What is the Relationship between Experience and Revelation?

There’s been some recent discussion on Catholic blogs about the relevance of personal experience in conversations about how the Church can provide community and pastoral care to gay and lesbian Catholics who are seeking to be faithful to Church teaching. In order to answer this specific question, it’s worth examining the relationship between revelation and experience more generally.

John Paul II

The Theology of the Body is a collection of addresses given by Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s and early 1980s and addressed to understanding the body and human sexuality in light of the Gospel. In a footnote to the General Audience of September 26, 1979, he wrote:

When we speak here about the relationship between “experience” and “revelation,” indeed about a surprising convergence between them, we only wish to observe that man, in his present state of existence in the body, experiences many limits, sufferings, passions, weaknesses, and finally death itself, which relates his existence at the same time to another and different state or dimension. When St. Paul speaks about the “redemption of the body,” he speaks with the language of revelation; experience is not, in fact, able to grasp this content or rather reality. At the same time, within this content as a whole, the author of Romans 8:23 takes up everything that is offered to him, to him as much as in some way to every man (independent of his relationship with revelation), through the experience of human existence, which is an existence in the body.

We therefore have the right to speak about the relationship between experience and revelation; in fact, we have the right to raise the issue of their relation to each other, even if many think that a line of total antithesis and radical antinomy passes between them. This line, in their opinion, must certainly be drawn between faith and science, between theology and philosophy. In formulating this point of view, they consider quite abstract concepts rather than the human person as a living subject.

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An Incomplete Thought about Beauty and “Sexuality”

Flight to ArrasI recently re-read Flight to Arras, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memoir of his service as a French reconnaissance pilot during the German invasion of France in 1940. As his air group retreats before the advancing German forces, they are forced to live with local peasants.

One evening, after returning from a particularly dangerous mission, he sits down to dinner with the farmer he is staying with, the farmer’s wife, and their young niece. The farmer breaks bread and passes it around the table. Then Saint-Exupéry comments:

I looked at the beautiful niece beside me and said to myself, “Bread, in this child, is transmuted into languid grace. It is transmuted into modesty. It is transmuted into gentle silence. And tomorrow, perhaps, this same bread, by virtue of a single gray blot [German soldiers wore gray uniforms] rising on the edge of that ocean of wheat, though it nourish this same lamp, will perhaps no longer send forth this same glowing light. The power that is in this bread will have gone out of it.”

I had made war this day to preserve the glowing light in that lamp, and not to feed that body. I had made war for the particular radiation into which bread is transmuted in the homes of my countrymen. What moved me so deeply in that pensive little girl was the insubstantial vestment of the spirit. It was the mysterious totality composed by the features of her face. It was the poem on the page, more than the page itself.

The little girl felt I was looking at her. She raised her eyes to mine. It seemed to me that she smiled at me. Her smile was hardly more than a breath over the face of the waters; but that fugitive gleam was enough. I was moved. I felt, mysteriously present, a soul that belonged in this place and no other. There was a peace here, sensing which I murmured to myself, “The peace of the kingdom of silence.” That smile was the glow of the shining wheat.

The face of the niece was unruffled again, veiling its unfathomable depth. The farmer’s wife sighed, looked round at us, and spoke no word. The farmer, his mind on the day to come, sat wrapped in his earthy wisdom. Behind the silence of these three beings there was an inner abundance that was like the patrimony of a whole village asleep in the night—and like it, threatened. Strange the intensity with which I felt myself responsible for that invisible patrimony. I went out of the house to walk alone on the highway, and I carried with me a burden that seemed to me tender and in no wise heavy, like a child asleep in my arms.

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Spiritual Friendship and Julie Rodgers

Julie RodgersJulie Rodgers blogged for Spiritual Friendship between August, 2013 and October, 2014. Prior to that, she had spent a decade with Exodus International, serving as a keynote speaker at the final Exodus Freedom Conference in 2013. Until this past Monday, she also served in the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College, counselling students who were struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity issues.

On Monday, Julie resigned from Wheaton and put up this blog post. The post was mostly a cri de cœur about the damage done by conservative Christians who bind heavy burdens on LGBT people—particularly youth—without doing much to help. But she also wrote, “Though I’ve been slow to admit it to myself, I’ve quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now.”

Although I spoke with Julie briefly as recently as a week before she put up this post, I had received no indication at all that her views were shifting, and did not learn of it until a friend drew my attention to her post Monday afternoon.

Julie is right that conservative Christians have done a bad job of showing Christ’s love to LGBT people.

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What Does “Disinterested Friendship” Mean?

Popes Francis and Benedict

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the term “disinterested” in five different places. The most relevant instance for most readers of this blog is:

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

The first definition for “disinterested” at Dictionary.com is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,” which would mean that a “disinterested friendship” is a friendship that is not biased by personal interest or advantage, nor influenced by selfish motives. In the context of 2359, the most obvious selfish motive in view would be lust, though any selfish motive will poison friendship. This unbiased and unselfish friendship seems like the sort of love most of us would want from our friends.

However, the second definition for “disinterested” is “not interested; indifferent.” A usage note points out that

Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”

And, this confusion infects many people’s understanding of the term “disinterested friendship” in 2359. To many, “disinterested friendship” suggests a friend who is “not interested, indifferent.” Comparison with other usages of the same word in the Catechism, however, demonstrates that this cannot be the sense the authors of the Catechism had in mind.

2649 Prayer of praise is entirely disinterested and rises to God, lauds him, and gives him glory for his own sake, quite beyond what he has done, but simply because HE IS.

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Awe and Wonder: A Preliminary Comment on Laudato Si’

Pope Francis

Laudato Si is shaping up to be the most controversial papal encyclical since Humanae Vitae. On the surface, the dissent from these two encyclicals seems very different: the rebellion against Humanae Vitae came from the political “left,” while the present rebellion comes from the “right.” If, however, we dig beneath the shallow political categories, we find that the two rebellions are “ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless” (LS, 6).

The “left” has focused more on sexual freedom, and the “right” on economic freedom. The fundamental question for both, however, is: can we discover a rational order in nature, put there by God, an order to which we are called to conform our lives? Or do we see in nature—including our own human nature—only raw materials to be exploited for ends that we choose for ourselves?

In Romans 1 and 2, the Apostle Paul makes clear that even without direct revelation, it is possible to learn of the Creator through Creation itself, and to discover His law written in our hearts. But most of us do not really want to discover these truths; instead, we want to serve our own desires.

How, then, can we begin to recover the harmony of Creator and creation described in Genesis 1 and 2?

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Joseph Ratzinger and Rowan Williams: Contraception and Same-Sex Marriage

Last week, I linked to a post by Abigail Rine at First Things, which argued that Evangelicals tended to trivialize the importance of procreation in their theology of marriage, and that by doing so, they made it more difficult to articulate a coherent objection to same-sex marriage. This post follows up and expands on that discussion.

The Ratzinger Report

In 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger (now the Pope Emeritus) gave a book-length interview to the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori (published as The Ratzinger Report). The interview was wide-ranging, covering most of the challenges facing the Church. Naturally, Messori asked Ratzinger to talk about the challenges facing the Church’s sexual ethic.

In 1989, Rowan Williams, a prominent Anglican theologian who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a lecture to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement that was later published as “The Body’s Grace,” arguing for the legitimacy of gay and lesbian relationships.

Ratzinger and Williams are among the best theologians of their generation, and each went on to lead his respective communion. As is to be expected, they hold differing views on contraception: Williams follows Anglican teaching in believing married couples can use contraceptives, while Ratzinger defends the Catholic teaching that they cannot.

What is interesting, however, is the similarity of their views about how the logic of contraception shapes our theological response to homosexuality: both believe that if you accept the legitimacy of contraception in marriage, it is difficult to argue against same-sex sexual intimacy.

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First Things – What Is Marriage to Evangelical Millennials?

Wedding RingsIn a recent post at First Things, Abigail Rine, an assistant professor of English at George Fox University, writes about her experience trying to teach “What is Marriage” [pdf]. Her Evangelical students not only didn’t like the conclusion, but had difficulty even understanding the authors’ argument. Yet Rine does not place the blame primarily on them, but on their pastors and parents:

While I listened to my students lambast the article, it struck me that, on one level, they were right: marriage isn’t in danger of being redefined; the redefinition began decades ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution. Once the link between sexuality and procreation was severed in our cultural imagination, marriage morphed into an exclusive romantic bond that has only an arbitrary relationship to reproduction. It is this redefinition, arguably, that has given rise to the same-sex marriage movement, rather than the other way around, and as the broader culture has shifted on this issue, so have many young evangelicals.

From time to time, my friend Justin Lee—founder of the Gay Christian Network—and I give joint presentations about how Christians can disagree charitably and civilly about homosexuality. Justin and I both grew up Southern Baptist, and we have a lot in common. We also disagree, and have disagreed for nearly two decades now, about whether same-sex sexual activity is ever compatible with God’s will.

Sometimes, someone who has seen our presentation will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. This is a fairly natural question, and since Justin and I have been friends for so long, I would be as likely to have insight into that as anyone.

However, I think the question actually rests on a substantial misunderstanding. I did not hold onto the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage. When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.

Justin has to explain away a few verses that deal with homosexuality. But his efforts to explain away do not surprise me. I grew up among pastors who didn’t even bother to explain away the New Testament teaching on divorce as they cheerfully blessed second, third, and even fourth marriages (and yes, I had the misfortune of attending Rev. Ken Hutcherson’s church for a time). However, the connection between marriage and procreation—which is the most important basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages—was rejected if not mocked by Evangelicals who regarded the Catholic teaching on contraception entirely backward.

In the most obvious sense, Justin is more faithful to his Evangelical upbringing than I am. I hold a traditional view on same-sex marriage because I rejected the theology of marriage I grew up with, and came to embrace the theology of marriage that used to be defended by Protestants and is still (at least officially) defended by the Catholic Church. That theology has, however, largely disappeared from the daily practice of American Christians, Catholic or Protestant.

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Sherif Girgis: Called to Greatness

Sherif GirgisLast week, I was invited to join Sherif Girgis (coauthor of What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense) to speak about marriage at the University of Notre Dame. This week, Ethika Politika has posted a pair of short essays on how American Catholics should move forward in their witness to the truths of marriage and family.

I’m working on a post that expands on my essay. In the meantime, I think Spiritual Friendship readers will find Sherif’s thoughts on vocation helpful.

Why are we losing the culture wars on family? One simple reason is that for years, young people have been told that our (natural-law, Judeo-Christian) vision of marriage is cruel.

That charge has been internalized. Many LGBT people my age don’t call us cruel for political advantage, or out of trained melodrama; they really believe it. Their belief doesn’t make our message cruel, but it makes their experience one of real pain. And pastorally, that’s what counts.

One thing we can do for these brothers and sisters of ours is to remind them of what they can do for us—of what we need them to do. For while fear of loneliness may give many LGBT youth pause about our ethic (a topic for another essay), I suspect a second common fear is of ennui or despair: the dread of being Christians “consigned” to singleness, with nothing positivedemanded of them, by the Church or the wider culture.

That is, behind the LGBT cry for dignity may be the sense that social standing comes from being needed by the community, which comes from having publicly recognized responsibilities—which nowadays only marriage seems to offer.

Read the whole essay at Ethika Politika.

“Shouting Answers While Running Away”

MattAndersonMatt Anderson is an old friend of mine. We’ve been discussing, arguing (and sometimes joking) about questions around faith, sexuality, and friendship for many years now. He recently tweeted out this quote from his recent book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith:

The fundamentalist Christian stance has sometimes taken shape as an overreaction against a skeptical climate. In the face of intellectual and other challenges, the fundamentalist impulse is to preserve faith at any and all costs. Fundamentalism takes the form of a worry that on some level reason or science will undermine Christianity—which seems to mean ignoring them altogether. In such an environment, “faith” takes the form of holding on to a particular stance as a certainty, such that the possibility of questioning is immediately foreclosed. Such an impulse is often tied to particular views of Scripture or Genesis, but it shouldn’t be. As we have seen play out in culture, the most permissive approaches to Scripture’s teaching about sex sometimes lead to a rigid fundamentalism that endorses a liberal creed. The paradox is that while the fundamentalist’s faith is frequently loud and comes off as very certain, it lacks the prudential confidence to wisely, but truly, face up to the questions that confront it. It is driven by a vague sense of threats that it does not know how to respond to effectively and so ends up being reduced to shouting its answers while running away.

If that whets your appetite, you might be interested in seeing how he tries to address some of the questions Christians face today around same-sex marriage in “The Limits of Dialogue: Q Ideas, Gay Marriage, and Chuck Colson.”

Corvino v. Anderson

This morning, the New York Times published a conversation between John Corvino and me, in which we address the question, “Can People With Dementia Have a Sex Life?” Predictably, controversy ensued. The dispute began when Dr. Corvino linked to the dialogue on Twitter:

With the violent rhetoric that readers of the New York Times have come to expect from conservative Christian thinkers, Matthew Lee Anderson responded:

Things went downhill from there:

The simple answer is: it’s complicated.

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