In 2008, University of Edinburgh theology professor Oliver O’Donovan published a series of essays online, which were intended to clarify the issues at stake in the controversy over gay marriage and gay people within the Anglican Communion. Several people whose opinions I greatly respect urged me to read this book, Church in Crisis (and boy, the bitter laugh with which I have to greet that title should caution me against any triumphalism in what I’m about to say…), and I finally did. I found it somewhat similar to Fr. Hopko’s book on Orthodoxy and same-sex attraction, or even Fr. Groeschel’s book The Courage to Be Chaste: Its underlying theology is often true, useful, and well-put, but it’s at its weakest whenever it intersects with specifically gay life and questions. Some notes follow.
# I should say up front that I am on the outside of a lot of O’Donovan’s theological vocabulary. The chapter on nature was nigh unintelligible to me; it might be a lot more incisive for someone versed in this dispute within Anglicanism.
# O’Donovan relies heavily on dichotomies. Like, I know he didn’t write the back-cover copy, but it starts out, “What if the challenge gay men and women present the Church with is not emancipatory but hermeneutic?” and I think that’s a fair representation of what you’ll find in the book. And it’s–this is obvious, no?–a false dichotomy.
Dichotomies done well are a kind of argument I really like. At their best they can be the satirical reductio ad absurdum, provoking rueful recognition that you need to back up and check your map. Or they can be a compressed form of dialogue, a way of transforming abstractions into characters. Philosophical dialogue is badly neglected in our era of the treatise, and a good dichotomy can bring back some of that Dostoyevskyan extremism, the shock of seeing ideas or systems present themselves as choices. Good dichotomies can remind us that the way we rank-order goods, which virtue we privilege over which, can dramatically change our lives.
But confronting a false dichotomy feels like negotiating with a hard-sell salesman. It’s frustrating, and it makes people feel like the real way in which they’re living their real lives is simply unimaginable to the dichotomist. A bad dichotomy uses loaded dice but thinks it’s playing fair. Often bad dichotomies are the result of asking the wrong question–thinking you’re coming up with answers to the question your interlocutor is asking, but getting their question wrong so that both answers are sort of irrelevant.
# And this is really the thing I felt throughout the book: that O’Donovan imagined a gay person and sort of speculated on what such an odd, foreign being might be like. There’s very little evidence in this book, for example, that O’Donovan could think of examples of Christian homophobia, or has wondered how growing up in a church with no models for gay futures might affect gay children. Gay Christians appear in this book solely as hypothetical adults.
# Many of the best passages in the book only sharpened my awareness of this lacuna. I really liked the phrase, “obedient practical reason,” as one aspect or definition of discipleship. I completely agreed with O’Donovan’s point that, far from being an imposition, a Biblical truth-claim is “a welcome handhold that we may grasp in our struggle for deliverance,” because we as trapped people need to know who our Savior is and what we must do to be rescued. And you know me, so you know that I loved the line, “Commands are events that occur within a relationship.” O’Donovan cashes this out later: “[B]ecause any act has a certain intelligibility in its context, and the context of God’s acts is his constant will to bless and redeem the world, God’s commands will always have implications for other times and circumstances.”But in a culture which has forgotten every form of adult love other than marriage and parenting, gay people often grow up feeling that there is no way for them to be obedient. All the commands seem impossible and so the relationship seems broken from the start, as if relationship with God means isolation and fruitlessness, an unimaginable blank silence. As if love is on one side of the dichotomy and God is on the other–but only for gay people, everybody else gets both. So many gay people grow up in the churches learning that the handholds lead nowhere for them. That the only way they can be blessed and redeemed, and climb up into their future, is to become straight. Without real, vivid experience of forms of love other than marriage (especially same-sex love), and celibacy as an arena for love rather than a deprivation of love; without an honest reckoning with Christian homophobia and silence, and the ways these evils have distorted gay people’s understanding of both God and love–without these things, everything you say about Christian sexual ethics will be interpreted to conform with the deadly untruths gay people learned in church.
None of this stuff is easy to see. I did a lot of writing on Gay Catholic Whatnot before I’d realized how central these questions are to gay people’s life in the churches. All I’m saying is that O’Donovan, in this book, hasn’t realized it either.
ETA: In fact, the stuff I was writing in 2008 doesn’t sound all THAT dissimilar from what O’Donovan was saying at that time, even though I knew stuff about real lesbians and not imaginary ones. But yeah, I definitely should call out my own earlier writing here as well as his.
# There are a lot of good passages, e.g. the paragraphs about the role of narrative in teaching us the meaning of God’s commands and showing us how they flow from our ongoing relationship with Him; or the reminders that our own experience is mysterious to ourselves, anything but self-interpreting. (Although the danger with that line of argument, which I’ve relied on heavily at times and do think is accurate, is that you can easily come across as the abuser in that Bikini Kill song, whose victim could see but [was] taught/What you saw wasn’t f—-g real.)
But this is a book whose argument stops short right at the moment it might be able to suggest a future for us, and says, “It’s not as if I can help you with your survival.” I’m deeply grateful that other gay people have been formed by this book enough to take this as a challenge, a provocation to what O’Donovan acutely calls “a very varied style of conformity” to the Word of God. But I have to say I’d recommend their works before this one.