Topic: Christian morality

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

When Nature Goes Gaga

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Official Logo of Haus of Gaga, Ladygaga.com, Author-Haus of Gaga (available to public through Wikipedia Commons)

I don’t dip into popular culture too often, but one can hardly exist today without having some knowledge of the inimitably freakish Lady Gaga.  (I don’t call her so out of bad manners! This is how she self-identifies, considering herself a—direct quote—"champion of freaks."1)  I have only read the Wikipedia article on her popular song “Born This Way,” but find the title exquisitely and uproariously ironic. Given Gaga’s penchant for wearing all manner of outlandish, shock-and-awe attire, one could hardly think of starker examples of how a person is not born! To my knowledge, babies don’t often emerge from the nine-month seclusion of the womb—unless they’ve been remarkably industrious during their stay—with bodies clad in bubble-outfits, telephones, and meat-get-ups, or donning elaborate and expensive doll houses on their freshly-formed heads.

I bring up Stefani Germanotta (Gaga’s real name) since she seems to me the perfect embodiment of a philosophical point on which our whole culture is going increasingly mad. And that is the status of "nature," especially as applied to the human person.

Classically there are two senses in which the word "nature" can be taken. One is "what tends to happen." This is the sense contemporary culture has almost exclusively adopted. Look round the habitable world and you see all manner of phenomena: people grow up and grow old; flowers bloom and then wither; sunshine and rain may happen within a 24-hour period. And then there are worse things that happen: earthquakes destroy towns and villages; hurricanes put lives in danger; diseases cause terrible pain and affliction to individuals and families. It is legitimate to call all these things "natural" in the sense that "they happen in the world we live in"—though some be delightful and edifying, and others terrible, difficult, and even tragic.

The other sense of natural is not "what happens to happen," but "what ought to happen." This is the sense contemporary culture more often rejects. But even the rejection is inconsistent. In certain areas, for example, no one has a problem admitting that things "ought to grow and behave" in a certain way. We all know, for example, the difference between a sick dog and a healthy dog; we know the difference between a flower that is wilting before its time and one that has, in the way it ought, come into full bloom. We know, to take a ridiculous and rudimentary example, that when dandelion seeds scatter, they don't pop up as roses, or geraniums, or puppies, or crocodiles. We know that nature, or Nature, has certain laws which structure and guide and shape the way things are "supposed" to be. Daffodils don't scatter tulip seeds; hamsters don't emerge by breeding goldfish; and there is a desirable difference between healthy, vigorous, and mature plant and animal life, versus the same that becomes enfeebled or dies before its time.

The rub comes at the species homo sapiens. We're fine with plants and animals "needing to behave and grow" in certain ways. When it comes to us, we're not so clear-headed. Sexuality and gender are the clearest current examples. When Gaga says in the song mentioned above, "No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby..." she is presuming the first definition of nature to the exclusion of the second; or rather taking the first definition and projecting it into the second. She is taking the fact that "this is what people do and how people act and how they are increasingly choosing to self-identify," as establishing without debate the moral rectitude of the claimed identities; as establishing beyond the possibility of challenge that same-sex attraction is unavoidable, inevitable, right, good, and fine, and all the bigots who think differently need to be shamed (and legally coerced) into thinking differently.

Pastorally, of course, these are very sensitive issues. Many are the noble and good souls who experience same-sex attraction and valiantly seek to live chaste lives. These souls know that chastity is ultimately freeing; and the fact that they experience SSA, though it can be a tremendous cross, has no bearing whatever on their intrinsic worth as a human being, or on their spiritual call to be holy, blameless, and happy saints in the kingdom of God.2 But this popular and widespread rebellion against the notion that women are made for men and men for women, or—from another but related area—little boys and little girls should use bathrooms and play on sports teams according to their biological makeup; all this popular confusion over gender is rooted, in one way, in a very simple philosophical mistake. And that is to equate human nature with whatever the current human beings walking around—especially those in large coastal California cities—happen to want and do.

Nave W window, William Wailes of Newcastle, 1866-detail; Uploaded to Twitter by Dave, Leicester, UK

But we live in a fallen world. "Nature" is therefore broken and there will always, within this mortal coil, be a gap between what "ought" to happen and what does happen. In one sense, Lady Gaga is perfectly right. Crazy, unpredictable, and disordered things happen all the time. Nature has been a bit Gaga ever since Adam. But Nature's Gaga-ness under the reign of sin does not justify baptizing, leaving as they are, and exalting these gaga-features. The "New Normal" promoted by television sitcoms and the new Queen of Pop, is really not new at all. It is quite old, as anyone familiar with ancient Rome in its decadence can attest.

The real fallacy is in believing that this melting together of gender difference into an undifferentiated social vat, is exciting, bold, fresh, and joy-bringing. But Nature is more exciting than that. Man's authentically natural state is what is really new, is ever-ancient and ever-new, is full of life and joy and communion with the Creator. It is a paradisical garden with magical fruit, marvelous flowers, and a man and a woman who become one flesh. Within that natural primeval duality between man and woman lie drama, romance, and the mystery of sacrificial love: a mystery crafted by the handiwork of God and inscribed into the bodies and souls of men and women even today.

It is true that all of us here below are "born this or that way," full of desires and inclinations running hither and thither (sexual or otherwise). But only by respecting and honoring the Natural Design woven into our souls by the Creator will we be happy. Our truly natural desires, thoughts, and personality then emerge, and begin to partake of that harmony and beauty we are called to reflect before the Face of God forever. Our gaga-nature bows to the light of Nature within, which flows from the supernal creative wisdom of the Divine Artist. By harmonizing our thoughts and actions with this inward illumination, we are made glad by the Radiant Light at the back of all things, beckoning and shaping and transforming us to be glorious creatures of our God and King unto eternity.

1 The quote comes from an interview with Larry King in 2010, which is quite interesting. As is often the case with celebrities, her off-stage persona is much more unassuming, even fragile, than her onstage rip-roaring, shock-oriented bravura.

 

2 For the record, the Catholic Church takes no position on whether SSA may be genetic or not, admitting that its "psychological genesis remains largely unexplained" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2357). In this sense SSA may, especially from a subjective standpoint, be as close to something not chosen as one can get—which is why to merely experience the attraction (as with any lustful desire, homosexual or heterosexual) is not sinful, but only becomes so when consented to and acted upon.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

On the Apparent Arbitrariness of Christian Morality

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Dan Savage, the founder of the "It Gets Better" Project, recently made some very pointed comments about Christianity and the Bible. I wish not to comment on his tone or strategy, nor on the very real problem of bullying which his talk was supposed to be about, but on one of his arguments. This particular argument is a very common one raised in the public sphere, often by well-known figures (once by our current president himself): very frequently it is claimed that Christians are arbitrarily selective in picking and choosing moral teachings from Scripture. In debates about the moral status of homosexual acts, for example, proponents of the behavior will sometimes argue that it is inconsistent, or at least arbitrary, to pick moral prohibitions about sexual matters from Leviticus, while not holding to others such as those about ritual purity, dietary laws, or slavery. Is there anything to this argument? Is Christian morality, at bottom, nothing but one rather arbitrary set of very peculiar, antiquarian, rules? Why does, for example, traditional Christian morality uphold the Old Testament’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality, but not eating pork? Why do Christians today allow intermarriage, which the Torah forbids, while opposing slavery, which the bible – so the argument goes – supports?

This is not simply about specific moral norms, but about the underlying theological and epistemological principles behind them: what is the basis of right and wrong in the Christian tradition, and what determines which Old Testament precepts are binding, and which are not? Among other things, this is a hermeneutical question at two different levels: How did the New Testament writers interpret the Hebrew Scriptures? And how are Christians, today, to interpret them, and how are we to interpret the New Testament itself in relation to morality?

All of these are rather large questions, but I wish to propose one fairly simplified version of an answer to them as it relates to sexual morality, an answer loosely inspired by my introductory knowledge of Thomistic thought and moral theology, and on Scripture: authentic Christian morality, both in the New Testament and in the Church, is rooted in the "telos" – the goal, the purpose – of the human being. That is, what determines whether or not some action is right or wrong is not that the Bible says so; rather, the determining factor is the ultimate answer to the question: “does this lead to the fulfillment of the human being?” Or, more personally, “does it lead me to, or away from, the supernatural destiny for which God created me?” Christianity, in turn, makes a remarkable claim about this supernatural destiny: we were created for eternal life. And what is eternal life? “To know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).

And so Christian morality, by its very nature – even if this is not always made explicit in either Scripture or in the formulas of Tradition – has this supernatural goal – knowing the Triune God – as its foundation, its source, and its summit. And those behaviors which the New Testament and the Christian tradition condemn, are wrong precisely in virtue of their being incompatible with this supernatural destiny: they prevent us from knowing God.

For example, merely eating pork, in itself, does nothing to take one away from God; that this was prohibited for the Israelites, and modern Orthodox Jews, is not because human bodies which have incorporated swine flesh into themselves are unfit for resurrection or heaven, but such laws were made for some temporary instructive purpose (precisely what this lesson is is another discussion). In the Christian perspective, this was a limited law (not intended for all people, nor for all time), and one which is not absolutely binding because the act itself (eating pork) is not opposed to eternal life (the gospels describe Jesus teaching that food cannot make someone unclean – see Mark 7:19). Certain sexual acts, however, are in a different situation, not simply because of where we find them in Scripture, but precisely because of their intrinsic relation to our supernatural human fulfillment. Let me, very briefly, unpack that...

God created us as sexual beings, and therefore, sex is good. But sex is also purposeful, and rich with meaning as seen in Scripture itself. To deliberately distort the act of sex in such a way that its purpose or meaning is intrinsically thwarted, amounts to turning towards our creator and saying, “Thanks for making us sexual beings, but we don’t like the purpose you gave to it; so we’ll do it our own way.” The result is not that this makes God angry, and that since he’s so insecure and cannot take criticism he decides to punish us in his rage; rather, it is that this ends up hurting us, because we are not cooperating with our own sexuality’s purpose. If we deliberately frustrate our purpose in the arena of sexuality, we begin removing ourselves from the purpose of our whole life.  We cannot neatly separate one aspect of our life from another, nor can we separate one individual act from the whole.  Each individual sexual act is a microcosm of our entire sexuality, which – in turn – is a microcosm of our whole life. We can thus divert ourselves from the path of eternal life by misguided sexual activity. Since grace builds on nature, the purpose of our sexuality is of a piece with our supernatural purpose: to love another deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens up the two of us to the life of yet another.

This is worth reiterating, for this often gets lost in the whole discussion of sexual morality: we are, indeed, as human beings, and as sexual beings, created to love deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens us up to yet another person – “The greatest commandment is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:36-37). Sexual love is supposed to mirror, and be a lesson in, this supernatural calling, in the finite context of human relations: unceasingly loving the Other, and allowing that love to flow into the life of another. Thus, it is the purposefulness and integrity of our sexuality that forms the basis of Christian sexual morality, not the fact that sexual rules are included in a book with all sorts of ancient laws of ritual purity that seem strange to us. Thus, the discussion needs to be about the purposefulness and integrity of human sexuality – and the human being as a whole – rather than simply about commands listed in the Bible. Otherwise, both sides miss the real significance of the debate.

May God grant us all a greater realization of our great supernatural purpose, and enable us to live out and embody this in every aspect of our lives, especially in our sexuality.