A reader who studies at a multidenominational seminary writes:
More than a few of my classmates who hail from Mainline Protestant churches are clearly there for all the wrong reasons. They are fiercely passionate about SSM, gay ordination, feminism, inclusive liturgical language, social justice and inclusion. (Not that there’s anything wrong with social justice and inclusion, per se.) But when you ask them about God or about Jesus in any even remotely theological sense, you get either awkward stammering or near-atheism. Tradition is there to be critiqued, changed or ignored. Scripture is viewed through the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Recently, one of our profs asked one of my classmates about his faith and his understanding of God. This student is a pastor-in-training who is very passionate and outspoken about gay rights and about not using the word “Father” for God. My classmate responded, “I’m having trouble with the whole ‘God thing.’ I don’t know what I believe. I really don’t.” And based on my experience of him, he doesn’t. A seminarian saying stuff like that scares the heck out of me; especially with the Church and culture where they are today. I am an imperfect guy, a sinner par excellence, and I have my theological doubts from time to time. I have lots to learn, also, about theology and the like. But this sort of thing seems to me to be indicative of what you’re talking about in your last couple of posts. The unseriousness of religion and the precariousness of tradition.
Why do seminaries admit students like this? I’m not asking rhetorically; I’d really like to know. These people are fifth columnists, straight up. A friend of mine reports that his Mainline Protestant church has just received notice that their new pastor is on her way. Noticing the young age of the pastor, I asked my friend if they had any idea where the pastor stood on various moral issues (the congregation is fairly conservative). He said they didn’t know, and that the congregation has no say in who their pastor will be.
Now, this incoming pastor may be perfectly fine, but what’s interesting is to consider that she may have graduated from a seminary that ordained her, even though she may not believe in God, or may believe in a God far removed from the Christian tradition. What happens when the seminaries and church administration seed congregations with clergy who think like this? They commit slow suicide. Nobody wants to go to a church led by a pastor who isn’t sure he or she believes in God.
What is the point of going to seminary if you don’t believe in God? What is the point of having a seminary that trains clergy who don’t know if they believe in God, but do know that they believe in destroying the tradition?
Why do modern churches want to poison themselves?
Andrew Sullivan, who like me works from home, and who unlike me has never worked in a newsroom or, to my knowledge, been on a college faculty for any length of time, says that I’m wrong to say that it is impossible now to make a “positive case” for orthodox Christian teaching on marriage, because (in my view) any opposition to same-sex marriage is seen as drive by bigotry. Andrew says that if orthodox Christians of goodwill want to be seen as not motivated by bigotry in their opposition to SSM, there’s something they can do about it:
And the only way to distinguish yourself from these hateful factions is to make a positive case for your position. That’s always possible. From the very beginnings of our faith, Christians have made such a positive case, even as they were being thrown to the lions. And Rod won’t do it because someone might say something mean at the office! How delicate and sensitive these Christianists can be.
How smug, naive, and completely out of touch Andrew Sullivan is being here, writing from deep inside his own bubble. Ryan T. Anderson (for example) co-authored a terrific, secular book laying out a natural law case against same-sex marriage. Watch what happened to him when he went on Piers Morgan’s show to talk about it. HuffPo’s Jon Ward wrote about it afterward:
But there is another major tension in this debate, facing another group: the growing number of Americans who favor gay marriage. The question for them is how to treat those who disagree with them.
Piers Morgan’s CNN segment on Tuesday night was a vivid illustration of this tension. Morgan invited Ryan T. Anderson, a 31-year-old fellow from The Heritage Foundation, on his program to debate the issue. But Morgan did not have Anderson to sit at a table with him and Suze Orman, the 61-year-old financial guru, who is gay. Instead, Anderson was placed about 15 feet away from Morgan and Orman, among the audience, and had to debate from a distance.
The message, in both the language used by Morgan and Orman, and the physical placement of Anderson on the set, was clear: they thought him morally inferior.
That is just one high-profile example. Here’s another: remember Scott Eckern, the Mormon theater director in California who was driven out of his job in 2008 because he donated money to Prop 8? From the NYT report:
Marc Shaiman, the Tony Award-winning composer (“Hairspray”), called Mr. Eckern last week and said that he would not let his work be performed in the theater. “I was uncomfortable with money made off my work being used to put discrimination in the Constitution,” Mr. Shaiman said. He added, however, that the entire episode left him “deeply troubled” because of the potential for backlash against gays who protested Mr. Eckern’s donation.
“It will not help our cause because we will be branded exactly as what we were trying to fight,” said Mr. Shaiman, who is gay. “But I do believe there comes a time when you cannot sit back and accept what I think is the most dangerous form of bigotry.”
Nobody reported that Eckern had been guilty of treating people in the workplace with bigotry. When it became known that he did not support SSM, and gave money to the campaign to stop it, he was compelled to resign, or see the institution he worked for ruined. Actress Susan Egan, who started the anti-Eckern protest, responded to the resignation:
But she did not intend to force Eckern to resign. “I don’t think it was anybody’s goal,” she said. “I’m really sad. I think Scott is a good man. I think he genuinely cares about the theatre. I think he’s good at his job.” She added that had he not resigned, however, “I know there are people who would not have been satisfied.”
Nice career you have there, Mr. Eckern. Sure would be a shame for something to happen to it. Nice business you have there, Mormon Restaurant Manager Lady. Sure would be a shame to have it destroyed.
Sullivan’s complaint is disingenuous. I hear all the time from religious conservatives in various fields — in particular media and academia — who are afraid to disclose their own beliefs about same-sex marriage because most people within those fields consider opposition to SSM to be driven solely by hatred. Earlier this year, I had a conversation with a man who is probably the most accomplished and credentialed legal scholar I’ve ever met, someone who is part of this country’s law elite. The fact that I can’t identify him here, or get into specifics of what he told me, indicates something important about the climate within law circles around this issue. On this issue, he lives in the closet, so to speak, within his professional circles, and explained to me why it has become too dangerous to take a traditionalist stand in law circles, unless one is prepared to sabotage one’s career. In the near future, law degrees coming from law schools that don’t adhere full-on to the new orthodoxy on gay rights (if any exist) will be taken as seriously by the legal profession as degrees from Bob Jones University are.
He also said that religious conservatives really don’t understand the McCarthyism that’s about to come at them. Simply affirming what their faith teaches about sexuality in context of the gay rights debate really is, and will increasingly be, seen not as evidence of one’s poor thinking, but rather as evidence of one’s personal evil. I told him that I understand it, because I’ve seen the same thing play out in my profession. I mentioned someone I know who works in a New York newsroom, at a senior level, who lives in the closet as an Evangelical, out of fear of her colleagues learning the truth — this, given their openly-expressed spite for Evangelicals. I mentioned another friend, a gay-marriage supporter from another New York newsroom, who told me not long ago that there is no room there for dissent on same-sex marriage. All opposition to the new orthodoxy is taken as a confession of one’s bigotry.
Does Andrew Sullivan not know this? There have been plenty of people in the recent past willing to make arguments for the traditional Christian view of sex and sexuality, but the place these arguments are made in our culture — in the media — has been indifferent or hostile to them. I point Andrew to the Pew Center’s study from last year, showing that media coverage on same-sex marriage from a critical period they studied favored the pro-SSM position by five-to-one. This kind of thing happens when the media have decided that the other side has no position worth listening to.
Has Andrew ever been threatened by a potentially career-ending complaint that expressing his beliefs create a “hostile work environment”? It has happened to me (though not about gay issues); I’ve heard from others — readers of this blog and people I have met elsewhere — who have faced similar reactions when it emerged in their places of employment that their personal views don’t agree with the new race-sex-gender orthodoxy. A tenured professor who is a Christian told me recently that if his colleagues knew that he disagreed with gay marriage, he would not lose his job (tenure protects him), but he would be ostracized within his college as a bigot. It’s very, very easy for the self-employed Andrew, who is on the power-holding side of this cultural equation, to demean as “delicate and insensitive” people who face real and significant professional consequences for their religious dissent.
It may fall to them to martyr their careers to stand up for what they believe to be true. But if they are going to do that, they should at least have a reasonable hope that their arguments will be seriously considered. That’s a ridiculous thing to hope for in our media climate today. But it is unjust of Andrew to write as if his side is not imposing a real cost on people who even he recognizes are not true bigots, simply for expressing their Christian beliefs. Christians and other traditionalists were wrong to have demonized gay people in the past, and forced them to live in the closet for fear of their careers.
Team Andrew Gay rights activists did a lot of good work to end this climate of fear, and to wake the rest of us up to the humanity of our gay brothers and sisters, and to increase tolerance for them. But it is to Team Andrew’s their great discredit that they have created a climate of intolerance and, yes, hatred, that sends traditionalist Christians into professional closets of their own. It would do Andrew good to step outside of his NYC-Provincetown-DC bubble, and listen to Catholics and other Christians who are not Westboro fundamentalists, and who are afraid to stand up for what they believe in because of the consequences they believe the new McCarthyism is likely to impose.
UPDATE: Damon Linker, who supports SSM, nails it. He says he’s thrilled by the progress gay rights have made.
But I’m also troubled by the equally stunning lack of charity, magnanimity, and tolerance displayed by many gay marriage advocates. This very much includes Mark Joseph Stern, Henry Farrell, and others who are cheering them on.
Roughly speaking, for all of recorded human history until a couple of decades ago, virtually no one even entertained the possibility that homosexuals might seek to marry, let alone advocated it. In that brief span of time — a figurative blink of an eye in cultural terms — gay marriage has gone from being an oxymoron to a lived reality in several states and an institution accepted by majorities or pluralities in most demographic categories. If that isn’t a cultural revolution, then nothing is.
Yes, it’s still underway. But at this rate, Nate Silver’s 2009 prediction that gay marriage would be accepted in all 50 states by 2024 is going to prove to be too pessimistic.
And yet, that appears to be insufficient for some gay marriage proponents. They don’t just want to win the legal right to marry. They don’t just want most Americans to recognize and affirm the equal dignity of their relationships. They appear to want and expect all Americans to recognize and affirm that equal dignity, under penalty of ostracism from civilized life.
That is an unacceptable, illiberal demand.
He explains why. Read the whole thing.
UPDATE.2: Listen, I’m not going to publish any more statements in the comboxes of this thread arguing whether or not Christian opposition to SSM is driven by bigotry. If you want to join that discussion, there are plenty of threads on this blog in which to do it, and there will no doubt be plenty more. This thread is about how gay rights supporters should treat those who disagree with them. I’m not trying to suppress your opinion because I disagree with it, but rather keep the discussion focused. Please don’t waste your time writing a general comment about supposed Christian bigotry, because I’m not going to post it.
From the Journals Of Father Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest, this combination of two subsequent entries from February 1975:
I had lunch with two Anglican clergymen in the city. Conversations about the ordination of women. Suddenly, while we were talking, I thought, how not serious religion had become since it ceased being the essential form of life. Religion seems to be constantly reinventing itself, in order not to disappear completely, not to be discarded.
People have stopped believing not in God or gods, but in death, in eternal death, in its inevitability — hence, they stopped believing in salvation. The seriousness of religion was first of all in the serious choice that a person considered obvious, between death and salvation. People say that the disappearance of fear is good, although the essential experience of life is facing death. The saints did not become saints because of fear, but because they knew the fear of God. The contemporary understanding of religion as self-fulfillment is rather cheap. The devil is eliminated, then hell, then sin — and nothing is left except consumer goods. But there is much more fear, even religious fear in the world than ever before — but it is not at all the fear of God.
This is why the Divine Comedy would be impossible today. Without the Inferno, and the vivid reality of sin and death, and the conviction that one has the responsibility to choose, none of the rest of it makes sense.
Today I read in the New York Times an article about changes occurring in Russia. No more dissidents, no young people to carry on the opposition. Sakharov is quite alone. People want televisions, cars, ice cream, comfort. The tragic high note taken by Solzhenitsyn is lost in this decay. S. issues a call to “live without lies,” but his opponents reply, “Does he not understand that people always and everywhere lived — and will live — by and with lies?” It is impossible to oppose society’s lowest impersonal ways. The United States wants and needs to trade with Russia — and this is stronger than any potential protest. Russia wants a better material life and that’s the strongest incentive. Religion is absolutely helpless, not because of the weakness and the fall of religion, butbecause religion has ceased to be the essential term of reference, the basis of a vision of the world, an evaluation of all these “wants.” [Emphasis mine -- RD] I felt it quiet acutely today while attending a report of our church’s committee on investment, including a discussion about what is better, more profitable, secure — some bonds or some stocks. Nobody felt the comical and demonic aspect of a discussion attended by bishops and priests who listened with genuine reverence and admiration to the financial experts: a banker and a broker. I saw for about an hour a true religious awe, which was completely absent when simple church affairs were discussed — in an atmosphere of petty mistrust, intrigue, and verification of every cent spent by the administration. The banker and the broker were listened to with hearty enjoyment, and questions were asked in the way that one used to ask elders, wise men and masters. They talked with the simplicity and the humility of people who know their business, their indispensable place in society. This is the way that religion does not express itself any more, because religion does not have such an indispensable place any more. What does it mean? It means that religion has accepted secular logic and does not see in that acceptance either its fall or even a “problem.” For how could religion survive otherwise?
A recent illustration of Fr. Schmemann’s point. Religion is powerless before the gods of this age, except in a refusal to bend the knee. And the religions that do bend their knees will lose their souls. Watch.
UPDATE: A little more on this. When Schmemann says religion has accepted “secular logic,” what does he mean? Well, thinking of Charles Taylor (who wrote A Secular Age long after the late Fr. Schmemann wrote these diary entries), I suppose he means accepting that secularism doesn’t mean the lack of religion, but rather that the religious worldview does not dominate and undergird life. Religion is seen not as a description of how the world is, but as an expression of how some people within a culture see the world. The condition of being secular is to be aware that religion is a choice. This is something that even religious people living in secularism cannot help but be aware of; in this sense, everyone living today is secular, even if they are religious. That being the case, to accept “secular logic” as a religious person means that one sees religion as an aspect of life, not as the center of life. It means church is what one does on Sunday. It means faith is a pleasant and perhaps helpful add-on to one’s life, but certainly not the point of one’s life. There is no awe present within the contemporary religious consciousness; it is entirely therapeutic. It is not the Cross, but rather Your Best Life Now. No wonder nobody takes religion seriously.
As you may recall, I am embarking on a book about reading the Divine Comedy as a way to find one’s own way back to the “straight path.” Frankly, it’s about reading Dante’s great poem as a self-help book — a reading that, I hasten to add, the poet endorses. He once wrote to a patron that the point of the Commedia is to deliver the reader from misery to blessedness. The thing that will be the hardest for me to convey to the modern reader is Dante’s since that the choice he (and all of us) must make in life will have eternal consequences. If you don’t believe your eternal fate hangs on the choices you make in this life, it’s harder to experience the Commedia as Dante wrote it.
A reader who teaches college students writes:
The Catholic Church, I’ve found, is just extraordinarily bad at catechizing its young members. I have numerous Catholic students in my classes–that is, students who claim not only to have been raised Catholic, but to be actively practicing Catholics.
Their lack of substantive knowledge of the essential (not to speak of peripheral) elements of their faith is shocking and shameful, and goes far beyond (below?) mere cafeteria Catholicism. It’s one thing to pick and choose which Catholic teachings to “believe,” but these students usually don’t even know what the Catholic teachings are in the first place. Due to the subject matter I typically teach (Western political theory), ideas that involve or that bear upon Catholic themes naturally come up. What is the Catholic teaching on marriage? *blank stares* What’s purgatory? (purga-what?) What’s original sin? (no one has ever had a clue about this one) What is the natural law? (same here)
I’m not a Catholic, but I find myself instructing Catholics in their faith on a routine bases. I grew up in a Protestant church that had no notion of the “church calendar,” and yet even I have a fairly robust understanding of Lent. What’s the deal here? Is the failure on the part of Catholic parents or the priesthood? Either way, it’s not only shameful but tragic. No faith is sustainable if its young members have no idea what it’s about.
This echoes something a Catholic theologian friend told me about many of the students turning up at his Catholic university. They simply didn’t know the rudimentary facts of the faith. As I’ve said here before, the atheist Camille Paglia once told me that her nominally Christian college students in Philly turn up ignorant of basic Christian themes, motifs, and stories. The only ones who are even slightly cognizant are black students and a few working-class white ones.
I recently had a conversation with an Orthodox Christian from the Northeast. He said that the lack of basic knowledge of Orthodox Christianity among congregations in his part of the world is shocking. We’re not talking about theological fine points; we’re talking about Orthodox Christianity 101. I told him the story of an Evangelical friend of mine in Philly who had been raised Greek Orthodox in NYC, and had even gone to the Greek cathedral school for his entire pre-college schooling, and who was surprised to learn from dumb old convert me that Orthodox Christians fast.
This brought to mind a mainline Protestant friend who had been active in her church from childhood, and in a parachurch youth ministry, who didn’t understand until she stumbled across the information as an adult that Jesus had been resurrected in His body.
And it brings to mind this story today from the Canadian Anglicans, whose primate, Fred Hiltz, suggests abandoning a traditional Lenten practice and taking up a traditional North American Indian ritual in its place:
While I appreciate the significance of imposing ashes at the outset of Lent, I have come to wonder if smudging might not be an equally powerful reminder of the true character of these 40 days. I wonder what the impact might be if there was a ceremony of smudging on each Sunday in Lent—at the beginning of the liturgy or at the time of confession and intention “to lead the new life following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways” (Invitation to Confession, Book of Common Prayer, p. 76).
What’s the connecting thread? Tradition, and disregard for it. Tradition has to be a living thing, handed on by one generation to the next. It can be captured in books, but if it only lives in books, it will not live. My Orthodox friend in the Northeast says that so many churches in his part of the country are ethnic mausoleums inhabited by old people who did not pass the faith on to their children (hence the absence of middle-aged people and children in the congregation), but who would rather the congregations die than make themselves welcoming to younger converts who want to learn and live the tradition. Speaking of how displaced he is as a traditional Christian in his city, “It’s a strange thing to realize that your only reliable allies in the public square are Muslims and Mormons.”
Nobody can be certain that their children will receive the tradition, but they can be pretty sure that their children won’t receive it if it is not presented to them. In Baton Rouge the other day, I was speaking to one of this blog’s readers, a former public schoolteacher who is about to start seminary (out yourself here if you’d like, Reader!), and we agreed on how utterly clueless so many Christian parents are today about this topic. Until recently, parents could have been relatively lackadaisical about passing on the faith to their kids, because there was enough ambient Christianity in the culture to give at least a rudimentary catechism in the Christian mindset. “Those days are gone,” he said, in the same tone of voice one would use in talking about ignorant drivers approaching a bridge that had washed out.
Christians who go with the flow will find their children’s faith washed down the river. I’m sure it must be the same with other religions. Modernity is a universal solvent.
Today Matt and I were having lunch in a fast-food joint near LSU. The two undergraduate women sitting behind us were having a conversation about Lent.
“Why does the Catholic church punish everybody for Lent? Way to get more people to come to your church!” one of them sarcastically said.
“Can you believe that?” said Matt.
If I had had a print-out of this fantastic Ash Wednesday sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Pastrix, I would have handed it to both of them. Excerpt:
And the thing is, this truth we speak tonight about our mortality is only offensive if it’s heard as an insult and not a promise. It’s only offensive when it’s heard as being the last word. And it’s not. It’s not the last word.
The same is true about confessing our sins. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: People who think I’m some crazy liberal are always so shocked about how much I love to talk about sin. I think liberals tend to think admitting we are sinful is the same as having low self-esteem. And then conservatives equate sin with immorality. So one end of the church tells us that sin is an antiquated notion that only makes us feel bad about ourselves so we should avoid mentioning it at all. While the other end of the church tells us that sin is the same as immorality and totally avoidable if you can just be a good squeaky-clean Christian. Yet when sin is boiled down to low self-esteem or immorality then it becomes something we can control or limit in some way rather than something we are simply in bondage to. The reality is that I cannot free myself from the bondage of self. I cannot by my own understanding or effort disentangle myself from self interest – and when I think that I can …I’m basically trying to do what is only God’s to do.
So, to me, there is actually great hope in Ash Wednesday, a great hope in admitting my mortality and my brokenness because then I finally lay aside my sin management program long enough to allow God to be God for me. Which is all any of us really need when it comes down to it.
Trust me, read the whole thing. You’ve got to see what she went through this week. The woman can preach, y’all.
[H/T: CK, who did me a big favor by sending this]
This is a faith in which there are saints: Nurses, police officers, the men (and they generally are) who drive the plows and salt trucks. And even my essential-personnel husband, who goes to work very early in the morning for the media—otherwise, the snowstorm might be perfect for a bit of conjugal bliss.
This faith has its Pharisees, as well: The people who will fight their way downtown to the office no matter what, and who just don’t understand why someone wouldn’t try to drive in from Fauquier County, Virginia, or Frederick, Maryland—roughly an hour outside town. Actually, what they don’t understand is why people persist in living in those places in the first place. Or why people who have children have not conveniently secured means of having always-available child care in the event of the unexpected.
Because the work just doesn’t stop. However fashionable it may be among progressives to decry the celibate religious, it is the un-partnered, and un-parenting among us who have become eunuchs for the Lord, logging sixteen-hour days, blind to the sky and the soft white crystals falling, just barely audible, on the branches.
This is a faith that even has its monks.
I am on record as despising summer. But I tell you, this cold and wet season just has to end. It just has to.
A great companion in this journey is Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta of Yale University, whose Reading Dante collection of course notes is a terrific help. You can take Prof. Mazzotta’s famous Yale Dante course online for free, here — and download notes.
I looked in on Mazzotta today to see if there was anything I ought to have said in yesterday’s Canto I entry. Indeed there were some things. For example:
1. Notice that in Purgatorio, the order of sins to be overcome, and their severity, is reversed. We start with the hardest sin, Pride (a sin of the intellect), near the base of the mountain, and work up to the easiest sins to overcome, sins of the flesh, near the top. Question for the room: Is this right? Are sins of the intellect/spirit harder to overcome than sins of the flesh? I think so, but I think a good case can be made that it’s the other way around.
2. Purgatorio begins at dawn on Easter Sunday, in the chronological frame established by Dante. The journey through Inferno parallels Good Friday and Christ’s harrowing of Hell. Dante and Virgil emerge, allegorically, from the tomb into a world in which redemption has entered. In a broader sense, Purgatorio covers the time from the Resurrection to the Ascension.
3. Unlike Inferno, Purgatorio has a sense of Time as a leitmotif. There is no time in Hell; nothing ever changes. But in Purgatory, everybody is moving, or waiting to move. They are going somewhere — to Paradise, ultimately. Mazzotta:
This opening is also the first time that Dante uses the future tense in the text: “I will sing.” We’re brought into a world open to futurity, and the only way of thinking about futurity is a belief in the new. If the future is exactly like today, then you really have no future, since everything would be released into the domain of sameness. Dante uses the future to imply that there is an alternative, a difference, a possibility of doing things in ways that have not been done before.
About Cato as the first man they encounter in the Purgatorial world, and Time, Mazzotta writes:
Now there is an obvious relationship between freedom and the future. You cannot conceive of freedom unless you have an idea of beginnings and of the future. Nor can you conceive of novelty unless you have ideas of both the future and freedom. The notion of originality, even poetic originality, is impossible unless it’s tied to a certain idea of freedom ,the notion that things can be different. If I am slave to the past, if I am a slave to a political order, if I am slave to my own vices, as internalized as that quest can be, then I really have no freedom. Cato embodies one who refuses to live if that means living under the tyranny of civil war and violence, and thus in the impossibility of a moral life. We can also explain the notion of the old man here. Dante wants to draw our attention to the fact that the search for the future is not an alternative to the past but rather grows out of the past, so that the idea that there may be some sharp distinctions between the two is rejected. The seeds of the future are already contained in the past, in a figure like an old man, like Cato.
So, on to Canto II. Dante and Virgil remain on the beach, wondering about what to do next, when they see a bright light rushing at them from across the sea. It is the Angel of the Lord.
Closer and closer to our shore he came,
brighter and brighter shone the bird of God,
until I could no longer bear the light
We will see this sort of thing much, much more on the road ahead, especially in Paradiso: the idea that the holiness of God is a bright, the intensity of which one cannot bear until one has been purified.
The angel pilots a boat filled with the recently dead, bound for Purgatory. They are singing Psalm 113, about the deliverance of Israel from the bonds of slavery in Egypt. This signals to us that the climb up the mountain will be akin to the wandering in the desert, when the wayward Israelites had to have their memory of Egypt purged before they could reach the Promised Land (compare Virgil to Moses, the guide who could not cross over). Throughout the journey up the mountain, Dante will be conscious of the temptation to return to the security of “Egypt” when the road to freedom becomes hard. Mazzotta says the “secular knowledge” the dead carry with them are like the gold the Israelites brought with them ought of Egypt; there is always the possibility that they can make a golden calf, an idol of them. Life was so much easier back in Egypt, they will lie to themselves, trying to throw off the yoke of freedom.
Dante faces the temptation to idolatry right away, when the new arrivals disembark. Everyone stands around, trying to figure out where to go. Suddenly, Dante sees someone he recognizes: Casella, a musician he had known back in Italy.
I said, “pray, sing, and give a little rest
to my poor soul which, burdened by my flesh,
has climbed this far and is exhausted now.”
Casella begins to sing some of Dante’s own poetry, and everyone present falls under its spell, “deeply lost in joy.” Suddenly, Cato appears, and reads them the riot act.
“What negligence to stand around like this!
Run to the mountain, shed that slough which still
does not let God be manifest to you!”
The penitents scatter. This is a shocking moment. Cato has told them that now is not the time to rest, that the beautiful music and verse is an impediment to their sanctification. It’s not that music and poetry are bad; it’s that they are bad in this context, because they distract the people from their mission. The penitents are there to make themselves capable of uniting to God. Dante can’t even bear the sight of the bright angel at this stage. If he stays on the beach listening to music, he might never be able to reach home.
Cato stands on our Lenten strand, telling us that now is not the time to pine away over the comforts we are supposed to have put behind us. Run toward the mountain! You will not see God if you sit here indulging yourself in comfort rather than carrying out your mission.
Noah Millman has a good post up about the tension between experience and divine revelation in the religious consciousness. He’s responding to David Sessions’s objections to a post I wrote likening his experience of de-converting from Christianity to Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s experience of conversion. Sessions wrote critically about the experience of losing religious faith (as he has done), saying that to “convert” to unbelief is not simply a matter of reasoning, but also involves experiential factors that cannot be downplayed. I pointed out that this goes both ways, and used the conversion story of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a former lesbian and women’s studies professor turned Evangelical wife, as an example of the power of experience to set the bounds within which reason operates.
Sessions resists the comparison. Excerpt:
There is a superficial similarity in the sense that Butterfield and I both had experiences that changed us before we had a full explanation or argument for what happened. What Butterfield describes in this passage is essentially her embrace of obscurantism, a “truth” that either defies or ignores well-established scholarship—and even her own previous experience—on human sexual orientation. But the fact that experience drives intellectual transformation is not a license to abandon intellectual rigor. For example, how does she know God has a point of view about homosexuality, or that it’s negative? Why does she think Christianity requires her to obey it before she understands? What if Christians disagree about what that view is, or think that view is something that’s obviously misinformed? Does it make sense that a Christian God would want a convert to break up a happy family? For a former scholar, Butterfield shows remarkably little philosophical skepticism; she also seems to cast aside her training in how to review and evaluate the available evidence to determine if these views she’s been introduced to are reasonable or even widely considered to be Christian.
In fact, it’s her theological incuriosity that’s perhaps most surprising. As Patrol’s Kenneth Sheppard wrote, analyzing the problems with Butterfield’s conversion narrative: “the question of how to read the Bible, how to determine what it teaches on subjects such as sin (or if it is in fact univocal on such questions), and how to embody that teaching, never seems to arise; this is a rather glaring omission for someone who used to be a literature professor.”
I think this is a fundamental misreading of the religious consciousness, one that (unconsciously) privileges rationalism. Before I make my own observations, here’s something from Millman (whose entire essay you should read):
If I understand his objection, what he’s saying is that while his own de-conversion was motivated by experience, social context, and emotion, and not merely by intellectual argument, he feels like Butterfield’s conversion is explicitly a rejection of the process of intellection. And, for that reason, he finds it problematic and troubling, quite apart from not being parallel to his own experience.
I see his point, but I’m not sure he’s really grasping the nettle. It’s comforting to think that the liberal, secular mind is simply more open than the religious, but in my experience you can find plenty of closed-minded people in both camps, and the more open-minded have different points of stress where they turn away from the possibility of uncomfortable truths. There are very, very few individuals who approximate a truly Socratic level of openness to doubt about their own knowledge.
The nettle, I think, is that the qualities of their respective experiences are incommensurate. What I hear when I read the descriptions of Butterfield’s experience is, most primally, the experience of being commanded. The feeling that an authority has instructions for her, and that she must obey them. Sessions’s de-conversion contained no trace of that feeling.
Is that feeling a good thing or a bad thing? Something to be embraced or something to be analyzed and demystified? That question is a very central one to adherents of (or objectors to) the Abrahamic religious traditions. But you won’t get anywhere in trying to understand that question if you start from the proposition that God’s commands ought to be reasonable. [Emphasis mine -- RD]
This is a fundamental point. Millman explains well why you cannot understand Biblical religion if you expect everything to make perfect sense, especially (he might have added) to a 21st century Westerner. What is reasonable about God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? What is reasonable about God incarnating as a Palestinian Jew and willingly suffering torture and dying, humiliated? God cannot be contained by human reason. This is not to deny the power (and the importance) of reason, only to put it in its proper place.
A friend passed on Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s memoir to me yesterday. The idea that “scholarship,” in Sessions’s word, should have dissuaded her from her encounter with God is remarkably uncomprehending. Here’s a relevant passage from the book:
That night, I prayed, and asked God if the gospel message was for someone like me, too. I viscerally felt the living presence of God as I prayed. Jesus seemed present and alive. I knew that I was not alone in my room. I prayed that if Jesus was truly a real and risen God, that he would change my heart. And if he was real and if I was his, I prayed that he would give me the strength of mind to follow him and the character to become a godly woman. I prayed for the strength of character to repent for a sin that at that time didn’t feel like sin at all — it felt like life, plain and simple. I prayed that if my life was actually his life, that he would take it back and make it what he wanted it to be. I asked him to take it all: my sexuality, my profession, my community, my tastes, my books, and my tomorrows.
Two incommensurable worldviews clashed together: the reality of my lived experience and the truth of the word of God. In continental philosophy, we talk about the difference between the true and the real. Had my life become real, but not true? The Bible told me to repent, but I didn’t feel like repenting. Do you have to feel like repenting in order to repent? Was I a sinner, or was I, in my drag queen friend’s words, sick? How do you repent for a sin that doesn’t feel like a sin? How could the thing that I had studied and become be sinful? How could I and everyone that I knew and loved be in sin? In this crucible of confusion, I learned something important. I learned the first rule of repentance: that repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin. How much greater? About the size of a mustard seed. Repentance requires that we draw near to Jesus, no matter what. And sometimes we have to crawl there on our hands and knees. Repentance is an intimate affair. And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect.
When Christ gave me the strength to follow him, I didn’t stop feeling like a lesbian. I’ve discovered that the Lord doesn’t change my feelings until I obey him. During one sermon, Ken pointed to John 7:17, and called this “the hermeneutics of obedience.” Jesus is speaking in this passage, and he says: “If anyone is willing to do God’s will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak it from myself.” Ah ha! Here it was! Obedience comes before understanding. I wanted to understand. But did I actually will to do his will? God promised to reveal this understanding to me if I “willed to do his will.” The Bible doesn’t just say do his will, but “will to do his will.” Wanting to understand is a theoretical statement; willing to do his will takes action.
I’ve not finished the book yet, but I’ve gone far enought in it to assure you that Butterfield, now a Reformed Presbyterian, goes on to chastise Christians who speak hatefully of gay people. Furthermore, she strongly criticizes Christians who set homosexuality apart from other sins, as if it were uniquely despised by the All-Holy. Even after her conversion, she praises her transgender friend for being kind and wise. And she also has strong words for Christians who make the process of conversion seem like an easy-peasy, say-the-sinner’s-prayer event; she makes clear that conversion is an ongoing process, and that it is hard.
Anyway, notice what happens in this passage. She has a numinous experience in prayer, one that convinces her that God is real. Even though she does not feel that anything she’s doing is wrong (“it felt like life, plain and simple”), she is told by the Bible that it is wrong, and now she’s experienced a numinous presence that she interprets as a manifestation of the God of the Bible. What do you do with that? She concedes that the Biblical view not only seemed unreasonable based on what she believed to be true, but it also felt unreasonable. And yet, how was she to deny her mystical experience? It was real — but was it true?
She could have easily rationalized it away. I did, before my conversion. And I ultimately arrived at the same place Butterfield did: realizing that what I thought was an intellectual problem was actually a volitional problem. That is, I kept telling myself God had to make sense before I would believe in Him and commit myself to Him, when the truth was that I had no intention of subjecting my will to His. Until I was willing to sacrifice everything for unity with Him, I would not find it. It was only when I crossed that boundary that I was able to start understanding this thing called Christianity.
For example, how does she know God has a point of view about homosexuality, or that it’s negative? Why does she think Christianity requires her to obey it before she understands? What if Christians disagree about what that view is, or think that view is something that’s obviously misinformed? Does it make sense that a Christian God would want a convert to break up a happy family?
Well, the God of the Bible most certainly has a point of view about homosexuality, and it’s negative. Christianity does require her to submit her will before she is fully capable of understanding. Does it make sense that a Christian God would break up a happy family? Said Jesus, in Luke 14: “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life! Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower.”
The point is, all of these things are present in the Bible, and abundantly clear. Christianity is a radical thing! True religion always is.
Now, it is certainly the case that Butterfield could have been deceived when she prayed and felt the presence of God. She could have hallucinated it. It could have been an evil spirit. The interesting thing in her account is that she didn’t want to believe that she would have to give up everything to follow Him. The picture she paints of her LGBT community is not one of a freak show, but of a community that gave her a sense of belonging and meaning. Yet she could not ignore the call she felt God put on her life. There is far more depth and nuance to her book than you might think.
On the other hand, what sense do we make of a gay Christian who prays and who sincerely believes that God has approved of his homosexuality, and has called him to preach that message? An orthodox Christian would tell him that he is rationalizing an emotional experience, or possibly was visited by an evil spirit masquerading as God. The orthodox Christian would point out that the God of the Bible wouldn’t possibly bless that view, because it runs so contrary to Scripture. The orthodox Christian would reason from within the standard Christian framework, which holds the Bible to be the authoritative word of God.
Similarly, what would a Christian say to a fellow Christian who had a numinous experience that caused him to embrace Islam? What would a Muslim say to a fellow believer who converted to Christianity after a road-to-Damascus experience? In both cases, the faithful believer would presumably try to reason from within their common tradition, to convince the apostate that they were wrong. But the process of conversion may well have begun with an experience that shatters the common agreement on what is rational. As Millman writes:
Primal experience is possible within all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike. It can be rejected or “explained away” within all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike. And it is potentially disruptive of all ideological frameworks, secular and religious alike.
Very true. None of us should take comfort in this truth. In Dante, natural reason can take you far up the mountain towards virtue, but at some point, if human nature is to be perfected, one must be humble enough to embrace revelation. You don’t have to be a Christian or any sort of religious person at all to accept that Reason cannot stand alone. At some point, you have to accept “Revelation,” by which I mean accepting that there are some first premises that you hold to be true even though you cannot account for them objectively. This “revelation” is the foundation of one’s reasoning, and sets its boundaries.
(I’m going to stop here with this post, but let me say this: I’m not going to publish rants about the wickedness of Christianity for its anti-LGBTness, or anything like that. If you want to talk about experience, reason, and revelation, great, let’s talk. But do not use the comboxes to pontificate.)
A quick note to let you know that we’re moving tickets to the Walker Percy Weekend, so please do your best to get yours early. We need to know how much crawfish, beer, and oysters to buy for the dinners, so the sooner you buy yours, the better off we’ll be. Information about the event is on the Walker Percy Weekend website; you can reserve your tickets online at the bottom of the page.
I wanted to tell you about a neat thing we have planned for the event. We’re working with LSU to host an I Knew Walker When… oral history project. Festivalgoers who knew, met, or interacted with Walker Percy will be invited to sit down with LSU historians to record their memories for the university’s archive. It will be a great opportunity for festivalgoers to make history themselves, and to help build Walker Percy’s legacy for future generations of readers. Please come on down to St. Francisville, drink a little cold beer with us, eat some crawfish under the live oaks, and let’s talk Southern literature and Walker Percy.
I know a lot of you are planning to roadtrip, because you’ve told me so. Do us a favor and get those tickets early, willya? We want to be ready for you. While you’re down this way, why not make a run over to the Covington area to St. Joseph’s Abbey, where you can visit Walker’s grave? You’ll be on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, which means prime Moviegoer territory. And of course, you’ll want to go have a drink at Napoleon House, and go kiss the Ignatius statue.
Sounds like a vacation to me. I’m just saying. Louisiana is always happy to see you.
But what Ross and Michael and Rod are really concerned about, it seems to me, is the general culture of growing intolerance of religious views on homosexuality, and the potential marginalization – even stigmatization – of traditional Christians.
I sure hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s not something a free society should try to control by law. There is a big difference between legal coercion and cultural isolation. The former should be anathema – whether that coercion is aimed at gays or at fundamentalist Christians. The latter? It’s the price of freedom. The way to counter it is not, in my view, complaints about being victims (this was my own advice to the gay rights movement a couple of decades ago, for what it’s worth). The way to counter it is to make a positive argument about the superior model of a monogamous, procreative, heterosexual marital bond. There is enormous beauty and depth to the Catholic argument for procreative matrimony – an account of sex and gender and human flourishing that contains real wisdom. I think that a church that was able to make that positive case – rather than what is too often a merely negative argument about keeping gays out, or the divorced in limbo – would and should feel liberated by its counter-cultural message.
The problem with this is not that trads are losing the argument. We clearly have. I can live with that, and indeed accepted as early as five or six years ago that this was going to happen. Seriously, I did; if all the old Beliefnet archives were still online, you could look it up. No, the problem is that the victors in this war seem bound and determined to impose the most humiliating possible terms on the losers. This is not going to end well.
Andrew asks us to make a “positive case,” but I submit to him that this is impossible now. The climate that now exists, and that will only grow in intensity, is one in which any dissent from the pro-gay consensus, no matter how nuanced or irenically stated, amounts to “hate” that cannot be tolerated. Error Has No Rights. Conor Friedersdorf, who supports gay marriage, writes about the phenomenon of pro-SSM supporters attributing all opposition to hatred and bigotry, and how unfair that is. Excerpt:
Set aside for a moment the tension here between individual liberty and non-discrimination law. Whether you think the New Mexico Supreme Court decided the case rightly or wrongly, that is separate from the question of what motivated Elaine Huguenin. I’ve never met the woman. None of us can look inside her heart. But her petition presents a perfectly plausible account of why she would refuse to photograph same-sex weddings for perfectly common religious reasons that have nothing to do with fear of gays, intolerance toward gays, or hatred of gay people.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has spent an appreciable amount of time around practicing Christians. In such circles, there are plenty of ugly attitudes toward gays and lesbians, as well as lots of people who think gay and lesbian sex and marriage is sinful, but who bear no ill will toward gays and lesbians themselves. I wish even the latter group would reconsider. I don’t regard homosexuality as sinful. Unlike my friends in the orthodox Catholic community, I don’t regard sex before marriage or masturbation or the use of contraceptives or failing to attend Sunday Mass as sinful either. Knowing those Catholic friends neither fear me nor treat me with intolerance nor bear hatred toward me, it’s easy for me to see how they could view gay sex or marriage as sinful without hating gays or lesbians.
Care should be taken before alleging hatred, partly out of fairness to the accused, but also because it’s awful to feel hated. Telling a group that an incident or dispute is rooted in bigotry when evidence supports a different conclusion increases the perception of being hated more than reality justifies. Dealing with the amount of actual hatefulness in America is already hard enough.
The eagerness with which pro-SSM folks are willing to believe the absolute worst about those who oppose them is appalling, and when you think about what this is likely to mean for the near future, deeply depressing. For many of them, it is not enough that we are wrong; we must also be purely evil. I received an e-mail yesterday from a gay man seeking to know how I could oppose SSM. I told him that I was disinclined to have a dialogue with him, because dialogue almost always ends up with his side telling my side how evil we are, end of story. He went on to say that in reading my writing about SSM, it seems to him that gay people would think I’m the sort of person who is
like the rest of the religious folks who condemn them to hell and would (and have publicly advocated for) have them executed or at least rounded up and put away, for the children of course.
Where do you even begin with this? I believe in civil unions, but otherwise believe what the overwhelming majority of people in this country believed until a period beginning about 20 years ago. I believe what the president of the United States professed to believe until about two years ago. Where was the gay gulag? Where were the prayer rallies asking God to send us a gay Holocaust? The thought here seems to be that all Christians are members of the Westboro Baptist Church. This is the precise equivalent of wild-eyed Christians believing the smear that all gays are pederastic predators. What self-respecting — what sane — gay person would bother talking to someone who approaches the conversation assuming that he, the gay person, is a pedophile until proven otherwise? It’s nuts. There is no point in engaging in talk with someone who can read the things I’ve written defending my position and believe that I would subject gay people to mass murder or life in a concentration camp.
The more interesting question here is why would someone want to believe that about his fellow countrymen, when there is absolutely no evidence that anyone not on the far radical fringe would endorse something as wicked as what he thinks is mainstream among Christians?
But this is where we are with many people in this country, both gay and straight, regarding the conversation. (For the record, before you read it in Slate or Salon, it is not true that Christians make our communion wafers with the blood of stolen gay babies.) It’s a moral panic, and what’s even crazier about it is that it gets worse as the gay rights cause solidifies its victory. This is the cultural climate in which a news organization like the Associated Press feels comfortable distributing a photo of Christian children who are part of a non-gay pseudo-Scout troop falsely appearing to give a fascist salute, and in which one of the country’s most prominent religion journalist sends out a tweet likening this kids to Hitler Youth. (N.B., the AP withdrew the photo under fire, and the journalist apologized.) We can all make mistakes, and do. The point is the eagerness among the media and gay rights supporters to demonize anyone who dissents. The formerly oppressed become the oppressors, and believe that the perceived righteousness of their cause excuses anything. It’s an old, old story. And it’s also an old, old story that this kind of suppression feeds radicalism.
If Andrew believes that Christians should tell positive stories, then the best thing he can do for us dissenters, now that he is on the verge of victory (and I can’t think of a single figure who has done more than he has to achieve victory), is to explain to his side what he perfectly well knows from being friends with Ross and me: that not every Christian who opposes same-sex marriage is a hater, and it does none of us any good to pretend that they are.
UPDATE: I heard from a pastor this morning who said a parishioner approached him last week to ask his advice. His parishioner said that a colleague in his workplace is openly gay, and keeps pestering him to declare his views on same-sex marriage. The parishioner is a traditional Christian who doesn’t believe in SSM, but he also doesn’t believe the workplace is where this sort of thing should be discussed. The parishioner just wants to get on with his work, but the colleague, who is in a semi-supervisory capacity, won’t let it drop. The parishioner said that the climate in his workplace — a business that has nothing to do with marriage or social issues — has shifted to where one is expected to declare one’s support for SSM, or be suspected of harboring hateful views. The parishioner just wants to be left alone, but he doesn’t want to be accused of being ashamed of his religious views. He wanted to know what he should do.
This is coming. What is wrong with policing a work colleague’s behavior, not his thoughts? If the parishioner were treating gay colleagues disrespectfully or otherwise unjustly, then sanction him. And if not, what business is it of anybody’s if he’s guilty of thoughtcrime?