On Taking Sex Seriously

Photo by Flickr user Stew Dean

For a long time, the argument about the supposedly sexually repressive nature of Catholicism went like this: Sex is a powerful, beautiful, and deeply important part of human life; to ask us to deny our sexual impulses is to ask us to deny a transformative part of human experience. It’s a critique at work in some of the most important literature of the last century: it’s in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in D.H. Lawrence’s oeuvre. It was what “Make love not war” meant when it was still possible to say such things without irony; a time when “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” was understood as tied to meaningful—even transcendent—experiences and before all three were rendered innocuous, and utterly free of intrinsic meaning, by that little adjective “recreational.”

In recent years, however, the critique has shifted. It says, in short, “What’s the big deal?” I recall reading the combox of a Catholic blog a year ago and, while I no longer remember either the blog or the post, I remember coming upon a comment that went something like this: “The problem is that you Catholics take sex so seriously.* It’s just not that huge of a thing.” The comment unsettled me, but it’s taken me some time to figure out why. In an unexpected turn of events, the Church is suddenly the D.H. Lawrence of the world. That is to say, it’s one of the last places you can find where sex is still understood as a potent and transformative part of being a human being.**

In his biography of St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton diagnosed what he saw as the dangers of his own age:

The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago. […] We know what sort of sentimental associations are called up to us by the phrase “a garden”; and how we think mostly of the memory of melancholy and innocent romances, or quite as often of some gracious maiden lady or kindly old parson pottering under a yew hedge, perhaps in sight of a village spire. Then, let any one who knows a little Latin poetry recall suddenly what would once have stood in place of the sun-dial or the fountain, obscene and monstrous in the sun; and of what sort was the god of their gardens.

Chesterton’s horror at the worship of sex in an ancient society which arranged even its garden landscapes around the potency of a phallus seems downright quaint now—not because we’re now “enlightened” enough to know that such explicitness is not “obscene and monstrous,” but because the Greeks and Romans still found sex, found somethingworthy of worship. Temple prostitution may—and should—strike the Christian as perverse, but one can’t help but say “But at least they had temples.” Even if sex, as Chesterton puts it, became a “tyrant” and crowded out anything else, at least its tyranny was still understood as “sacred.”

What we have now is something much darker than what Chesterton shuddered at: it’s not that we worship sex but that we’ve lost an understanding of what it even means to worship. That is to say, we’ve lost an understanding of what it would mean to consider anything—even our own desires—as something that transcends us, as something beyond a mere possession of the self. To worship is to recognize that there’s something beyond your self worth acknowledging. For the ancients to place a phallus in the middle of their gardens was, in quite a literal way, to take something that appears to be a possession of the self and to put it outside the self, to make it (again literally) larger than the self.

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To Seem The Stranger Lies My Lot

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TO seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

-Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

I re-read the Hopkins poem reproduced above a couple of days ago, when I was in Barnes and Noble buying my mother a small copy of Hopkins for Christmas. While my dissertation writing has not yet reached the chapters addressing Hopkins, he’s still managed to haunt me over Winter Break. Hopkins wrote this poem during one of his recurrent depressive episodes, which became particularly acute when he left his native England to work as a teacher in Ireland. Born and raised in the Church of England, Hopkins’s conversion to Catholicism distanced him from his family and his native country. But Hopkins also felt removed from the national cradle Catholicism of Ireland—and the beginning rumblings of Irish nationalism further drove a wedge between the British Hopkins and his Irish students and colleagues.

I think it is this sort of existential homelessness that makes me particularly responsive to Hopkins’s work and to his biography. Hopkins’s queerness extends far beyond his sexuality: he was never quite in step with anyone but himself, a fact that even the strange rhythms of his poetry bears witness to. I also never quite fit at home: either with my parents (I’m an only child) or, more largely, in the varied Southern towns that I grew up in. I was always a touch too cosmopolitan, my parents’ house a bit too nice, and I far-more-than-a-touch too politically liberal to fit with the people I knew there. But when I went away to school (which, in the seemingly endless train of my higher education, has involved three schools), I never quite fit there either. In my current Ivied digs, I’m not quite well-rounded enough to fit, too religious, too conservative, and from too little money. Parts of me fit wonderfully into the little mini-lives I’ve managed to cultivate. There are folks that I can be quite comfortably “academic” with and there are folks that I can be quite comfortably “religious” with, but there are precious few with which I can be comfortably both. As a result, it’s difficult for me to fully articulate my relationship to either identity, since for me they’ve always been intertwined.

At one level, of course, it’s all very frustrating. At another level, though, I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t also benefits to inhabiting the inside-outside perspective. There are, perhaps, things that those of us who have always been “strangers” can both see and make seen that others can’t. As I’ve been mulling this idea over the past couple of months, a few items in the Catholic blogosphere have helped me along.

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7 Quick Takes, er, Quotes

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I’ve been MIA on the blog for some time now (though, on the plus side, I have managed to finish my dissertation prospectus, and I’m halfway through a draft of chapter 1!). But while I’ve been neglecting my writing, I’ve not been neglecting my reading. Thought I’d use this Quick Takes to share with you a few of the quotes that have been most haunting me over the past couple of months. I leave it to you, dear Reader, to trace their connections and inhabit their tensions.

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Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is short (the text runs a little shy of 40 pages), but still completely worth purchasing because, like O’Connor’s short stories, it packs a big punch in a short space. The following is one of its most powerful moments:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

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Is there middle ground between “I’m okay, you’re okay” and belligerence?

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Andrew Sullivan just posted some recent research that suggests that the stereotype of the “dogmatic, belligerent” atheist is largely false. A study from the University of Tennessee found that the largest group of atheists fit into the category that researchers “call ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual atheists’: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers” and these are nearly twice as large of a group as the more militant “anti-theist” group associated with prominent atheist figures like Bill Maher. None of this comes as a big surprise to me, since most of the atheists I know would probably fit into the “academic atheist” grouping. Just as most Christians aren’t the raving fundamentalists who seem to pop up in the news, so also most atheists aren’t chomping at the bit to end religious belief.

What was most interesting to me in the story, however, was that their place in or out of the “anti-theist” grouping had little effect on the degree to which atheism affected the study participant’s daily lives. Sullivan quotes Amanda Marcotte at Salon:

Only 15 percent of non-believers […] fit in the category of those who actively seek out religious people to argue with, and the subset that are dogmatic about it are probably even smaller than that. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of non-believers are just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs and not letting atheism affect their worldview. On the contrary, researchers found that the majority of non-believers take some kind of action in the world to promote humanism, atheism or secularism.

In short, it seems like most atheists face the same conundrum that most religious people do: how do you live out your beliefs authentically without simply turning into a jerk? I’ve posted recently on how tired I am of an academic setting in which no one seems to care enough about ideas to really and truly assert them; instead, it feels like a long, extended exercise in “I’m okay, you’re okay.” So, I’m all for open, serious, and thoughtful engagement with one’s own beliefs—which sometimes involves directly disagreeing with others about theirs. But how to do this without becoming a raving pundit (the only alternative our culture seems to offer to bland indifference)? And must commitment to one’s own ideas always take the dubious form of “seeking out people to argue with”?

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Heretics and higher-ed

“Arguments in Motion” by Guian Bolisay

I’m nearly convinced that G.K. Chesterton went to grad school in the humanities in the 21st century because his introduction to Heretics diagnoses it so effectively:

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations. Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters—except everything.

Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subject of cosmic philosophy. Examples are scarcely needed to show that, whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do not think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist, a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist. Let me, however, take a random instance. At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, “Life is not worth living.” We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins. Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.

I should note that even though I sigh at the state of things in academe, I am still very much a child of my age. I am—and I believe justly—immediately put on edge by meta-narratives and Grand Theories of Everything. I know their dangers and their limitations, their tendency to gain their coherence only via the marginalization of what doesn’t fit inside them.

But, that being said, I do miss the days when people still gave a shit about whether a belief was correct or not. Heck, as recently as the nineties there were knock-down, drag-out fights about the canon, the liberating (or nefarious, depending on who you asked) power of deconstructive discourses, and—well—just about everything else. Nowadays, though, true methodological believers are few and far between and those who remain seem to have negotiated a truce. Alexander Beecroft recently suggested, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that the culture wars—so long blamed for harming the standing of the humanities—might have actually been good for them, at least in terms of enrollment:

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7 (Belated) Quick Takes!

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First and foremost, happy Feast of the Visitation! I particularly love this feast day because the mass reading includes the Magnificat, one of the most wondrous and beautiful of all the passages in the Bible. And if you haven’t heard (or haven’t heard lately!) Bach’s setting of the Magnificat, now’s the time:

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While we’re on the topic of beauty, this week’s America magazine reprints a fine quote from Pope Francis on the very topic. In April, the Holy Father urged his audience to reject the thinking of ideologues in part because they cannot recognize beauty: “The ideologues falsify the gospel. Every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from—from (whatever side)—is a falsification of the Gospel. And these ideologues, as we have seen in the history of the Church, end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness—and let us not so much as mention beauty, of which they know nothing.” On this Feast day, when we can’t help but be floored by the sheer beauty of Mary’s joy, let us remember that we need beauty. For at the moment that we are not allowed to speak of the beautiful, the moment in which we cannot think in aesthetic as well as moral and philosophical terms, then we are left with a regime of thought that is ultimately cold and sterile.

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Beauty has the power to arrest us, if we let it. I’m not a huge fan of Norman Rockwell, but the Pope’s comments reminded me of one Rockwell painting that I’ve always loved, one that seems to capture how the hustle and bustle of work and of thought, if it cannot see beyond itself, misses the point. Lift Up Thine Eyes [follow the link to see the painting; I’m not reprinting here since it’s not in the public domain] depicts St. Thomas’s Church in NYC—crowds of pedestrians, sketchy and flat, wander through the streets staring at the sidewalk as a church worker finishes setting the letters on the church sign. The title of the day’s sermon is, ironically, “Lift Up Thine Eyes.”

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I had my own “arresting” moment of beauty this week. I often pu Classical music on in the background while I’m doing academic working. This was the case a couple of days ago; however, when Samuel Barber’s indescribably gorgeous setting of the Agnus Dei came on (if you’ve heard Barber’s Adagio for Strings then you’ll recognize the melody). At a certain point I couldn’t let it be background anymore—I had to stop and had to “lift up my ears” as it were. To let its beauty be both marginalized and instrumentalized into “background music” felt downright wrong.


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I wrote in a previous Quick Takes about hoping to get my campus’s Catholic grad student reading group on board with Brideshead Revisited as our summer book. Well, Brideshead didn’t win, but another one of my recommendations—G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy—did and, frankly, I’m pleased as a peach. Heck, everyone ought to read Chesterton at some point! Meanwhile, Brideshead has officially become part of my own summer reading list.

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Speaking of Chesterton, his 137th birthday was this past Wednesday. In celebration, here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about a conversation between (the heavyset) Chesterton and his friend (the rail-like) George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton says to Shaw: “To look at you, anyone would think that a famine had struck England.” To which Shaw retorts: “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”

I’ve always much admired the friendship of Chesterton and Shaw. In an age of ever-tightening ideological bubbles, it’s nice to remember that there was—and perhaps can be again—a time where people who harbor deep differences in their intellectual and spiritual commitments can nonetheless build lifelong friendships. And perhaps the “nonetheless” is unnecessary; perhaps it is the ability to disagree—to care about one’s ideas and the ideas of another enough to dispute with them—that builds those friendships in the first place.

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In other literary news (albeit news that’s about 200 years old), I discovered today just how much Samuel Taylor Coleridge hated light reading and light readers. As part of my research, I’ve been reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and I just discovered, in one of Coleridge’s footnotes,  this little gem of a rant about “circulating libraries” (whose readers would pool resources to buy and share books, usually popular fiction):

…as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement […] from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth and hatred of vacancy.

I can’t imagine that Coleridge approves of the things I’m reading when I’m not reading Coleridge . . .

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Imagine what he would have thought of The Hunger Games . . .

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

An Old Soul

As an only child—and a homeschooled one at that—I was never much good at keeping the company of folks my own age. My primary circle was always composed of adults and, when given the choice between hanging out with kids or hanging out with their parents, I’d always opt to be with the adults and would grow mildly offended if ever anyone alluded to the fact that I was not, technically speaking, an adult myself.

Eventually, of course, I became an adult in my own right and so now my peers are adults and it would seem that my childhood problem is solved. However, a few recent experiences with the elderly have made me wonder if I’m not still drawn on a bit towards the generations ahead of me (or behind me? The spatial metaphors seem a bit off-kilter in this case . . .)

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7 Quick Takes—05/24/2013

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The interwebs have been all aflutter of late over Pope Francis’s statement that all are redeemed. HuffPo (in)famously seemed to spin this as an endorsement of universalism, the belief that all people will eventually be saved. Not to wander too far into the theological quagmire here, but Catholicism—and much of Protestantism—makes a division between redemption (Christ by his death enables all to be saved if they choose) and salvation (the acceptance of this redemption). This is a division that some in the blogosphere have been making quite a lot out of (here and here), sometimes to the point of forgetting that, in Catholic theology, the possibility of the salvation of all is permitted.

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We may do well to recall Catholicism’s middle position between universalism and a conservative Protestant view that all non-Christians are hellbound. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahnar famously spoke of “anonymous Christians” and the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar held that we might reasonably hope that all men will be saved. Fr. Barron does a particularly fine job of clarifying the differences between Von Balthasar’s  position and simple universalism:

(In case you think this is simply the strange notions of a couple of prominent theologians, check out paragraph 16 of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium.)

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