Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Honesty and Integrity

"Shall I uncrumple this much crumpled thing?" – Wallace Stevens

The wrestling is over. I am posting this weblog entry after overcoming many misgivings. The risk of offending some of one's best friends and a number of one's good friends is not an insubstantial risk, but the risk of failing to defend the faith at the point of attack is a graver one.

Bishop Eugene Robinson is the openly gay Episcopalian bishop most likely to go down in history as the man who kicked the stone that started the avalanche that brought the Anglican experiment to an end. It could hardly have escaped his notice, but he seems remarkably unperturbed by the prospect, even at times ebullient. In a recent interview with the Scottish journalist Andrew Collier, Bishop Robinson recalled a life-changing conversation he had with the chaplain at an Episcopalian college he attended.
One day when I was ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed I didn’t believe, he said ‘well, when you’re in church, just say the parts of the creed you do agree with. Be silent for the others. We’re not asking you do so something against your integrity’. And again I thought whew, that’s what one would hope for from a religion – honesty and integrity. And I guess that’s a theme that has carried throughout my life in Ministry – that God wants us to be honest and full of integrity.
Stirring calls for honesty and integrity are hard to resist. Emerson (who spoke a lot of foolishness) once said that something foolishly spoken can be wisely heard. Perhaps there is some honesty and integrity to be found in Bishop Robinson's puzzling remark if we but take the time to look for it. For, quite without realizing it, he has put his finger on precisely the key issue.

It seems only logical to begin looking for the grain of truth and integrity where Bishop Robinson has often testified to have found it, namely, in the social cause he is most famous for espousing. No, not the Gospel, the other one. (It is a link between the two that I want to explore.)

The process of mainstreaming homosexual behavior has moved inexorably from perfectly legitimate and long overdue early efforts to understand the plight of those suffering from same-sex disorders and to exercise both more compassion and more prudence when trying to the prevent the social and moral damage known to be associated with homosexual lifestyles. And yet these early and appropriate steps, insufficiently guided by the underlying ethic that insured their moral coherence, quickly fell under the gravitational force to which cultures suffering “civilizational exhaustion” are vulnerable. In rapid succession, the declension began: from understanding to tolerance, from tolerance to moral indifference, from indifference to celebration, from celebration to intolerance for any moral objections, from intolerance to legal threats, and finally to teaching seven and eight year-olds the moral and social indistinguishability of homosexual coupling and heterosexual nuptiality. Thus, we arrive at where we are today: in the midst of a culture that thinks of itself as rational, one of history’s great flat-earth theories has so triumphed that few have been able to resist genuflecting at one time or another before its pieties.

Christianity’s empathy for victims has so shaped our moral environment that the historical mistreatment of homosexuals, after it had been as rectified as it is possible for such things ever to be, survived as icon, appealing to a kind of Christ-flavored moral sentimentality which made an ideal battering ram for demolishing the Christian moral realism of which the sentimentality was a parody. It has become increasingly clear to those paying attention – and this is why I come back to this issue more than I would like – that the question that is being adjudicated is not ultimately about sexual ethics; rather it is about whether the religion that taught us the sacramental dignity of the nuptial mystery (and a lot besides) is to lose its place in cultural life and in the education of the young for failing to regard as healthy and virtuous something that any Christian living in any age but ours would have had no trouble recognizing as "intrinsically disordered."

The fact that many of the Christian faithful and most of the Christian denominations are tying themselves in knots over this issue is no accident. It has been known for some time that putting Christians in what feels to them like a moral double-bind – an empathy for victims, on one hand, and personal and confessional misgivings about the behavior of the “victims,” on the other – was a conscious strategy for dividing and paralyzing those whose moral instincts, if not creedal allegiances, were rooted in Christian principle.

And so, today this dangerous social, moral and cultural inversion finds support, not only among the sexual revolutionaries, moral nominalists, and psychological Peter Pans whose sadly shrunken idea of freedom makes them hostile to the very idea of human nature. Support for this reckless experiment is found as well among those speaking in the name of Christianity and espousing a revised Christian sexual ethic that would be unrecognizable to any Christian or Jew living before, say, 1995.

In the days before the onset of all this a couple of decades ago, one of the implicit and sometimes explicit arguments for overlooking thousands of years of human history and the testimony of commonsense was that, once the moral revulsion with homosexual behavior and the retrograde favoritism too long enjoyed by natural marriage were eliminated, the duplicity and psychological self-deception that even homosexuals themselves found to be a repugnant feature of the homosexual lifestyle would vanish.

Alas, not all the signs are encouraging. Young Eugene Robinson, "ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed [he] didn't believe," was given advice that inspired his dedication to truth and honesty. The older – and one would have hoped more mature – Eugene Robinson looks back on the sophomoric advice he was given, only to see it as the moral theme of his entire ministry. The advice? The advice was to play make-believe, to pretend to be faithful to the Creed, but in fact to be quietly altering it to suit one's own tastes.

"God wants us to be honest and full of integrity." It’s true. But the mumbled and spiteful rejection of the very creed that one has solemnly sworn to proclaim to the ends of the earth is decidedly not “what one would hope for from a religion.”

Here's my point: Whether it comes from above – from those in ecclesial robes leaning on a crosier – or from below – from those betraying their own dignity in vulgar public rejections of the very idea of sexual morality – the social and moral revolution to which each is contributing finally comes down to ranting and raving against the Nicene Creed and the breathtaking anthropological dignity to which the Council of Nicaea raised our mortal bodies by insisting that God had come to us in a human body, thereby repudiating the Gnosticism that regards the body as an assemblage of orifices which lends itself to a few passing pleasures but which is morally irrelevant and religiously inconsequential – a Gnosticism of which today’s sexual experimentalists are a very late and very sad manifestation. It is a Gnosticism, however, that is rapidly becoming a mandated feature of Western public education, very much at the expense of the Judeo-Christian anthropology upon which Western civilization was based.

Again, as G. K. Chesterton said: One small mistake in doctrine can lead to huge blunders in human happiness.

Like Christ, whose true mystery the Church began to commit formally to doctrine at Nicaea, the Church will ultimately be loved or hated. History consists of the process whereby the middle ground between them shrinks and those filled with ambivalence must move in one direction or the other. Compared to this, the question of sexual ethics is a small matter, but it doesn't remain a small matter when the question of sexual ethics becomes the surrogate issue for the determination of the ultimate one.


+Nicholas said...


I'm in agreement with everything you say here about the importance of doctrine to the life of the Church and to the spiritual life of the individual Christian.

I do think though that there's another part to the interview with Bishop Robinson that you've not noticed perhaps. When asked how much of the Creed he believes now he says "All of it". That's a significant growth from his younger self who said he could only believe certain parts.

I read his story as encouraging people to stick with the Church in-spite of their doubts. If it helps them to stay a part of the community if they are silent during parts of the Creed, then let them do that. But help them to understand that such behavior needs to be recognized as temporary accommodation to their inability to fully assent to the Church's teaching. They may learn, as have many, that we can grow into a full life of faith if we are willing to be patient with the Holy Spirit as he works within our hearts.

Frankly as a member of the clergy, I'd rather people did this than giving up if they find something difficult to assent to and just leaving the Church unlikely to ever return.

frjohnbraun said...

Gil, I have kept your last post with me throughout the day. I probably should have something better to say than what I'm about to say but I don't. I've saved a copy of the printable version for future review, because I think the issue of homosexuality is one of levers turning the wheel of our small historical moment. I suspect that it has been so in the past and will re-appear in the future after our turn is completed. The center is the "nuptial meaning" of the human body; what those who find that meaning disagreeable hope to achieve I honestly don't know--and I honestly don't think they know, "looks like freedom but it feels like death"--but I fear they may get more chaos than they have bargained for. I have also been thinking of the current attitude of many bishops, my own included, toward ordaining homosexually oriented men and think this: in the recent past the issue was probably covered over, today it is more open, and the attitude usually more charitable, but to say that the man suffers from an intrinsic disorder that raises doubts about the suitability of his being ordained would strain the limits of the sanctioned tolerance. The dogmatic tolerance can display the sickness of our age as when Cardinal Mahoney when asked in a deposition if a man who sexually desired a 9 year-old child was a suitable candidate for the priesthood said, "Yes."
The incident in the life of a young Moses for some reason comes to mind. In a less than irenic mood he kills an Egyptian who is abusing a Hebrew, and the next day discovers that the people he meant to be defending are not so peace loving themselves. After his introductin to Man the political animal, Moses had a number of peaceful years working for his father-in-law, but once God sent him back to the Hebrews, there were few irenic moments remaining to him. And Nicea, and Ephesus as well, and most of the other councils, were not moments of calm debate. I suspect that part of the current crisis is the terrible urge to remain calm at all costs and keep in place a peaceful demeanor. If the Churce is to be love or hated, and I agree that is our currect direction, peace will be for those before whom the heavens are torn open in order to reveal the Son of Man in the glory of God the Father.

Tamquam Leo Rugiens said...

Well, this is hardly the incandescent polemic I had half expected. I'm glad it's not, though. As cathartic as as a good rant can be, I'd much rather attend an argument that sheds more light than heat. Thank you for sharing the light, it is very helpful.

who, me? said...

I'm sure you see that the sequence you accurately describe goes past the Serpent's "you shall not surely die" into poisoning as far as possible The Tree of Life.

An evil is railroaded through:
-- "understanding" [scare quotes because understanding in this context does not entail deep inquiry and broad consideration, nor dialogue open discussion]>
-- tolerance>
-- moral indifference>
-- celebration>
-- intolerance to moral objection>
-- legal threats>
-- the complex emotional indoctrination of children toward requiring them to regard certain topics and practices, hitherto (and probably naturally) repugnant, with awe and familiar/familial affection.

This is far, far more protection that is afforded marriage, the life of children, the water supply, or the right doctrine of anything. How else to regard it than as the Prime Idolator's overplaying Its hand?

Via sustained division and paralysis of moral instincts, populations may be driven to what Czeslaw Milosz identified as the desolation of ketman [see http://slate.com/id/2105821/], restructuring public and private life around the penultimately perversely enjoyable practice of lying to ourselves.