Thursday, December 01, 2011


Last night I was at church for the first of the Advent evening discussions, and one of the speakers suggested that we consider what we would say about hope in our lives.  This is how I would answer.

My hope is in the Name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.

Perhaps that sounds terribly conventional, and boring but, looking closer, it is a hope intimately bound up with terror.  You see, my hope isn't that I will go to a heaven full of gold-paved roads, harps, and free wings for everyone.  My hope isn't even that I'll be raised from the dead, although resurrection may be required.  My hope is that I will see God face to face, and yet, as it is written, before Him is a consuming fire, a fire that could as easily consume me as cleanse me of my sins.  As it is written, it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  This is the terrible paradox I see at the heart of Christianity.  We are promised salvation and that all will be well, and yet God's greatest deed is Christ's death on the cross and we are instructed to take up our own crosses daily and follow him into death.  As it is written, it is in dying that we come to eternal life.  But in dying we lose any assurance other than God's goodness that we will get anything back, much less that we will get back anything like what we gave up.  Death is the land in which all is forgotten, a shadowy place whose inhabitants can do nothing for themselves.  As long as we retain an element of control, we haven't yet fully died, and we can't have come before God.  As it is written, no one can see God's face and live.

So where is hope in all this reflection on death?  While God isn't tame, much less domesticated, God is good.  His mercy endures forever, and his promises are always fulfilled, although only rarely in the way and at the rate we desired.  Apart from God there is no life at all, and with Him, even if we die, we will live in a world in which there are no more tears, neither sorrow nor dying.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Rule for Marriage, part 2: On Types and Roots

As the blessed John Cassian relates, the Fathers of the desert taught that every art and science, really anything worthy of being a lifetime commitment, has its own proper aim and mark.  For any Christian our aim should always be unity with God, which is living in heaven, and, as I noted previously the mark by which we can judge our thoughts and deeds is the perfection of love to which our Lord calls us.  But what of marriage?  It is clear that Christians need not marry, but it is also true that marriage is an honorable way of life and that our Lord commanded that what God has joined together in marriage we ought never to separate.  From these facts and from the prevalence of marriage throughout the world (although the customs of marriage vary widely) it is clear that marriage itself is, like the work of a farmer, merchant, or soldier, a human vocation, not a uniquely Christian vocation.  For this reason we can distinguish several types of marriage based upon the aim and the mark that guides each couple.  The first, and most prevalent in this part of the world, is passionate marriage, which has no guiding mark, but is founded on the weakest sort of love, passionate or romantic love.  However, at least this sort is based upon love, even if it is a profoundly inadequate sort, since a weak and passing love may grow into a stronger and more beautiful love given time and a sheltered environment.  A second kind of marriage aims at child-rearing, the propitiation of one's family name, and the accumulation of wealth and power down the generations.  Although this terrible kind of marriage can be selfless at its best, its foundation is realistic in a profoundly worldly sense and somewhat inimical to fulfilling the obligations of a Christian.  A third kind of marriage is based upon the desire for a worldly ideal, such as the one characterized as having two and a half children with a dog in a middle class suburb.  This horrible kind of marriage, lacking both the regard for another that passion brings and the realism of those who pursue wealth and power, has almost nothing to commend it.  Fortunately, it has been dying out as marriage is less and less demanded of those who would be part of polite society.  Finally, a very few may marry out of obedience to the apostolic advice that it is better to marry than to burn.  Although this is the only sort of marriage that has been explicitly endorsed for those who would commit themselves to God in Christ Jesus, it is also one of the hardest kinds of
marriage since it gives so little to our sinful desires and the powerful passions that can seemingly carry us almost up to heaven or smash us into the depths of hell.  For this reason in this weak and sinful era only those who have been trained to love for many years should consider marrying only to provide an outlet for the desires of the flesh.

Of course we are all sinners and weak, and few come to marriage for only one reason.  However, as perfect love is the mark towards which all Christians should aim, this Rule seeks to provide assistance to those who have been guided by passionate love so that that weak and earthly flower may be nurtured into a heavenly bloom whose fragrance spreads far beyond the bonds of marriage to everyone either spouse may meet.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Rule for Marriage, part I: the preliminaries

In recent years there has been a great deal of fuss and bother, argument and denunciation on the subject of Holy Matrimony, especially concerning who can take up those blessed bonds. While watching this battle and contradiction within the Body of Christ I found that a spirit had come to me suggesting that I compose a little Rule for those who take up the yoke of marriage even though I have only ever taken up the monastic yoke.  Since this spirit has not departed I have found the temerity offer this little Rule for those who have chosen to pursue the perfection required of all who have been united to our Lord in baptism in and through marriage, although I take comfort from the foundations monasticism which is nothing less than the Christian life intentionally lived as thoroughly and emphatically as mortal skill can guarantee (better, we pray, by God's grace, without which no human endeavour can come to its fullest flower).  Still, please pray for me to the Most High that he may strengthen and sustain me as I compose this Rule, and in his mercy bring a blessing out of this work.  If any goodness or wisdom is found in this Rule give glory to God from whom it came, and reserve to me the blame for the weaknesses in this work.
Listen carefully, my sisters and brothers, to the Lord's commands, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.  They are advice from a Father who loves you.  Welcome them and faithfully put them into practice, because the labor of obedience will bring you back to the One from whom you had been dragged by the terrible weeds of distraction, and had drifted through the sloth of disobedience.  This message is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong, bright weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord, amid the changes and chances of this mortal life that, by His grace, you may win through against the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  If, therefore, you desire to win glory for for God from among what the World accounts as small and ordinary, especially the daily routines of which your married life together is composed, pray together and rededicate yourselves to obedience to the Lord's teaching and commandant.  Remember above all that the vocation of every Christian is to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor, especially those whom we encounter each day, as God has loved us, giving, as we are able, so that they may flourish and grow to the glory of God even when it means suffering and death for us.
Do not be afraid, however, of what is required of the perfect who take up their cross daily.  We must each begin with little things, and strive with discretion to grow up into the full stature of Christ, never being content with any minimum standard of living.  As long as we do not forget the wisdom of Jacob, who saw that if he drove his herds so hard they would all die in a single day, and so do not drive ourselves beyond the strength God has given us, then God will send his Holy Spirit filling us with his holy fire and carrying us so that we may run on the path that leads to perfection easily and lightly filled with indescribable joy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Quote Inspired by Current Debates in TEC

"... Let [the Abbot, or person in authority] so temper all things that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak may not fall back in dismay."

Friday, June 24, 2011

One-size-fits-all Marriage?

This op-ed by Katherine Franke at the NY times struck me as really profoundly odd.  Did I miss something?  Are there really laws that dictate different responsibilities for husband and wife in marriage?  Sure, there used to be, but are they still on the books and enforced in America?

Looking in from the outside, it seems like such laws are (or at least would be) completely ridiculous.  For every couple it looks to me like the relationship works however the couple wants it to work, and that getting married doesn't really change that.  Expectation change when a couple gets married, including the couple's expectations, and that can sometimes cause problems.  Those expectations aren't hard-wired in to marriage, though; they aren't in the vows.  At least I don't think they are, never having gotten married it is possible that I missed the bit where the clergy-person or justice of the peace explains how family responsibilities are to be divvied up and the penalties for failing to conform to the archaic arrangement.

For those who want to live in a committed relationship without getting married, why not get married and then keep living the way you have been living?  Why not act like marriage is the same thing as a committed relationship, and show everyone that it doesn't have to look like our parents' relationships, or like the marriages we can see on old re-runs or modern sitcoms?  Why let society boss you around and tell you to either conform to some stupid stereotype that doesn't fit you at all or get out?  Granted, some people can't adjust their expectations very easily and for them it may be better to just avoid the baggage they've given marriage, but for everyone else, why create lots of very similar legal categories?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reflecting on the Most Recent Volume of the Anglican Theological Review

One of the most recent Anglican Theological Review (Winter 2011, Vol. 93 #1) is made up of papers submitted to the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church on same-sex marriage along with the regular Poetry and Book Review sections. The bulk of the pages on same-sex marriage is taken up by two papers "A View from the Traditionalists" and "A View from the Liberals", each of which was written by four Episcopalian theologians working together. They are followed by a series of responses, including one each from the Traditionalists and the Liberals. (These are the labels used in the Anglican Theological Review (ATR). I will be using them in this post for the sake of consistency.) Each of the papers is well worth reading in full and the responses are short enough that I won't try to reduce them to a summary here.

The Traditionalist "View" and response are reasonably solid but uninspiring pieces which to easily assume the correctness of Traditionalist exegesis and opinion (hardly a shocking fault among human beings). This is particularly noticeable in their exegesis of Romans 1:18-32 (Is it a divine condemnation and a reference to lesbianism, or is it a culturally grounded condemnation and a reference to anal sex? Either interpretation works with Paul's larger argument on the universality of sin, and the some of the earliest commenters saw a reference to anal sex.) and their discussion of the current scientific understanding of the origin and mutability of sexual orientation (which they seem to imply is a matter of choice).

The Liberal "View" and response, on the other hand, are inspiring (as even the Traditionalists note in their response) with a strong section grounded in an ascetical view of marriage. Their exegesis is very weak, however, and almost patristic in its penchant for unusual and implausible connections. They also tend to romanticize their subjects, sex, marriage, and even bodily life, in a way that is generally unhelpful in the ascetic task.

If these were the only weaknesses then, apart from a brief re-summation of the current science, there wouldn't be anything to say without writing a book. Unfortunately both "Views" seem to have serious problems in their anthropologies, which show up best when we ask how each anthropology fits with the existence of monasticism.

On the Traditionalist side the source of the difficulty is reasonably straightforward. Complementarity, especially in its stronger forms, insists that human fulfillment, and therefore the Christian life, is driven by maintaining and reinforcing gender differences and gender roles, and so requires being in a heterosexual marriage, preferably with children to form a family. This suggests that choosing to become a monk means repudiating human fulfillment, means refusing to be all that God calls one to be. Going this route means repudiating the faith of millenia of saints and theologians. For hundreds and hundreds of years more or less everyone 'knew' that the best and fastest way to come to heaven, to live a life faithful to God, was to join a monastery. Further, at its inception, monasticism was understood to be simply the Christian life, the attempt to love as completely as possible, lived as explicitly as possible. One could attempt to find a weaker form of complementarity, one which would be compatible with monasticism, but such an attempt is unlikely to be successful since traditional monasticism gives no space whatsoever in which gender differences are permitted to teach love. Alternatively, one might try to develop a new understanding of monasticism, but monasticism has been composed of single-sex, celibate communities for virtually its entire existence, which makes it hard to redefine monasticism in a way that would fit with complementarity.

On the Liberal side the problem doesn't come from a big, central anthropological model. It comes from the (largely) unexamined assumption that having sex and being in a sexual relationship more or less the only healthy ways to be a human being. In some ways this assumption is much more pernicious than the more blatant challenge of complementarity since it is close to the truth for most people, at least at this time. The Liberal's assumption that everyone has to be sexually active first shows up on p. 62 where, while beginning to reflect on marriage as an ascetical discipline, celibacy is dismissed as appropriate only for a great spiritual hero who has already achieved perfection, especially perfect self-control, while "it is for those who would follow Christ to be perfected in weakness for the love of another." Later, on p. 85, they again write of the importance of love of another and the solidarity that demands and again identify this solidarity with marriage (and the sexual relationship that implies) while rejecting celibacy (at least counciled celibacy) as insufficiently embodied and lacking accountability. There is a great deal wrong with this, but the Liberal's make thing even worse when they theologize sexual orientation on p. 72. Apparently "a sexual orientation ... must be ... a settled tendency by which Christ orients desire toward himself," while " a sexually oriented person is someone who develops and is morally improved through a relationship with someone of the apposite sex." Taking all this together, if we assume it to be true, what should we expect a monk or nun to be like? Apparently, they ought to be someone who loves everyone, has perfect self-control, seldom experiences sexual desire, almost certainly never experiences sexual desires powerful enough to challenge self-control, and lives a very disembodied and isolated life. Unfortunately (or perhaps very fortunately given the last aspect), this vision of monasticism is a deeply unrealistic fantasy. Monasticism is very much an embodied discipline, which has almost always been very cognizant of the demands of the body (for sex and food, but also for feelings of security and control), and has generally recommended avoiding tempting situations while recognizing that it is impossible (and unhelpful) to avoid temptation entirely. And, while monasticism aims at perfection, it has always been clear that no monastic ever achieves perfection in this life. There is always room for a monk to learn more about how to love God and his neighbors.

All in all, while I very much like the Liberals' view of marriage as an ascetic discipline, if we as a church are going to proceed on those grounds we need to take a much lower and more realistic view of sexuality. It is a powerful force that can drive a person very easily. Yes, it can make it significantly easier to lay the initial ties binding one into the school of love called marriage. Yes, it can be a source of great pleasure, which can ease the way while one grapples with a difficult lesson of love. However, it can also be a way of running away from reality and Love. It can be a way to avoid learning Love's lessons. Sexuality and having sex aren't really to the point, however. Creating, maintaining, and growing in relationship is. If same-sex marriage provides a more realistic way for some people to learn how to love then the Church should seriously consider getting out of the way, and if it provides the only realistic way for some the Church should definitely get out of the way. At the same time everyone who isn't already attached, gay or straight, should take a hard look at monasticism The assumptions current in our society about the impossibility of celibacy (and about what it takes to be a monk) have almost certainly misled folks into thinking that they couldn't possibly thrive in this ancient and very fruitful way of life.

On reflection, if marriage and the monastic life are parallel ways of life, might it be helpful to explore our theology of marriage as a Christian vocation by composing Rules for marriage?  At the very least, doing so would force us to ground our theology of marriage in the practical realities of marriage, and not just operate at the level of beautiful images entirely lacking in substance and grounding in reality.
An Addendum on the science based on the research cited by the Traditionalists and my own slight acquaintance with the field.
The Entirely Uncontroversial Points
  1. We don't know how the brain comes to fix sexual desire on a class (or classes) of objects, establishing sexual orientation.
  2. The process of establishing sexual orientation doesn't finish by birth.
  3. Sexual orientation isn't chosen.
  4. Human female sexual orientation is more complicated and ambiguous than male sexual orientation.
Points Contested by Those lacking Authority in the Psychology Community
  1. Sexual orientation is immutable. There are hints of this in the information provided by ex-gay groups, especially in their definitions of success. It is also strongly suggested by the intractability of pedophilia although pedophilia is clearly not the same as homosexuality. (Pedophilia may by a sexual orientation in its own right and so be the same sort of thing as both heterosexuality and homosexuality, but this has certainly not been proven yet.)
  2. Identity, including sexuality as identity, is responsive to societal conditions and is largely chosen. It also goes against the underlying biological realities some of the time.
Personally, I suspect that sexual orientation is established around puberty as part of the natural maturation of the brain and that sexual orientation is a great deal more complicated than being turned on by men, women, or both. Also, while the science can be interesting, it seems to be mostly irrelevant to the task facing theologians, ethicists, and asceticism, which should have already known that sexual desire isn't chosen and have been given many other reasons to think Natural Law a poorly grounded philosophy.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Curious Seeming Parallel

I was reading a translation of John Cassian's Institutes today and this chapter (Book 7, Chapter 9) struck me as sounding disturbingly like some of what has been going on in the Anglican Communion lately, except that Cassian was focusing on money.

And so having money to provide for his wanderings, with the assistance of which he has fitted himself as it were with wings, and now being quite ready for his move, he answers impertinently to all commands, and behaves himself like a stranger and a visitor, and whatever he sees needing improvement, he despises and treats with contempt. And though he has a supply of money secretly hidden, yet he complains that he has neither shoes nor clothes, and is indignant that they are given out to him so slowly. And if it happens that through the management of the superior some of these are given first to one who is known to have nothing whatever, he is still more inflamed with burning rage, and thinks that he is despised as a stranger; nor is he contented to turn his hand to any work, but finds fault with everything which the needs of the monastery require to be done. Then of set purpose he looks out for opportunities of being offended and angry, lest he might seem to have gone forth from the discipline of the monastery for a trivial reason. And not content to take his departure by himself alone, lest it should be thought that he has left as it were from his own fault, he never stops corrupting as many as he can by clandestine conferences. But if the severity of the weather interferes with his journey and travels, he remains all the time in suspense and anxiety of heart, and never stops sowing and exciting discontent; as he thinks that he will only find consolation for his departure and an excuse for his fickleness in the bad character and defects of the monastery.

Am I imagining things or is there, perhaps some actual coveting going on? It wouldn't be coveting of anything as simple as money, but what about power, control, or authority?

The more I read from the Fathers of monasticism the more I wonder if embracing significant aspects of that way of life wouldn't easy our current troubles.