The Pope and James Baldwin’s Joy of Love

Baldwin 2

Two big things happened last Friday. There was the obvious one: Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitae, “the Joy of Love,” his exhortation on love, sex, marriage, and the family, and a follow-up to the two-year Synodal process he inaugurated in October of 2014. Maybe you missed the other one: Literary Hub announced that the near-unanimous winner of its “Tournament of Literary Sex Writing” was James Baldwin, for a passage from Giovanni’s Room.

Those might seem unrelated to you. But try reading the end of Baldwin’s passage next to the words of Pope Francis.

First, Baldwin:

I started to move and to make some kind of joke but Joey mumbled something and I put my head down to hear. Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as it were, by accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.

Now Francis:

A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to the pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses. In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a ‘pure, unadulterated affirmation’ revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable.

What’s more, Francis writes that sex is “a kind of spontaneity” in which “the human person becomes a gift,” an “interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity,” leading to the kind of joy that is “an expansion of the heart.”

Is there a better illustration of Francis’ vision than Baldwin’s words? For Baldwin, sex is filled with spontaneity, wonder, joy; it’s both spiritual and frankly physical, an occasion for humor and vulnerability. It calls us to something better, even if we usually fall short of that call. In short, it’s an encounter of the most human kind. Exactly as Francis describes it.

Of course, Baldwin’s narrator, David, is remembering an experience with his (male) friend Joey, while Pope Francis dutifully recites the Synod Fathers’ insistence that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plans for marriage and the family.” But Baldwin’s writing echoes the examples of so many of our LGBT friends and neighbors, and, in Amoris Laetitae, Francis tells us that the examples of our friends and neighbors—more than general rules—are what precisely what we should be paying attention to.

It’s pretty easy to see why William Saletan writes that when Catholic teaching on homosexuality collapses, even if that’s centuries from now, “the church will quote passages from ‘Amoris Laetitae’ and documents like it.” Next to examples like Baldwin’s, the Synod Fathers’ words are weak as straw.

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The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 3

“The poem itself shows what [the poet] is trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem—for evidence of intention that did not become effective in the poem.” (Wimsatt & Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy”)

“It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.” (Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”)

This is part 3 of a group of posts I’m writing in response to a discussion thread on Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble. Read parts 1 & 2 here and here.

Today I want to address a couple of questions Leila asked me late in that exchange. She asked:

“What do you think the Church wrote the Creeds for? For what purpose and under what circumstances?”

And:

“I gave you evidence that your church is fine with subjective interpretations of the Creeds. This is the opposite of what the writers intended. Why not answer?”

And then:

“The Creeds were written to put down heresy. To say that (for one example) it’s okay to think of Jesus’ resurrection as metaphorical is a heresy. Again, the very purpose of the Creeds was/is to be precise and objective.”

I.

I answered Leila’s questions about why the Episcopal Church doesn’t enforce a single reading of the Creeds, and how the church teaches the truth of the Creeds, in part 2. But there are big problems with Leila’s questions themselves, with the assumptions behind them. One is what we call in literary studies the “intentional fallacy”—that is, the assumption that if we know what the authors of a text intended, we know the correct interpretation of that work.

We can’t fully know an author’s intention, first of all—the authors themselves might not even fully know their own intentions. And that has to go double for a text that we believe to have been divinely inspired. Even worse: by falling into the intentional fallacy we denigrate the text. We say that the piece of writing—in this case the Creeds—is insufficient, and that its real meaning has to be found outside of the text, in history books or archives. In other words, we say that the writers of the text—again, in this case, the Creeds—didn’t say what they meant. Or that they failed in saying what they meant.  

II.

But okay. Let’s put that aside.

Let’s say Leila is absolutely right and that’s all there is to it: the Creed-writers intended to put down heresy. Well, let’s look at the text. How did they do that? Did they, as Leila suggests, turn to precision and objectivity? Did they elaborate on the logic of their position?

No.

In fact, the specific heresy that spurred the writing of the Nicene Creed was Arianism, which itself springs from logic and literalism. Arius took the perfectly reasonable position that, if God is the Father and Jesus is the Son, then God must have come first, and therefore Jesus is subordinate to God the Father. That’s what “father” and “son” mean, right?

But this relies on a too-literal understanding of the notion that God is a father. It puts too much faith in the ability of our language to capture the reality of God.

So how did the Creed-writers address it? By diving into metaphor. By using words to point to something beyond words. Which means, yes, beyond logic.

I mean, I’m thirty-four years old and I’ve been saying the Nicene Creed my whole life. I still have no idea how to make sense of the idea that Jesus is both the Son of God and eternally co-existent with the Father. I don’t get how Jesus can be fully man and fully divine. Those things do not make sense. They do not. No amount of explanation can make them make sense.

The only answer I have is “because He’s God,” which, while correct, is not a logical answer. (It’s not illogical, either. It’s beyond logic.) The whole Creed is like that: it even starts by saying that God is one—then it proceeds to explain that God is three.

Actually, explain is the wrong word. It says. Because the Nicene Creed doesn’t explain anything. It sets down what can’t be explained—at least not without diminishing it

Which is not to say that we’re not sometimes justified in diminishing it, in breaking it down. The metaphor of the father, for example, is useful for me because when I think of my own father I can easily understand God’s grace. But that’s just one aspect of God, and if I start to think that because I understand a father’s love I must therefore understand God, well, then I’ve messed up.

The point isn’t that interpretation doesn’t matter—the point is that interpretation is, by definition, partial (and, therefore, partially wrong), and therefore it has to rank below the larger, deeper meaning of the words themselves.

III.

Nor is that to say we can’t know the truth of the Creeds. But we know them with the knowledge of faith, which is something different than the knowledge we get from logical proofs.

Here’s another way of thinking about it:

The Creeds don’t “answer” the questions of faith the way a mathematics teacher demonstrates arithmetic. They “answer” them the way the return to the tonic in a blues progression answers the tensions raised by the sub-dominant and the dominant chords.

And we don’t assent to them the way we assent to our mathematics teacher after she shows us how to count on our fingers. We assent to them the way our heads start nodding to a blues song. When you say “Amen,” it is, or should be, the way you answer Freddie King when he says, “Let me hear you say yeah.

It’s not 1 + 1 = 2. It’s I-IV-V-I.

IV.

When I write that, I know that it instantly makes sense to some readers. I also know that it’s deeply unsatisfying to others.

I know that some people want the kind of certainty that you’re not supposed to find in matters of faith, and so, like Leila, they start arguing that their faith is objective. Not just the object of their faith, mind you, but their way of knowing that object. They start trying to find logical proofs for their beliefs. Like Sontag says about art, this is an attempt to tame the object of our faith, to make it manageable, conformable.

But I’m with Pope Francis, who recognizes that this impulse leads to bad things. It leads a person to dismiss any evidence that challenges his or her preconceived worldview—even though those challenges might expand that worldview. It leads a person to say that he or she “thinks with the mind of the Church,” even though I doubt even Pope Francis would make that claim. It leads people to spread nasty falsehoods about groups of people like, for example, that half of gay marriages are non-monogamous, or that the lifespan of gay people is twenty years shorter than that of straight people, or that homosexuality is caused by bad or abusive parenting.

It leads to bad things because it is a bad thing: it’s an attempt to sidestep the fundamental uncertainty of the human condition, a refusal to face the truth of what it means to be a person.

And when you can’t face the truth, you don’t tell the truth.

V.

I sympathize, though. I really do. One of my questioners on Leila’s site asked me “Where’s the peace in that?” Where’s the peace in uncertainty?

This is how the Episcopal service ends: “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: And the Blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.

The Peace of God is supposed to be outside of our understanding—it passeth all understanding. That’s faith.

 

2 Footnotes

Two quick follow-ups to my last post on the Episcopal Church:

1. Good timing!

The Episcopal Church is one where the notion that “doubt is an element of faith” has taken hold—we celebrate the feast day of Soren Kierkegaard, for pete’s sake! Just as I was trying to explain that in terms in terms the Catholic Right might relate to, Kyle Cupp was writing this in The Week: “Pope Francis Wants Catholics to Doubt the Church. He’s Right.”

Building on some of the same quotes I used, Cupp explains:

If God really is infinite and indescribable, as Catholicism and other religious traditions imagine, then an uncertain faith makes sense. At the end of the day, those who talk about God really do not know what they’re talking about. People refer to God with symbols and metaphors, stories and analogies, believing that these limited expressions disclose a limitless reality, but even if these expressions are true, they nonetheless differ infinitely from any infinite being. Undoubtedly, a lot gets lost in translation.

And then: “Aquinas wrote a lot about God, but he later likened it all to straw. This is the religious condition.”

Finally, Cupp concludes:

As Damon Linker has argued, the pope is unlikely to make any major doctrinal revisions given his personality and the institutional limits on the papacy, but simply by encouraging doubt as a necessary aspect of life in the church, he’s reminded Christians that, for them, truth is a person and not a set of formulas. In light of this, the development of doctrine should be welcomed, not feared. Especially if it brings a little uncertainty.

2. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum…

Bruce Allen Murphy has released a new biography of Catholic Right leading man Antonin Scalia. Dahlia Lithwick reviews it in The Atlantic, noting that “Murphy does not shrink from adjudicating Scalia’s dueling public claims: that separating faith from public life is impossible and, at the same time, that he himself has done just that on the Court.”

She continues, “Murphy’s conclusion—at once obvious and subversive—is that Justice Scalia is very much the product of his deeply held Catholic faith. The pristine border between faith and jurisprudence is largely myth and aspiration.”

There’s a certain irony in that, since Scalia is, in many ways, the Anti-Francis.

Lithwick fixes on the term “self-certainty” to describe Scalia’s attitude, and so does Andrew Cohen, in his review of Murphy’s book in The Week. In fact, Cohen calls Scalia “High Priest of the Church of the Doubtless.” That’s an appellation that could never, ever be applied to Pope Francis.

Back to Scalia. Cohen writes:

I believe that this “absolute certainty,” this lack of doubt, is the antithesis of judging. I want my judges, especially my judges who judge all the other judges, to be tortured by the cases and causes that come before them, to pause and be pained by the choices they are making. For no matter how hard Scalia and his fellow travelers have tried to convince me that “originalism” or “original intent” are worthy doctrines because they do not generate subjective choices, the more I am convinced that the opposite is true.

Further, Cohen points out, “there is growing evidence, in Murphy’s book and beyond, that Scalia’s voting record on the bench is not the result of some inexorable (and humbling) application of neutral principles but rather a continuation of the partisan dogma the man has accumulated during his decades of political life in Washington.”

Scalia’s “objectivity” is make-believe. That’s worth keeping in mind as you try to reconcile the Catholic Right’s general claims of objectivity with their constant distortions of the truth and evasion of the facts.

 

More Credit Where Credit is Due

Some more great responses to the Pope’s interview from the Catholic Right:

First, at catholicvote.org, Tom Hoopes on “The Hard Way of Pope Francis”:

That’s why I call it the Hard Way of Pope Francis.

To follow it means to go from suffering-averse to cross-centered; from profligate spending to budgeted generosity; from “father knows best” to “mother is here.”  It can be done, but it can’t be done painlessly. More than that, it has to be done. As Pope Francis himself summed it up in Rio:

“With these two things you have the action plan: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25.  You do not need to read anything else.”

To remind you: The Beatitudes say to be poor, misused and meek, and Matthew 25 says you’ll go to hell if you don’t (and heaven if you do!).

And then, Stacy Trasancos at her blog, answering Katha Pollitt at The Nation:

How do you feel about the Pope saying these issues have been over emphasized?

I understand it as a mother, a mother who was an unmarried pregnant teenager once, a mother who used contraception, a mother who once aborted a child, a mother who put a career before all else, a mother who is a sinner.

My daughter became a pregnant teenager too. By then I thought it was “necessary to talk about these issues all the time” and to warn her because I didn’t want her to make the bad choices I made in my youth. I did not see her as a person in a greater context. By overemphasizing issues, I failed to love my daughter in a personal way.

She ran away from home, and suffered more bad relationships because she was looking for the love she needed.

Seven years later, our relationship is healed and we are close because I learned to “come into contact in a personal way with the person I have before me.” She learned she could trust me. I think Pope Francis is telling us to remember to love people and not just focus on issues,”We must always consider the person.”

The Church is a mother.

On Friday, Andrew Sullivan noted that the theocon denial over the import of Francis’ comments was dissipating in some quarters. He highlighted George Neumayr’s argument that Francis needs to be “corrected”. I think it’s at least as important to point out these excellent, self-searching reactions.  

Best Response to the Papal Interview (from a member of the Catholic Right)

For the record, I was going to write something nice about Emily Stimpson before this whole papal interview explosion. I attacked her twice recently (here and here), but she has been absolutely killing it in her last two columns—by killing it I mean writing the kind of piece that got me reading (and returning to) the very right-wing catholicvote.org in the first place.

First, there was this eminently share-able column on “grace hacks”. Then there wasthis piece on “having it all”. Hear me out! Yes, the mommy wars is a tired topic, and yes, Stimpson takes a predictably conservative line. “I do think women are fooling themselves,” she says, “if they think the work they do outside the home matters more than the work they do inside the home.” 

But just before that, she writes:

Ultimately, like Corey, I think every woman has to decide for herself where she’s called and how she can best find the balance between her personal and professional life. I also know plenty of women who firmly believe they’re better mothers for the time they spend at their professional work. I take (most of) them at their word.

The two things she does in that paragraph—acknowledging individual difference and agreeing to take those who disagree with her at their word—are like two of the golden rules of discourse. Because she refuses to set sides against each other, she makes us (even those of us who disagree with her) way more willing to listen to her argument, which in this case comes from pretty moving personal testimony.

So, again, I was already planning to write something nice about Stimpson in this space. 

Then, boom. Pope Francis talked to Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and the whole world had to decide how to react, and Stimpson chose the very best way.

In a column entitled “Is Francis Talking to Me?”, she writes:

I’m also coming to see that my task isn’t to worry about the words that were there for everyone else. My task is to focus on the words that were there for me. It’s to re-read every last line and ask at their conclusion, ‘Is Francis talking to me?’

Amen. The post is absolutely worth reading in its entirety.