Thursday, March 16, 2006

the terms of discourse

Here is what I have been doing today instead of school work. (Though actually, it bears pretty directly on my thesis.) Over at the Propaganda Box, J-Tron has started a very interesting discussion which he (a progressive) and I (a fuddy duddy) agree gets at the heart of the contemporary turmoil over human sexuality. Here is an enticing snipit. I hope I don't sound too didactic (though of course I think I am right):

Father WB says:

“Gay and lesbian people are told that they are filled with sinful impulses, that they are in some way or another malformed, that their humanity is incomplete or disordered.”

That is exactly my position. But that is my position not just about gays and lesbians, but about EVERYONE. And I put myself at the top of the list [a list which has all of our names on it] of the (sexually) sinful, the malformed, the incomplete and the disordered.

Human love does not require sexual expression, otherwise celibates would be incapable of human love. And they’re not incapable. Ergo, etc.

What do you tell a gay or lesbian Christian who has forsaken sexual activity for the sake of the call of Christ that they discern in the Church’s moral strictures? That THEY are disordered? I have several friends who fall into this category, and they see their “equal treatment” in the Church as constitutive of their obedience to the Church’s call to a particular expression of continence, just like everyone else. Do they slip up? I don’t know. Probably. When they do, they should go to confession, just like everyone else.

I just don’t see why gay and lesbian Christians should get this special treatment. Why can’t the Church condone MY innate inclinations to sexual sin? Why is there no one lobbying for exemptions to the moral code conforming to MY sexual inclinations? Its not fair.

The incompleteness and disorder of all of humanity — of every human in his particularity — is a central element of the Christian devotional tradition. You cannot make sense of great swaths of Christian theology unless you admit that humanity (including gay and lesbian humanity) is in fact incomplete and disordered. And the primary locus of this incompleteness and disorder is the passions or the appetites — especially the sexual appetites. The fathers, East and West, are very clear and very consistent on this point.

This is why holy virginity is so prized by our tradition, from our Lord and St. Paul onward. It is only through ascetic struggle and openess to grace through prayer that Christians can attain the passionless serenity that is the material condition of deification.

The notion that the Church was not aware, historically, of our categories of sexual identity is the heart of the matter to me; and I balk at this notion. I.e. that we have something to teach the mind of Christ as it is enunciated in his Body (and that is the ONLY way it is enunciated in space and time). We don’t. We are called to total conformity to the mind of Christ, which of course includes conformity in terms of our notions of sexual identity. The Church is not called to submit her understanding of holiness to the terms of enlightenement or post-enlightenement sexual psychology.

The Church never had an understanding of LGBTQQ sexual identity because it does not admit of sexual identity at all. It admits of human identity in Christ on the one hand, and damnation (however it is construed) on the other hand. Men having sex with men has never been licit in the Church, whether homosexual men having sex with men or heterosexual men having sex with men. (Same with women.) The Church was not aware of those categories, as you say, so it could only forbid the sex, and not sex with reference to a sexual identity (of which it was not cognizant).

I balk at the inadequacy of the Tradition’s anthropology from your perspective. What the Church has sanctioned is the dichotomy of identity in Christ and identity not-in Christ. And the human activities (including sexual activities) that are consistent with each category have been exhaustively explicated. It seems very presumptuous to me for us to come along and say “Hold on a minute; you didn’t realize that there is actually homosexual identity in Christ, homosexual ideneity not-in Christ, and heterosexual identity in Christ, and heterosexual identity not-in Christ.”

I agree with GK-S on this point. You seem to be trying to force a particular essentialism on the Church, an essentialism around the axis of the location of the identity relation obtaining between a person and his / her sexuality, the exclusion of which essentialism is entailed by the Body of Christ’s inclusion of precisely (and exclusively) two natures: the divine and the human. We are invited to check the rest of our baggage, sexual or otherwise, at the door.

J-Tron says:


Now we are getting somewhere! What you have written here drives at what I think is probably the crux of our disagreement and I want to consider it carefully before making a response.

The one thing I’d like to ask for clarification on, however, is this bit:

You seem to be trying to force a particular essentialism on the Church, an essentialism around the axis of the location of the identity relation obtaining between a person and his / her sexuality, the exclusion of which essentialism is entailed by the Body of Christ’s inclusion of precisely (and exclusively) two natures: the divine and the human.

I have read this sentence at least five times now and I still have no idea what you’re saying here. I’m a step away from trying to graph it out. I apologize for being so daft. Could you break this down into manageable chunks for my feeble brain?

Father WB says:

JT —

I’m glad you appreciate it.

The “identity relation” in philosophy is that relation which every thing bears to itself. “Essentialism” is the science of essences, and in feminist theory (at least) has something to do with the philosophical idea that all of the properties a thing has, it has essentially. I.e. were it to lose one of those properties, it would cease to be that thing. For example, a triangle has, essentially, three sides. If some thing is a triangle, then that thing has three sides. Always and everywhere. If a triangle stops having three sides, it stops being a triangle.

Now, as far as I can tell, the common conceit in queer theory often called “sexual identity” is wrapped around the notion that a person’s sexuality is theirs essentially. If they lose that sexuality (for example, through brainwashing, or through some power structure’s forcing them to behave in ways counter to that sexuality, or forbidding them from behaving in ways consonant with that sexuality), then they cease to be who they are, essentially. And that is why, as far as I can tell, heternormativity is thought to be so insidious and destructive, because it chips away at the very identity of gays and lesbians, that relation they bear uniquely to themselves. It is corrosive of who they are.

But the Church doesn’t buy that. There are, we are told, two natures in the Body of Christ. He was perfect God and perfect human. And the Christian calling is a living-into that life — the life of the perfectly God and the perfectly human (in which there are no other essences or identities, Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free - and in which there is no sexuality, no giving or being-given in marriage). This is life eschatologically perfected in Christ, a life toward which we are oriented on this side of eternity.

But serving the end of that (eternal) life in Christ, there is instituted a temporal life in the Body of Christ, in the Church. THIS life is an icon of THAT life, but is yet cognizant of the pull not only of sin, but of finitude as well and is instituted precisely for our transcendence of this life (as Wittgenstein put it, the ladder is thrown away once it has been ascended). And the sacramental and devotional life of the Body of Christ with its two natures, human and divine, sanctions a pattern of living that serves the transcendence of this (merely human) life, with all its myriad false identities, all its malformations, incompletions, and distortions (as you put it), and which serves our union with Christ, who is the perfection of human essence by being united to divine essence, perfectly formed, complete, undistorted.

And this temporal life, mystically within the the Body of Christ with its dual natures (or essences), is the content of the radicality of orthodoxy. Because it seeks dispassionate serenity, and “detachment from the world.” It holds up such things as celibacy, poverty, slavery, and death, as the avenues to intimacy, riches, freedom, and life.

The Church has instituted certain patterns of behavior that look forward to their own being-transcended, but which in the meantime are conduits through which we are elevated by degrees above our sin, above our passions, above our finitude, elevated to union with Christ. Eucharist looks forward to the transcendence of itself in the marriage supper of the Lamb, and in the meantime bears the grace of that eternal marriage supper to us in time and among our passions. Confession looks forward to the transcendence of itself in our moral perfection and eternal passionless serenity, and in the meantime imparts the grace of moral perfection to us in the very midst of our imperfection. Marriage looks forward to our subsumption in the consummation of Christ and his Bride, in which subsumption we do not marry. And the finite and provisional difference between male and female is sanctified as an icon of the paradoxical union between the eternally different human and divine natures in the person of Christ, and is a conduit of that eternal grace into our temporality.

But the Church sanctions THIS pattern of life and no other. And our conformity to this pattern of life, we are assured, leads to the transcendence of finite life altogether. It leads, in other words, to eternal life in union with Christ, the perfection of human nature in a gracious union with God. This is characterized as passionless serenity, or eternal contemplation. If we augment or change this pattern of life to accomodate our passions, we are going off on our own, back into our human nature apart from Christ.

To suggest that the Tradition has missed something in its consideratio of human nature (e.g. that the Tradition was not cognizant of LGBTQQ identity), is tantamount to suggesting that God has made a grammatical mistake: either in the language of creation, or (more probably) in the liturgical language he has revealed in the Body of Christ. It is like saying “You forgot to sanctify THIS!” No. There are no grammatical mistakes. There are no fissures in the surface. In the Incarnation of the Word, human nature, in every modality, was [is] united to divine nature in the person of Jesus, and an iconic, gracious, and singular pattern of life was divinely instituted among humanity that is fully capable of imparting salvation. Nothing was missed. No emendations are necessary. The grammar is impeccable, because it is the grammar of the eternal Word. The life is perfect, because it is Christ’s.

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