… not we ourselves

The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching. 

(Stanley Hauerwas, “Sanctify Them in the Truth,” 197-198.)

I’ve got to read some Hauerwas, as he was mentor, and continues powerfully to influence, Fr. Stephen Freeman, who so far has blogged twice on this block quote.

Lest you think that Hauerwas is making things up, check out these examples from the opening paragraph of The Dangerous Idea that Life is a Story:

  • “Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’. This narrative is us.” (Oliver Sacks)
  • “Self is a perpetually rewritten story. In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.” (American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner)
  • “We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.” (American psychologist Dan P McAdams)
  • “We invent ourselves … but we really are the characters we invent.” (American moral philosopher J David Velleman)
  • “We are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour … and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.” (Daniel Dennett)

Au contraire:

Know ye that the Lord, He is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100:3

Fr. Stephen’s second blog particularly “got me,” echoing as it does the old observation, now apparently thought as extinct as the Dodo, that we are who we are at least partly by “status, not contract.” By missing that, the narrativists miss as much or more than anyone so clueless as to deny that we (moderns?) do tend to tell self-narratives.

Autonomy, being “self-ruled,” is the heart of our contemporary delusion. We have seen this taken to extremes in the recent past. Fundamental givens in life, such as gender and race, are now seen by some as subject to choice. Self-definition (“how I identify”) has become the latest demand in the Modern Project.

This is an extreme example of Hauerwas’ statement that modernity wants to produce people “who believe they should have no story.” Everyone is his own author, writing the tale of his life in living free verse. It also means that modern people are always on the edge of meaninglessness …

Givenness is both at the heart of reality and at the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith. It is at the heart of reality: we do not bring ourselves into existence. Just as our life is a gift, our body is a gift, so our meaning and place in the world are a gift. In none of these things are we self-created.

It is at the heart of our faith: the spiritual expression of embracing the givenness of life is thanksgiving. All that we have, we have received as a gift. The right response to a gift is to give thanks. Everything else is a hardening of the heart.

I suspect that “self-narrative” may be part of the logismoi the Holy Fathers warned against. It certainly seems to partake of nominalism versus Christian realism.

I can commend no better Sunday reading than You Don’t Mean a Thing and A Purpose-filled life.

Let’s throw in If It Makes You Happy, too:

In 1998, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church. I had served as an Episcopal clergyman for 18 years prior to that. I left a large parish with a wonderful staff and tremendous programs. I took up the work of starting an Orthodox mission. Of course, such a life-change creates awkward moments for your friends, colleagues, and former parishioners. What do you say to someone who just chucked a career to start a mission in a warehouse? Perhaps the common expression, typically American, was, “I’m glad you’re doing what makes you happy.” It would have also been beyond awkward had I responded by telling the truth: “Actually, it makes me miserable.” And the difference between their thoughts and mine, their actions and mine, is all the difference in the world. It was a difference that was at the heart of my conversion and it separates Orthodoxy from the modern world …

[Y]ou do such a thing if you believe it is the truth and that choosing such a path sets your feet on the road to salvation. You do such a thing if you believe that other paths are the way of destruction and that, no matter how much pleasure they might bring, they are to be abandoned sooner rather than later …

To be a Jew in a room full of Nazis who are free to choose is not good news. America’s founding fathers were closer to classical Christian civilization than we are. A number of them knew that democracy was never any safer than the character of the people it served. If the people become vicious (governed by vice), then the Republic will become a vicious state. However, their experiment in creating a new civilization failed to institutionalize the making of virtue. In time, the laissez faire approach to character has proven itself to be a failure.

The same approach has come to be adopted within modern Christianity. Faith is now seen as a choice to believe, made by free persons. The assumption is that, given sufficient and accurate information, people will choose well and rightly. A primary sacrament of this flawed theology is adult-only baptism. Infants are not able to choose and are therefore disqualified from Baptism. The presumption is that somehow, a person will become an adult and freely choose to follow the right way. No other civilization in history has made such a foolish gamble with their children ….

* * * * *

Theosis goes far beyond the simple restoration of people to their state before the Fall. Because Christ united the human and divine natures in his person, it is now possible for us to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden. Some Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned.

(Abbot Tryphon)

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

The insoluble problem behind gay “marriage”

I’m in awe of Brendan O’Neil’s Spiked piece, The Trouble With Gay Marriage.

At first, I thought I could add nothing, and truly I can’t add much bulk. But I think I can domesticate some of his examples, and tell why the problem won’t go away easily.

But first, O’Neil highlights:

[G]iven that this referendum was all about opening up a social institution to which gays had apparently been brutally denied entry, the lack of post-referendum talk about actual marriage was remarkable.

Instead of saying ‘We can finally get married’, the most common response to the referendum result from both the leaders of the Yes campaign and their considerable army of supporters in the media and political classes has been: ‘Gays have finally been validated.’ Across the spectrum, from the drag queens who led the Yes lobby to the right-wing politicians who backed them, all the talk was of ‘recognition’, not marriage. Ireland’s deputy PM Joan Burton said the Yes vote was about ‘acceptance in your own country’. Writing in the Irish Examiner, a psychotherapist said ‘the referendum was about more than marriage equality… it was about validation and full acceptance [of gay people]’. (Tellingly, Ireland’s psychotherapy industry played a key role in backing the Yes campaign.) PM Enda Kenny also said the referendum was about more than marriage — it was a question of gay people’s ‘fragile and deeply personal hopes [being] realised’. Or in the words of novelist Joseph O’Connor, the Yes vote was an act of ‘societal empathy’ with a section of the population.

In short, the Yes result made people feel good …

And you thought it was about marriage? How wrong you were. All the commentary on how the referendum was ‘about more than marriage’, how it went ‘beyond the letter of the law’ to touch on something deeper, something psychic, confirms that the campaign for gay marriage is not about achieving social equality — no, it’s about securing parity of esteem, which is very different … What is being sought here is not really the right to marry but rather social and cultural validation of one’s lifestyle — ‘societal empathy’ — particularly from the state …

What we have here is not the politics of autonomy, but the politics of identity … The rise of gay marriage over the past 10 years speaks, profoundly, to the diminution of the culture of autonomy, and its replacement by a far more nervous, insecure cultural outlook that continually requires lifestyle validation from external bodies. And the state is only too happy to play this authoritative role of approver of lifestyles, as evidenced in Enda Kenny’s patronising (yet widely celebrated) comment about Irish gays finally having their ‘fragile and deeply personal hopes realised’.

What is being sought through gay marriage is not the securing of rights but the boosting of esteem. And this is a problem for those of us who believe in liberty …

It is undoubtedly the business of society to ensure social equality for gays, so that they may work and live as they choose free from persecution or harassment. But is it the job of society to ensure that there is parity of esteem for gays? That they feel good? That they feel validated, respected? I would say no, for then we invite the state not simply to remove the barriers to gay people’s engagement in public life but to interfere at a much more psychic level in both gay people’s lives, in order to offer ‘sanction for their intimate relationships’, and in other, usually religious people’s lives, in order to monitor their refusal to validate gay people’s lifestyles and offer them ‘support, kindness and respect’.

This is why we have seen, across the West, the bizarre ‘gay cake’ phenomenon, where there are more and more cases of traditionalist bakers (and other businesses) being purposefully approached by campaigners to provide services to gay weddings. The aim of this very modern form of religious persecution is to discover and expose those whose attitudes have not yet been corrected by the top-down enforcement of parity of esteem, of protected feelings, for gays. That cultural equality is concerned not merely with altering laws, but with reshaping culture and even belief itself, is clear from the growing trend for harassing those who do not bow before the altar of gay marriage. Joan Burton made clear that this trend will now intensify in Ireland, when she said there will be no ‘conscience clause’ in the New Ireland: it would be intolerable, she said, to ‘exclude some people or some institutions from the operation of marriage equality’. That is, all must agree, all must partake; there can be no room for the exercise of individual conscience when it comes to the engineering of a new cultural climate.

What Ireland crystallises is that gay marriage has nothing to do with liberty. The presentation of this as a liberal, or even libertarian, issue is highly disingenuous. For in truth, gay marriage massively expands the authority of the state in our everyday lives, in our most intimate relationships and even over our consciences. It simultaneously makes the state the sanctioner of acceptable intimate relationships, the ultimate provider of validation to our lifestyle choices, while empowering it to police the cultural attitudes and consciences of those of a more religious or old-fashioned persuasion …

This goes some way to explaining why every single wing of the Irish state supported gay marriage, from the police, who proudly waved the rainbow flag, to all the political parties, the public sector, the health establishment and the cultural establishment. It’s because they recognise, at a gut level, that unlike pretty much every other demand for liberty or equality in modern times, the campaign for gay marriage does nothing to threaten their authority — on the contrary, it extends it, in a way that the most authoritarian among them could only have dreamt of. Strikingly, Fintan O’Toole celebrated the referendum result by saying that ‘Ireland has left tolerance far behind’, by which he meant that the New Ireland actively encourages ‘respect’, not ‘mere toleration’, of minority groups. He’s right, but not in the way he thinks: the new era of state-monitored cultural equality, of expanded state authority over more and more areas of our intimate lives and moral beliefs, does indeed mean that Ireland is leaving tolerance behind, and looks set to become a less tolerant country.


Let me domesticate that, moving it from Ireland to … oh, let’s say Indiana:

  • Item: The press, the gay CEO of the world’s wealthiest corporation, and most of the Fortune 500 ganged up on Indiana for having the temerity to pass a RFRA, a Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (Maybe “Preservation” would have been a better word choice than “Restoration,” but RFRA is kind of a term of art.) It was feared that someone, somewhere, might actually get a day in court instead of being summarily cashiered for failure to afford parity of esteem. This is the greeting every new RFRA Bill is getting. It’s cheap grace for corporate chumps to beat up religion in affirmation of gays.
  • Item: An enterprising Hoosier cub reporter appointed herself purposefully to approach a small family pizza parlor in a small town and ask if they’d cater a gay wedding. The naïve young family member allowed as they’d serve everyone at their restaurant but wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. Death threats followed. Toward the pizza parlor, not the reporter.
  • Item: Local reporters approach a local restaurant, which happens to be located inside a Baptist-sponsored community center, to try to provoke a similar response. They failed (the owners are not Baptists, but they impressed the Baptists with their restaurant savvy), but that didn’t keep one local homophile from sniffing that she wasn’t going to eat there because … Baptist hateful haters. One homophile’s unwarranted boycott became local news. (Hey! Ya gotta pile on with whatever ya got!)

Why do I say the problem won’t go away? Because it is literally impossible for society to so completely affirm GLBTetcetera as to silence the consciences of those afflicted.

When the last Priest is strangled with the guts of the last Bishop; and when the last acknowledged Christian is beheaded and buried six feet deep; and when ten years more have passed, someone will awake in a sweat some night, feeling insufficiently affirmed and will go out looking for the secret Christians who are jinxing them.

The relative lack of real discrimination combined with a powerful sense of urgency means that Beyond Marriage Equality is very likely to be followed up by Beyond ­Nondiscrimination. We will be required to affirm and endorse. We will be obligated to drown out, with a chorus of affirmation, the voice of conscience that makes gays and lesbians so existentially vulnerable. The goal, then, will be to stamp out “homophobia.” This means a campaign against a “culture of homophobia.” Which means a culture war against Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other religion and traditional morality.

(R.R. Reno, First Things, The Gay Movement (hyperlink added) – pay wall) Humanly speaking, we can say “no, enough is enough” or we can do reverse hand-springs forever to try to placate the Yes crowd. We cannot affirm away some else’s conscience any more than they can “pray away the gay.”

* * * * *

I’ve written in “us-them” terms, but the “gentiles” and other “thems” in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Chapters 1 and 2, are “us,” too. In Romans 2:1, Paul warns against self-righteousness by those who might take pleasure in the stem-winder he had just finished. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes it clear as to some of the gross sins he had just chronicled, that “such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

A human can always repent. That rarely if ever ends the same-sex attraction, I’m told by credible sources. But it re-orients the soul, lifts delusion (e.g., that the problem is external, with those who are insufficiently affirming), and begins a healing that’s far more important than getting “straight” in one’s sexual orientation.

I didn’t set out to write an evangelistic tract, but I was deeply dissatisfied with the tone of this piece without the acknowledgment of gay friends and family members, friends who are allies of the GLBTetcetera folks and of a common human predicament that spans both “us” and “them.”

Yes, I commend repentance and embrace of Orthodox Christianity, but even short of that, I’m calling tacitly, and now explicitly, for the truce implied 50+ years ago with Stonewall’s “all we want is to be left alone” (O’Neil’s “politics of autonomy”). I commend to those who’ve gone from that to demands for affirmation (and persecution of those who cannot) the question “why wasn’t and isn’t it enough to be left alone?”

If that leads to repentance, I’ll be more than satisfied; if it leads to truce, I’ll be satisfied. Really. All most of us want is to be left alone after your arguments fail to persuade us.

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.