Thomas Aquinas

So, I'm traveling in New York right now (saw the _fabulous_ Fra Angelico exhibit at the Met this afternoon, more on that after I've had some more time to reflect), but wanted to send a quick shout-out as the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas passes us. Patron of theologians, who knew better than anyone else both how much our theology can say about God and how little our theology really does say about God, pray for us!


Benedict, Eros, Agape, and Desire

I hope that by now you've had a chance to read Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, hot off the Vatican presses yesterday. (Printer-friend version here. Latin version here.) If not, you're a bad, bad catholic. (Just kidding.) (But not really.)

It's actually a pretty good piece of theology (shocker, I know, coming from Ratzinger). It also throws a wrench into the ability of the mass media to find something controversial and divisive in the encyclical to make the nightly news. You could hear the frustration in some of the online news headlines ("Pope Calls for Spiritual Love and Charity" [Reuters], "Pope Provides Meditation on Love" [NY Times]). Not to mention the plaintive A.P. headline, "Pope Warns About Loveless Sex". It's as if they were waiting for something vicious and nasty, and instead got "Pope Against the Kicking of Puppies"...

Those most likely to have a difficult time receiving this document are Catholic high school religion teachers, whose lesson plans have just been uprooted by a stroke of Benedict's pen. For many years now, especially post-C.S.Lewis and The Four Loves, distinguishing eros and agape pretty sharply has been a commonplace way of showing the distinctiveness of Christian, self-giving love, and self-seeking, sexual love. While there are many good religion teachers who have appreciated and taught the nuances of this distinction (my friend Brad is, no doubt, one of them), less ambitious minds have found the dichotomy "eros=bad, agape=good" rather helpful in making their point and keeping the 15-year-old hormone factories in their charge in check.

But Benedict breaks that open, bringing to the fore the quite traditional Christian teaching that God not only loves agapically, but erotically. That's right: the Panzercardinal spends time talking about "God's eros for man", bringing back into the discussion the passion of God's desire for people that is a commonplace in Hosea, Ezekiel, the Song of Songs, etc... Part of my current research is questioning the enduring value of imagining Israel and/or the church as the "Bride of Christ", rooted as that image is in troubling conceptions of who a bride is in relation to her husband. But one value of that image that we lose from our theology and ecclesiology at our peril is the intense passion of a God who not only loves us "because God has to", but who actually desires us, wants us, pursues us, with all of the energy of an 18-year-old. In the words of James Alison, God not only "loves" us in the disinterested sense of our attempts to love our annoying neighbors, God also likes us, is fascinated by us, wants us, even, as one skirts the point where anthropomorphism gets dangerous, has the hots for us. If the dirty little secret about opera those blue-haired ladies are hiding is that it's all about sex and violence, but just happens to be in Italian, then the dirty little secret about prayer and the spiritual life that the mystics have shouted and that Benedict rolls out here at the beginning of his pontificate is that the spiritual life is all about being in touch with desire, deep-seated, erotic desire, for God.

Now, this passionate desire, as Benedict, good Augustinian that he is, points out, is joined with agapic, self-giving love; those looking for the "catch" will begin rolling their eyes upon reading that eros must be formed and joined with love that wants the good for the other. But even our popular culture recognizes the eros without a willingness to sacrifice doesn't quite "count" as love in its full sense (go rent "Moulin Rouge" again to see how a love that is willing to sacrifice still remains our romantic ideal). Most of us likely expected Benedict to say something like that about making sure that we temper eros with agape. But a few pages in he states just as clearly that it would be just as wrong to have agape without eros. "Man [sic] cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive." (7) And while I have some reservations about the linkage of this dynamic with exclusively heterosexual relations of eros and agape, this encyclical provides a much more human, much more humble analysis of our abilities to love each other well than, say, John Paul's theology of the body and his impression of married love as a bed of roses cushioning two egos as they stare into each others' eyes for eternity.

I'm particularly attentive right now to the way in which desire forms such a solid foundation for understanding our relationships with God and with each other in part due to my reading of James Alison. Alison suggests that it's the Tridentine affirmation of the goodness of human desire that makes the a priori dismissal of same-sex desire so un-catholic, and the church's teaching on same-sex activity so unstable, both theoretically and in the broader reactions of the faithful to gay and lesbian relations. But I'm also currently blessed to be entering into an "Ignatian Spirituality in Everyday Life" retreat (the 19th annotation, for you Ignatian geeks) right now, which is focusing my prayer life more and more on the desire for God, and the tuning of my desires and will with God's desires and will. (Which Benedict discusses in this way: as our communion of will with God increases, "our will and God's will increasingly coincide: God's will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will..." [17]). In the version of the Exercises I'm using for this prayer, the author describes spiritual freedom as being "seized so completely by the love of God that all the desires of my heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts and decisions which flow from them are directed to God." The secret of Ignatian prayer is rooted in this Tridentine teaching that Alison keeps returning to: our desires aren't a distraction from God, our desires are how we begin to draw closer to God. My eros for life, for enjoyment, for love, and, to be bold, for my partner, are, when flourishing, not divorced from my eros for God but are a sacrament of my eros of God.

We've long talked in the Christian community about agape in this way; that agapic love of neighbor is the way we come to agapic love of God (see, for example, 1 John 4:20). But where we tend to get a little more hesitant is in thinking that erotic love, the love of desire, can be the way we come to erotic love of God. Obviously, this is easily misunderstood, which is why we don't pass out copies of John of the Cross during the first week of catechesis at the R.C.I.A. But Benedict is putting it out there. And you thought this was going to be an entirely conservative pontificate!!!


Coming Next Week: Deus Caritas Est

Benedict's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is going to be released a week from today, on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, which ends the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. (Though it will likely be pre-dated for some time last year.) Get your highlighters now, the stores could be out of them by Wednesday...

Brief mention of yours truly re: James Alison

in an article from InNewsweekly, one of the weekly lgbt papers here in Boston. (I'm identified by my initials...) I help coordinate the lgbt and friends group over at the Paulist Center, which is where I know the author.

Also, if you happen to be in the Boston area, James Alison will be giving a talk and workshop at the Jesuit Urban Center on February 3rd and 4th. More info at the Jesuit Urban Center website.

The Vatican and Creationism

Many will remember the controversy last July over remarks by Christoph Cardinal Schoerborn regarding evolution, widely interpreted in this country as an endorsement of intelligent design. The more intelligent vaticanistas remarked that this was less likely to be an entry into the American political scene than a response to someone's personal research, interest, or gripe with secularist issues in Europe -- in other words, creationists in Kansas weren't even on the good Cardinal's radar.

As if in confirmation, yesterday's edition of L'Osservatore Romano, (also here in the NY Times article) the newspaper which is to the Vatican as Pravda was to the party, labeling intelligent design as "ideology" rather than science. I would imagine there had been not-so-happy rumblings in the hallways of the eternal city about the difficulties, or perhaps the sheer tastelessness, of becoming identified with the creationist parties in the United States. I'd bet money that the article will be selected for the weekly English-language edition, and will post a link if and when that happens.


Brokeback Mountain, the U.S. Bishops, and Natural Law

So, why haven't you written a post about Brokeback Mountain, BP? Well, I've been trying to find the right angle.

First off, I'm an easy cry, so when I saw the movie on Christmas night with the bf, it turned into a tissue-fest. But that was to be expected. Now, some people have been criticizing the movie for being too superficial. I tend to agree that this is not one of the most brilliant films of the early 21st century. It's a good story, it's well-acted, it has some twists at the end that make you start choking up (ok, that made me start choking up at least), but timeless film? Not so much. I think the excitement of seeing a true-to-life gay tragic romance might have clouded some reviewers opinions; then again, given the usual quality of many gay films, that might explain the appreciation...but that's a rant for another posting.

Two items to bring this into conversation with Catholic theology (you knew that I was going to do that, that's why you check this blog out, ya big silly....).

1) There's an interesting metadiscussion happening with regard to the movie reviews of the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the organizational wing of the bishops in the U.S. Yes, Virginia, the U.S. Bishops' office reviews movies and television shows to evaluate their content and appropriateness for Catholic audiences. Remember the "A-I", "A-IV", and "O" ratings of the Legion of Decency? Well, they still exist, and now have their own 800 number (1-800-311-4222). You can check out reviews of upcoming movies, released videos, and television programs online. Now, as hokey as this might sound to some ears, I think this would be a good resource to some parents, and, I must confess, I often find the reviews quite good. Not as snarky as the Times or New Yorker, but willing to make some snide remarks, in defense sometimes of church teaching, but also against bad filmaking. For example, the review of "Chicken Little":

Disappointing computer-animated comedy adventure based on the classic nursery rhyme about a little chick (voiced by Zach Braff) who, after humiliating himself by sounding the alarm that the sky is falling, gets a chance to save face -- and his hometown -- when his apocalyptic announcement later proves true. Directed by Mark Dindal, the movie's vibrant, through unremarkable, animation goes for a more 3-D look, but the flat story and characterizations lack much emotion, charm or wit, undercutting the film's warm themes of family bonds and believing in oneself. A-I -- general patronage.

So what's interesting is that Brokeback Mountain receives quite a positive review. So positive, apparently, that some people were/are upset. Originally given an "L" for "limited adult audience" ("A-IV" for those of you who survived the League of Decency's best efforts to protect you...), the office eventually changed the rating to an "O" after protests, but kept the review itself intact. There's a good review of some of the issues involved over at Right Wing Film Geek, and, for your enjoyment, a comparison of the USCCB review of Brokeback with the Passion of the Christ, with numerous sodomy-related comments, over at Seattle Catholic. Just another helpful reminder of the multiplicity of Catholic viewpoints. If the old tag "unus christianus, nullus christianus" is true, then part of being one of those christiani involves learning how to have these discussions, rather than shutting ourselves off into hermetically sealed boxes. And learning to agree that "Chicken Little" is drivel.

2) I haven't seen this in print anywhere yet, so here goes my take on Brokeback's theological anthropology: Brokeback Mountain, besides being a romantic tragedy set in a beautiful landscape, is also a natural law argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. The not-so-subtle entree into this position is the slogan at the bottom of the ads: "Love is a Force of Nature". One can notice that all of the bad things that happen in the film -- the adultery, the alcohol abuse, the materialism, the dishonesty, the hurt that comes not only to these two men but to those in their lives -- comes about not because they're in a same-sex relationship, but because they're in a same-sex relationship but trying their dardnest not to be. If, as many gay people, particularly gay men, describe their experience, their homosexuality is something discovered as a part of them, rather than a choice or a deviation from heterosexuality, then a good Thomist, if (and this is a big "if"), if she were open to hearing that first premise and accepted it as probable, then it makes sense to follow one's nature where it leads into human flourishing.

Now, an argument of this type still concerned to be in agreement with church teaching on sexual acts might see this simply as a caveat not to become involved in heterosexual relationships, since that would be against one's nature, but would also remain hesistant to endorse same-sex relations - but due not a natural law argument rooted in gay persons' experiences, but an a priori dismissal of same-sex acts as inherently sinful. Another natural law argument can be made that, like all sexuality, same-sex desire can be fruitful or can be harmful; open discussion of what constitutes fruitfulness or harmfulness, and, for the Christian, of how Christ's grace can begin to heal that desire and bring it into the Gospel's light of fidelity to God. Readers of James Alison will find this idea familiar.

I tend to think this latter argument has merit, and while submitting it to review and criticism by a wider public and by my church, I have also found it helpful in guiding my own relationship and helping me to begin to imagine and attend to how Christ is acting in my life to heal my ability to relate with others and with him in part by healing my ability to relate authentically and in holiness with my partner. Whether you find that convincing or not, it's sociologically interesting that the idea of same-sex desire as a "force of nature" and the danger inherent in trying to suppress that desire is so much a part of the zeitgeist at this point that that aspect of the film has received relatively little attention in the public sphere; people are more nervous about Heath and Jake "doin' it" than they are about the idea that same-sex desire is something natural.


Impostor Syndrome

There's an article here on the usual academic phenomenon of feeling that everyone around one knows more, and that at any moment one will be found out to be an impostor.
I spent many hours of therapy discussing this, and instead I could have just gone to a high-priced workshop?

In seriousness, though, one of the best things about my academic department (in comparison with other departments I've heard horror stories from, say, from certain divinity schools on my current side of the river...) is the degree to which we have in the past been able to have frank conversations about our relative abilities and about how inadequate many of us feel. Having a group conversation in which you figured out the people you were most intimidated by were just as intimidated by you. So, while real collaboration may be difficult in academic environments, it can happen. Granted, none of us was going for tenure at the time...