bible? I agree with Sutton that modern state welfare systems are broken; that they make problems worse instead of better, because they give handouts instead of real help. Charity does need to involve responsibility and accountability. But Sutton's way of talking about this is certainly not Scripture's. Where do we see the language of "charity with conditions" or of "the deserving poor" in Christ's ministry? The whole point of Christ, as I understood, was the unconditionality of his love and the undeservingness of our condition. But, admittedly, theonomists want to follow the OT law, not gospel law. But where does the OT law share our conservative obsession with helping only the deserving poor, and doing so only with conditions attached to make sure they don't abuse our help? Does the Sabbath legislation say, "And in the seventh year, you shall forgive all debts, but only upon the condition that the forgiven debtor proves himself responsible and godly in his use of money. If you think he might use the debt-forgiveness as an excuse to squander and gamble, then by all means, refuse to forgive it"?? Or does the gleaning provision say, "Leave the corners of your field for the poor, but observe the poor as they come along and only allow the deserving and godly poor to come glean"??
The most striking feature of Biblical principles of charity is how indiscriminate, unconditional, and seemingly careless they are. How could anyone possibly spin them into a confirmation of conservative parsimony?
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immoral, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
O Almighty God, Who sent Thy Son into our darkness that we might come into Thy light, give us the eyes of faith, that we might see clearly in the twilight of this present age, until the Sun of Righteousness returns in glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and with the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
You can already see this in the upper right of this blog, but in case you hadn't, I want to draw your attention to the excellent little piece on First Things, "The End of Advent."
Joseph Bottum eloquently summarizes the disgust that many of us feel at the absurd bloatation and consumerization of the Christmas season, which has now devoured all of Advent and a couple weeks of pre-Advent, and in the process, has devoured much of the joy and magic which once belonged to Christmas.
I confess that my angst over this phenomenon has not been so strong this year, as I found myself yearning for Christmas as soon as November began...no doubt a combination of homesickness and of the earlier shortening of the days. Plus, Edinburgh has the most amazing Christmas festival, which started on Thursday, and which my wife and I visited just today...a truly magical (if overcrowded) German Christmas Market. So this year, it was perhaps not the expansion of the length of Christmas that has bothered me so much, as the consumerization of it--turning it into the greatest engine the world has yet seen for tricking people into spending way more money than they have any business spending on all manner of stuff that no one ever needs.
In any case, Bottum has the right idea for how to combat this capitalist cultural malaise--liturgy. If we can get back to a true observance of Advent-not-Christmas in our churches up until Christmas Eve, then we in the Christian community can make gradual headway toward restoring Christmas to its rightful place
I posted earlier about the ambiguous history of evangelicalism's relationship with imperialism, as sketched in Niall Ferguson's Empire. I'm afraid that the story hasn't gotten much better, and that an old hero of mine, David Livingstone, has been a casualty of the new revelations. Not of course that Livingstone turned out to be wicked or anything like that...just ambiguous. Turns out that he wasn't really a very successful missionary; in fact, it was the stubborn failure of Africans to convert that led him to turn explorer. This decision signaled a a crucial shift in philosophy that was to have great influence on British colonial policy--no converts without commerce. Livingstone decided that the spiritual and moral improvement of Africa could not be accomplished without a prior economic improvement that was to take the form of British colonization and commerce into the heart of Africa. Thus did evangelicalism hitch its wagon to the horse of capitalism long before such atrocities as Jon Schneider reared their ugly heads. Now, how much of this was a bad thing is hard to say. Undoubtedly, the influx of British commerce did much to raise African peoples out of their darkness; but we all know about its terrible exploitation as well.
While Livingstone failed at this mission in his life, his follower, Henry Morton Stanley, did not. But, though also an evangelical Christian, Stanley's methods were not Livingstone's. Stanley preferred guns and gunboats to Bibles and medicine. Among other evils, he was infamous for helping the king of Belgium establish the brutal slave-colony of Belgian Congo. Defending himself against charges of violence and brutality, he said, "the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision."
Learning all this dispelled the halo of idealized sanctity that earlier influences in my life had bestowed on Livingstone and Stanley, and it also offered more evidence in refutation of James Jordan's careless charge against the Anglo-Catholic movement--that it helped fuel the imperial exploitation of the Victorian age. (Jordan argues that this was a natural consequence of Anglo-Catholicism's use of images in worship!) Not only does this charge fail because the imperial exploitation had been going on for long before the Oxford Movement, and was, in fact, ameliorated in many ways during the latter half of the century, but it fails more decisively because, if anyone was complicit in the evils of imperialism, it was the evangelicals, far more than the Anglo-Catholics.
Of course, it's best not to indulge in historical finger-pointing among Christian groups. We are all guilty in our own ways. But, I did think it worth offering yet another rebuttal against Jordan's odd accusations.
In Ancient Israel's Criminal Law, Anthony Phillips argues that the death penalty in ancient Israel functioned neither for the purpose of strict retribution nor for deterrence, the standard grounds upon which it has been defended by Christians and still is in many circles. Rather, when a capital crime was committed, the covenant with Yahweh had been radically severed, and the whole community was liable to suffer God's wrath. The criminal therefore had to be executed to appease God's wrath and restore the covenant relationship. In other words, though Phillips does not quite use this terminology, the death penalty had almost a more cultic than judicial function; it was conceptually quite close to the sacrificial system.
If this is true, it offers a rather straightforward route for denying the death penalty's continuing relevance in the New Covenant. Christ has satisfied Yahweh's wrath once and for all and guarantees that the covenant will never be broken, that God's mercy will never depart from his people. No crime, then, can damage that relationship so as to invite God's wrath requiring the death of the offender. This argument does not, of course, demonstrate that the death penalty is necessarily wrong and wicked, only that there is no Christian basis for supporting it.
A sparkling gem of a quotation mined from Wendell Berry's fantastic The Unsettling America, which offers innumerable other nuggets of brilliance to be mined (or perhaps, to choose a metaphor more to his liking, kernels of brilliance to be gleaned):
"The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists--people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character, workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility....
"The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals--or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at a cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.
"The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people's. He wishes he had been born sooner, or later. he does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties."
My friend and erstwhile pastor Toby Sumpter just posted some excellent thoughts about why Republicans aren't prolife--"Muslim school kids aren’t as cute as American babies," why Obama's not much to worry about--"I don’t trust Obama, but I didn’t trust any of his predecessors either," and not much to get excited about either--"Obama was elected primarily for his smooth words and good looks," and why Sarah Palin might actually be better than the alternatives--"It would be a human in office and not a machine. It would be a person for a change."
I took issue with him on the last point, but it's definitely worth checking out.
In listening to Niall Ferguson’s Empire (on audiobook) lately, I’ve encountered some rather depressing anecdotes about evangelicalism, which show that its recent complicity with injustice is nothing new.
Consider this: We all know about John Newton, right? Author of “Amazing Grace” and other hymns, great evangelical preacher, former slave trader who converted and became a leader of the anti-slavery movement. Great story, right? Well, except for one little detail. Newton’s evangelical conversion took place before he became the captain of a slave ship. It was only after several years as a slave trader that it occurred to him that his Christian duties might conflict with his occupation. Modern evangelical blindness on the Third World Debt problem seems to have plenty of historical precedent.
In another depressing episode, Ferguson tells the story of the great Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857, which was largely a response to the missionary movement; the Indians felt that their religion was threatened, and so they rose in rebellion against the British. Now, I have no problem with the missionaries making the Indians feel threatened about their religion, but it is the response to the rebellion that is deeply troubling. The missionary societies and the evangelicals were the loudest voices calling for vengeance without mercy against the rebels. “In churches all over the country, the theme of the Sunday sermon shifted from redemption to revenge,” Ferguson says. He offers an extended quote from a sermon at the time by none other than Charles Spurgon, which he characterizes as a “call to holy war: “The Hindus’ worship necessitates all that is evil, and morality must put it down. The sword must be taken out of its sheath, to cut off our fellow subjects by their thousands.”
It was all chillingly reminiscent of the evangelical response to 9/11, in which the part of the US population that most fervently claimed to be washed by the blood of Jesus became the most bloodthirsty part.
It has become fashionable recently in Christian capitalist circles to define capitalism along the lines of “an economic system based on respect for private property.” If this is what capitalism is, then of course we should defend it, right?
The chief objection to this is that it’s completely arbitrary and unhistorical. To define capitalism this way is to define it strictly in opposition to socialism and communism. But the problem is that socialism and communism arose as reactions to capitalism, not vice versa. Capitalism pre-dated the major challenges to the notion of private property, so how could capitalism’s essence be “a respect for private property” given that it arose in a setting where private property was taken for granted? Obviously the essence of capitalism is not a respect for private property, even if that may be a part of it.
But it turns out, that’s not even a part of it. Capitalism is the rejection, the destruction, of private property, at least for most of the population. So Hannah Arendt fascinatingly points out in The Human Condition. See, Arendt points out that property and wealth are simply not the same thing, as we tend to take for granted that we are. We’re obsessed with private wealth in the modern world, but private property is increasingly non-existent. “It is easy to forget,” she says, “that wealth and property, far from being the same, are of an entirely different nature. The present emergence everywhere of actually or potentially very wealthy societies which at the same time are essentially propertyless, because the wealth of any signle individual consists of his share in the annual income of society as a whole, clearly shows how little these two thigns are connected.”
Property, you see, is not simply any worldly good of value, but is one’s personal share of the productive capacity of the world, it is, in its most basic for, land, and historically speaking, was fairly fixed and inalienable. One was born into and died on one’s property; one did not constantly exchange it for other pieces of property. Wealth is something quite different; wealth is transient, consumable, and in itself unproductive. To have property was the basis for freedom, to lack it was to be a slave, even if one had a fair bit of wealth, as many slaves did.
Capitalism, as a simple historical fact, Arendt observes, has never been particularly interested in the value of private property, but in fact originated in the widespread expropriation of it, and is much more interested in the amassing of private wealth: “The enormous and still proceeding accumulation of wealth in modern society, which was started by expropriation--the expropriation of the peasant classes which in turn was the almost accidental consequence of the expropriation of Church and monastic property after the Reformation--has never shown much consideration for private property but has sacrificed it whenever it came into conflict with the accumulation of wealth.” Moreover, the central value of private property--its permanence--which made it the basis of freedom and security, is undermined within modern capitalism, which has seen “the progressing transformation of immobile into mobile property until eventually the distinction between property and wealth, between the fungibiles and the consumptibiles of Roman law, loses all significance because every tangible, “fungible” thing has become an object of “consumption”; it lost its private use value which was determined by its location and acquired an exclusively social value determined through its ever-changing exchangeability whose fluctuation could itself be fixed only temporarily by relating it to the common denominator of money.”
This account resonates with Hilaire Belloc’s thesis in The Servile State, which is that capitalism arose via the expropriation of the widely-distributed private property from small landholders into the hands of large landowners. By the beginning of the industrial revolution, there was already a small minority property-owning class and a large majority property-less class. Naturally, then, the course that industrial capitalism took was one in which industry was not cooperative, but was owned by a small capitalist class, which oversaw and increasingly exploited a large working class. (Arendt points out that the whole existence of the “working class” is a modern invention, and was unknown in antiquity and the Middle Ages, where the free man was not a mere laborer, but a property-owner who lived off the produce of his own capital.)
All this of course sheds tremendous light on the meaning of the Old Testament economic laws, which are usually thoroughly misunderstood when we try to read into them modern capitalist/socialist dichotomies of property ownership. On the one hand, capitalist Christians, convinced that what capitalism stands for is “private property,” look at the Torah and assume that the whole point of the laws is to insist upon private ownership of property, but then they don’t know what to do with all the redistribution, which seems kinda socialist. Liberals see all the redistribution, and assume that there’s a more communal understanding of property, but then they don’t know what to do with the emphasis that each family receives and holds his patrimony.
In light of Arendt and Belloc’s analysis, though, it becomes crystal clear. The Torah t is deeply concerned with protecting private property, but not private wealth per se. It understands that private property is necessary for freedom, but precisely for that reason, it resists the private right to the continual acquisition of property (which is what capitalism means by private property rights). Private property is so important that it must be safeguarded by redistribution; if a family is deprived of their property, their fixed piece of land, given by God for them to use for their own and the community’s benefit, then that property must be restored to them via the regular resetting processes of the sabbath year and Jubilee. This puts a tight lid on the process of wealth accumulation that tends to devour the stability of property, and the process of expropriation of property by the strong from the weak. In other words, private property is a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause of economic freedom and justice; careful regulation of the use and acquisition of that property is also necessary, lest one person’s property become a means of destroying another’s.
Today I passed David Hume's grave in the old Edinburgh Graveyard. It was adorned with a dramatic memorial, which had, prominently inscribed upon it, the words "But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." This was initially puzzling, as Hume didn't really believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or in any such victory.
But then it occurred to me that Hume himself had not inscribed this, but the townspeople, after his death. Perhaps this exclamation was their way of expressing their sentiments at the termination of Professor Hume's life.
Here's some informal thoughts on Yoder's The Christian Witness to the State that I typed up for our class discussion.
I’ve always been a fan of Yoder, but I was particularly impressed and surprised by this book, which defied the typical portrayal of Yoder, Hauerwas, et. al. as being sectarian, isolated, disengaged, unable to engage the state constructively at all, etc. In this book, Yoder argues that, while the consistent Christian will not be able to participate in many of the state’s activities, and must always protest against the state’s violence as wrong, this does not mean that the Christian cannot offer constructive advice to the state about how to be, if not more virtuous, at least less vicious.
At first glance, Yoder seems to be inappropriately compromising the unalterable principles of Christian ethics. If Christian ethics really says, “Do not kill” then shouldn’t we maintain that staunchly and absolutely, and never dilute it to “Ok, well, don’t kill in certain particularly egregious ways and circumstances”? And yet, upon further consideration, we have to do this sort of thing all the time, unless we give up entirely the idea of giving ethical counsel to unbelievers. Indeed, some Christians tend to go to this extreme: true virtue is possible only in Christ, therefore all we should do is convert unbelievers; no point in trying to get them to do anything good otherwise. Perhaps if the only concern were their own souls, this would be a valid point--if it is true that good ethics apart from Christ will not save them, then let’s not waste time on works-salvation. But it’s not. Their actions affect others, and thus it is important that we exhort them to do actions that are less evil, less harmful--if not for their own justification before God, then at least for the aid of those who might otherwise suffer from their actions.
So, I think Yoder is absolutely justified in saying, “Even if we believe that all war is wrong; we can nevertheless appeal to the State to engage in just war, war that may well do more good than harm.”
But I have a couple questions about Yoder’s approach. Is it coherent to claim that a certain kind of action is necessary and yet sinful? I have serious trouble getting my head around this idea. Yoder claims at several points that the function of the civil magistrate, although it is ultimately wrong for a Christian, is nonetheless necessary in our fallen world to restrain evil. I don’t see how we can maintain that certain actions need to be done by someone in society and yet still condemn those actions as unethical...this kind of approach can lead to a dangerous kind of relativism of the sort that justifies torture, etc., the justificaiton that says that even if it’s evil, it’s necessary and so it must be done-- “well, someone’s gotta get their hands dirty.” Or is Yoder saying it’s not unethical, so long as it’s done by unbelievers? It would be wrong for Christians to do, but is right for unbelievers? If so, this kind of claim creates even more problems.
Second, I have some concerns about how Yoder intends the idea of “middle axioms.” On the one hand, Christians are supposed to appeal to non-Christians in terms of ideas and principles that will make sense to the latter, yet on the other hand, they are not supposed to relinquish their core Christian commitments and pretend to a secular neutrality. Yoder seems to try to emphasize both of these. But I’m a little unsure about where he comes down. Are Christians supposed to check their Christian beliefs in at the door in order to appeal to politicians in terms of general ethical principles, or do we appeal to them always as Christians, reminding them that our concern over the particular ethical issue under debate is just the tip of the iceberg?
Finally, is the state, the civil authority, always and unchangeably characterized as bearer of the sword. The striking thing about the Old Testament prophets’s vision of the redeemed world is that, while they insist that there will be no more war, and swords will be beaten into ploughshares, yet the imagery that characterizes this New Creation is thoroughly political. Must all political rule pass away, or can we imagine a transfiguration of politics so that we still have princes and magistrates, but ones who order society without violence? Maybe not, but it’s at least worth a thought experiment.
When I read Thomas Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed, I didn't think much of his mantra, that all societal reform is based upon unavoidable tragic trade-offs, rather than fix-all solutions. It was clearly the product of a Stoic, not Christian, worldview, and I was appalled that Christian leaders that I knew readily espoused it.
While my concern about the larger worldview issue remains, I am forced to admit that perhaps Sowell was right about the need to remind the American people of the simple principle of logic that there's, in the ordinary course of political events, no free lunch. Indeed, I was reminded in such a forceful way that I almost concluded that the time has surely come for America to drop the silly charade of government by the people, when the people in question are clearly mentally unqualified to exercise such government. At the same time, I found myself actually taken aback at the extent of American selfishness, which is a pretty remarkable occurrence, given that I'm scarcely one to harbor rosy illusions about the American social conscience.
All these reactions were prompted by a delightful little article I stumbled across: "Americans fret over health overhaul costs." The article begins unexcitingly by stating "Americans are worried about hidden costs in the fine print of health care overhaul legislation, an Associated Press poll says." Oh really? Well, that's hardly surprising given that the legislation's about 2,000 pages long. No doubt there's lots of fine print and hidden costs. Well...turns out, that's not what the article's about...indeed, the matters for concern never even get down to the level of the large print of the legislation, but stay in the realm of elemental logic, which apparently is now a bit too much for the inebriated consumerist American mind to grasp. The poll found that "When poll questions were framed broadly, the answers seemed to indicate ample support for Obama's goals. When required trade-offs were brought into the equation, opinions shifted — sometimes dramatically." Sowell's right to an extent...in political policies, there will generally be tradeoffs, at least when viewed from the perspective of individual goods. Apparently, many Americans had not paused to consider this fact. Here's a couple of the "hidden costs" that the poll found turned people off.
Turns out that most Americans do not support a ban on denying coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions. Seriously? I thought everyone thought that such a practice was wicked! Well, yeah, 82% of people want to get rid of it. But....
"In the AP poll, when told that such a ban would probably cause most people to pay more for health insurance, 43 percent said they would still support doing away with pre-existing condition denials, but 31 percent said they would oppose it."
No! Seriously? Wait, let me see if I've got this right...requiring insurance companies to insure people with pre-existing conditions would mean higher premiums? I can't believe it! Well, apparently half of the American populace had trouble grasping this concept.
But this next one was my personal favourite:
"Asked if everyone should be required to have at least some health insurance, 67 percent agreed and 27 percent said no.
The responses flipped when people were asked about requiring everybody to carry insurance or face a federal penalty: 64 percent said they would be opposed, while 28 percent favored that." Now, hang on a moment....You're telling me that 67% of Americans want everyone to be required to have health insurance, but only 28% want them to be penalized for not having it? Now, just exactly what did the other 39% have in mind by "require"? Perhaps a moral exhortation: "Congress strongly encourages the American people to buy health insurance. We would be greatly displeased if they did not." Or more like guidelines, really: "Everyone is required to have health insurance. But, who's to say exactly what this means...as long as you sorta have it...or intend to have it...I guess that's alright." I suppose this same 39% thinks that speed limits ought to be enforced exclusively by admonitions, without the traffic tickets that might infringe our liberty.
Of course, the problem is that this is not "just a poll." Our government is a government by the poll, for the poll, and of the poll. Before any conceivable political decision is made, the American people are first asked their opinion, and then asked over and over and over again to see if they might have changed their minds (or acquired minds, perhaps). Every politician keeps one ear pressed firmly to the keyhole of public opinion, not daring to do any independent thinking or leading. Unfortunately, public opinion hasn't done much in the way of thinking either, which means that, if politicians are relying on the American people to think for them, we are approaching a critical condition of brain death in American public life.
Perhaps more frightening than the loss of the powers of rationality--of theoretical reason--among our populace is the loss of our powers of practical reason, our moral sensibilities. A young woman named Kate Kuhn (no relation, I trust, to the famed philosopher of science) is quoted as representative of the American mentality on the health care issue: "Well, for one, I know nobody wants to pay taxes for anybody else to go to the doctor — I don't....I don't want to pay for somebody to use my money that I could be using for myself." Aside from the logical problem (isn't that kinda what all health insurance is all about? Me paying for other people to get medical care, so that, when I too need medical care, their money will help pay for my care?) such a sentiment is morally reprehensible. Note that she did not say "I don't want to pay taxes for anybody else to go to the doctor; I think taxes to the government are an inefficient way of making sure people get the health care they need." Nor did she say, "I don't want to pay taxes for anybody else to go to the doctor; I'd rather support smaller organizations like churches to provide for that." No, it's "I don't want to pay taxes for anybody else to go to the doctor, because I don't want somebody to use money that I could be using for myself." Consider actually sacrificing some of my own considerable resources to provide for the urgent needs of another human being? Come on, man! What ever happened to American self-reliance? Let them pay for their own darn medical bills.
I could say again, "How the glory hath departed" but I tend to be a skeptic that there ever was such glory in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
On the lighter side of things, check out this article. Looks like the public school system, facing deficient mental performance, has taken a cue from the medieval church's solution to deficient spiritual performance.
Labels: current events
I've been studying Kierkegaard's Works of Love thoroughly of late, in preparation for a presentation in Ethics class tomorrow, and I've decided to use the opportunity to get back into Kierkegaard in a serious way, and to get a real handle on what is a profound treasure-trove of Christian ethical insight. For now, I'm posting here the summary of the first six sections (the assigned reading) that I typed up for my classmates.
Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, written in 1847 as part of the second phase of his authorship, under his own name, is one of his most pastoral writings, and one of the most powerful meditations on the meaning of the command “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In Luke 10, Christ tells his most famous parable in answer to a question about the meaning of just this command, a question from someone “desiring to justify himself.” Christ cuts through all our self-justifying attempts to limit neighbor-love only to people whom we know and already love, to people who are lovable, and to cases where doing so is feasible and convenient. No, loving the neighbor means loving the stranger, loving the enemy, loving the one whom no one else will love, loving when it is out of the way and inconvenient. Christ also cuts off the self-justification that, while it may be happy to universalize love of neighbor, does so by an abstract or sentimental love, which fails to manifest itself in concrete action. No, the Good Samaritan loves his neighbor precisely in taking diligent action to aid that neighbor.
These crucial features of neighbor love that Christ’s parable shows us, as well as many more, appear throughout Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Kierkegaard, like Jesus, had a razor-sharp eye for the sinner’s effort to justify himself, even in the midst of doing good. In this text, he repeatedly calls attention to the ways in which, by loving some people more than others, or by loving others instead of God, or by loving God instead of loving others, or by loving others with externals only, or with internals only, we in fact merely indulge in various perverted forms of self-love, and justify it to ourselves as true love. However, this is not to say that Kierkegaard falls into the trap of Edwards and makes self-love as such the antithesis of true love; rather, he takes very seriously the “as yourself” part of the commandment, and repeatedly insists that Christian love of God contains in itself the proper form of love of self. While maintaining the Augustinian emphasis that love of God is the source and centre of all true Christian love, without which any love will go astray, he constantly resists the temptation to make this a basis for marginalizing or instrumentalizing the neighbor; it is not that we love the other merely as a tool for loving God (as Augustine occasionally seems to say), but more that loving God is the only way that we can rightly love the other.
Kierkegaard’s summary statement of all this, in “Love is the Fulfilling of the Law,” is “Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: a person--God--a person, that is, that God is the middle term....if God and the relationship with God have been omitted, then this, in the Christian sense, has not been love but a mutually enchanting defraudation of love. To love God is to love oneself truly; to help another person to love God is to love another person; to be helped by another person to love God is to be loved.”
I could say much more by way of introduction, but I will save that for class, and use the remainder of this post to summarize as briefly as possible (though it will still take a while) each of the sections we read, and raise a question for discussion after each one.
Love’s Hidden Life and Its Recognizability By Its Fruits
In this first section, Kierkegaard explores the paradox of the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of love. On the one hand, love cannot be reduced to any external set of actions, because no merely external action is sufficient to prove that love is present; we could be deceived by hypocrisy. Moreover, love must be hidden, in that its true source lies in God, who is invisible. On the other hand, love is surely not merely a disposition; to be love, it must manifest itself in works of love, it must be recognizable by its fruits. But Kierkegaard resists a consequentialist ethic by insisting, not that the fruits actually be recognized, but that they must be able to be recognized. The tension between the hiddenness and visibility of love cannot be cleanly resolved; instead, Kierkegaard says that we must “believe in love,” and that only one who has love will be able to do so and recognize love in another.
Discussion question: How do you like the way that Kierkegaard deals with this tension? Is there a better way? Is it true that no set of actions, taken alone, necessarily manifests love?
You Shall Love
Here Kierkegaard introduces the command “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and explores the significance of the “as yourself,” which teaches a proper self-love, and not a perverse form that hides itself in a slavish devotion to the other, a devotion which secretly fulfills selfish desires. This command, Kierkegaard thinks, is striking and is original with Christianity, which is the first to dare to command love. Such a command seems repugnant to our sensibilities which glorify spontaneous, unforced love. But Kierkegaard maintains that “only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.” (29)
Discussion question: Is Kierkegaard right in saying that this notion of a command to love is original to Christianity?
You Shall Love the Neighbor
Here Kierkegaard expounds upon the notion of neighbor, which means, without exception, everyone. But the command to love the neighbor, Kierkegaard provocatively continues, is not merely something that we can add on top of the other kinds of love we are already engaged in, as if to say, “Oh right. I’ve been loving my wife and my friends, but I shouldn’t forget to love the neighbor too.” No, neighbor-love becomes the ruling category, to which all other loves must be subordinate. I must love my wife because she is a neighbor; no doubt there will still be unique duties here, but they will be specifications of the law of neighbor-love, not manifestations of a different duty of love altogether. Kierkegaard is as merciless in Edwards of purging Christian love of preferentiality; however, as we shall see, he does not thereby purge the neighbor of a face, as Edwards does.
You Shall Love the Neighbor
Here, Kierkegaard cuts off any attempt to make the neighbor-love command a kind of general basis for social reform. The command is not directed to society at large, but to each one of us. This is important because otherwise, if we attempt to show love to the neighbor by directly tackling the inequalities of earthly life, we may fail to attack the source of the inequality at the root, may fail to learn to see in the neighbor what in God’s eye he is. He illustrates this powerfully with Christ’s parable about the man inviting all the poor beggars to a banquet--the revolutionary thing here is not that he feeds the poor, but that he calls it a banquet, a celebration among friends and equals. “The one who feeds the poor--but still has not been victorious over his mind in such a way that he calls this meal a banquet--sees the poor and the lowly only as the poor and the lowly. The one who gives the banquet sees the neighbor in the poor and the lowly--however ludicrous this may seem in the eyes of the world.” (83)
Discussion Question: This section is perhaps the most problematic, because, however much we may value the point Kierkegaard is trying to make, it seems that he goes too far in this section by saying at times that Christianity is not concerned with resolving the external, temporal inequality; it simply sets it in proper perspective by focusing on the eternal equality. What do you think of this?
Love is the Fulfilling of the Law
Kierkegaard resists here the Law-Gospel distinction to which Lutheranism has oft fallen prey, and argues that the command of love is not an overturning of any of the Law’s provisions, but is in fact the proper specification of them; where, with all their multiplicity, they remained somewhat indefinite and unclear, the love command makes all clear. Then Kierkegaard brings the verse “Love is the fulfilling of the Law” into dialogue with the idea that “Christ is the end of the law.” Here, then, he develops his argument about how all other loves, when pursued as ends in themselves, collide with the Christian duty to love, since for the Christian, they must all be oriented around love of God. Christian love is true love of the other, because it is only possible to love the other truly by loving him through God, according to God’s requirements; but the other will often not see this love as love, but as hate, because it subordinates the desires of the other to God’s will, rather than making them paramount.
Discussion Question: In this view, is the other instrumentalized, made simply a means, an object of limited value that must always be sacrificed in order to properly love God? I think clearly not, but Kierkegaard is often read this way--what do you think?
Love is a Matter of Conscience
Here Kierkegaard’s point is again, from a somewhat different angle, to emphasize that the change which Christian love aims for is not a reconfiguration of external social relations. Rather, it is the change of relations at their very heart, at the internal level of conscience, before God, not before man. Christianity “does not wish to bring about any external change at all in the external sphere; it wants to seize it, purify it, sanctify it, and in this way make everything new while everything is still old. The Christian may very well marry, may very well love his wife, especially in the way he ought to love her, may ery well have a friend and love his native land; but yet in all this there must be a basic understanding between himself and God in the essentially Christian, and this is Christianity.” (145)
Discussion Question: Similar concerns as those of IIC arise here. It may be fine to say that Christianity aims not at externals, but at internals, knowing that this is the only true way to make a change in externals. But Kierkegaard seems to go to far in saying that Christianity doesn’t even care about externals. What do you think?
Very powerful passage from Works of Love, describing Christ’s parable about the man inviting all the lame, crippled, and beggars to a banquet--the revolutionary thing here, says Kierkegaard, is not that he feeds the poor (any charity can do that!), but that he calls it a banquet, a celebration among friends and equals.
“O my listener, does it seem to you that what has been set forth here is merely quibbling about the use of the word 'banquet'? Or do you not perceive that the dispute is about loving the neighbor? The one who feeds the poor--but still has not been victorious over his mind in such a way that he calls this meal a banquet--sees the poor and the lowly only as the poor and the lowly. The one who gives the banquet sees the neighbor in the poor and the lowly--however ludicrous this may seem in the eyes of the world.”
The other day I went to a book-release lecture for Theology After Darwin, open-minded (as I always am these days, you know) and interested in hearing how orthodox Christians have been able to reconcile Christianity with an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, and to learn whether my six-day creationist background hasn't been a bit too dogmatic about things. The Christian Darwinist tent looked roomier and more spacious than the creationist, so I stuck my nose in to check it out, and boy did it smell rotten. At the end of the hour and a half, I had been firmly kicked back into good 'ol Biblical absolutism.
The two presentations, by two contributors to the book, were not so much appalling (though there were certainly appalling moments), as just flat-out boring. At the end, the question I really wanted to raise my hand and ask was "So why'd you write the book again? Did you actually have something interesting to say?" Their main point seemed to be "Theologians figured out how to accommodate Christianity to Darwinism way back in the late 1800s, so we should just listen to what they said." Ok...so how is this an important contribution to the contemporary debate? I hardly heard a new interesting piece of information the whole time (except for a few historical details about the evolution of evolution theory), which is pretty remarkable given that I have barely studied this issue. And the couple times I did hear something new, it was indeed quite appalling.
See, these two fellows did not merely buy into a very old earth, or a very old origin of animal life, but a very old origin of human life as well. They accepted the standard Darwinian account of human evolution (as in the whole ape thing), which raises much more enormous theological problems than merely asserting that God brought plant and animal life into being through the long process of evolution. What becomes of the image of God, the uniqueness of man, Adam, the Fall, if humans gradually came into being, at several places in the world, from apes? Ah, well these two fellows had some very interesting answers to that question.
As far as the image of God, easy, right? Once men had developed sufficiently (Neanderthal, perhaps?), then God decided they were ready to receive "the image of God"; so God entered into a special relationship with man, and superimposed the image of God on man by divine fiat. But what about Adam, what about the Fall? What about "Through one man sin entered into the world"? Well, one of our speakers (the widely renowned Professor of Systematic Theology at New College!!) just waved his hand at the problem and said, "I don't see any reason why a historical Atonement requires a historical Fall; the Fall simply describes an ongoing human condition." The other fellow (who was a scientist, not a theologian) put a little more effort into addressing the problem. His solution was to say that, although when "Adam" was alive, many thousands of men would already be living in various places in the world, so that Adam was in no sense the natural head of humanity, nevertheless, God could constitute him as a federal head and impute his sin to everybody else alive at that time and afterward. Oh, OK, that makes sense. I suppose God could do that after all--I mean, God is God. Thus hath nineteenth-century federal theology gone to seed.
All this got me to thinking just how scary are the potential consequences when theology flings itself headlong into the arms of nominalism, as it had to do in order to consummate its elopement with Darwin. If Creation in itself, even that greatest and most important of all God's works, Man, bears no imprint of God's purpose for it from the outset, has no true nature that properly belongs to it, and God can simply declare for it an arbitrary nature and purpose whenever he wants, then the potential forms of man, the potential uses for nature, can be as varied as the scientist or theologian's imagination. Could we not suggest that, since God saw fit to declare a new nature and moral sensibility for man in the time of Adam, so God has seen fit to declare for man a new nature, a new kind of image, a Nietzschean Superman, for us in the present day? As O'Donovan says "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."
Another reason why I am not only clinging anew to Biblical absolutism, but to philosophical realism; my youthful love affair with nominalism is fast becoming a distant memory.
In the sixteenth-century, the Reformers (and especially the Puritans), determined to purge the churches of idolatry and Popish superstition, lashed out against the abominable screens that confined the laity in the back half of the Church, away from the altar, against the use of images in the church, and against the "vain repetition" of set prayers, among other things. Ironically, it seems that their hyper-Protestant successors are merely reintroducing the same things, in bastardized form. We attended an "Anglican" church recently that meets in a gorgeous neo-Gothic church building, one of the finest such structures in Edinburgh. But they had done their best to obliterate its beauty on the inside, going so far as to build new modern loft seating halfway up the walls, blocking out most of the beautiful stained glass that the builders had put there.
Worst of all, they had re-introduced a permanent screen, halfway up the nave, blocking from view most of the chancel and altar with its stunning architecture, carving, and windows. This screen, though, was no magnificently carved medieval rood-screen, but a massive projection screen for video and imagery. God's people are being kept from the altar, not for the sake of maintaining graded holiness, but for the sake of degraded ugliness, for the idol of the moving picture.
Which leads to my second point. The beautiful and holy images of the stained glass windows in the chancel are barely visible behind this screen, and what takes their place is the odd, meaningless, and artless imagery that was the constant backdrop projected onto the screen throughout the whole service. This imagery consisted of about a dozen green silhouettes of people in various random postures of everyday life--pushing a stroller, listening to music, etc. Instead of staring at the saints and the story of the Bible throughout the service, we stared up at vague shadows of ourselves in our ordinary, worldly pursuits. The most determined apologist might here find some good message about the breakdown of secular and sacred, but I'm skeptical.
Finally, projected onto this screen for nearly half the service were the words of various worship songs, all sung to basically the same vague and watery tune. And in these songs, we would quite often repeat the same vague and watery words over and over and over, sometimes singing the same line well over a dozen times in the course of a song. Though I tried my best to engage with my heart in the singing, I found myself constantly just repeating the words vainly, meaninglessly, an experience I have very rarely had in the most liturgical services. How ironic that we revolted against liturgy to avoid vain repetition, worship with the mouth but not the heart, and then reintroduced vain repetition in an infinitely less artful and much vainer and much more repetitive form.
How the glory hath departed!
Some thoughts I typed up in response to the recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate for Theology and the Global Economy class:
Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate is in some ways a breath of fresh air, but in other ways, leaves a nagging sense of “more of the same that got us into this mess.” It is refreshing to hear a Christian leader speaking out so authoritatively for causes that would be considered “liberal” or even “socialist” in my background, deemed to have little or nothing to do with Christianity’s values. It tickled me that Benedict speaks so casually at a number of points of the need for “redistribution of wealth”--a phrase that would give conservative American Christians a heart attack, or perhaps we should say a Red Scare. I appreciated in particular his emphasis on the need for both commutative and distributive justice in the marketplace, which really helped some things click into place for me. Capitalist ideology has insisted on the need for only commutative justice, and treated distributive justice only under the heading of “mercy,” and for whatever reason, conservative American Protestantism has leapt on board with that definition, jettisoning the traditional emphasis on the need for both.
However, despite being quite pleased with the document as a whole, I was left with some nagging concerns. First, what is the role of the State, and of large-scale political organizations, in all this reform that needs to happen? It seems to be a very large role for Benedict. He assumes the central importance of the State, and indeed, in many places, seems to want to increase its role as the institution that oversees justice in society and in the marketplace. In many places, he seems to be addressing this encyclical more toward national governments than to individuals, telling them the reforms they need to implement. But this seems to contradict his repeated insistence that economic justice is not possible without Christian truth and Christian love, in other words, the Augustinian dictum that we encountered in week 1 of this term--true justice between men is not possible unless God is being given his due. Now, if all this is true, and we can’t simply expect justice to come from improved human wisdom or good intentions, then how could we possibly expect economic justice to come from some of the most corrupt and godless engines of secularism in history--namely, national governments? Now, I admit my American anti-government bias, but still...it would seem that, on Benedict’s own principles, the state could not be the main source of this justice unless it first confessed Christ. Of course, he also puts a lot of faith in the UN, which seems to me even more dubious than most nation-states.
Second, what is the role of the Church? I was surprised that a Catholic--the Pope no less--who should have as high an ecclesiology as anyone, barely mentioned the Church as a social body. Is the Church’s role simply to act as the conscience of economic society, giving moral advice about how to run things better? Or is the Church supposed to act as a visible social body in economic society, acting out and living out more just means of exchange? It seems to me that the latter is more effective, and more in line with what we see in Scripture. I am willing to grant that the Church may well need to do both, but Benedict hardly mentioned the latter. I would like to see a creative exploration of the way in which the Church, as a body, can encourage just economic arrangements which lead to human flourishing, both in local congregations, and on a worldwide institutional level. I mean, the Catholic Church is a bigger worldwide institution than the UN, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t it be a greater institutional engine for bringing about charitable economics than the UN?
So I said that I was going to be meeting last week with a local Anglican clergymen who supported gay ordination and see what I could learn from him, and said that I was going to include the results in my review of O'Donovan chapter 7. It turned out that wasn't practical, so I'll lay out some of my resulting thoughts here. The three issues I'll explore are 1) the attempt to reconcile homosexual practice with Scripture, 2) the ramifications that the celibacy (permanent or temporary) of a gay clergyman may have on how we regard his ministry, 3) the teaching of the Church on the proper response to severely compromised churches and ministers.
First, here was his approach to the question of how homosexuality can be reconciled with Scripture. First, the Church has always been revising and expanding its interpretation of Scripture to address new situations; the tradition is not static, but always growing and developing. Now, of course this is indisputable, and though some of these revised interpretations prove later to have been foolish and hasty indeed, they have often proved valuable (e.g. the Reformation and justification). Of course, where the rubber meets the road is whether these new insights are in fact "reinterpretations" of Scripture, or just revisions. It's legitimate to interpret the text in a new way, or at least to try out a new interpretation (though it would be rash to try to implement it immediately in the Church), when it is really a matter of reading what's there in a new way that is consistent with what's on the page. But revising the text, "interpreting" it in a way that flatly contradicts it, is a different matter. Is there a way to defend homosexuality in a way that does not flatly contradict the text? Well, there's at least an attempt in certain circles--the argument runs that what is being condemned in these passages are culturally-specific forms of homosexuality that are reprehensible; e.g., promiscuous homosexuality, or the Greek pedophilic homosexuality. This would be similar to arguments (pretty standard among conservatives) that, e.g., the teachings regarding head-coverings were addressing a culturally-specific problem (not the best example, I know...supply your own). Stable conjugal homosexuality, on the other hand, is not what these condemnations have in mind.
Now, I find this argument highly doubtful, but I do at least appreciate the attempt to base the position on an interpretation of Scripture, instead of just tossing Scripture out the window and saying it's wrong and should be ignored. It seems to me that we should be able to treat Christians who mount such a defense differently than the latter, and, however much we disagree, still be in fellowship with them. As for Christians who think the Bible can just be chucked...well, two cannot walk together unless they are agreed on a point of such importance.
Second, what difference, if any, does it make if a gay minister is not actively homosexual? Well, there are three forms of this, of course. Type one would be a committed permanent celibate. In this case, the fact that he is "gay" is not particularly important; it is certainly not sinful as such. It may, perhaps, depending on how serious is the individual's struggle, be a reason why he should steer clear of the ministry, but it need not be. The homosexual inclination in itself is not any disqualification for a solid and holy ministry. Type two is that of someone who is merely between partners. They are not actively homosexual at the moment because they are not currently in a relationship, but they have no qualms about being so. In this case, the fact that they are "not actively homosexual" is of no moral relevance. But type 3 is more complex. It is that of a committed temporary celibate, that is, someone who does not see a problem with being in a conjugal, "marriage-like" homosexual relationship, but who is determined to remain celibate until such time as they are in such a relationship, just as a heterosexual should stay celibate until he or she is married.
Now, what is the nature of our objection to this person? We're not objecting to their homosexual inclination; that in itself is not culpable. We're not blaming them for their homosexual activity, because they are not, and have not been, active. We're blaming them for their views about the issue, their views which approve the possibility of their being active as something that is legitimate for them to do as a Christian, their views which clearly misunderstand the moral requirements of Christianity and especially of their office. Now, this is certainly a serious problem, but is it any different than the error of a heterosexual minister who held the same views--namely, that it was fine for a homosexual minister to pursue a conjugal partnership? We would have serious objections to a minister who taught such things, but it would an objection to wrong teaching and thinking, not sinful practice, still morally culpable perhaps, but not in the same degree. So, is the committed temporary celibate homosexual in a compromised sinful condition, over and above the intellectual error of his false understanding of the moral requirements for homosexuals? It would seem that there is still an additional objection we could raise, which is that in his case, unlike the case of the heterosexual sharing the same views, there is a sin of will, an openness to giving in to a temptation to sin. His is certainly a seriously compromised position.
However, this discussion raises the important question of whether the church whose minister is "Type 3" celibate homosexual is really more in the wrong, more compromised, than a church whose minister merely approves of such practice in principle. In what way do we relate to churches of these descriptions, and how do we fellowship with them? These are still questions I am struggling to answer, but the principles and distinctions discussed here provide, I think, some helpful direction.
Finally, then, an important part of this answer is provided by the twenty-sixth article from the Thirty-Nine Articles, which the priest read aloud and I found rather convicting:
"Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men."
I think we conservatives tend to forget this crucial and ancient doctrine of the Church. I posted before about how we need to be more concerned with admitting the corporate guilt that we share simply by being fellow-members in Christ with those who have perverted the Church, instead of being afraid of being tainted with guilt by associating too closely, or worshipping with such. But this pushes it even further. We do not incur new guilt simply by sitting under the ministry of an evildoer. Before, I had thought to myself, "Well, as long as you don't know he's an evildoer. Once you know he is, you must flee." But that's not what the 26th article says, nor what the teaching of the Church has historically said. "Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise." Wow. That means that even if you have an actively homosexual priest in the pulpit and at the altar, you do not sin by worshipping in the service he officiates, nor does he prevent you from truly worshipping God and receiving His grace, as long as you participate in faith.
Now, there may well still be strong prudential reasons for staying away, especially if your faith is not so strong as not to be distracted by your knowledge of the sins of the leader. But this article removes forever a strictly moral consideration from the question of "with whom or under whom may we legitimate worship" (as long as it is a Christian Church following genuinely Christian worship." I don't think we conservatives usually think that way. Instead, we tend to think that there are a whole list of abuses and sins, doctrinal and moral, on the part of clergy and churches, that are serious enough to basically bar these churches from consideration as places where you may lawfully worship. Where do we get that from? Article 26 tells us that the sins and errors of the ministers, while they should not be taken lightly, should be treated simply as one among a number of factors in determining the prudence of worshipping with a certain congregation. I think this principle is extremely important to keep in mind, both for individuals seeking to discern how to interact with and participate in severely compromised churches, and for whole denominations or groups of churches that are tempted to fall prey to a "this is the last straw; we gotta get outta here" attitude.
Of course, none of this is said to deny the latter part of article 26, which says, "Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed." Yes, church discipline needs to happen, but church discipline is not the same thing as--indeed, it is the opposite of--an uprising by individuals or particular churches to take matters into their own hands and decide who is and who isn't the Church.
So yesterday, while searching the New College library catalogue in search of a couple of books by John Milbank, I saw a title that jumped out at me: The Legend of Death: Two Poetic Sequences, published just last year. And yes, it was by John Milbank. The same Milbank who writes the labyrinthine, brain-dissolving prose of Theology and Social Theory, is, apparently, a poet. But I suppose that if poetry is, as Dr. Leithart says, "concentrated excess," then it makes sense, since Milbank's writing certainly fits that description. And if Milbank were to write poetry, it makes sense that he'd pick a melodramatic title like The Legend of Death.
Here's a sample, "Via Moderna":
The day vanishes
in its very dawning
We might have soared through it
like birds rushing upon the waters.
But all was lost at the outset:
with crumbling nuggets of darkness
like charcoal we signed the warrants
of our own fatal autonomy.
They were derived from
the buried remains of the wood
that must haunt us long after
the final axe-blow will have fallen.
For in reality it is the absolute trees
that are but shadowed
by the gusts of 'little things'
of our own nominal sad contriving.
Chapter 7, “Good News for the Gay Christian”
Now at last I embark on a review of the last chapter in this book, the most important, and the reason why I began these reviews in the first place. You may perhaps remember that I decided to embark on this lengthy defense and analysis of O’Donovan’s book in response to Douglas Wilson’s very harsh dismissal of it, which you can read here (beware the comments at the bottom). Oh, and by the way, here’s the link to the online version of O’Donovan’s book, which I failed to supply earlier in this series) I shall address the specific quotes that Wilson criticizes as they come up in the course of the chapter, but suffice to note here that Wilson seems to completely misunderstand what O’Donovan is doing in this chapter.
This time around, I shall work very carefully through the text, even more so than previous chapters, to guard against the kinds of misunderstandings that Wilson falls into. But, since that will make this post extremely long, I shall provide a shorter summary first, and you can just read that if you don’t feel the need for the extended analysis and vindication.
In this chapter, O’Donovan takes the hypothetical (but a hypothetical that certainly has real-life examples) of a gay Christian who genuinely desires to live in obedience to Christ, but who has difficulty seeing how the condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible could really apply to his case. How does the Church address the good news of the gospel to this person? O’Donovan makes a couple of important points about this question. The first is that inasmuch as the gay Christian is to be addressed as a believer and a disciple, he should be addressed also as a potential evangelist, as someone who has a calling to not only be witnessed to about Christ, but to be a witness of Christ to the world. The second is that the good news is always a demanding good news, a gift that requires obedience. So the gay Christian cannot expect to hear a word of simple affirmation.
Then O’Donovan points out that, on the one hand, the good news as proclaimed to the gay will simply be the same as that proclaimed to anyone else--the promise and summons in Christ is, an important sense, the same for all men; on the other hand, the promise and summons of the gospel will take on a unique form in addressing gays with their unique struggles and challenges.
O’Donovan then fleshes out the nature of this unique address to gays, which he proposes will address the situation of the gay Christian as one of a vocation. This is perhaps the point at which most conservatives will balk, as we are used to using the word vocation to denote an entirely positive calling to be advanced, and are used to thinking of homosexuality as an entirely negative problem to be overcome. But if we listen patiently here, I think O’Donovan’s point is decisive and convincing; I will take extra time to go over the details at this point in the argument. If the gay Christian has a particular vocation, then our task in preaching the gospel to them is to help them see where in that vocation are strengths to be encouraged, and where are the temptations to be overcome, to help them see where their calling to follow Christ is one of burdens to be borne, and where it is one of opportunities to be pursued.
To make sense of the desires that homosexuals find themselves facing, O’Donovan reminds us that, in our state of fallenness, we must remember that not all desires can be taken at face value; they are always pointing vaguely towards some good that should be pursued, but usually in a disordered way that, if followed literally, will lead to evil. The Church must work together with gays to understand what homosexual desire really points to, so that it can sort out where is the good, and where is the evil. Moreover, it must work to understand what contemporary homosexuality means; instead of simply hastily saying, “Well, it’s just sin, so stop doing it,” we must, without necessarily denying that it is sin, understand the roots of it, the meaning of it, and in what ways a gay Christian might live out his or her hard vocation in a way that blesses the Church and the world. This will necessarily be a more patient and difficult process than either the liberal or the evangelical response to homosexuality.
Now, for those who want more detail, I will work through the text carefully, summarizing and questioning it, and responding to Wilson’s particular charges as they come up (note that I address every one of Wilson's charges in here--they are all in response to quotes from the chapter, and I take up each one as it arises. The only exception is the mockery Wilson indulges in about "fairies" and "probing" at the end, which I have omitted to address [though I think I might have mentioned it in an earlier post] since it is not a substantive objection and is in rather bad taste.)
O’Donovan begins by considering a hypothetical homosexual who “declares: (i) that he desires to live in obedience to Christ; (ii) he is unable to see himself reflected in the description of homosexuals in Romans 1, since he is not ‘rejecting something I know in the depths of my being’; (iii) that he conducts a life of moral struggle like other Christians; and (iv) that it is ‘hard to hear good news’ from a church which insists his condition is spiritually compromised.” Like it or not, we must accept that such struggling, well-intentioned gay Christians do exist, Christians who want to follow Christ, but who do not understand that this necessarily requires an abandonment of their homosexuality. As O’Donovan says “If there are homosexual Christians who see themselves in this way, then, precisely because they intend to take the disciplines of the Christian life with perfect seriousness, we may and must listen and speak to them with perfect seriousness about the good news in Jesus Christ.” So far, so good, right? Well, no, actually. Oddly, Wilson interjects an objection after just this quote, saying, “But of course, this is only the case if the true center of authority is to be found in the disciple's sentiments and self-justifications and not in the master's commands. We must take the homosexuals' self-assessments as authoritative only to the extent that any such self-justifications are authoritative, which of course they aren't.” I’m not really sure what to make of this objection, since O’Donovan said nothing about the homosexual’s self-assessment being “authoritative” but only as being something that we must address “with perfect seriousness.” Of course his self-assessment isn’t authoritative--O’Donovan has established that quite clearly earlier in the book.
In any case, O’Donovan goes on to say that we must ask not only how the gospel is to be proclaimed to this homosexual Christian, but “How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world?” We may do a double-take here, but O’Donovan’s point is quite simple--every Christian believer, sinner or saint, has the task of both receiving the gospel and proclaiming the gospel; of receiving the witness of Christ and being a witness for Christ. If we are to address the homosexual Christian as truly a Christian, we must keep both of these in mind; moreover, note that he refers here to the “homosexually inclined” person, not the homosexually active. Throughout this chapter, O’Donovan is not calling upon us to cheerfully endorse homosexual practice, but to seriously engage the Christian who has homosexual desires, who wants to understand how he is called upon to live his Christian faith.
Before going any further, O’Donovan pauses to emphasize “an elementary point about Christian ethics”: “there is no Christian ethics that is not ‘evangelical,’ i.e. good news. There can be no change of voice, no shift of mood, between God's word of forgiveness and his word of demand, no obedience-without-gift, no gift-without-obedience. The gift and the obedience are in fact one and the same.” Therefore, whether addressing gays or non-gays, the Gospel will be both a word of promise and a word of demand; we must neither forget (as conservatives sometimes do) that the gospel addresses gays with comfort, or forget (as liberals usually do) that it addresses them with demands.
“The righteousness of Jesus Christ is not comfort without demand, any more than it is demand without comfort. It is never less than that demanding comfort by which God makes more of us than we thought it possible to become. And from this there seems to follow an important implication: the Gospel must be preached to the gay Christian on precisely the same terms that it is preached to any other person.”
We cannot, says O’Donovan, treat gays as some special kind of human, as the homophobic do in a judgmental way, or as the liberal gay-rights agenda does in an wrongfully affirming way. The gospel comes to them with the same words as it does for anyone else. The homosexual Christian must see Christianity, Christ, as the ground of his identity, not his homosexuality.
“Homosexuality is not the determining factor in any human being's existence; therefore it cannot be the determining factor in the way we treat a human being, and should not be the determining factor in the way a human being treats him- or herself. Gays are children of Adam and Eve, brothers and sisters of Christ. There is no other foundation laid than that. ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd’; from which it follows, simpliciter and without adjustment, that he will feed gays like a shepherd, too.”
But then O’Donovan questions this line of reasoning--this may be so, and yet surely people possess specific subordinate identities, to which the Gospel should be addressed in a specific way. Should we not apply the Gospel differently to the different sectors of society, as Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule does? O’Donovan counters this question by asking,
“Why would there be a Gospel for the homosexual any more than a Gospel for the teacher of literature, for the civil magistrate, or for the successful merchant (to name just three categories that the early church viewed with the same narrowing of the eyes that a homosexual may encounter today.) It is for the church to address the good news, we may say; it is for the recipient - homosexual, pedagogue, politician or captain of industry - to hear it and to say how he or she hears it in and from this or that social position.”
At this point Wilson sharply objects,
“And, of course, in response the question should immediately arise whether the early Church was correct to view these persons with suspicion. If they were, then we should still be viewing them with suspicion. If they were not, then we should not be. And if the suspicion directed at sexually-active homosexual ‘Christians’ throughout the entire history of the Church has been correct, then let it continue. If incorrect, then let us abandon it now in repentance. But how about some exegesis first? O'Donovan tries to anticipate that clever trick by creating some hermeneutical wiggle-room early on in the book, which in these pomosexual times is not hard to do. Simple right? Clear wrong? All this deep theology is making my head hurt.”
Of course, in response the answer should immediately arise that O’Donovan never said here, or anywhere else, that homosexuals should not be viewed with “suspicion,” at least, in the same sense as civil magistrates, as those prone to be engaged in types of activity that the Church must oppose. Moreover, O’Donovan is not clearly talking about “sexually-active homosexuals” per se, but about prone-to-be-sexually-active homosexuals, and in any case, I find deeply troubling Wilson’s placing of quotation marks around “Christians” in referring to homosexuals. But, the biggest problem with this objection by Wilson is that O’Donovan goes on to object to his own question in the very next paragraph.
O’Donovan, having asked whether the Gospel has nothing special to say to the homosexual, replies, “Not so; it does!” I will quote: “The Gospel does have implications for the way we conduct ourselves in the world, and the way we conduct ourselves in the world is differentiated as the forms and circumstances that constitute the world are differentiated. There are special needs because there are special contexts within which the Christian life has to be lived out.” So, on the one hand we must beware of treating homosexual Christians like some special class that receives a different Gospel than the rest of us; on the other hand, we must recognize that they have unique struggles and tasks, to which a specific application of that Gospel must be made. Such a specific application, O’Donovan says, has traditionally fallen under the heading of “vocation”; just as the teacher, politician, or banker faces particular temptations in their station in life, that the Gospel must help them overcome, so does the homosexual. Now, as I mentioned above, it is here that we are likely to object--homosexuality isn’t a vocation; it’s a sin. But we must remember here that O’Donovan is speaking of those with “homosexual sensibility”; those who find themselves, for whatever reason, characterized by an attraction to the opposite sex, and for whom such desires cannot simply be swept under the rug and replaced with new desires; these are those who find themselves called to live lives confronted by this desire. In such cases, we can rightly speak of a vocation, and not merely of a vocation to suffer, because it would be harsh indeed to suppose that God had no special use to which he could put such Christians, no special gifts with which they were endowed amidst their weaknesses, no special service which they could do for the Church. If we truly believe that all members of the body are needed and valuable, then certainly we may speak of homosexual sensibility as a vocation within the body that some are called to live out.
As O’Donovan puts it,
“Of course, this pastoral train of thought does not entitle us to demand that the gay Christian (or the teacher, politician and banker) should repent without further ado. Theirs is a position of moral peril, but also a position of moral opportunity. In preaching the Gospel to a specific vocation we must aim to assist in discernment. Discernment means tracing the lines of the spiritual battle to be fought; it means awareness of the peculiar temptations of the situation; but it also means identifying the possibilities of service in a specific vocation. The Christian facing the perils and possibilities of a special position must be equipped, as a first step, with the moral wisdom of those who have taken that path before, the rules as have been distilled from their experience. A soldier needs to learn about "just war", a financier about "just price", and so on. Again, can it be any different in the realm of sexual sensibility?”
To these last two sentences, Wilson objects, “Sure it can. It is completely different. Scripture provides multiple examples of soldiers fighting the way soldiers ought to fight. Scripture provides multiple examples of merchants conducting their pricing operations in an honorable way. It contains no examples of "just sodomy." And by "no examples," just to be clear and precise, I mean nada, zilch, zip, zero.” Again, this entirely misses O’Donovan’s point. I don’t know about “just sodomy” but there is certainly “just homosexuality,” which would be celibate homosexuality. Now one may say object that this is a silly point to make, because it means that the only just way to fulfill the calling is just not to fulfill it. But this, to anticipate something O’Donovan says further on, would wrongly assume “that a homosexual is someone essentially characterised by an inevitable homoerotic desire. That would be to close down the exploration of the gay experience with a vengeance!” (Part of the point that I take O’Donovan to be making, in insisting on homosexuality as a “vocation” and on there being more to “gay experience” than “inevitable homoerotic desire,” is that homosexual sensibility is often associated with many great strengths of sensibility and mind. Many of the great artists and writers in the Christian tradition have struggled with homosexual desire, and it seems quite clear that such desire often goes hand-in-hand with great creative abilities or unique perceptiveness. We cannot treat this as a mere coincidence, but as one of the strengths and unique opportunities of service that belong to the homosexual vocation.) And in any case, it would hardly be the only vocation in which a Christian would find the obvious paths for action closed off to him. Christians in the Roman army (and in the American army today) would find that the just way of carrying out their calling would be to refrain from doing most of what they were called upon to do. Moreover, Wilson commits a fairly obvious fallacy here, since the fact that there are no examples of something in Scripture clearly does not necessarily mean that such a thing could not rightly exist--there are no examples of “just actors” in Scripture, but it would be wrong to therefore assume, as the Puritans seemed to, that such could not exist. (I say this not to contest Wilson’s point that there is no such thing as “just sodomy,” but only to say that this point was made very poorly, and this kind of poor argument is not likely to help the evangelical cause.)
Anyway, to move on...O’Donovan immediately points out that the homosexual’s task of discerning the right and wrong in his vocation is not his task to carry out on his own, but must be done by listening to the tradition, which, although it may not have the final word, must have a very important word, without which the final word may never be found. “No one who has not learned to be traditional can dare to innovate.”
But, what of the sincere gay Christian, who, having listened to the tradition, and accepted that “discipleship cannot be without a price in self-denial” yet wonders “whether that price may not be paid, pari passu with the married, in the ‘daily discipline of a shared life.’ And then he asks how that daily discipline can fit in with its two exclusive categories of ‘marriage’ and ‘singleness’.” (He is here referring to the text of the St. Andrews Day Statement, a 1996 statement by open-minded conservatives on the matter of homosexuality.) O’Donovan points out here that the Statement did not rule as an absolute final word that these were the only two possible categories, and that homosexuals could only choose the latter, but that it did say (and O’Donovan agrees) that such is the teaching of the tradition, which must not be lightly overturned. The Statement’s main purpose was not “merely to declare what its authors supposed to be the case. Its intention was to pose open questions to gay Christians which might elicit what they supposed to be the case. It was an invitation to dialogue within the basic terms set by Christian faith.” This invitation was not answered, he says, but was greeted with suspicion, and by liberals, with disdain. This is because liberalism “reckons it knows what gay Christians need, which is ‘stable relationships.’” But this, he points out, is the testimony of liberal Christians, not necessarily of gay Christians. Do gays see the primary fulfillment of their desires as a conjugal relationship, or not? It is dangerous, thinks O’Donovan, to abandon the tradition to offer a hasty solution for gay Christians before even determining if that is the solution that gay Christians need. We need, says O’Donovan, to have a much more serious discussion with gay Christians about how they understand their experience than liberalism has ever actually engaged in.
Now, having discussed all this time the vocation of those with “homosexual sensibility,” O’Donovan turns to address the question whether, if such sensibility is not sinful in itself (as I think we should all agree), a sexual expression of it need be sinful. This is, for many, the crux upon which all turns, and it must be addressed, although O’Donovan has been right to steer our attention to the larger contours of the issue. However, following his strategy throughout the book, O’Donovan does not offer a straightforward answer (he does not conceive this as his task in the book), but rather clarifies the framework within which a right answer can be given.
And the first thing to say in establishing this framework is that to ask the question this way is to turn it on its head--we cannot start from desire as from a given, and then move outward to expression as doubtful, but must start from given social norms of expression, and approach the desire as that which is doubtful. As O’Donovan puts it, “Wrapped up in this is a certain psychological positivism, an unbiddability characteristic of romantic, pre-Wittgensteinian psychology. Within, we have a self-interpreting mental state, "desire"; outside, we devise an action to "express" it, i.e. lead the mental state uncompromised from the inner expanses of the mind to the public world. Inner certainties demand untrammelled expression. But that approach can only invite a sceptical reply. What is this inner certainty certain of? How can we know what the desire is for?” Desires, he says, cannot be taken at face-value, especially in this fallen world:
“The language of ‘expression’ is treacherous. It lets us suppose that our desires are perspicuous, when they are not. Sexual desire in particular is notoriously difficult to interpret....It is characteristically surrounded by fantasy, and fantasies are never literal indicators of what the desire is really all about, but are symbolic revealer-concealers of an otherwise inarticulate sense of need. But the point holds also for many other kinds of desire - let us say, the desire for a quiet retirement to a cottage in the countryside, or the desire to own a fast racing-car. We cannot take any of them at their face value.” In other words, just because a homosexually inclined person understands himself to have same-sex sexual desires does not mean that the only, or even the best way, for him to respond to his desires is to have a same-sex sexual relationship. “To all desire is appropriate self-questioning: what wider, broader good does this desire serve? how does it spring out of our strengths, and how does it spring out of our weaknesses? where in relation to this desire does real fulfilment lie? It is in interpreting our desires that we need the wisdom of tradition, which teaches us to beware of the illusory character of immediate emotional data, helping us to sort through our desires and clarify them. The true term of any desire, whether heavily laden or merely banal, is teasingly different from the mental imagination that first aroused it. And gays have no infallible introspective certainties in relation to their desires that would put them outside the common human lot of self-questioning.”
In other words, we must not say, with the liberals, that the proper response to homosexual desire is simply to endorse the indiscriminate literal fulfillment of this desire; but nor must we say, as many evangelicals tend to, that the proper response is just to shut it down, write it off, turn away from it in horror. Rather, we must recognize that this desire, like every other desire of fallen man, is a desire for true goods, but a disordered desire, that is likely to lead away from them if we are not careful. Our task in addressing homosexuals is to help them discern what true goods their desires are distortedly aiming at, and to help train them to pursue those goods rightly, and avoid acting on their desires in the ways that do not lead toward the good.
“It is perfectly possible to think of desires as no matter for blame, and yet be persuaded that their literal enactment can never be their true fulfilment. Think of the desires we conceive in relation to our enemies when we are angry, or of the desires we conceive in relation to money and possessions! Desire is, however, one aspect of what Christian doctrine used to speak of as ‘concupiscence,’ a brokenness of the world reflected in a confusion of desire that our human society itself instils in us.”
And this, of course, as O’Donovan hastens to remind us, puts us again in the position of having to understand that gays are, fundamentally, in no different position from the rest of us sinners; we all find ourselves facing distorted desires, which we must overcome and re-orient, and this all the more so in the fractured post-Christian world of modernity.
“The gay Christian who complains that the good news is difficult to hear because his position is treated as compromised from the outset could learn that it is not his position, but the position of the human race, that is compromised from the outset....If the distinctiveness of gay experience reflects original sin in some way, it is because it also reflects the fractured quality of society and its loveless disorder, a disorder for which we all share common responsibility and all pay the common price, the fruit of our uneven social formation.”
Following this train of thought, O’Donovan says, leads us to consider the novelty of the gay phenomenon in modern society: “The world has never seen a phenomenon like the contemporary gay consciousness. There have been various patterns of homosexuality in various cultures, but none with the constellation of features and persistent self-assertion that this one presents.” I would’ve thought that this was one of the most uncontroversial sentences in the book; indeed, when I read it, my first reaction was that it was a rather pointlessly self-evident statement, since almost by definition, no pattern in a previous society could have exactly the same “constellation of features” as it does in today’s society. But, oddly enough, Wilson jumps on this sentence with a sharp objection:
“Let us assume this assertion correct, which it almost certainly isn't. But let's grant it for the sake of discussion. Why is this unique development assumed to be an ameliorating point in favor of some kind of softened judgment? Why isn't it assumed to be the most perverse development in the history of the human race? As in, this is ‘far worse than Sodom’? ‘This thing is unique -- it must be the mother of all perversions.’ Why don't we take that line?” I am mystified by Wilson’s suggestion that this assertion “almost certainly isn’t” correct, given that, as I just said, it seems rather to be by definition correct. Wilson also seems to again mis-read between the lines, since O’Donovan never said that this was supposed to be “an ameliorating point in favor of some kind of softened judgment.” He never makes such a point here. Rather, his point is that this fact must force us to come to careful and comprehensive grips with the nature of the contemporary homosexual issue, so that we can offer a judgment that is not necessarily “softened” but which is balanced and informed. An approach like Wilson’s, which sees nothing in the contemporary gay phenomenon except “the mother of all perversions,” risks being an approach closed to new insight, unable to learn anything from the age in which we live, or from the homosexual Christians whom we encounter in the Church.
Having drawn attention to the uniqueness of today’s homosexual movement, O’Donovan insists that we must read the problem of homosexuality in our culture not as some isolated sin, that can be condemned and dealt with on its own, but as in many ways the product of late-modernity, and the chaos which our society has fallen into. When we read it this way, we will see another way in which we may benefit from attentiveness to the experience of gay Christians--we will be able to read therein a clearer picture of the society we inhabit, the disorder it engenders, and the ways in which the Gospel might be brought to bear upon it.
“From the place of special sensibility in which the homosexual Christian may find him- or herself we may hear a testimony to the way the world confronts our mission in our time, to its fragmented identities, its disjunctions of feeling, its cruelties, its dislocations and the peculiar possibilities of redemption that God has put at its heart. The rest of us cannot do without this torchlight shone through the fog of the late modern world in which we, too, must grope our way.”
When we approach gay Christians this way, we approach them as friends, as neighbors, as companions on the hard path of faith. Such an approach, suggests O’Donovan, is what gays need far more than liberal Christianity’s “managerial juridicalisation of the gay Christian's claim, by its ‘laws and peremptory dogmas,’ designed to settle questions without exploring them, to adjust relations without justifying them, to reassure the uncomforted without comforting them, in short, to manage the situation.” In this hasty liberal attempt to manage the situation, the actual experience, needs, and particular vocation of gay Christians has been largely ignored, and if conservatives are to offer a better answer to the situation, they must fill this void, and fill it with love and friendship.
“The role of attorney's client, the perpetual petitioner before the court of pleas, is open and inviting, and there are plenty to welcome the gay into it - for the time being. But the catalogue of candidates for emancipation will be extended further, and the gay cause will lose the interest it once had - irrespective of whether it has won the concessions it fought for. The role of friend among friends, on the other hand, questioned and self-questioning, joined with those in pilgrim search for the new name that no man knows except the one to whom it is given, is an altogether different role, and perpetually available to those who seek it. The gay Christian thus faces in a particular way the choice that constitutes the human situation universally: whether to follow the route of self-justification, or to cast oneself hopefully on the creative justification that God himself will work within a community of shared belief.”
O’Donovan approaches his conclusion by summarizing the questions that the gay issue confronts us with--for gays “how this form of sensibility and feeling is shaped by its social context, how it can be clothed in an appropriate pattern of life for the service of God and discipleship of Christ?” and for non-gays, “how and to what extent this form of sensibility and feeling has emerged in specific historical conditions, and how the conditions may require, as an aspect of the pastoral accommodation that changing historical conditions require, a form of public presence and acknowledgment not hitherto known?” Now, I will confess of course that I am not wholly comfortable with a “pastoral accommodation” that involves “a form of public presence and acknowledgement not hitherto known.” I will grant of course that we cannot a priori rule out the possibility of such an accommodation, and perhaps what O’Donovan is calling for here is nothing too radical, nothing that would involve a shift in the fundamental ethical requirements of the situation that the Church has insisted upon. Indeed, based on the rest of the book, I should expect that this is the case--that O’Donovan does not anticipate or desire any such fundamental shift; but I wish he’d be a little clearer here at the end.
O’Donovan ends by reminding us that if we are patient and faithful, we can hope for a real resolution of this crisis: “No disagreement refuses to be analysed, and its constituent elements sorted out according to size and shape. No disagreement does not lure us on with the hope, however distant, of a genuine resolution. Can we promise ourselves, then, that if the churches would only discuss homosexuality long and fully and widely enough, they would end up agreeing? Well, we are not entitled to rule out that possibility.” Even if such final agreement is not forthcoming, it is also possible that the disagreement may cease to evoke such “threatening resonances” which seem today to make it a communion-breaking issue, just as, for example, the formerly tense debate over whether divorce was ever appropriate now seems a manageable disagreement for Christians. I admit that I am not as sanguine (or perhaps my imagination is just not so expansive) as is O’Donovan here. I have trouble conceiving of how this could be a matter that the churches are able to “agree to disagree” on; yet I have no right to rule out this possibility; after all, it is certainly not a dispute over credal orthodoxy, as serious as it may seem.
“There are no guarantees. There never are in the Christian life. But that is not a reason not to try. And seriously trying means being seriously patient. Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge and clarification, has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time.”
So, is O’Donovan’s final chapter satisfactory? Is his book satisfactory? Certainly not for most liberals, probably not for most conservatives. We conservatives are left frustratedly asking, “OK, that’s all well and good, but what’s the upshot? We shouldn’t ordain gays, right? We shouldn’t let them get married, right? We should urge them to be celibate, right?” As far as I can tell (and this impression is confirmed by others who know the man better than I do), O’Donovan would answer “right” to all of these--certainly this is clearly implied by the principles he lays out in this book. But laying out these answers is not the task he sets for himself in this book; as I mentioned to Donny, I think he sees his task as a theologian differently than most Reformed theologians would. Although ordained, he is not currently serving as a churchman, and so it is not his task to throw his “vote” on the issue onto the table. He does not want to add his voice to the cacophonous shouting match on one side or the other, despite having stronger sympathies with one side, but he wants to calmly direct the attention of the shouters to the nature of the situation, the nature of the questions to be addressed, and the ramifications of the answers that may be given. In so doing, he performs, I think, a great service to the Church, and gives us a great deal of food for thought. I would hope that other conservatives like myself, would, instead of casually dismissing this book, see in it a source of blessing and illumination, as I have.
Pro Christi Ecclesia Testamentoque