One of the privileges of studying theology within the clerical formation programs of the Catholic Church is that you get to study philosophy first. For at least three years. This can seem interesting and exciting when you’re immersed in it—it certainly hones the intellect for debate. At other times it can seem soul-crushing and destroying—what has this nitpicking linguistic analysis got to do with preparing me to preach the gospel? In retrospect, the true extent of the privilege becomes clearer: when it comes time to study theology, the pupil has been primed to interpret, to be able to remove words and concepts from the meaning foisted on them by the gut, to separate them from their inherited baggage and to begin to detect where contemporary religious ideology and real thought might begin to diverge, and how to follow the latter.
We cannot help but create Jesus in our own image, because all our knowledge, always, is projective, as humans – I think that this is simply part of who we are. What is very difficult, therefore, is to allow ourselves to be ‘broken out of’ our own reflexive criteria – and that is why, it seems to me, there is an important space for, precisely, those, if you like, ‘monuments’ to ‘something-else-happening-here’ which is what, I think, the text of Scripture and, and the doctrinal crystallisations, at their very best, serve to do – they serve to say, ‘if you step over here and make this too tame, you will end up only with yourself’.
I’d like to start by comparing two stories. The second, just to show catholicity of taste, and in case there are any adults present, will be Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice; but the first is DreamWorks 2005 film Shark Tale….
So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that “wrath” is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building “over against” another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.
My guess is that when you heard the word “Discipleship” in the title of this conference, and of this lecture, you intuited, for however brief an instant, that it was “Christian Discipleship” or “Discipleship of Christ” that was to be discussed. And, at least as far as this talk goes, you were right. But isn’t it strange that a word which is in itself object-neutral has come to acquire a quick-flash association with Christ? In principle, at least, discipleship could be of any model at all: Ho Che Minh, Ethel Rosenberg, Marian Anderson or Saladin. What is odd is that because the followers of Christ are called his disciples, so discipleship has come to be particularly associated with him, as though there is a special form of religious following called discipleship which is an especially good thing and different from any other form of following. Well, my hunch is that when ordinary words become “religious”, it is time to take them to the laundry. Because what has usually happened is that they are being taken out of their normal field of application in interpersonal relationships and given a patina of specialness. This “special” quality then often mystifies at least as much as it illuminates.
Ethics without grace tends to moralism; and the shape, the pattern of grace, which informs ethics is a far subtler matter, and one much more difficult to pin down, than we usually attend to. So I’m going to try to offer you something in the way of prefatory remarks about the shape of grace which is revealed to us through the presence of Our Lady.
Well, I hope you can see why I was surprised by the question “Is it ethical to be Catholic?” Being Catholic for me has meant discovering myself on the inside of something where God and many wonderful people are doing things for me long before I can manage to do anything minimally presentable for others. The relationship between being Catholic and ethics is not a straightforward one, and I would like to give you a brief reminder of its strangeness before turning to look at how this impacts the queer perspectives which you have invited me to discuss.
So, at last we have come to the place of reconciliation in all this. I hope you can see why I took the scenic route rather than plunging straight in. I wanted to make it clear that for us the first and root meaning of reconciliation is not an ethical demand. In the understanding of the Christian faith, it is first of all something which has triumphantly happened in a sphere more real than ours, and which is tilting our universe on a new axis, whether or not we understand it. This means that what we think of as real, as stable and as ordered is not so, and what is real and true and ordered and stable is not what is behind us, but what we can become as we learn to undergo being set free from our imprisonment in what we might call “social order lived defensively”.
Now here is the crucial point: it is from this premise of the free-standing second teaching concerning the objective disorder of what you and I call being gay that everything else in this document flows. And yet that teaching is here presented in the most muted form I have seen it in a recent Roman document. It is almost as if some of the many higher authorities which have reviewed this document before allowing this particular dicastery to publish it might be saying something rather like this:
The virtue of fear of God is little mentioned nowadays , but I would like to bring it back into our discourse. I invoke it because typically those who enter into some sort of moral discussion imagine that we are starting off from the standpoint of the good guys. Those who are moved by fear of God fear lest our own irresponsibility, our own hardness of heart and defect of vision perhaps be carrying us down a route that is too easy, one that is ever more free of voices which question and challenge us. So fear of God obliges us to a certain athletic tension with respect to our own way, lest it lead us into disaster.
I’m going to look at a rather odd phrase of St Paul’s in his Epistle to the Galatians. It comes at Galatians 3:10: For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.”
I would like to offer as a resource for our discussion here what I hope will turn out to be a straightforward presentation of what one might call the old-fashioned or traditional view typical of Christian theology. Namely that what we call evil is a non-thing, something which is properly speaking uncaused and inexplicable, incomprehensibly parasitic on reality. I am not only going to attempt to present this, but will also try and defend it, since it is the theological approach to this matter which I believe to be true, and I think that the psychological consequences flowing from it, and the psychological consequences of ignoring it are very weighty indeed.
The best analogy I know for Transubstantiation – the conversion, after consecration, of the substance of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – is the phenomenon of “Magic Eye” images. These are glossy, colourful, two-dimensional pictures of what appear to be a series of wavy lines or patterns. For the viewer to get the “magic” effect, they should gaze upon the picture for some time, allowing the eyes to relax. At first there is a moment of dizziness as the stereoscopic functions of the brain kick in, trying to make sense of the two-dimensional surface, then, sometimes helped by the viewer moving the picture towards, or away from, the eyes, suddenly a three dimensional image is apparent. It has no necessary relationship at all to the content of the wavy lines or patterns. Indeed the wavy patterns simply yield and become the contours of, for instance, three dolphins leaping out of the water.
I’d like to know your reaction to what happened last year to Jeffrey John. As you know, he was appointed Anglican bishop of Reading, but because he is gay (though evidently celibate), there was a huge reaction from evangelicals, and he was forced to decline.
JA: I think that what the evangelicals got right and the liberals didn’t understand is that the appointment of Jeffrey John, an openly gay man, as a bishop was a de facto change of doctrine. I think it was desirable, but still, a de facto change of doctrine was sprung on people as though it were simply a matter of increased honesty.
Staggered Vision. It’s what we get today in the gospel. In order to begin to make sense of what must be one of the most mysterious passages of writing anywhere, I’d like to try and fill in some of the background context. The background context is best known as Holy Saturday, one of my favourite days of the year. We had it yesterday. I think it’s my favourite day of the year because I’m essentially lazy, and it’s the day when God rests. All the readings and psalms are about God resting. And the reason why God rests is because on Good Friday he accomplished everything, he finished creation. He entered into death and made it untoxic. So on Holy Saturday a great quietness is over the earth, because of course, no-one else knows about this yet. It’s the great quietness of creation having been completed, of death no longer being the enemy of the creatures, but something that can be lived through and in, as part of being a creature. It’s death occupied by God. It’s where he fulfils what he says in Isaiah 25, which we get to hear echoes of in today’s gospel. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever. (Is 25:7)
God’s not out to get you. He’s not trying to dragoon you into shape. He wants to enjoy you, to dwell with you. So he’s got many mansions, many dwelling places. He’s going to turn you into those dwelling places. Relax. Don’t be paranoid. And don’t think he’s out to get you. I’m going to show you that, by inhabiting death. You see, whenever in John’s gospel Jesus says: “I must go”; or “Where I am going”, this is Johanine code for: “I am going to death. I am going to inhabit death in such a way that it will be an empty trophy, and you will start to see the love, the generosity, the self-giving that went into making that available, so that you need no longer to be frightened of it. That’s because I’m not here to do a magic trick. I’m not here to wave a magic wand so as to “save” you. I’m here because the Father, the Creator, wants to get through to you to involve you in being part of creation from within. He knows that you’re so frightened of dying that you are refusing to take part. So actually, by my inhabiting death for you, the possibility is going to be opened up for you no longer to be frightened; and because of that, to dare to start to create things, and to do even greater works than the ones I have done, because the Creator will be able to work through you, opening up new things that none of you have been able to imagine yet. Many mansions that we don’t know about.”