Skip to comments.Our Passions and the Promiscuous Church [VGR: TEC]
Posted on 08/15/2006 5:33:59 PM PDT by sionnsar
The only time I ever heard the now Bishop Gene Robinson speak was at a Vespers service at St. Paul's School in the fall of 1992. His topic appeared to be God's gift of love, a phrase he often repeated in his talk, but his point conflated love with sex, and he urged the girls and boys of St. Paul's to share their sexual gifts "either with someone of the same sex or someone of the opposite sex." He said this more than once, and I jotted the phrase down in the book of prayers at my desk. No mention of marriage or even of commitment. He did close his talk, however, with a disarming suggestion that God would be well pleased if His gifts were shared safely. "Please use a condom."
I approached Fr. Robinson after the service, and in the presence of our School Chaplain I expressed strong disapproval of his message and told him that he would not again be welcome in our pulpit as long as I remained Rector at the School. Not only was he, from my traditional perspective, preaching sin, but because of the nature of his audience, he was encouraging our students to break the rules of the School and the laws of the State of New Hampshire, where I believe it is still illegal for an eighteen year old to have sex with a fourteen year old. Fortunately for us both, my Rectorship lasted less than four years, and I was not in New Hampshire to question his elevation or, in the event, to suffer the fate of being out of Communion with my Bishop.
At the time, I knew nothing of Mr. Robinson's sexual preferences, and it was not his oblique references to homosexuality that alarmed me so much as his implication that God allows, nay, smiles upon whatever we choose to do in the name of love. There was a malevolently yet seductively twisted logic in his argument. I tried to listen with the ears of one of my students, and what I heard not only gave wings to my passions and license to my libido, but it made me think less of myself for failing to be sexually active, for failing to use my God-given sexual gifts. It tickled my adolescent ears and undercut all the repressive preachments of my parents and the school authorities, as I'm sure it was meant to do. My liberation was at hand!
This happened more than a decade ago. It is now clear to me that what I was then hearing was the case for homosexuality. It is not, after all, a special case, but a general one attacking not only the traditional norms for sexual morality, but the Church's ancient teachings on the sinful nature of man and the passions (desires, emotions, feelings) that cloud his intellect and darken his soul. I am grateful to Mr. Robinson for helping me make the connection between what sometimes seems the special pleading for a homosexual exemption from the old taboos against same-sex intimacies and the general decline in moral behavior and our society's contempt for the concept of sin.
This case boils down to saying, "Because I have a strong, innate desire to do this, I should have the right to do it, and it must be all right to do it." The premise is interesting only in that it emphasizes the strength and innateness of the desire, but upon consideration one is bound to ask: what desire is not strong and innate in the person afflicted with it? The conclusions are, of course, non-sequiturs, as well as contrary to a huge body of wisdom literature on the subject teaching us to beware of strong, innate desires. They are the very things likely to overwhelm our right reason and sound inhibitions.
The first conclusion appeals to the State, the second to the Church, and in both, the case for homosexuality is being made stridently and effectively these days. Not too long ago, State and Church were united in condemning homosexual behavior, but both are now in various stages of repudiating the old taboos and acceding to the demands of those who view any criticism of homosexual behavior as insensitive, discriminatory, and unfair. To oppose the case for homosexuality is to court personal attacks and labeling as a "homophobe" or "fundamentalist" while condemning any kind of public career, unless one aspires to be a conservative talk-show host or the mayor of a very small southern town. For this reason - and no doubt for fear of being associated with those who hate or ridicule homosexuals - the case often goes unchallenged. This silence, I have found, seldom means agreement, although it can be read that way, and it creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy and distrust that enlightens no one and hurts everyone, whatever his view on the subject.
In the Northeastern school world of the Nineties, this reticence seemed to me particularly out of place and hypocritical. Homosexuality, like vivisection and the wearing of pelts, only more so, was a kind of cause celebre, and many schools were in the process of recruiting practicing homosexuals for their faculties and of establishing gay-lesbian support groups for faculty and students. Students were encouraged to "come out," to affirm their sexual orientation, not to be ashamed. Why not talk about it? On one occasion a couple teachers, concerned that our school was not keeping pace with this enlightenment, approached me to ask if I would be willing to host a conference at the School on the topic. I said that I would be happy to do so, but only on the condition that the speakers not be limited to those who were advocates and apologists for homosexual behavior. That was the last I heard of the idea. No one seemed interested in a truly open and informed discussion of the issues involved. Nor among the many schools that have accepted the case for homosexuality am I aware of any that did so after an exhaustive and public debate on all sides of the issue. Typically, either out of personal conviction or under pressure from some members of the faculty, a headmaster persuades the board, if it needs persuading, that this form of "discrimination" must end. And it does. The case is never openly debated.
Part of our problem may be that we cannot seem to find a way to disagree with one another on this topic in a civil manner. In some ways, this is understandable, perhaps even inevitable. Where is the middle ground? One cannot circumscribe a homosexual act any more than one can be half pregnant. For one side, the argument against homosexual behavior is a personal attack, an assault on behavior identified not only with the will, but with the self. What is at stake is not a "what" (a habit like gambling or a way of life like farming), but a "who" (the irreducible me). For the other side, the argument is often no less visceral. The heterosexual's physical aversion to same-sex intimacies rivals the homosexual's attraction. And this aversion sometimes enflames the rhetoric of the historical arguments against homosexual behavior in the West, that it is unhealthy or unwholesome (Plato speaking for many of the pagan writers); that it is unnatural (St. Paul writing to the Romans and citing the natural law arguments of the Stoics rather than the fierce proscriptions of the Jews); and that it is sinful (the consensus of the major religions).
Another part of the problem is that most of us have homosexual friends about whom we care deeply. We do not wish to give offense, nor is it our role, if we are Christian, to be judging the sins of others. That is, after all, the responsibility of the Church: to remind us of our sinfulness, to help us call to mind and name and confess our sins so that we can receive forgiveness and healing and "newness of life."
Consequently, we only speak about these things with those who agree with us, either for fear of giving offense or of appearing as "one of them," or because we don't know what to say. The gulf between us on this question seems too great. Yet the silence is making the gulf even greater and contributing to the illusion that most people agree with us or that all the clever people are on one side of this divide. This is certainly the impression the media gives.
Yet no scientific discoveries, psychological studies, or genetic breakthroughs have vitiated the religious argument against homosexual acts. A woman's proven genetic predisposition to lie, cheat, steal, or have sex with other women does not alter the religious argument. If anything, it strengthens it, giving to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, for example, the force of a scientific proof. We humans emerge from the womb flawed. Our bent to sin is written in our genes.
We do not argue, after all, that kleptomaniacs should be allowed to steal or that pathological liars be allowed to lie with impunity. But these extreme cases are not nearly as telling as the more ordinary ones. Let each man examine himself and name his own sinful inclinations: vanity, greed, gluttony, lust, pride, envy, sloth. We are prone to all of these every day, usually yielding to them without the slightest pricks of conscience. Everyone's self-indulgence is legendary. Repentance is the categorical Christian response to these sins, whether known or unknown, acknowledged or more often than not, unacknowledged by our de-sensitized consciences. In his diary the Russian priest Alexander Elchaninov made this acute observation: "Insensitivity, petrifaction, deadness of soul - these are the result of long-established sins which have not been confessed in time. The soul is greatly eased if we immediately confess the sin we have just committed, while we still feel its pang. Confession, if postponed, leads to insensibility."
It is through as simple a thing as repetition that men and women are corrupted and learn first to tolerate sin, then to ignore it, then to deny it, then to love it, finally to laugh at the very notion of sin and the idea of a just and righteous God. Take any sinful act, the single commission of which would repulse most people. Lying, hating, cheating, stealing, fornicating, blaspheming. It does not matter. All are acts so often repeated in our society that those who habitually perform them, and many who do not, no longer regard them as sinful. What is worse, these acts and others like them are multiplied and amplified by being performed repeatedly on stage and screen, romanticized in music and reported in the media. This repetition becomes a kind of corporate transgression seeping into the souls of millions. This constant repetition of sins, witnessed and imagined, slowly and relentlessly erases our consciousness of sin. Those who become murderers have already murdered hundreds in their imaginations before committing their first crime. Our private virtual worlds are steeped in sin, making the speaking and acting out of the imagination of our hearts not only inevitable, but as natural as drinking water.
What must follow is that the Scriptures naming and judging sin become irrelevant, indeed, risible. Arguments based on moral absolutes derived from religion are either put in the mouths of ridiculous imposters and self-righteous prigs to be laughed at, or they are subverted by sophistical and self-serving rationalizations. I heard on the news not long ago about some men accused of raping twelve year old boys at a choir school. The school defended itself and the men involved by claiming, among other things, that the boys had consented to these acts. This only seems logical in a society that would permit anything as long as the participants consent to it. We can thank Princeton's prominent ethicist Peter Singer for pointing out that once the mythic prohibitions of irrational religion are removed, nothing stands between consenting people and bestiality, incest, sadomasochism, orgies, and other violations of traditional morality.
This is what our freedoms and rights now mean to us, what our Courts and newspapers defend, what our legal system is designed to uphold. Not the moral absolutes of atavistic religion, but the right of each to pursue the passions that make him happy. We are far from calling these repeated behaviors sinful, and in spite of a national epidemic of aborted innocents, death-dealing sexually transmitted diseases, children without fathers, despondent lives caught in the grip of relentless passions, and tragic self-slaughter, we cannot even bring ourselves to call these behaviors, as the pagans did, unhealthy, unwholesome, or unnatural. We are living far down on a slippery slope and sliding fast. With every repetition, we accelerate our fall, as the prophets foretold.
It is a common observation that the identification of sex with the self is one of the legacies of the Sixties and of radical feminism. We are schooled to think of ourselves as essentially sexual animals. Being from Venus or Mars - or lost in erotic space - determines not only our social roles and psychological make-up, but our very souls, if we have souls. Take away our sexuality, and we are nothing. So many books have been written (and expurgated - I once sat through a prep school faculty meeting dedicated to the removal of sexist references in Homer) and so many courses taught to make this point that there is now no subject, however banal or sublime, that cannot be turned into a metaphor for eroticism or for the battle between the sexes. Sex is the one thing most dangerous, that is, the one thing that purports to explain everything. It is the most puissant god of our times, and his ancient name is Eros.
Christianity rescued the ancient world from this all-devouring deity, and in a defenseless secular State, it may yet be our best protection against the passions he unleashes with his fiery darts. But this depends on the integrity of institutions like the Church that have long histories of channeling the restless energies of this god.
Our passions always seem right to us. Debby Boone crooned our cultural mantra when she sang, "It can't be wrong when it feels so right." Whether anger, jealousy, envy, or lust, our passions dominate the intellect and force reason to do their bidding. Without some greater end in view than our own desires, reason will serve our desires and persuade us of their rightness. "There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death." (Proverbs xiv.12) Yet how easy to forget, when judging the folly, repulsiveness, or injustice of another's passion, that we behave in the same way when in the grip of our passions, and we are judged by others just as we judge them.
Historically, we humans have responded to our passions in three ways. We might call these responses Nietzschean, Stoic and Christian, if we understand the terms to be merely illustrative, not definitive. Terms like Romantic, Classical and Religious might serve as well. We can, like Nietzsche and his many modern disciples, identify our passions with the self and embrace them in an amoral, godless, Hobbesian, existential universe. The will to power is the passion par excellence hidden in every motive and shaping every fate. Whatever feels right can't be wrong for me, and whatever thwarts my will to achieve my desires, those things that feel right to me, must be opposed.
Or we can play the Stoic and starve the passions with thought exercise and seek to dominate them with reason. This response also affirms the self, but it identifies the Platonic self with the intellect and portrays man as being in perpetual combat with his passions. Otherwise, as Hobbes said, he is in perpetual combat with others. In his journal the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius admonishes himself, "Blot out imagination; restrain impulse; stifle desire; give your reason the upper hand."
Or we can reject the self altogether and seek to make passion subject to a telos, or greater end. Now for Christians, this telos is God, the Holy Trinity accessed through Jesus Christ, who showed the Christian how to live with his passions by making his own Passion subject to the will of His and our Father, even to the point of death on a cross. "Jesus told his disciples, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.'" (Matthew xvi.24-25)
In Christian terms, to say I am a homosexual is equivalent to saying I am tempted to sin. This is a category in which every Christian finds himself. In the sense in which President Kennedy once said "I am a Berliner," every Christian can say, "I am a homosexual." We are all fighting for our political freedoms, although not all of us are Germans. We are all tempted to sin, although not in the same ways. Moreover, the case for homosexuality is the advocacy we all want for our secret and not so secret desires. It is this that makes the case so seductive and so difficult to argue against, although not difficult to refute. Each of us lives in his own glass house of desire, and this makes throwing stones both difficult and hazardous. Yet if the unequivocal teachings of the Sacred Scriptures and of Holy Tradition can be de-constructed, contextualized, and de-mythologized in such a way as to erase the sin of sodomy, so can every teaching of the Faith, and we might as well build idols to ourselves or to Eros and be done with it.
It is essential for Christians to ask: are homosexuals well served by those who wink at the sin of sodomy or make allowances for the so-called homosexual lifestyle? Apparently, many Christians believe they are. One might start by asking why so many Christians believe this. Is it to show love? Then should a Christian not show love as Christ did, not by ignoring or affirming the sinful behavior, but by forgiving it and demanding a change of life and holiness, even at the great cost of taking up the cross?
Is it to widen the door of the fold, to bring more homosexuals into the Church? No one can gainsay this intention. It is probably a fair criticism of the American church that it is too often a club for the conventionally good rather than a sanctuary for sinners, but the strategy of pretending that homosexual behavior is not sinful merely compounds this criticism by enlarging the definition of what is conventionally good. At what cost and to what avail is this concession being made? If there is no sin and no need for repentance, who needs Christ and His bride, the Church, anyway?
Is it because of the understandable pain many feel for their gay children, their lesbian friends and loved ones, and those from whom the gift of conjugal love seems to be withheld? It is often harder to bear the suffering of others than our own. Yet there are a thousand worse tragedies than desiring same-sex intimacies, many involving no element of human choice whatsoever: the child with cerebral palsy, the father with leukemia, the baby born blind, the daughter struck by a drunk driver and confined to a wheel chair. The list is endless. Why is homosexuality the condition, if indeed it is that, that calls into question God's mercy and His mysterious purposes?
Again from Elchaninov's diary, "I am continually pondering the text: 'If ye were of the world, the world would love his own' (John xv.19). Our sufferings are the sign that we belong to Christ; and the greater they are, the more evident it is that we are not 'of the world'. Why did all the saints, following the example of Christ Himself, suffer so much? Contact with the world, being plunged into the midst of things, gives pain to the followers of Christ; only the children of this world suffer no pain. This is a kind of unerring chemical reaction."
The efficacy of Christianity for the homosexual is not in its acceptance of his behavior, which in psychological terminology is merely enabling, but in its challenge to his behavior and in its presentation, one might say, of an alternative lifestyle. This is precisely the value of the Christian faith and its challenge to all of us sinners.
Nor are homosexuals alone in struggling with this challenge. None of us wishes to give up his lifestyle. We all want to indulge our passions and imagine that God understands and perhaps even cheers us on as we amass our riches, ignore the poor, drink away our hurts, indulge our craving for things, get even with our enemies, scratch whatever itches us, and feel morally superior to those who do not attend our church or vote the way we do or give free rein to desires we don't have. We imagine, if we give it a second thought at all, that we are acceptable to God just as we are and that we can enjoy the riches of our Father's house and the comfort of His love without, like the Prodigal, making the long journey home. Yet nothing could be more at odds with the sense of Scripture or the genius of "mere Christianity."
Have we, after all, lost the capacity of the early Christians to confess our sins publicly and to weep together over them, encouraging one another in holy and righteous living and celebrating together not our hedonistic lifestyles, but our Lord's compassion and forgiveness?
Does the plaintive plea that "God made me this way" add anything to the case for same-sex intimacies? It is hard to see how, except by making God responsible for my sins. If the homosexual can blame God for his desire to be physically intimate with others of his sex, why cannot the glutton blame God for her food cravings or the thief for his impulse to steal? This is the modern version, I suppose, of "the Devil made me do it," and it is the very blasphemy that the doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin help Christians to avoid. Christians who make this argument for homosexuality are really excusing every form of libidinous behavior and rendering the entire biblical narrative either nonsensical, which not a few in the Academy would contend anyway, or a cruel trick. God not only sells alcohol to the Indians. He forces them to drink.
Is this then where the Reformation peters out? There is a logical, perhaps inevitable progression in the reaction against a corrupt Church's simony, legalism, and abuse of its power to bind on earth, to Luther's unilateral assertion of faith alone, to Calvin's stunning rejection of free will, to the long era of sudden salvation and easy grace, to the theology of anything goes. All of these developments possess the unintended psychological appeal of removing responsibility for holiness and sin from the individual, either by making holiness and sin irrelevant to faith or by making the demands of the one and the shame of the other conveniently disappear. Is it not entirely predictable that in a secular and increasingly anti-Christian society, where for millions of our fellow citizens confession is no longer a means of forgiveness and spiritual healing, that the sense of sin must itself be made to go away? No sin; no guilt. And the promiscuous churches that bow to this pressure and preach this strange creed are gradually emptying. Nor is this surprising. No need for Christ's bloody cross and cup either.
Should men and women be at liberty to engage in same-sex acts? Of course. They are free, both existentially and politically, to succumb to this passion as to many, many others. Our freedom to choose between affirming the self or denying it to follow Christ is, in Christian terms, the essence of personhood and the point of existence, and we have the witness (martyrdom) of a legion of saints - men and women of all races, classes, cultures, times, and sexual orientations - that this is so.
This is not about preventing homosexuals from sinning either. We all have that right and exercise it regularly. Our concern should not be their sins, but our own. This is, however, about preserving the Church's witness in a fallen world, about giving hope to those who, like ourselves, are mired in sin, hope that there is a place of shelter from the storm of passions raining down on us, hope that God's kingdom is, as our Lord never tired of saying, "at hand," hope that the Lord our Creator - not our sexuality, not our will to power, not our genetic code - is at the root of our being, and He stands at the door of our hearts knocking.
Every child is a child of God, created in the divine image, meant to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Every child is a son of perdition, fallen from grace, needing the redemption that God offers in His Son Jesus. On this mystery the Church is founded; on this paradox the Church founders.
When he spoke to the rising generation at St. Paul's School, Bishop Robinson was not merely dismissing the teachings of his church's sacred texts and traditions on the question of homosexuality, he was dismissing everything that stands between us and our heart's desire. Without Christ (or the Torah or Koran for that matter), it all becomes subjective and contextual. The Holy Grail will probably be discovered before philosophers come up with a rational ground for morality. Meanwhile, without religious faith, there is only the State to decide what is right and wrong and to hold in check the passions misruling us. George Washington, by no means the most religious of men, saw this clearly when in his last message to the Congress he described religious faith as the indispensable public bulwark against the flood of private passions threatening the Republic. But when the bishops of the church are themselves manning the dikes with picks and shovels, what hope have we weak and sinful ones, living below sea level in what the pagan Sallust called this "sink of iniquity?"
---David V. Hicks lives and works in South Florida. He and his brother Scot are the authors of a new translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, published by Scribner as The Emperor's Handbook.
wrong church buddy.
No, it's not the "Wrong Church", they're part (soon not to be) of the the Anglican community.
Fortunately my son goes to a Missouri Synod Lutheran school, and not an Episcopal one.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.