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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What Is “Gay”?

Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.

I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,

It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.

For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.

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What “Not Reducible” Means

Yesterday, Wesley Hill started a helpful discussion about the way that different people use words like “gay” to mean different things. One reply, given by Denny Burk, is a common one I’ve heard many times before. The basic idea is that talking about a “gay” (or, in my case, “bisexual”) orientation is by definition referring to something sexual, and desires for things like friendship are desires I share with straight people and shouldn’t be lumped together in the same category.

The practical problem I have with this way of thinking is that I can’t always separate my feelings neatly into these two categories of desire. They often seem to arise from the same phenomenon. I think this experience is something I share with many others, and why we talk about how our orientation is “not reducible” to lust or a desire to have sex. This manner of speaking seems kind of fuzzy, but I think this is so precisely because the underlying phenomenon is hard to categorize.

In order to partially get across what I’m talking about with my “orientation,” why that is “not reducible” to wanting to have sex, and why I can’t separate everything out as nicely as people (including myself!) might like, I think it would be most helpful to talk about my experience. Of course, I can’t speak universally for everyone, and others may have different experiences.

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On the Expectation of Change

A recent World Magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.

Julie RodgersI was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.

In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.

I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.

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Forgiveness in MOCs

The Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity has a new study available online on people in mixed orientation relationships. Recall the mixed orientation couples (MOCs) are relationships in which one partner is straight and the other partner is a sexual minority. By “sexual minority” we mean that the person experiences same-sex attraction independent of identity (that is, they may not self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual). That is a definition used by other researchers in this area and it is not unique to us.

Back to the new study. We’ve been conducting a longitudinal study (a study in which data is gathered from the same people over time) of MOCs. This most recent publication examined the experience of disclosure on the part of the sexual minority and the impact of that disclosure on the straight spouse.

Spouses often progress through stages following disclosure and obviously have a lot to navigate. Amity Buxton discusses stages spouses go through following disclosure: 1) Initial shock, denial and relief, 2) Facing, acknowledging, and accepting reality; 3) Letting go, 4) Healing, and 5) Transformation. What we have seen elsewhere is that the impact of disclosure is comparable to what Gordon and Baucom have described in the affair literature. That is, disclosure of same-sex sexuality (which can include disclosure of infidelity) is often experienced as “interpersonal trauma” as it can be experienced as a significant betrayal to the offended spouse.

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The Line Dividing Ordered and Disordered

As I discussed in my last post, there are fine distinctions to be made between what is ordered and disordered, beyond simply what is sinful. In other words, in a fallen world, some things are not as God originally intended. Here I want to further discuss one important point.

Aleksandr SolzhenitsynAleksander Solzhenitsyn has a famous quote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” In a similar manner, the line dividing ordered and disordered cuts through the sexuality of every human being.

This applies to straight people just as much as it applies to sexual minorities. As I mentioned in the last post, I tend to see sexual attraction that a married person feels toward those other than his or her spouse as disordered. However, even for those who do not share that view, disorder is readily apparent from any traditional Christian perspective.

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Sexuality, Omelets, and Identical Twins

In my last post, I drew attention to the very different way that the New Testament dealt with the Old Testament laws concerning food and sex. In this post, I want to reflect a little bit on the significance of this difference. My goal is both to help shed light on the issues raised in my previous post, and also to provide a foundation for some further thoughts on the nature of Christian sexual ethics.

At the most fundamental level, food is a thing, while properly ordered sexual desire is always a desire for communion with a person, created in the image of God. This is an important insight, and I want to explore the implications of it. However, my reflections in this post are intended to be suggestive—to offer avenues for further thought—rather than providing the deductive conclusion to a rigorous argument.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Romance of Friendship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - 1923

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 1923

I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!

With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.

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The Problem with “Same Sex Attraction”

One view, which has many defenders among Christians who believe that homosexual acts are sinful, is that the term “same-sex attraction” is the clearest and most precise term for describing the experience of those who are, from time to time, tempted to commit homosexual acts.

However, the distinction between carnal and spiritual friendship makes clear that there are different ways of desiring union with a person of the same sex, some of which are virtuous and some of which are vicious. Unfortunately, the term “same sex attraction” introduces unnecessary confusion by lumping all of these desires in under one category.

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