Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hitting the Wrong Target

Radical Orthodoxy is one of those movements that looks good on paper, but tends to be somewhat less than fully appetizing upon closer inspection. It's also rather difficult to characterize, because its various proponents tend to adopt rather different strategies and methodologies in their quest to, as it were, get to the roots of orthodox Christian belief. One thing they appear to have in common, however, is a rather vitriolic dislike for traditional Catholic sexual morality. Gerard Loughlin, author of the highly readable and intensely stimulating Telling God's Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology, practically foams at the mouth whenever he talks about the Church's teaching on homosexuality, and now there is an interesting "commentary" by John Milbank, author of The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture, on the recent work of the Anglican Communion to bring some sort of order to the chaos that is the Western (read: American) branch of that Communion, in which he calls for radical re-appraisal of the social foundations of the Church's teaching on same-sex relations. Although he agrees that the American branch of the Communion acted precipitously and unilaterally, what's done is done:
The election of Gene Robinson was premature. There was no proper preceding discussion even within the United States that could have legitimated such a new departure in church practice. However, it has now happened according to a formally correct canonical procedure, and to oppose his consecration once it has occurred is likely to become de facto to support conservative opposition to homosexuality. There is not in reality any foreseeable possibility of reaching a general worldwide Anglican consensus on this issue. In some countries, a sense of theological outrage at the exclusion of gays (including Britain itself) has become so strong that prophetic witness cannot readily be held back.
For Milbank, as for the other self-styled radically orthodox, the central political question at stake here is the status of the Christian community that is called into existence by the Gospel. Gays are manifestly a part of that community, and the RO position appears to be that that, as it were, is that.
There are certain junctures in history when commitment on the substantive issue has to take precedence over concern with formal propriety.
The substantive issue, it seems, is sex (my emphasis):
In just what way can there be a sexual path that is also a spiritual path? In a sense, this is a debate about human ecology, and it is notable that today, as earlier in the twentieth century, those who are "conservatively" critical of over-technologization and the exploitation of nature also tend to be in favor of a more positive attitude toward sex (D.H. Lawrence, J.C. Powys and Eric Gill, for example). Inversely, those who are more conservative, puritanical and legalistic about sex are often those who fully embrace technological modernity, the ruthless exploitation of nature and economic liberalism.

Moreover, in reality nearly all mainline Christian opinion has veered more toward the former combination than the latter. Even the Roman Catholic Church has taken new steps this century to admit more fully that sex as such, rightly exercised, is productive of good. And even the pope seems to concede, unlike his predecessors, that homosexual orientation as such is not wicked. Already, then, there has been a shift of Christian identity. Christianity is the religion of love -- yet what is love? Is agape also eros? Is love of the neighbor entirely distinct from love of the friend and love of the lover, including physical love? Astonishingly, there has been no Christian consensus here: for example, Kierkegaard's view is almost the opposite of that of Aquinas (the latter seeing agape as essentially also philia and eros, the former absolutely not).
Although he "favor[s] the gay cause", Milbank admits that the "conservative" view is more realistic as an interpretation of the Scriptures and the Tradition. That's why we need to chuck both:
But what we need to see is that this biblical view of idolatry and sex fails to be radical enough. Building upon the spirit rather than the letter of Scripture, we should recognize that there can be non-idolatrous homosexuality just as there can, of course, be idolatrous heterosexuality. At its weakest, the biblical view that we are to bow down to no idols seems to mean "worship Israel's god, not other gods," or acknowledge only this mode of material mediation and not others (for example, writing but not pictures). This, then, coordinates with the idea that one kind of sex and not others is exclusively good and pure. Yet, at its profoundest, the Bible means by non-idolatry that the One God, beyond even the one and the many, is above all other powers of any kind whatsoever as their creative source.
That's actually a fairly interesting argument. It depends, of course, upon the idolatry interpretation being the only legitimate one of the purpose of the Hebrew strictures on certain forms of sexual activity. While that may, in point of historical fact, be the only valid interpretation of those texts, it is rather surprisingly fundamentalist and literalist to assume that such is the only possible reading of those texts. In particular, the Fathers were always quick to point out that the Old Testament, if it is to be understood properly, must be read in light of the New, something that the Hebrews who produced those texts, obviously, could not, in principle, have done. Personally, I don't see anything either very radical or very orthodox about making oneself a slave to positivistic readings of history. Does that commit me to a certain hermeneutic when it comes to the adumbration of my Church's social teaching? Well, yes, but then one's a priori commitments always and necessarily have such an effect, so it's nothing particularly to do with my own peculiar Weltanschauung as such that commits me to following the pope, even if he is finding himself a little more laid back about things than his predecessors when it comes to the entailments of a particular form of activity being categorized as "intrinsically disordered".

Milbank seems to want to play along with folks like me, however, and in doing so to have his cake and eat it too:
But to develop and deepen the grasp of idolatry in this way requires a recognition of the role of developing tradition and the authority of the church to recognize authentic developments. It requires a Catholic and not simply Protestant perspective (though many Protestants may have such a perspective).
Ouch! That's going to leave a mark! Just when I was accusing him of literalism and fundamentalism, too! But in the end it won't work that way: in order for this move to work, he must subscribe to a view of the development of doctrine that is in itself alien to the understanding of the Church that believes in the development of doctrine. In short, one man's development of doctrine is another man's heresy, and in this instance he's on the wrong end of that stick.

But once you've gone down that road, you can advocate really going down that road:
Since even many younger, quite conservative evangelicals are changing their minds on this issue, there is every reason to think that gradually resistance to gay practice will fade. Therefore, Catholic Christians should not feel afraid of taking a prophetic stand at this juncture for fear of schisms which are likely to prove only temporary, since they do not concern more perennial divergences of doctrine. Not to do so is likely further to compromise the church in the eyes of the world which, not at all without reason, believes that over this issue it is mired in fantastic and almost comical depths of hypocrisy.
There are a number of distinct issues involved in the theological question of the moral licitness of homosexuality as far as Christianity is concerned. One of them, surely, is the question of whether same-sex sexual activity is in itself licit or not. This issue is related to, but not the same as, the question of whether, say, masturbation by a lone person, or fellatio within a heterosexual marriage, or other non-penile/vaginal sorts of sexual activity are licit or not. Very often, when the issue of the question of homosexuality is raised within the context of the Christian Church, it is mistakenly confined to these merely technical details. I have read some fairly elaborate arguments to the effect that married heterosexuals may not licitly engage in oral sex and, while these arguments are sometimes interesting, sometimes, dare I say it, (intellectually) stimulating, they rarely, if ever, speak with much authority. It is possible, I think, to be a little too interested in the analysis of such problems.

Be that as it may, the discussion of homosexuality often degenerates into a discussion of what could possibly be wrong with loving people who are deeply committed to one another rubbing their genitals and other various appendages together. This discussion often turns on cultural phenomena: we in the West have a particular view of the matter that is due principally to historical accident, perhaps even to ancient Hebrew strictures against idolatry, and other cultures may view the matter differently and, indeed, biology itself makes no particular claim on how these things ought to go down (if you will pardon the expression), given that "in nature", as is often noted, animals are wont not only to rub their genitals against all nature of thing but also to eat their own young, eat their own feces, kill their own kin, and do all manner of other things that we find abominable in our benighted human delicacy.

If this were really all there were to it, I think, it might be worth arguing that unilateral resistance to the traditional understanding could, under certain circumstances, be warranted. Suppose, for example, that one lived at a time when the Church taught that chattel slavery is something that can be tolerated until such time as it is eliminated in an "organic" way. I would suggest that a unilateral decision to resist it with great ferocity right away, and to refuse to tolerate it at all, would not be an indiscretion in the least. It will always be morally licit to do the right thing immediately, even when someone with moral authority is telling you that it is also licit to wait for a while before doing the right thing. Just because it is licit to wait before acting, it does not follow that it is not better to act right away. That which is permitted is not necessarily required, even if what is required is not demanded immediately. So if the Church's understanding of same-sex sexual activity is fundamentally wrong-headed, then it is at least plausible that a unilateral decision to ignore that understanding immediately could be regarded as, if not licit, then at least not particularly illicit. On these kinds of grounds Milbank's view could, possibly, be tolerable.

Sadly, Milbank is right about the wrong thing. Whatever the origin of the teaching on homosexuality, it is wrong to suggest that it is the sort of teaching that could possibly develop in the direction in which Milbank thinks that it inevitably will. In this he is no different from those depressingly blind little people who go about confidently awaiting the day that women are admitted to Holy Orders. Furthermore, he says nothing about the question of the Sacramentality that is at issue. First and foremost, from the point of view of the contemporary kurfuffle, there is the matter of sex outside of Holy Matrimony. Whether or not gays ought to be recognized as able to confect that Sacrament, they have not as yet done so in a way that has been recognized as licit by the Church. So they are not only having sex outside of a Sacramental environment, they are ipso facto flouting the authority of the Church to administer the Sacraments to boot. Who's the Protestant now, Johnnie boy? But putting aside that rather complicated matter, we may proceed to a matter that is perhaps even more complicated: the theology of the body that lies behind the theology of Matrimony. In short, what of the Sacramental aspect of the "marital act" itself? Forget about idolatry: what sort of Sacramentality are we endorsing if we regard these sorts of acts as morally licit?

Possibly Milbank has not studied the theology of the body: I suspect that certain sorts of theologians find the whole thing somewhat, well, kitschy, and I would not be at all surprised to find theologians such as Milbank, Loughlin, Pickstock, and other RO types falling under that rubric rather readily. But it is a very serious issue, and whether this particular teaching will ever "develop" in the way Milbank wants it to surely hangs more squarely on this question than on any other. If sexuality is an essential element in the essence of man whereby he comes to share in God's creative aspect, then there is more to be said about this issue than that "love is a continuum from mere regard to blissful material union" or some such. Love may indeed be at least partly that, but to say that it is is not to say that that is all that it is. To know what love is in its entirety we must take the teachings of Our Lord in the greater context of our Tradition, within which it is clear that this teaching has been settled.

Once we realize that Milbank's argument fails on theological grounds, it takes on a new aspect. Instead of arguing that idolatry can take many forms, we find that he is saying something along these lines: we live in a materialistic, hedonistic age, and in that sort of an age, people are going to do this sort of thing whether we want them to or not, and really, why should we care so much that they do this sort of thing when the harm principle, as it is understood in this sort of an age, cannot be invoked? Live and let live. That is clearly a much weaker argument, at least from the point of view of someone who is really radically orthodox. Whether the Radical Orthodox really are radically orthodox remains to be seen.


Michael said...

I have read some fairly elaborate arguments to the effect that married heterosexuals may not licitly engage in oral sex and, while these arguments are sometimes interesting, sometimes, dare I say it, (intellectually) stimulating, they rarely, if ever, speak with much authority.

It's hard to tell from this what your stance is on the issue. Do you disagree with these arguments? Isn't that married heterosexuals may not licitly engage in oral sex the Traditional view, and aren't such acts condemned along with directly contraceptive acts, and for the same reasons? This is, at least, the way the matter is portrayed in the manuals of moral theology that I'm familiar with.

It is possible, I think, to be a little too interested in the analysis of such problems.

I'm sure you're right, but then this could well be a matter of import and of conscience to heterosexual married couples.

Scott Carson said...


I think that you're quite right that there are some "manuals of moral theology" that would say precisely what you suggest. However, suppose we were to compare that sort of claim, to the claim that homosexuality is not licit. It does not seem to me that these claims are on the same level either theologically or from the point of view of authoritativeness. Some particular manual of moral theology may claim otherwise, but then that claim would also, in its turn, have to be assessed for authoritativeness.

It seems quite clear that the authority for the condemnation of homosexual activity is really quite ancient, and I do not think that it is argued for by the Tradition in the same way or for the same reasons that some authors have condemned such things as oral sex between married heterosexuals. Nor am I fully convinced that oral sex between married heterosexuals is in the same category as masturbating or contraception. I think that it could be, but it would depend upon exactly what was happening, and when, and why, and it is those sorts of issue that strike me as, well, delving a little too deeply into the matter.

How does one define, for example, the "beginning" and the "end" of a licit sexual act between married heterosexuals? Does it begin with that first suggestive kiss? A hand on a thigh? Or does it not "officially" begin until you know when, some act of insertion or other? I feel about as confident as I feel about anything that this is not a matter that is addressed either by Scripture or Tradition, so I am not at all sure that there is any "official" teaching on this issue. If the act begins with that first suggestive kiss, and that kiss is stimulating and pleasurable for those who engage in it, then it does not differ in kind from oral stimulation of the genitals for the purposes of arousal.

Well, this is a family blog, and I think I've made my point. My main point in the post was only that the arguments that I've seen have not impressed me all that much, but perhaps I just haven't been looking at the right arguments.

I'm not sure I really want to, for that matter.

Darwin said...

It strikes me that this the debate about homosexuality within Christian morality, when it comes up in these terms, always underlines how completely we have lost the concept of category as any sort of truly meaningful thing.

The fact that debates so often wander off into territories such as, "but isn't this the same as contraception, oral sex, the infertile marrying, married couples past fertility still coupling, etc..." seems to show an almost willful refusal to admit that the categories of "man" and "woman" themselves define rather more than can be rewritten by the particular preferences, habits and circumstances of the individual men and women involved.

Kevin Jones said...

"those who are "conservatively" critical of over-technologization and the exploitation of nature also tend to be in favor of a more positive attitude toward sex (D.H. Lawrence, J.C. Powys and Eric Gill, for example)."

Eric Gill? *positive* attitude?

"His personal diaries describe his sexual activity in great detail including the fact that Gill sexually abused his own children, had an incestuous relationship with his sister and performed sexual acts on his dog."

I hope that Milbank is just relying on an outdated history of Gill, but I doubt it.

Milbank's connection between monotheism and a singular commitment to heterosexual relations is somewhat interesting. However, real historical arguments connected monotheism and monogamy. When some Church Fathers were presented with the question of polygamy, I don't think their arguments were much more sophisticated than "One Christ, one Church, one Husband, one wife."

bedwere said...

I think that Kevin's argument against polygamy can be applied to sexual activity in general: husband and wife should mirror Christ and the Church. That implies a loving, open to conception, conjugal life without the need of going into embarrassing details.

mrsdarwin said...

Kevin Jones beat me to the punch on Eric Gill. Anyone who can hold Gill up as a model for positive sexuality has already shot his case right through the foot.

Lee Faber said...

I guess I'm sad to learn that there are worse aspects of "Radical 'orthodoxy'" than their quasi-thomistic late medieval historiography and utter demonizing of a blessed of the Church.