Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"How Could Christ Require More?"

In my previous posting, I plugged N. T. Wright's Simply Christian (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007). It offers much food for the soul and grist for the blogger's grill.

For example, one of the theses of the book is that, in Jesus' death and resurrection, the new creation has already begun and we baptized Christians are called to live into its promised future consummation here and now.

In other words, those who accept the Christian faith can no longer accept the status quo of this world's "business as usual." Our lives should look different. What we do and what we say should communicate an alternative message, one that may sometimes create dissonance with the taken-for-granted assumptions and prevailing aspirations of the surrounding culture.

Some of Wright's concluding comments about how all of this impacts (or should impact) relationships and sexual intimacy are worth pondering. Obviously, you can't get the full sense of what he's up to from a few quotes (read the book!!), but here are some of his thoughts that struck me:

The trouble is that the modern world, like much of the ancient one, has come to regard what is sometimes called an active sex life as not only the norm but something nobody in his or her right mind does without. The only question is, What particular forms of sexual activity do you find exciting, fulfilling, or life-enhancing? The early and normative Christian tradition ... stands out at this point against the normal approach of paganism ancient and modern and utters a vehement no (p. 231).

Perhaps we could go further than Wright and say that many people today think of the option to have "an active sex life" as a human right. And for that reason, placing limits on that human right is tantamount to disrespecting the dignity of a human being.

Wright continues:

We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church, where ... God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out - which is, as many have discovered, a recipe for chaotic, disjointed, and dysfunctional humanness. The logic of cross and resurrection, of the new creation which gives shape to all truly Christian living, points in a different direction. And one of the central names for that direction is joy: the joy of relationships healed as well as enhanced, the joy of belonging to the new creation, of finding not what we already had but what God was longing to give us (pp. 233-234).

This touches on the heart of our Church's debates concerning human sexuality. Wright is clearly saying that just because someone experiences themselves as having a certain orientation or a certain desire, the Gospel does not necessarily sanction acting on that orientation or that desire.

I'm reminded of a point made by Eve Tushnet, a Roman Catholic journalist (and also an out-of-the-closet lesbian), in an essay for Commonweal when she acknowledges "the real virtues exhibited by so many gay couples: loyalty, caretaking, and compassion. Anyone who supports church teaching must still acknowledge that these virtues are real: that deep, often sacrificial love works through these couples like gold threads in cloth."

Tushnet is absolutely right to make this point. The virtues and sacrificial love of gay and lesbian Christians are real. I have personally known gay and lesbian Christians whose relationships and ministries have, quite frankly, put to shame some of the heterosexual persons I've known in the Church. We need to honor what they offer in the name of Christ.

But, in a way that resonates with Wright, Tushnet continues as follows:

The question is whether that is enough. How could it not be? How could Christ require more?

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” ... The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)

The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants.

"How could Christ require more?"

That question haunts me. For all Christians, regardless of sexual orientation.

On this and other matters pertaining to human sexuality and its physical expression, I don't fully embrace the agendas of either the Episcopal Right or the Episcopal Left. I genuinely struggle with these issues. I have no easy answers. I want to honor the rightful place of gay and lesbian Christians in the life of our Church. And at the same time, in compliance with my ordination vows, I want to uphold the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

I'm left with the sting of Jesus' words: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (Mark 8:34-35).


Jendi said...

Another good and thoughtful post. For me the question is not "how could Christ require this" but "why would he?" Faced with gay couples who are doing exactly what the church has always called straight people to do -- integrate their sexuality with love, commitment, monogamy and mutual submission -- why would we rip the sexual thread out of that tapestry and reopen the rift between body and soul? Why stereotype these relationships as primarily about sex? Not that you are doing this, Bryan, but that this is how the debate often proceeds.

Bryan+ said...

Hi Jendi. Thank you for this comment. You are quite right that the debate does, sadly, often proceed with stereotypes that say gay relationship are only about sex. That's WAY wrong, and I appreciate your calling that to attention.

I also appreciate your shifting from the question "How could Christ require this?" to "Why would Christ require this?" I think that brings into sharper focus the point that I struggle with, and a point that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with sex, which is: sometimes God asks us to give up something good - even something holy - as part of our lives of discipleship.

In other words, Christ might require a particular renunciation so that we are better able to keep him as the absolute center of our lives and our loyalties.

Sometimes the call to give up something good is very painful and even devastating. To answer that call would might mean adopting a way of the cross that entails much suffering.

For someone living through such an agonizing loss for the sake of Christ, I can only imagine that the words of the Collect for Fridays in Morning Prayer which asks that "walking the way of the cross, [we] may find it none other than the way of life and peace" may sound cruel (BCP, p. 99).

I don't have access to my library at the moment, but I seem to recall figures like Thomas Merton and Soren Kierkegaard (as well as others in the Christian tradition) making the point that Christ may ask us to give up more than we've bargained for as part of the cost of discipleship.

I think that's Eve Tushnet's point in her essay.

Although it's also worth pointing out that Jesus did not ask every single rich person he encountered to make the same sacrifice as he does in the passage Tushnet cites.

Jendi said...

Ditto to all that. C.S. Lewis says (in Mere Christianity, I think) that particular individuals may have to give up things that are generally good in themselves (food, sex, luxuries, etc.) if they were becoming idols or spiritual distractions for that person - but he adds that that is a very personal decision that we should hesitate to impose on anyone else, e.g. to leap from "no wine for me" to "no wine for anyone". It's the one-size-fits-all argument that bugs me - ALL gays must be celibate, regardless of the quality of their relationships or the place of sex in their lives. Human beings do love mechanical rules to make us feel good about ourselves!

bls said...

And why would this not apply equally to heterosexual Christians? Why are they not required to give up their holy relationships for something better?

Are married heterosexual Christians somehow "better able to keep him as the absolute center of our lives and our loyalties" than married gay Christians? How and why would that be true?

Bryan+ said...

I think the possibility of Christ requiring a particular renunciation applies equally to everyone who says yes to his call, "Follow me."

As I stated in my initial post, the question, "How could Christ require more?" haunts me for all Christians, regardless of sexual orientation or, I would also add, marital status.

And as I tried to clarify in my response to Jendi's comments, the possibility of such a required renunciation by no means applies only to the arena of physically intimate relationships. Indeed, the example of the rich young man cited by Eve Tushnet in her essay makes that point very well.

To paraphrase Bishop Wright, I think that most of us probably would like God to command what we already love and promise what we already desire. When it comes to this longing for an easier, softer way (what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"), we can't single out any particular individuals or groups for special censure. Rather, it is a characteristic of fallen humanity in general (cf. Romans 3:23).

So married heterosexuals aren't "better" at keeping Christ at the center than anybody else. It's a struggle for us all. And some of us - for reasons we cannot always fully understand - may be required to do or give up more than others along the way.

bls said...

Thanks for explaining, Fr. Bryan.

For myself, I found Rowan Williams' book, "Where God Happens" to be very helpful in terms of understanding what Christ requires You've probably read it - it's about the Desert Fathers and Mothers - but if you haven't, I'd really recommend it. I wrote a post about it, here, that includes some of the more interesting (to me) ideas, including this:

"Moses [the Black] is credited with a series of summary proverb-like sayings about the monastic life written for another great teacher, Abba Poemen, one of which seems to pick up the language of Anthony yet give it a twist that is at first sight very puzzling. 'The monk,' says Moses, 'must die to his neighbor and never judge him at all in any way whatsoever.' If our life and our death are with the neighbor, this spells out something of what our 'death' with the neighbor might mean: it is to renounce the power of judgment over someone else - a task hard enough indeed to merit being described as death. And the basis of this is elaborated in another of the Moses sayings: in reply to a brother who wants to know what it means to 'think in your heart that you are a sinner,' which is defined as another of the essentials of the monastic life, Moses says, 'If you are occupied with your own faults, you have no time to see those of your neighbor.'"

This is where we go wrong, IMO; the "more" that's required, I think, is continual self-examination and self-correction. It's a very difficult habit to acquire - and so is the habit of consciously refusing to look at one's neighbor's sins. I really think we have not begun to scratch the surface of what the Fathers and Mothers were talking about. See also this post, in which Kathleen Norris writes:

"Are monks wasting their time in seeking to convert themselves, and the world, from evil? Many have said so. For myself, I appreciate their realism about human beings confronted by evil, and the good sense that does not allow them to be easily fooled when evil attempts to disguise itself by adopting innocuous dress. Both the monks of the ancient tradition and contemporary monastics, it seems to me, have a refreshing sense of what really matters in human behavior. They know that the roots of sin are not to be found in the acts of gambling, drinking, dancing, smoking, playing dominos (an activity that got my grandfather Norris fired by a Methodist church in 1919), or even in adultery or fornication. Looking deeper, they recognize, as one monk said to me, a man who’d sown plenty of wild oats before entering a monastery, that “even though I gave up fornicating years ago, pride and anger are still with me.” Pride and anger were recognized by the desert monks as the most dangerous of their bad thoughts, and the most difficult to overcome. Abba Ammonas said, “I have spent fourteen years [in the desert] asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” "

Sorry to write such a long post! But this is something I feel pretty passionately about.

bls said...

(I think, IOW, that we are looking in the wrong place, generally speaking, when we look at the "gay" issue. That the focus on homosexuality is actually a means to avoid doing the hard stuff of conversion to Christ, which almost nobody accomplishes.

And conversion and dedication have very little to do with externals - like who a person loves and commits to - and everything to do with internals - how a person loves and commits.)

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for the comments and the great quotes and links. I've not read that particular Rowan Williams book - looks like one to put on my list.

Even as I struggle with how to come to terms with the disagreements that are currently dividing Christians on these (and other) issues, I fully agree with you that a focus on homosexuality can be way of avoiding ourselves, of bypassing the hard work of discipleship that all of us must be about. It's easy to pinpoint the sins and faults of others, and always much more difficult to honestly face our own.

bls said...

It's a great book!