Thoughts on “Gay and Catholic” – Part One

There’s a moment in Eve Tushnet’s new book, Gay and Catholic where she refers to herself as a “public homosexual”. That gave me pause to reflect about the irony of my own situation: while I am far from public in the level that Miss Tushnet is, it’s true that I’ve gabbed on far more about that aspect of my life as a celibate Catholic than as a sexually active pagan. A frequent way people reach this blog is by googling terms like “gay celibacy”. I can only imagine the look of horror that would have crossed my 16-year-old self’s face if he had been aware of what his most popular writings would be, ten years down the line. But that kid never really wanted to live what the world at large considered to be a normal life, so in a sense he got his wish. He has yet to become a professional novelist, though.

I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while. Eve Tushnet has long been one of my favourite bloggers. In particular, she was the first blogger I stumbled across who was tackling the idea of being a celibate gay. While I had read a fair amount of stuff articulating Catholic teaching on homosexuality, and while I could with some bitterness intellectually take it, I hadn’t encountered any good examples of what living that out looked like; I had no evidence I could point to to suggest that the life I was embarking on wouldn’t just end with me being a lonely, repressed, deeply unhappy man. Tushnet, who had been wrestling with this stuff for a decade or so, was the first voice articulating a more positive vision of how one could actually live a good life in the no-man’s-land I seemed to be moving into. That was helpful, to say the least.

The book presents a more developed form of a lot of the themes touched upon in her blog. It isn’t a work of apologetics – she starts with the assumption that the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality is the correct one. Rather, the aim is to give advice to gay people who are not called to the usual vocations of marriage, priesthood or religious life on how they can live out lives which are just as meaningful and love-filled as those are. As such, single Christians more generally may find the book worth reading. (and also, I hope, non-Christians, or non-traditional Christians, who are interested in eavesdropping on the conversation).

It falls into three sections. The first is autobiographical, the second on vocational advice, and the third being a large appendix with resources, FAQs and the like.

Her own story was unusually relatable in at least a few points: we were both outsiders to the Catholic Faith, out and proud gays who came from a secular Jewish background. Our undergraduate philosophical and poetic adventures got a little too crazy, and we found ourselves to our surprise on the other side of the Tiber. We went native.

Through all these arguments and spiritual shifts, I had reached the point where I believed that if there were a god, it was probably the Catholic one. I darkly suspected that the world might be the work of that bloody-minded God. I began to pray, kneeling beside my dorm-room bed, feeling like an idiot. It is instructively humiliating to pray, and for that reason, I think praying on one’s knees or in some other posture of submission is almost always preferable. I continued to struggle with the arguments during the daytime, and then at night I would pray.

Is there any convert whose prayer life didn’t start off embarrassingly awkward like this? And I agree that there is a sort of pedagogical value to the awkwardness – especially for stoic types like myself who don’t like to ask for help.

Her narrative continues past the baptismal font to give a rather honest and poignant depiction on what, she says, has been her most difficult spiritual struggle: alcoholism. On occasion I’ve encountered people who have said things to me along the lines of, “it’s great and kind of admirable that you have this strict moral code you live by, but I could never do that; I’ve got so many issues and vices etc.” But – Christianity isn’t a moral code, and I honestly don’t know any Christians (least of all myself) who exist on some holier-than-thou plane where human failure no longer touches them. The situation is a lot more like this:

When I was trying, unsuccessfully, to quit drinking, I had one night in a hotel room when I was praying pretty intensely and making real progress, albeit haltingly. I managed to call up images of some of the most humiliating things I’d done – not the worst things, not the unkindness and selfishness, which we somehow usually manage to repent without really loathing, but the most shameful things – and invite God into those moments. I imagined him there, as in fact he was there, seeing it all and not turning away from me. I “invited” him, the way you have to invite a vampire in – you have to invite God into your heart and your memory in the same way if you want forgiveness. It was ridiculously painful and to this day, I can’t do it most of the time, but it was also one of the closest encounters I’ve ever had with the truth about the shocking completeness of God’s mercy.

And then I got back from my business trip and bought a comfortingly large bottle of Smirnoff, you know? Mercy and penitence don’t always “work”; they are sufficient in themselves and have no other “point” or purpose. Still, denying yourself mercy will pretty much always make your life worse. Mary Karr got it right when she said, “That schoolmarm part of me – that hypercritical finger-wagging part of myself that I thought was gonna keep me sober – that is actually what helped me stay drunk. What keeps you sober is love and connection to something bigger than yourself.”


There are also more amusing quotes, like this:

Still, I realize I may not be the very best poster child to make the case for gay mental health. All I can say is that I know a lot of queer people who are so healthy and normal, you could just puke. They are veritable pillars of bourgeois stability. Not how I’ve ever wanted to live, but not exactly the movie Cruising either.

This reminds me of an ironic trend which I’ve noticed in my life: when it came to really crazy, dangerous, unhealthy stuff, it was for the most part my straight friends who were into it. Most of the gay people I’ve known have tried to eke out a respectable living. I can see why this is the case; I didn’t start to befriend other gays until university, so I was drawing on a pool of people who at least had some academic/career ambitions and expectations, and whose lives hadn’t already gone off the rails in surrealistic, Hunter S. Thompson fashion. The same cannot be said of some high school era friends (and, in retrospect it is actually weird just how much first-hand exposure I got to drug culture as a teenager without ever actually being a part of it).


I’m not great with children – I’m ideologically in favor of them, but they can be kind of hard to talk to.

To be continued…

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Linguistic love affairs


Like many kids who grew up in Ontario, I was required to study French until my first year of high school. I spent most of those classes bored, and dropped them as soon as they became optional. And as of today I have retained virtually nothing from them.

When it came time to choose classes for my freshman year, I enrolled myself in German for reasons that I do not recall. I found myself with a somewhat eccentric instructor who would include quiz questions like, “write a dialogue between you and your ideal date”. Within a couple of months I started to lag behind in class and dropped it.

So while my love of English had been firmly established by this point, my aptitude for taking on a foreign tongue did not seem very precocious.

But when my senior year came around, I decided I would use up my last free elective on either Latin or Greek. I had become more disciplined over my undergraduate years, and besides was only a part-time student at this point, and hence would not have to worry about the work being too much. Since this was also the time that I was enrolling in RCIA, I decided that Latin would be the more useful of the two.

This time, things fell into place. I was able to find a passion for studying grammar that had hitherto been absent. My guess for why I started to succeed here is that, unlike French or German, there was a vocational element to Latin: I was learning the lingua franca of the religion I had chosen. Some of my convert’s fervor was perhaps tapped into.

Due to an unexpected program conflict, my second semester of Latin got replaced at the last minute by a metalogic class (which was even more intimidating than it sounded, but the only other alternative option was literary theory, and at the time I was feeling far less conciliatory towards that realm of thought than I do now). But I still kept up the Latin on my own, developing a vocabulary that was decent-ish for liturgy and the Vulgate Bible.

My few months of studying Latin were in retrospect a turning point for me. Getting used to one kind of alien grammar seemed to make my mind more plastic in that regard. The possibilities of language were intuitively open to me in a way that they previously had not. It is a cliche to speak of education as “broadening horizons” and “opening minds” but in this case the expressions really are apt. I believe Wittgenstein has a sentence in his Tractatus to the effect that a person’s world is as big as a person’s language. It didn’t take too long for me to start Greek.

Which leads me to the dilemma I wrote about in May. By that point it was clear that I was either going to take my academic career in the direction of Old Testament studies or systematic theology. The choice needed to be made as soon as possible, as it would effect what direction I would develop my language skills: the former would place heavy emphasis on Hebrew and Greek, the latter on Latin and the modern scholarly languages.

The Bible won out, and I believe I made the right choice. I have been studying Hebrew these past two months, and have fallen in love with it – moreso than Greek or Latin. Decoding the script has led to a fascination with it. And, as has been observed, my Hebrew handwriting is actually turning out far more legible than my writing with the Latin or Greek alphabet typically is (my abc’s have always been atrocious, and it didn’t take long for αβγ to morph into similarly loose scribbles); the movements required for drawing the characters seem to allow for less of my bad habits to creep in.

Of course, Hebrew characters have been more present in my life, in Passover Haggadahs and the like. Their Semitic calligraphy had the effect for my childhood mind of cloaking my family’s lineage in a sort of romantic foreignness that stretched beyond Europe into the Ancient Near-East.

The sound of the language is very gutteral and sometimes harsh-sounding to western ears. But, I have to admit, the melodiousness of the romance languages which people find to be a big draw is something of a turnoff for me. It sounds good in the context of opera and bel canto, but for some reason otherwise falls flat for me. Perhaps it has to do with how France, Spain and Italy have generally not exerted much cultural fascination from me. I like the sound of languages which are a little more rough, like German or the Slavic languages and hence also Hebrew.

There are also the usual pleasures of discovering the etymology behind well-known names (like finding out that Behemoth is just the plural form of behema – animal) and other linguistic resonances (the Hebrew word for sea, yam, also being the name of a Cannanite sea goddess).

I do regret that I only discovered these loves in my twenties; it is easy to look back and see missed opportunities in both high school and my undergraduate years. But better late than never.



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A moment of reprieve

For the past two weeks I was primarily concerned with midterms and hence too busy to post anything. On Friday morning I began this semester’s reading week and promptly dropped into a near brain-dead state where I spent the next 48 hours more or less alternating between the PS2* and Youtube.

All this is probably for the best, as it means I was unable to take part in the massive Synod drama that swept the blogosphere and news media. I had things I wanted to say, but now that the synod is closed I don’t really care to broadcast my Opinions here.

In other news, I have decided against my better judgment to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. It’ll be my third time, albeit my first as a grad student. If it starts eating into my academic duties, then I’ll drop it.

And if I’m feeling particularly bold, I might, mi-ight start serializing my novel on here as I write it. Almost everything posted on this blog is a rough draft anyway.

*Yes, I am that out of touch with whatever the heck the current gaming scene is.

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The Cabin in the Woods and Job


(WARNING: Massive spoilers for both The Cabin in the Woods and the Book of Job follow. You have been warned)

As a teenager I used to adore horror films and those weird, mess-with-your-head type movies. So Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, which excellently combines both qualities, reminds me of my adolescence. It feels like a movie I should have watched a decade ago, but in the good way of representing the best of what I liked in those days rather than reminding me of my poor taste. But for some reason it actually came out a couple of years ago, and I only saw it for the first time a little over a month ago.

In Cabin, what seems to be standard horror movie fare – a group of young adults goes off to a secluded locale and meets a grisly end – turns out to be the tip of a more sinister plot: some evil gods lurking in the earth will wipe humanity out unless a handful of people are anually sacrificed by way of torment and death at the hands of supernatural monsters. A secret organization exists to ensure that this happens smoothly so that the gods will remain placated.

But what does this sordid affair have to do with the biblical Book of Job? Job is described as a righteous man who suffers in an extraordinary fashion that causes him to question God and the moral order of reality. What leads me to pair them up is how they both seem interested in the question of the meaning of innocent suffering, and how they share some formal similarities in how they take it up.

Job is a poetic dialogue framed by a prose prologue and epilogue. In the dialogue, Job and his friends engage in a rather circular theological debate about the causes of Job’s sufferings. But in the prologue, the reader is introduced to another layer of the narrative which gives the explanation: in the divine counsel, Hassatan, The Adversary, questioned God concerning Job’s righteousness, suggesting that he is only good because God treats him well. In order to prove him wrong, God retracts his blessing from Job and allows Hassatan to torment him.

Thus the dialogue operates under dramatic irony, and a deeply unsettling one at that – to allow such pain and death (Job’s family is wiped out) for the sake of making a point seems extremely callous at best. The author seems to want the reader to ponder whether God is actually a jerk. And the question resonates, because, although it is the case that we can find redemptive and pedagogic value in our sufferings, it is also true that the wantonness of suffering in the world outstrips all rational suffering in the world. Actually, the sheer fact that a book like Job made it into the biblical canon makes it easier for me to believe that that canon is divinely inspired.

Although Cabin is slower in explaining the rationale behind the torment of the protagonists, it operates under a similar dramatic irony by showing the viewer that everything is under the control of a shadowy organization which is intent on persecuting them.

Now, there is a rather persistent theodicy which accepts in simple fashion the notion that the good are rewarded and the guilty punished. It follows from this that if an individual faces tragedy, there must be some guilt hidden behind it. This is the position that Job’s friends take: Job is suffering, therefore he is guilty. They thus set themselves up as judges of Job’s soul. But Job asserts his innocence, and the narrator informs the reader that he is indeed without blame.


While none of the heroes of Cabin can be described as blameless in the same degree as Job, there is no question that they don’t deserve to be murdered by undead torture zombies (or whatever they’re called). But for whatever reason, the organization doesn’t want their sacrifice to be seen as slaughtering the innocent, so they devise rigged scenarios where the protagonists will transgress some boundary and hence be seen as deserving of punishment. They give themselves the moral veneer of being judges.

In both cases, the parties at hand use a reward/punishment mindset to wash their hands of really grappling with the full significance of the suffering on display.

But both Job and Cabin’s protagonists feel that they are being unjustly persecuted, and eventually seek out a confrontation with the powers that be. God speaks to Job, and Sigourney Weaver the Director speaks to the (surviving) heroes. And it is here that the two stories radically differ in where they go.

For Cabin, the banality and judgmentalism turns out to be a cover for pagan sacrifice. In order for humanity to be spared the wrath of the gods, the heroes must be killed. The heroes actually do live in a morally simplistic world where their suffering and death is given a rational explanation, and where the minds of the gods can be understood by humans. The survival of the human race is an easily conceivable objective, and one that is arguably the weightiest one imaginable. But this raises a crucial question: is there any humanly conceivable purpose so grave that it would justify the torment and destruction of innocent souls?

The answer the heroes make in the end is no. And I really, really, like this. When I was first watching the movie, it seemed like they were going to do a moral bait-and-switch at the end; the viewer is brought to cynically agree that the villains are right. Ideals get you killed; participation in the Real, grown up world means compromising moral integrity in the name of the greater good, etc. While the heroes’ rejection of this logic is done more as an act of existential defiance than as something approximating Christian hope, it’s a ballsy move on the part of the script that I sympathize with.

If the climax of Job was just God telling him that the entire debacle was caused by him attempting to prove a point, then the book would be unsatisfying, because it would be asking us to accept that answer at face value and to not probe deeper. But Job never finds out the reason for his suffering. Instead, God takes a different tack:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said: Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! (38:1-3)

Girding loins in the ancient world referred to the practice of tucking the hems of one’s robes into the belt in order to move unencumbered. “Gird up your loins” was a way of saying, “prepare for combat”. Job, in in calling God to explain himself in a litigation hearing, has spoken fighting words, and God picks up the gauntlet. The idea of fighting with God is a theme seen elsewhere in the bible – Jacob becomes the patriarch Israel when he wrestles with the angel and refuses to let go until it blesses him. (Gen 32:25-31) God seems to approve of a sort of pugnacious tenacity on the part of his servants.

Instead of directly dealing with Job’s complaint, God, by way of ironic questions, launches into a speech describing both the wondrousness and the strangeness of creation, from its foundations to animals like the ostrich.

This only seems to provoke silence from Job, so God begins again:

Would you refuse to acknowledge my right? Would you condemn me that you may be justified?


Look at everyone who is proud, and humble them. Tear down the wicked in their place, bury them in the dust together; in the hidden world imprison them. Then will I too praise you, for your own right hand can save you. (40:8, 12-14)

Although Job is innocent, his mind is still stuck up in the theology of his friends, which has pushed him into a terrible either/or. Either he actually is guilty and hence has been inviting divine wrath by calling down God, or else God is guilty of injustice, and Job lives in a world governed by a morally suspect deity. Both of these options are bad ends! God seems to be indicating another route by underlining that he and Job are not equals.

William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan

William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan

Most of God’s second speech is devoted to a description of Behemoth and Leviathan, two mythological creatures signifying the forces of chaos. God emphasizes that they are creatures, “whom I made along with you”. They can be subdued to no one but God. The point seems to be: if Job cannot even take on these beasts, how can he expect to take on God? And furthermore, if God can dominate them, what chance does Job have? The organization in Cabin, in their own way, attempted to control Behemoth and Leviathan, and got themselves killed for their efforts.

In spite of his apparent indignation at Job, God thinks that he has spoken rightly, while his friends have failed, and restores Job’s blessing. And Job seems contented by God’s speeches.

One way of looking at this ambiguous ending which appeals to me is to see it as expressing in poetic form the inscrutability of the ways of God. The retribution theodicy offered by the friends fails because it tries to reduce the mystery of God and the world to something comprehendable by humans. But God’s panoramic speech, culminating in an extended meditation on the monstrous and bizarre, serves as a reminder that humans are not in an epistemic position to pronounce judgment on it all. Hence Job remains something of a question mark.


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The first theological virtue

Gabriel Blanchard is in the middle of a series of of rather personal posts explaining why he is a Catholic. This passage in his third one leaped out at me:

[...]referral to the macrocosm, to the Resurrection, cannot really be used as an answer. That reality left its evidences upon history; and I do think that Pascal was right, when he said that there is enough light for those who wish to see as there is enough darkness for those who don’t. But to place one’s faith in the Resurrection and in the universe that it signifies is precisely an act of faith — it is not simply the obvious and reasonable thing to do, ever.


That, I think, was my mistake. Not only as a child, but for years afterward, and even in my conversions from atheism to Christianity and from Christianity in general to Catholicism in particular. I never fully grappled with the fact that the act of faith was an act of faith — that is, trusting a Person, not simply accepting an idea — not of following a chain of reasoning to its logical end. Following that chain did put me in a position to make an act of faith. I don’t regret that. And, while it’s impossible to know whether I would have made the same decision if I had grappled with that question during my conversions, I think I might have done. But it has left me to grapple with that same problem now.

This resonates with me as well. I do feel that all the heady philosophizing that pushed me into my conversion gave me a mindset that threatens to obscure the role that faith has to play. This has at times led to a kind of subtle doubt that there was any real conversion at all – that I just had a change of venue, with no real interior ontological shift.

I don’t think this is actually true. If my Catholicism were nothing but just another philosophical position, I have a feeling it would have been destroyed by this point. My persistence in the Faith strikes me as supernatural. But this is one of the reasons for why I am reluctant to engage in apologetics. While a worthwhile endeavor in itself, I find that it brings me too close to a corrosive mindset that wants a philosophy rather than a faith.

Faith is listed as the first theological virtue – theological meaning that it is not the result of any developed aptitude but rather an effect of the direct operation of divine grace. It is, in a sense, a limited participation in God’s own knowledge. But it follows from this that it can never be the sort of easy answer that we often want, but which also smashes up against reality. It is both an affirmation of Mystery and also something mysterious in its own right.

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Rainbow Rocks is actually pretty good


I meant to write something about My Little Pony: Equestria Girls about a year ago, but never got around to it. So here it is: the idea of setting the first Generation 4 movie mostly in an alternate dimension featuring teenage human versions of the MLP cast was controversial, to say the least. And indeed, were  I given the gun-to-the-head options of either returning to high school or going to a land of candy coloured ponies, the choice would be obvious.

But- the first EQG movie is OK. The plotting is garbage, the character arcs are less arcs and more like binary switches, and the music is mostly forgettable. But the fun that everyone seems to be having with it is infectious, and there are a few moments of genuinely inspired cheese (in particular, the over-the-top magical girl style climax).

And the EQG premise has turned out to be an unexpected boon in another area: the introduction of alternate dimensions into MLP canon led to Kate Cook running with the idea in the rather epic comic story arc, “Reflections”.

So I was interested to see where they would possibly go with this spinoff world in the canon.

The plot of Rainbow Rocks, the second EQG movie, goes something like this: the Dazzlings, a trio of sirens disguised as teenage pop divas have started terrorizing Canterlot High. Twilight Sparkle is called back from Equestria to deal with the problem. Somehow defeating them gets shoehorned into participating in a battle-of-the-bands they are masterminding. You can telegraph the rest of it from there.

The first thing of note is that the human high school setting has here become less of an end in itself, and more as a setting where the writers can try things that wouldn’t work in Equestria (such as having the Mane 6 form a rock band). And with all the introductions taken care of in the previous movie, the plot is much tighter this time around. Also, there is something delightfully Buffy-ish about the whole setup this time around. I like the idea of supernatural forces setting up shop in the banal and mundane.

As might be expected from the premise, the movie revels in as many pop music tropes and cliches as it can, and for the most part it works. Seeing which characters get paired with which instruments and genres is amusing (and Derpy’s choice is particularly inspired).

This is helped by Daniel Ingram’s songs. While they don’t venture too far from the pop template of EQG1, there’s more interesting stuff going on here, from Trixie’s R&B to Rainbow Dash’s punk. The battle-of-the-bands theme also helps integrate them into the actual plot, giving them emotional weight.

As for the characters, the Dazzles are exactly the sort of catty, manipulative,  love-to-hate-them gals you’d need for a story like this. Sunset Shimmer emerges as the most interesting of the protagonists, having to deal with the fallout from her villainous turn in the previous movie. And, again, having introduced and reunited the Doug Funny Mane 6 in the previous film, they’re given the breathing room to work as decent subs for our four legged friends.

Sprinkled throughout are all the sorts of nods and winks that get the fanboy in me excited – the cameo appearance of one season 4 character was flawlessly executed.

So, in sum, I’m glad that this movie exists. Cheesy and cliche? Right to its very core, but in all the right ways.

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Notes on narrative

I just stumbled upon this post by Alastair Roberts. The gist of it is that there is a problem with overvaluing personal narrative:

Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.

I tend to be in favor of people telling their stories, even if they use them in favor of philosophical conclusions I disagree with, because I often find that attacks on personal narrative often are one gambit in an attempt to avoid seriously engaging with disagreeable ideas. If someone’s testimony can be exposed as propaganda, then it becomes easier to see whatever position they represent as being in bad faith. This tends to happen within the sphere of the culture wars, where individuals are reduced to ciphers of larger cultural forces.

But then, it is also true that we are all unreliable narrators. We are experts at crafting narratives that help us and others to avoid things we’d rather not see. I have been reading some of Rene Girard’s book, The Scapegoat. In the opening chapter he discusses a work by the 14th century French poet Guillaume de Machaut which describes in phantasmagorical fashion an attack against the Jews in retribution for a catastrophe which has befallen the region. The text, of course, is simply a rationalization for a pogrom that occurred. What makes de Machaut’s text of particular note is how naively honest he is – he isn’t a propagandist. A particular statement by Girard struck me:

My readers will have already observed that in speaking as I do I contradict certain principles that numerous critics hold as sacrosanct. I am always told one must never do violence to the text. Faced with Guillaume de Machaut the choice is clear: one must either do violence to the text or let the text forever do violence to innocent victims.

Some narratives need to be critiqued to reveal the true meaning, because to not do so would be complicity in perpetuating injustice and falsehood.

But this is in tension with the practice of taking someone’s personal story at face value. I don’t think that we really need to abandon one or the other, but it is worth being aware that the tension exists.

Charles Norris Cochrane, in his tome, Christianity and Classical Culture argued* that one of the principle failings of classical antiquity was its failure to harmonize objective/philosophical truth with subjective experience. Christianity, and in particular the thought of St. Augustine, was able to respond to this need by interpreting individual consciousness in light of a cosmic narrative that connects to the very principle of existence itself (i.e. God) In light of the tension discussed above, this goes some way, perhaps, to explaining why I find Christianity to be an epistomologically sound place to be, when it comes to interpretation.

Wow, this has turned out to be a way more pretentious post than I thought it would be.

*(it has been about a year since I read Cochrane, so my synopsis of his argument is a bit hazy)




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Reading the Old Testament

Growing up in a household that was more culturally Jewish than Christian meant that unlike most westerners I was more familiar with the Torah than the Gospels. This isn’t saying much, as I never made any serious attempt to read the Bible until I was a teenager. But even in my undergraduate years my biblical readings were largely confined to the Old Testament.

The OT has also attracted me for other reasons: it is rather labrynthe. The codex form it inhabits almost belies the dense intertextuality and interweaving of voices. Historical narrative sits alongside legal codes, poetry, etc. It spans a massive length of time. I have always had a liking for texts which seem to contain a whole world within them; hence my interest in Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, the epic poets, Joyce, etc.

From a Christian perspective, the OT as a unit is incomplete. It’s meaning is indeterminate without the New Testament, which unveils the meta-narrative of the whole shebang. The religious experiences of ancient Israel take on cosmic import for all of humanity. And there’s a bit of a paradoxical movement here:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)

The relativization of ethnic lines doesn’t make ancient Israel superfluous or of mere historical curiosity; rather, everyone else is grafted onto that history.

Reading the Old Testament is to enter into a world that is rather foreign and, well, old. Even with all familiar symbols and tropes that have been handed onto us from it, it still often seems unfamiliar and obscure. I have occasionally entertained a thought experiment: if we ever get around to colonizing space, it would seem that future Christians reading the Bible would have an even harder time of it. What would it be like to read about the moon, or a gazelle, for instance, without a good idea of what they looked like? They too would take on the same sort of mysterious hue that so much of the imagery has for us.

And it occurs to me that this doubles as an apologia for the continuing importance of Biblical scholars – someone needs to be well versed enough in Earth lore to explain it to non-terran humans.

If I’m able to conceptualize my academic discipline in a science fiction setting, then I think I am doing OK.

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Tolkienesque meditations

With the upcoming semester only a few days away, I have been doing what many geeky Catholics do for refreshment of spirit: re-read Tolkien. I finished The Hobbit yesterday, and completed Book One of The Lord of the Rings about an hour ago. Some miscellaneous thoughts:

- Tolkien, more than any popular writer I can think of, has been something of a slow-burner for me. When I first started reading him as an adolescent, I found his stories and worldbuilding interesting and moving, but unfortunately told with a rather dry, Donnish cough. In comparison, people like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King were cases of love at first sight. It took time for me to see the merits of his style (which is actually far more economical than most people give him credit for) and of what seemed at the time to be his very quaint, old fashioned worldview.

- I knew for a long time that he was a veteran of World War I, which killed most of his friends. But it took reading some of his letters to see glances of some of the suffering, alienation and anguish he went through, even as an older man, in spite of his often hobbitish aura. But this is true for all of us – we all have more profound wounds than are often visible to others. The glimpses into his prayer life are also moving:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament….There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

- The Hobbit is a children’s book, but I can think of some reasons for why if it were published today it would cause a minor moral panic – too violent, too scary, too much smoking and drinking, (heck, it even makes a rather memorable joke about decapitation and golf) etc. The Hobbit is not a safe book, but it is unsafe in almost all the right ways. We will meet pitiful, dangerous people like Gollum, and sadistic tyrants like Smaug. The real thing is often far more frightening than these creatures, but, to paraphrase Chesterton, the value of these stories lies not in telling us that dragons exist, but in telling us that they can be overcome. Tellingly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a school that includes The Hobbit on its curriculum. Part of that is likely the old Genre Fiction Is Not Serious Lit attitude. But the paranoid crank in me would like to see this as another example of how elementary school and high school are systematically designed to stifle your child’s imagination, moral or otherwise.

- No, I will not allow myself to go on a bitter rant about elementary school and high school here.

- The society of the hobbits is very conservative and borderline anarchic (political offices are for the most part limited to the honor of the title). Of course, it is also a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist society. As has been mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I tend to view both capitalism and the modern state with a high degree of cynicism and suspicion, while not really seeing how they can be done away with either; I am also doubtful of all the idealistic schemes on offer. Reading the early chapters of LOTR reminds me that I should take more time to understand better where the anarcho-monarchists, distributists, et al. are actually coming from. Tolkien himself seemed to venture in that direction a bit.

- There is a parallel universe where Hayao Miyazaki directed The Hobbit movie. Maybe one of its inhabitants can lend me a DVD.

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Authority in the Church

A recent commenter asked if I could shed some light on the nature of authority in the Catholic Church. While Ecclesiology is not my strongest suit (I am actually pushing my studies in the direction of Old Testament studies), here is my attempt to provide a quick precis of this topic. If I make any errors here, I of course defer to the Church.

First of all, it is worth distinguishing between Apostolic Tradition and just plain tradition. The former relates to the substance of the faith as handed to the Apostles by way of divine revelation. As such, the actual truths expressed in it have been a closed book since the death of the last apostle (no further revelations will add or take anything from it). However, what is implicit within these truths can be articulated in a more explicit fashion if need be – this is what is usually called the development of doctrine. Doctrines regarding the nature and ministry of the hierarchy fall under this category.

The latter, lower case ‘t’ traditions, are disciplines and practices which have developed in the Church. They do not belong to the faith as such (and so are subject to alteration), but are still important. A good example of this would be priestly celibacy and the college of cardinals.

So while we should not expect to see a perfect correspondence between the practices of the primitive Church and what we currently recognize as the Roman Catholic Church. But this is not in the sense of there being a rupture between the two – looking at the beginnings of the Church is more like looking at childhood photos of someone who is now an adult. There is a continuity of substance between the two. And I do think that we should expect there to be such a continuity in the Christian tradition if we want to take the notion of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church seriously.

The bishops of the Church are seen as the successors of the Apostles, with the Pope being specifically the successor of St. Peter. So their role in the Church should be understood in light of the mission and ministry of the Apostles.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)

Christ, in his divine nature, works miracles with the words he speaks. In this instance, his alteration of the Passover ceremony into a symbol of his sacrifice actually becomes that sacrifice – his body and blood, separated in his passion, become sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine (of note, this is the one miracle which the Apostles do not see – they are asked to believe in it on the authority of Christ’s own testimony). And in this action we specifically see Christ executing his office as high priest, offering up a sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. But Christ links this with a commandment for the Apostles to do the same “in remembrance of me”. This makes the Apostles themselves into a sacrament: they represent Christ’s priesthood, and, in repeating his actions at the Last Supper, make that priesthood present, and the same miracle happens. This sacramental character also extends to other aspects of Christ’s ministry, such as the forgiveness of sins, but the primary and essential purpose of the priesthood is to perpetuate the Eucharistic sacrifice until the end of time. 1 Corinthians 11:23-32 offers good evidence of the importance of the Eucharist to the Church in the immediate decades after Christ’s ascension.

As only the Apostles were invited to the Last Supper, this ministry can be seen as a vocation given specifically to them as opposed to Christ’s disciples more generally. Hence it is not simply a a living out of one’s baptismal state in a leadership position – it is, like marriage, an ontological addition to one’s status as a Christian.*

(it is perhaps worth pointing out that in the very early Church there was no distinction between priests and bishops. It was only after the Church grew to the point where the local bishop could not realistically minister to everyone in his diocese that the practice of imparting men with this sacramental character who could act in the stead of the bishop arose)

The hierarchy also has a teaching authority – what is called the Magisterium. Already within the New Testament we see that controversy arose over issues that were not explicitly addressed by Christ (for instance, the necessity of circumcision), and a need was felt to distinguish what was authentically Christian from what was not. At the Last Supper, Christ promised that the Apostles would have the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17), with Pentecost confirming this promise. It would, I think, be strange if the gift of the Holy Spirit did not entail that the Apostles had received the charism to adequately address issues which can potentially threaten the unity of the Faith and the Church, especially given Christ’s priestly prayer for unity (John 17: 22-23)

This charism means that, although individual bishops may go astray in their personal beliefs, as a collective whole, the hierarchy will not fail in matters pertaining to faith and morals. Now, given that the bishops are not a hive mind in perfect accord with each other, there needs to be specific mechanisms in place for arriving at definitive answer to major disputes. This is the role that ecumenical councils and the Pope’s ex cathedra statements play.

If the Church is not going to go astray, the highest court of appeal needs to be infallible. The Church has historically looked upon the dogmatic definitions promulgated by ecumenical councils as representing the last word on the matter. An ecumenical council should, ideally, involve all the bishops. But this has for the most part been a practical impossibility, and, after the schism between east and west, things have gotten even hairier. So there does need to be someone with the authority to say that such a council represents the universal Church, as opposed to, say, a particular region or jurisdiction. And it follows from that that this someone needs to have a universal jurisdiction in order to have the authority to make such a pronouncement.

This person is, of course, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. Every council that the Church has declared to be ecumenical has had the Pope either convoke, be involved with, or ratify it after the fact. Not all of these factors need to be present in any given case – the first seven ecumenical councils, for instance, were largely an eastern affair with limited participation from the Latin Church. It does not have to be the same pope who, say, convokes a council and approves it. What is important is the reciprocal relationship between the teaching office of the pope and the council.


This reciprocal relation suggests that the charism of infallibility is also enjoyed in some manner by the pope – that he can, in highly specific circumstances, unilaterally define dogma. Here is the text from the First Vatican Council, where this gets defined:

Moreover, that by the very apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter, the chief of the Apostles, holds over the universal Church, the supreme power of the magisterium is also comprehended, this Holy See has always held, the whole experience of the Church approves, and the ecumenical Councils themselves, especially those in which the East convened with the West in a union of faith and charity, have declared. For the fathers of the fourth council of Constantinople, adhering to the ways of the former ones, published this solemn profession: “Our first salvation is to guard the rule of right faith [...]. And since the sentiment of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be passed over when He says: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church’ [Matt. 16:18], these words which were spoken are proven true by actual results, since in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved untainted, and holy doctrine celebrated. Desiring, then, least of all to be separated from the faith and teaching of this [Apostolic See], We hope that We may deserve to be in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the solidarity of the Christian religion is whole and true”/ Moreover, with the approval of the second council of Lyons, the Greeks have professed, “that the Holy Roman Church holds the highest and full primacy and pre-eminence over the universal Catholic Church, which it truthfully and humbly professes it has received with plentitude of power from the Lord Himself in blessed Peter, the chief or head of the Apostles, of whom the Roman Pontiff is the successor; and, just as it is bound above others to defend the truth of faith, so, too, if any questions arise about faith, they should be defined by its judgment”.Finally, the Council of Florence has defined: “That the Roman Pontiff is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and the father and teacher of all Christians; and to it in the blessed Peter has been handed down by the Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and guiding the universal Church.”


For, the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth.


So, this gift of truth and a never failing faith was divinely conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair, that they might administer their high duty for the salvation of all; that the entire flock of Christ, turned away by them from the poisonous food of error, might be nourished on the sustenance of heavenly doctrine, that with the occasion of schism removed the whole Church might be saved as one, and relying on her foundation might stay firm against the gates of hell.

But since in this very age, in which the salutary efficacy of the apostolic duty is especially required, not a few are found who disparage its authority, We deem it most necessary to assert solemnly the prerogative which the Only-begotten Son of God deigned to enjoin with the highest pastoral office.

And so We, adhering faithfully to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God, our Savior, the elevation of the Catholic religion and the salvation of Christian peoples, with the approbation of the sacred Council, teach and explain that the dogma has been divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.

But if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid: let him be anathema.

Note the language of the bold parts. The language of teaching a divinely revealed dogma, and anathematizing the opposing position, is key that the doctrine is being offered as infallible.

As can be seen in the document, the fact that the Bishop of Rome should enjoy this authority is traced back to Jesus’ statements in Matthew 16:17-18.

It is worth noting a couple of things here: first, a doctrine does not have to be defined by a council or pope for it to be binding on Catholics. For instance, the Resurrection of Christ was never defined, because Scripture is extremely explicit about it,and it has never been a seriously disputed issue within the Church. To go back to what I said earlier, the development of doctrine here is about articulating what has already been divinely revealed in a more explicit fashion, if there is a necessity for it.

Secondly, there are non-infallible exercises of the magisterium (i.e the “ordinary magisterium). The most prominent example of these would be papal encyclicals. However, because these do represent the official teaching of the Church, a Catholic should not publicly dissent from them without good cause – and that cause should come from a concern for preserving the Faith, rather than from private agendas.

Lastly, the Pope and Bishops have an authority of governance. The Pope has the authority to set Canon Law and is, in essence, the boss of all the bishops. The bishops themselves exercise a legitimate authority within their diocese. While priests naturally are to be seen as spiritual fathers, they are there on the sufferance of the bishop, and it is to the local Bishop (and pope) that we are expected to be obedient. We can, of course, disagree with what current disciplines and still remain in good standing, but that we still obey what is asked of us is critical. To make an analogy with civil law, people can reasonably disagree over what the legal drinking age should be while still obeying how the law currently stands.

To wade further in this direction is to take me into the realm of Canon Law, of which I am not competent to say much about. I will perhaps add that obedience to the local bishop goes back to the early Church. To quote the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians in the second century,

Thus it is proper for you to run together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your council of presbyters, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God,is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre. Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.

All this does not mean that there is not a place for rebuking the poor behavior of bishops and popes. But we do have a grave duty to obey the legitimate exercises of their authority.

I think this covers all of the bases I wanted to touch upon. Unfortunately I don’t really have a good go-to book to refer to for people interested in digging their teeth more deeply into these topics (but I welcome any recommendations)

*With regard to the question of the maleness of the clergy, I refer to this helpful article by Sister Sara Butler (pdf)

**It is perhaps worth pointing out that this is a particular theory of the definition of ecumenical councils which has its origins, I believe, in Robert Bellarmine, and which enjoys a popularity in Catholic thought. As far as I can tell, there is no magisterial list of ecumenical councils. I do find it to be a useful model, and like how it segues nicely into discussing the infallibility of the Pope.

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