I’ve been rereading Josef Pieper’s lovely little exposition of Aquinas on hope, and it strikes me as being very much in line with the point I was trying to make in my last post that quoted Vaclav Havel.
Pieper writes: “The concept of the status viatoris is one of the basic concepts of every Christian rule of life. To be a ‘viator’ means ‘one on the way.’ The status viatoris is, then, the ‘condition or state of being on the way.’ Its proper antonym is status comprehensoris. One who has comprehended, encompassed, arrived, is no longer a viator, but acomprehensor.”
Following Aquinas, Pieper places hope in between the vices of both despair and presumption, and this seems to me to offer those of us who are gay and Christian a useful opportunity to pause and evaluate the way that we conceive of our own “station” on the way.
We hear a lot from a certain corner of the Christian world about “victory” and “change” and “healing.” Since I’ve already mentioned the temptation this kind of discourse flirts with—the temptation to “triumphalism” or what Pieper would call “presumption”—I won’t repeat that here. Suffice it to say, I think the real spiritual and theological danger of this kind of “victorious Christian living” talk is an avoidance of the “state of being on the way.” It’s an expectation that the kingdom of God should be here fully now, without our having to endure its slow, mysterious, paradoxical unfolding until the return of Christ.
On the other hand, though, I’m equally troubled by a lot of “affirming” gay Christian discourse for precisely the same reason. What I have in mind is the Lady Gaga sort of approach: “God made me this way. Now I’d be untrue to God’s gifting if I chose a path of self-denial instead of a path of self-expression.” This way of thinking about our sexuality and our Christian faith is, I think, just as “triumphalist” as any reparative therapy narrative. It too believes there’s no need to wait, to endure, in anticipation of a kingdom that has arrived in Jesus, yes, but is not yet here in all of its fullness. It too may avoid the status viatoris by claiming that “it gets better” now. And it fails to interrogate and thereby complicate same-sex desire in its rush to accept it as part and parcel of God’s good creation. (As Chris Roberts observes, perhaps the real Achilles’ heel of this view is its “impatience for [eschatological] joy.”)
How might the debate over the status of gay relationships among Christians look different if we all, whatever “side” we’re on, held to a view of the Christian life that acknowledged, with Karl Barth,
We need not expect that life leads to sitting and possessing—in no sense, at no moment. We cannot remain standing; we may not; and we ought not even once wish to do so. Whatever awaits us on our way is under no circumstances our goal. Even the most important, the beautiful, the tragic moments of our lives, are only stations on the way, nothing more. Saying farewell: that is the great rule of this life. Woe to us if we reject this rule, if we want to remain standing, calling a halt, and attaching ourselves to a particular station. There is nothing left for us but to acknowledge this saying farewell, becoming obedient to it. “Here we have no lasting city” [Hebrews 13:14].
I think, on the one hand, adopting this perspective ought to lead “traditionalist” Christians to value celibacy more highly than they have, because celibacy, for many of us, is a form of waiting. It’s our testimony with our bodies to the fact that we haven’t arrived, we’re on the way, we’re viators. And by the same token, if they were to adopt the point of view Barth and Pieper articulate, “affirming” Christians would have to abandon their current rhetorical strategy too. No, finding a gay partner and a welcoming community won’t usher in the eschaton in the way you seem, at times, to think it will. No, everything won’t “get better”—not necessarily. No, our deepest desires—the way we were “born”—is not in need of unqualified acceptance and affirmation (since there is, sadly, this bum deal called original sin). And no, even having such acceptance won’t exactly lead to an easy, comfortable peace on this side of God’s future.
I’ll close with one more quote from Barth:
Homeless in this world, not yet at home in the next, we human beings are wanderers between two worlds. But precisely as wanderers we are also children of God in Christ. The mystery of our life is God’s mystery. Moved by him, we must sigh, be ashamed of ourselves, be shocked, and die. Moved by him, we may be joyful and courageous, hope and live. He is the origin. Therefore we persist in the movement, and we call, “Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
To which I say, Amen.
You write: “Suffice it to say, I think the real spiritual and theological danger of this kind of ‘victorious Christian living’ talk is an avoidance of the ‘state of being on the way.'”
There is so much wisdom here, Wesley, and I thank you for the reminder.
The rubber really meets the road, I think, when sexual desire is brought into the conversation; and these nice, philosophical pleasantries become much less comforting then. In other words, the times when I really want to be sexual with another male, the concept of the “not yet” does not completely satisfy me, nor does it restrain the desire. I know that you understand exactly my point; and I think that the difficulty in denying sexual desire leads many to gay-affirming views, whether they be gay themselves, or just sympathizers.
Nevertheless, I try to remember that understanding the “not yet” (in terms of ultimate fulfillment) is not necessarily intended to ease the emotional/psychological pain of denying myself. When was denying ourselves of any pleasure a pleasurable experience? Our Western aversion to any sort of discomfort is leading many people, I fear, toward an immoral, unethical worldview.
Great post Wes! The idea of “state of being on the way” reminded me of Lauren Winner’s most recent book, Still. I think that book is a perfect example of living the moments/periods of life that are not eschaton or arrival.
So balanced. So hopeful. “Moved by Him we must die… moved by Him we must live.” Thank you.
Since June 2011, I’ve had a draft blog post (entitled “Thou Mayest”) that I’ve never quite finished or published. It talks about Gaga’s song, and delves into something I’m not quite sure of yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but here is a chunk from it:
I was recently reminded of a passage from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden which has stayed with me since I first read the book in my late teens:
“It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.”
“And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”
“Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—’Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?” […] But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
I suppose I don’t publish the post because it has the word “choice” in there, which can be taken wrong. Being unable to properly articulate it, and why I thought it might fit in this comments section, is probably why it still remains as a constant draft.
Thou mayest…choose self denial. Thou mayest…choose a difficult path. Thou mayest…fail and try again.
Thou mayest seems like something for the road, not the destination.
I haven’t figured it out yet.
Thank you, Wes, for this post. It’s a fantastic reminder and puts things into perspective. Your wisdom is much appreciated.
Fantastic post, Wes! I have nothing more to add or say; it’s such a great reminder of something we can’t possibly remember often enough: to put our hope in the proper place. Thank you!
Wes: What are the sources for those terrific quotes from Karl Barth?
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