Monday, December 5, 2005

James Alison writes to his friends

From "Letter of response to friends in the aftermath of the Vatican Instruction of 29 November 2005":
....I must say that I am most struck by something about which I’ve seen little comment. The instruction appears to regard “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” not only as an objective disorder (with which empirical judgment I disagree). Much more strikingly, and I think rightly, its authors appear to regard such tendencies as an objective fact about a person. But this means that someone who hides the fact that he is gay, instead loudly proclaiming his undying loyalty to the current magisterium of the Church, is no more suitable to be a seminarian or a seminary rector or instructor than the visibly gay person who expresses some reservations as to the sanity of agreeing with everything the magisterium says all the time.

In other words – and this does seem to me to be important – the document has bitten the bullet of the fact that we are talking about what people are and not about their ideological position. This means that the instruction cuts at least as far to the right as it does to the left. I’m rather afraid that in recent years many, many young men of a conservative bent have been swept up into places of very conservative formation where piety and an ability to hold and defend implausible magisterial positions were the true hallmark of the John Paul seminarian. Such people were given the impression that the rigorous maintenance of ideological correctness would trump inconvenient details concerning who they might be.

Well, that impression was false. Who you are is an objective truth about you which, irrespective of your ideological standpoint or your delicacy of conscience in admitting to it, bars you from being a seminarian or teaching in a seminary. Heretofore a capacity for a certain dissemblance about who you are was a sign of suitability in conservative circles, as though being gay were properly a subjective matter of the internal forum. But that is no longer tenable. Now that same dissemblance about who you are merely compounds an already insuperable and objective unsuitability.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.

Another very interesting to note about this is that at last, people are starting to recognize that "gay" is an essential characteristic. ("Essential" in the sense that it is part of who a person is, that is.) That has been a long time coming, actually! And BTW, once it's acknowledged that there is such a thing as "a gay person" - how can there not be such a thing as "gay culture," and how can the Church denigrate it per se, or forbid it to "gay people"?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Welter and waste

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, "Let there be light." And there was light.

I just picked up Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary at the Library. 1060 pages, hardcover. But if one wants to know "the mind of Christ," one has to try to understand the way Christ saw things, don't you think?

And to me, that means a close reading of the Pentateuch. So, here I go. Anyway, the stories are great: wildly colorful characters - Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau, Moses, etc. As a plus, God strolls around on earth quite a bit early on, even appearing to Abraham "sitting by the tent flap in the heat of the day."

Further, I wanted to look more closely into the "Azazel/Atonement" thing that James Alison was riffing on. (Derek, here is a paper on the Jewish roots of "atonement" by someone at Marquette - Margaret Baker - that sort of covers similar ground. The paper's filed under a section called Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism - a graduate seminar given by the theology department, apparently.)

Here's a Cynthia Ozick review of the book. Excerpt:
The literary approach, writes Robert Alter, "directs attention to the moral, psychological, political, and spiritual realism of the biblical texts, which is a way of opening ourselves to something that deserves to be called their authority, whether we attribute that authority solely to the power of human imagination or to a transcendent source of illumination that kindled the imagination of the writers to express itself through these particular literary means."

The quotation is from Alter's volume The World of Biblical Literature, which appeared in 1991. Along with The Art of Biblical Narrative, The Art of Biblical Poetry, and related earlier works, this can in retrospect be seen as the arduously analytical preparation for an undertaking of such ambitiousness that to call it uncommon hardly suggests how very rare it really is. "Ethical monotheism," Alter sums up, "was delivered to the world not as a series of abstract principles but in cunningly wrought narratives, poetry, parables, and orations, in an intricate patterning of symbolic language and rhetoric that extends even to the genealogical tables and the laws." And in the most succinct summary of all, he cites the Talmudic view: "The Torah speaks in human language."

Ozick finds the book "historically astounding," and I suppose with good reason. She continues:
Human language, yes, but who would dare to render Scripture single-handedly, all on one's own? In fact, in the entire history of biblical translation, there have been only three daredevil intellects, each inspired by profound belief, who have achieved one-man renditions: the Latin of Jerome, the German of Luther, and the English of William Tyndale. Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for his presumption in desiring the Bible to be accessible in the vernacular, is generally regarded as the forerunner of, or influence on, the King James Version--a work that is distinctly a committee enterprise. Though Jerome and Luther each had occasional rabbinical consultants, and Luther was advised also by Melancthon, a Reformist scholar, their translations stand as monuments to the power of individual rhetoric and intent. Luther in particular impressed on German as inexhaustible a linguistic force as the King James Version left on English. In English, notably, all biblical translation since Tyndale's sixteenth-century version, without exception, has been by committee. Until now.

It's a good point.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Some Links

  • Full Homely Divinity alert! A full page of links to delicious-looking articles at the new Anglican Resource. Included are the 1945 article by Michael Ramsey, "What Is Anglican Theology?"; Dom Robert Hale, OSB, writes on "The Benedictine Spirit in Anglicanism"; and there are several links to article about art and music: "Anglican Devotion - The Hymnal"; "'Complete in the Beauty of Holiness': Anglican Identity and Aesthetics"; and "'The High, the Deep, and the Domestic': Anglican Verse and the Voice of God's People."

    Haven't read 'em yet, but they look inviting. There are also a couple of book reviews, here. Actually, I think they've added quite a bit, and I'm still poking around to see what.

  • Here's a newly-posted article by James Alison called Some thoughts on the Atonement. Some really interesting tying-together of Jewish temple liturgy and atonement theory.

  • Via AKMA, a nice web-based reference: Etymology Online. If you want to help 'em out, expense-wise, you can Sponsor a Word!

  • James Howard Kunstler brings you the Eyesore of the Month!

  • Here's one of my favorite wacky-techie sites, Soda. Just click there to play.

  • And here's a guy with way too much time on his hands:

Friday, May 13, 2005

"Unbinding the Gay Conscience"

Another article by James Alison at (Thanks to Christopher at Bending the Rule.)

I'm tired, tired, tired of the "Church and the gays" issue. I really don't want to talk about it anymore, but unfortunately, on it goes - and I'm in it whether I like it or not. (For instance, I wrote this post a few days ago, about the worldwide rise in IQ scores, and was left a trackback to an article claiming that this was proof against the "sexual orientation is immutable" argument. I probably shouldn't have followed the link, I admit, but here's a perfect example of what I'm talking about - we're in this whether we like it or not, and whether we discuss it or not. This is also what James Alison talks about here.)

The article is quite brilliant, and it does perfectly describe the unbelievable push-pull, the contradictory whirlpool of instruction and scolding and belittling that the world, and especially the Church, manifest towards gay people. One the one side, we are told we have to be celibate (this is the Catholic view); on the other, we are told we need to "change" (these are the Evangelicals). I should add that in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church, these sides seem to co-exist at once, and also seem to swap arguments whenever the mood strikes. That's the old Via Media, for you!

I wish sometimes I had never gone back to the Church, because it is by far the least healthy atmosphere I could possibly have put myself into. I'm losing interest in it now, in fact, and don't really want to go to services anymore; I've stopped going to midweek eucharist and prayers. I was bothered by prejudice and hatred while out of the Church, but inside it there is true insanity:
Let me say first that in an ideal world, Peter would realise that he had been given the power to bind and loose specifically so as to be able to open heaven to the gentiles. He would pronounce those words ‘God has shown me that I should not call any human profane or impure’2, and gay people would find themselves with unbound conscience as brothers and sisters in the Church on the same footing as everyone else-as sons and daughters and heirs.

But in fact, it seems to me that we find ourselves in a strange moment in that story from Acts 10. We find ourselves in the tiny gap after Peter has preached to us about Jesus, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and power3, after we have believed that message, and so realise that Jesus is Good News for us, and after the Holy Spirit has come down upon us, so that we are beginning to live the life of loved children and are able to speak well of God4. But we find ourselves in the tiny space before Peter has found it in him to declare ‘’Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ’5.

If you want a reality check on this, then consider the current teaching of the Vatican Congregations: ‘the homosexual inclination, though not itself a sin, constitutes a tendency towards behaviour that is intrinsically evil, and therefore must be considered objectively disordered’. If you read that phrase in the light of the passage from Acts which I have just recalled, you can see quite clearly that it is a piece of backsliding. Where Peter said, ‘God has shown me that I should not call any human profane or unclean’, his modern minions say, ‘While it is true that gay people are not profane or unclean, they must in fact be considered to be so’.

So, we find ourselves living at a time of Petrine backsliding from the Gospel, and yet beginning to be aware that the reception of the Good News, and our own unbinding does not come from Peter, but from God, and that Peter later on gets to understand and confirm this. This is a perfectly understandable biblical pattern which we can inhabit while we wait for Peter.

Now I would like to examine the binding and the unbinding. What does it look like? The first step is to look at what being ‘bound’ means. A bound conscience is one which cannot go this way or that, forward or backwards, is paralysed, scandalized. In that sense it is a form of living death, and those afflicted by it are living dead, and many of us are or have been such people. For example: we are familiar with the notion of a ‘double-bind’ or a ‘Catch 22 situation’. A bound conscience is a sense of being formed by a double-bind or a series of double binds. For instance: ‘My command is that you should love-but your love is sick’; or, ‘You should just go away and die-but it is forbidden to kill yourself’; or ‘The only acceptable way for me to live is a celibate life, but if they knew who I really was, they wouldn’t allow me to join’, or ‘Of course you can join, but you mustn’t say who you really are’; or ‘You cannot be gay, but you must be honest’. Many of us have been inducted into such patterns of desire over time. They classically follow the form, ‘Imitate me, do not imitate me’. If you find yourself drawn towards someone, and yet the underlying message is, ‘Be like me, do not be like me’, you will be scandalised, eventually you will judder to a halt, unable to move forwards or backwards.

What I would like to suggest is that in all these cases we are dealing with a self that has been formed by being given contradictory desires without being given any ability to discern where they might appropriately be applied. In other words, two instructions are received as on the same level as each other, pointing in two different directions at once, and the result is paralysis. This is what σκάνδαλον-skandalon-refers to in the New Testament-scandal, or stumbling block. Someone who is scandalised is someone who is paralysed into an inability to move. And the undoing of σκάνδαλα-skandala – which means the unbinding of double binds that do not allow people to be, is what the Gospel is supposed to be about.

I wonder how long I'll be able to feel favorable towards the Church; I wonder if my current malaise is temporary or permanent. I do need some sort of spiritual support from somewhere, but this might not be it.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

James Alison. Again.

I use the argument quite often that lesbianism is not forbidden anywhere in the Bible, and so neither, quite obviously, is "homosexuality" per se. That nobody in the Christian world - including Augustine and Clement of Alexandria, both of whom wrote on Romans 1 - read this passage as referring to lesbianism, until Chrysostom. That therefore the passages that we get hit over the head with constantly (all 4 of them!) refer to something else entirely. I first read about this in the article "A Catholic reading of Romans 1," by James Alison, a Catholic priest in Ireland. It's a discussion of the general assumption of what the "text plainly says," or doesn't say. Read the whole thing, as they say.

But I'm not going to argue about lesbianism this time. This time I'm interested in the όι Ίουδαιοι [hoi Ioudaioi] question: the issue of how to understand Gospel passages that refer to "the Jews" - and more generally, the issue of how modern people can read and understand Scripture. Here's what James Alison has to say on the subject:
According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. I will read you what they say, and please remember that this is rather more than an opinion. This is the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, at the very least an authorized Catholic source of guidance for how to read the Scriptures, in their 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church:
‘Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary ... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the Jewish people.’2

The list which the Commission gives is deliberately not exhaustive, but it has the advantage of taking on vastly the most important of any possible improper actualization, which is that related to the translation of the words όι Ίουδαιοι [hoi Ioudaioi], especially where they are used in St John’s Gospel. I ask you to consider quite clearly what this instruction means. It means that anyone who translates the words όι Ίουδαιοι literally as ‘the Jews’ and interprets this to refer to the whole Jewish people, now or at any time in the past, is translating it and interpreting it less accurately, and certainly less in communion with the Church, than someone who translates it less literally as something like ‘the Jewish authorities’, or ‘the local authorities’ who were of course, like almost everyone in St John’s Gospel, Jewish.

Now, given how vitally important the Jewish people and the relation between the Jewish people and the Church has been in the development of Christian Doctrine, if we are urged to avoid absolutely any actualization of the text, then the following statement must, a fortiori, be at the very least perfectly reasonable, if not actually highly recommended, as a guide to a properly Catholic reading of a passage dealing with something rather less important. Here it is: given the possibility of a restricted ancient meaning in a text which does not transfer readily into modern categories, or the possibility of one which leaps straight and expansively into modern categories and has had effects contrary to charity on the modern people so categorized, one should prefer the ancient reading to the actualized one.

Isn't this instruction clear? And BTW, doesn't this lead in an authentically Christian direction? Why, then, this endless dispute? This is "the official teaching of the Catholic Church," and yet it's like pulling teeth to get anybody to pay any attention to it.

Secular people simply scoff when this issue comes up; they don't take what the Bible says literally in any case, or even very seriously, and think that the dispute is simply over a cultural code in the ancient world. They're right. But I do take the Bible seriously, if not literally, because this is where our faith originates. I want to understand what's being said, and to be taken seriously when I argue about it.