Separation of Church & Life
On the Spiritual Friendship blog (for and by gay Christians who are living chastely), Christopher Benson highlights an important insight by theologian and ethicist Oliver O’Donovan, regarding homosexuality and the church. Excerpt:
Let us imagine a gay person who has “heard” the message of the gospel but is yet unaware of any bearing it may have for his homosexual sensibility. Must there not be some following up of the good news, something to relate what has been heard to this aspect of his self-understanding? It is helpful to keep the analogy with teachers, magistrates, and financiers in our mind. Suppose a Christian teacher who has found in the gospel no implications for how literature is to be read and taught; or a Christian politician who has found no special questions raised by the gospel about policies for military defense; or a financier to whom it has not yet occurred that large sums of money should not be handled in the way a butcher handles carcasses. A pastoral question arises. In the light of the gospel, neither literature nor government nor money are mere neutral technicalities. They are dangerous powers in human life, foci upon which idolatry, envy, and hatred easily concentrate. Those who deal with them need to know what it is they handle. The teacher, politician, and banker who have not yet woken up to the battle raging in heavenly places around the stuff of their daily lives, have still to face the challenge of the gospel. It is any different with the powers of sexual sensibility?
Of course, this pastoral train of thought does not entitle us to demand that the gay Christian (or the teacher, politician, and banker) should repent without further ado. Theirs is a position of moral peril but also a position of moral opportunity. In preaching the gospel to a specific vocation, we must aim to assist in discernment. Discernment means tracing the lines of the spiritual battle to be fought; it means awareness of the peculiar temptations of the situation; but it also means identifying the possibilities of service in a specific vocation. The Christian facing the perils and possibilities of a special position must be equipped, as a first step, with the moral wisdom of those who have taken that path before, the rules that have been distilled from their experience. A soldier needs to learn about “just war,” a financier about “just price,” and so on. Again, can it be any different in the realm of sexual sensibility? Discernment is not acquired in a vacuum; it is learned by listening to the tradition of the Christian community reflecting upon Scripture. In this exercise, of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that we may reach a “revisionist” conclusion. No element formed by tradition can claim absolute allegiance. But the right to revise traditions is not everybody’s right; it has to be won by learning their moral truths as deeply as they can be learned. Those who have difficult vocations to explore need the tradition to help the exploration. The tradition may not have the final word, but it is certain they will never find the final word if they have failed to profit from the words the tradition offers. And if it should really be the case that they are summoned to witness on some terra incognita of “new” experience, it will be all the more important that their new discernments should have been reached on the basis of a deep appropriation of old ones, searching for and exploiting the analogies they offer. No one who has not learned to be traditional can dare to innovate.
If this gay Christian, then, directed to traditional rules of sexual conduct as bearers of help, complains that the good news is difficult to hear because his position is treated as compromised from the outset, he has misunderstood something. There is only one position compromised from the outset, and that is the position that is “revisionist” from the outset, determined by the assumption that the church’s past reflections on the gospel have nothing helpful to offer. Certainly no one who sets out from that starting point will end up in catholic communion, for catholic communion presupposes a catholic mind.
O’Donovan is writing in specific about homosexuality, but what he’s really talking about is something that afflicts all of us who profess Christianity: the separation of church and life. If you are a Christian and there is an area of your life that you have not submitted to the tradition, then you are not who you think you are. All of life is a struggle to surrender to God; those who do it must successfully we call saints.
If you are a husband or a wife, then you must be so as a Christian — that is, not as a husband or a wife who happens also to be a Christian, but as a Christian husband, a Christian wife, in a Christian marriage. If you are a writer, you must be a Christian writer, even if you never write a thing about religion; the experience of living with the mind of Christ must inform everything you write. If you are an electrician, you must be a Christian electrician. No, there is not a Christian way to wire a building, but you must do the work you are called to do in the awareness that you are doing it in sight of God, and as His servant, and as part of a Christian community to which you must be accountable.
That community extends both backward and forward in time. This is what we call the Great Tradition. You are responsible for receiving it, and for handing it on. As O’Donovan says, it is not the case that you are always and everywhere bound to slavishly re-enact it in your own life, but you must first absorb it and contend with it seriously before contemplating modifying it. The condition of being modern is to begin with the assumption that the Tradition has no prior claim on us.
The radical insufficiency of this stance is easy for us traditional, orthodox Christians to see when it comes to gays. But we struggle to see it when it applies to teachers, politicians, bankers, and … ourselves, in our own vocations. Actually, I wonder how much we struggle at all. We think that we are teachers, politicians, bankers, and so on who happen to be Christian, as if one only incidentally had anything to do with the other. Similarly, we often think of being Christian as having little or nothing in particular to do with what being a Christian meant to Christians in the past, and what that has to do with us. We are free agents, and don’t perceive anything wrong with that.
It is a form of nominalism, this separation between church and life.