Sunday, July 09, 2006

Oliver O'Donovan on the "Gay Experience"

I know some of you are familiar with Oliver O'Donovan, especially those of you who were able to hear him speak in Winnipeg at St. Margaret's a while back, where he preached this sermon and lectured on topics similar to what he wrote in this book.

If you are not familiar with the Rev. Dr. O'Donovan, let me commend him highly. I imagine some of you may bristle at his evangelical assumptions and conclusions. However, to my mind, he is a theologian always able to say something interesting. And with the debates about human sexuality being so stuck and stale, something interesting about human sexuality is very welcome.

So if you're able to take some time and slog through the first of O'Donovan's "Web Sermons" over at fulcrum, it is worth the time. (He may be interesting, but he is learned - his prose is characteristically dense in this piece.) What piqued me was the following, at the end of his short summary of liberalism in Christianity:

" . . . There were some very good stories of emancipation to be told, testimonies to the liberating implications of the Gospel and the pastoral involvement of the church, the enormously influential struggle for civil rights in the USA, for instance, and the Latin American base ecclesial communities that gave new energy to Catholic witness in the face of poverty and economic injustice. These threw a lifeline to a floundering liberal imagination, offering a matrix by which the present could be presented as standing in perpetual judgment on the past, allowing the Western hegemonic tradition of modernity to re-brand its anti-conservative appeal . . . In grasping the lifeline, however, Western liberalism paid its price. From that point on, it became identified with one kind of moral cause to the exclusion of others. It became a church-party proper, a specific agenda to pit against other agendas.

. . . The gay cause is grist for the liberal mill while it is in militant mode, for the mill processes victim-classes in want of a fair deal. But Proudhon's "Justice, nothing but justice!" is as restrictive on one front as it is empowering on the other. It allows not the slightest observation on the aesthetic or emotional timbre of gay existence. To demand justice is to make this class like every other class, for justice is thought's weapon against arbitrariness. But when gay experience starts attracting interest and interrogation in its own right and for its own sake, its usefulness to the liberal project is at an end. For that raises questions that were supposed to have been settled long ago; it draws attention to the fragmentation of the modern moral world, and therefore to its insufficiency as a measure to judge the performance of the church.

Gays also pose existential questions. They interest themselves in the riddle of gay existence. Anexetastos bios abiôtos, said Socrates; the life that is unexamined is intolerable to live. And much of the gay Angst is to do with the difficulty of raising questions in public that seem overwhelmingly pressing when they directly concern oneself. The pastoral challenge that the gay phenomenon presents to the church, then, is not primarily emancipatory, but hermeneutic. And that is the supreme justification for a conciliar process that will take up the experience of homosexual Christians as its leading question. How is this form of feeling to be understood? What are the patterns of life with which it may appropriately clothe itself? As far as I can tell, it is deeply in the interest of gay Christians, men and women, that their experience - by which is meant not merely sexual experience, not merely emotional experience, and not merely the narrative of experience, but the whole storehouse of what they have felt and thought about their lives, should become a matter of wider reflection, reflected on by those who are called to live this experience, by those who are called to accompany them in their living, by all who share their understanding of living as something they owe an account of to God."

This is refreshing to me. Evangelical Anglican Oliver O'Donovan is saying that the floundering Liberal paradigm, through it's attraction to oppressed classes to which it can come to the rescue, has prevented the full expression of the experience of being gay. O'Donovan even calls for that fuller experience to be expressed and heard, and he wants to hear it.

I'll admit to being in very new territory. I'm not sure at all what "gay consciousness," "gay existence," or "gay experience" really is, though I have learned, on a social scale, to think in simple terms of "opressed classes." (The personal scale is very different and probably a little more complete.) I've lived in Berkeley for four years, at a liberal seminary, and I'm newly curious.

What would it mean to think of this experience as "hermeneutic"? What new conversations might happen if we thought this way? What new learning might take place?

To those more familiar with what O'Donovan is referring to, is he making any sense?

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Blogger Marshall said...

Well, for once this sounds like an Evangelical rationale to support the "Listening Process." As so many of the noisiest (and least harmonious) voices out there these days seem to want to discount at best or avoid at worst any listening to the lives of Gay and Lesbian Christians, this is perhaps worth broadcasting.

Monday, July 10, 2006 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger cathclytwaith said...

O'Donovan seems to me to speak rather loftily about what he thinks 'liberals' have done to gays, and about what he (O'Donovan) thinks we need. He gives no sense of having engaged with lgbt people himself. He is asking asking us what we need or want.
He is not, in fact, much of a listener, at all. If there is to be any listening, he and others with power will determine the nature and terms of engagement in advance. However, I am not convinced taht he want s the listening to go much beyond us, listening to himself !

Saturday, August 05, 2006 8:07:00 AM  
Blogger cathclytwaith said...

Sorry -- I meant to say he is NOT asking us what we need or want....
...I am not convinced that he wants the listening proess to go much beyond himself !..

Hope all typos now corrected liberally !--the joys of dyspraxia !...


Saturday, August 05, 2006 8:12:00 AM  
Blogger drdanfee said...

The sexual minority (and allies) call to explore, reflect, re-discern our personal, institutional, theological, and moral hermeneutics might start with better self-aware living. We hear three calls to keep walking. Calls to Journey.

One. Personal is political. This old catch phrase from consciousness raising small group (Queer Base Group?) activism, expands and deepens towards re-discerning that mystery in which we are undoubtedly, more and more of our best and most vivid individual selves, and at the same time, undoubtedly related or inter-related in multiple ways. Mystically, transcendence abides – irrevocably, yet also partially and often dimly seen or understood – in the human self as sheer process. Sheer process means: something alive and in whole process of becoming, journeying, choosing, reflecting, learning, growing – that cannot simply be reduced to any sum of its conformed, closed, final, nothing but socialized-obedient-conformed parts.

All you have to do to upset the negative legacy apple carts is find out that you are not straight. Then the journey into somewhere else, good, starts. Just the fact that you can go somewhere else, good and true and blessed, as an LGBTQ human being - suggests – the personal is political – that the legacy negative Truth with a Capital T that has been preached about you, is not the whole truth, only the truth, and nothing but the truth. Oddly, the professor seems to get it right when he briefly mentions that the queer communities are actively inquiring into their own rich, positive, capable personhoods and manners of community. If he sees this much clearly, how can he think that nobody else knows about it? Or, that it makes no sense from inside a whole range of liberal thought frames – including critical inquiry and scholarship across cultures and historical eras, plus scientific empirical investigations, plus everything else that really comprises our modern best practices?

The game is afoot, dear Watson – and not only conservative thinking players are involved and welcome. So far as it is Us, Now, we are probably all involved, all welcome. No?

For the first time in about two thousand years, the varieties of Queer Folk clearly see and live their possibilities of self and communal discovery and realization. This is so far from simple hedonisms – think of the early, strong queer community responses to the neglected HIV-AIDS epidemic in USA, for example (but not only) – that it looks like the professor is once again constructing a liberal house of card caricature, so that he can knock it down with his powerful conservatism. Yet even then, he is honest enough to acknowledge in passing that the queer communities encompass all the varieties of thinking and of being human. Then in practically the next breath, he accuses the queer communities of being only self-involved, preoccupied, and incapable of universal care or concern. Ooops.

Two. Gay is good. This allows us to ponder just how far in the wrong directions we may sadly have gone with our received, traditional negative religious basic notions about sex, human nature, and human embodiment. Our theologies and moral views in these three domains of seeing ourselves and one another have not yet have matured enough to leave being heavily imbued with their vicissitudes involving shame and guilt dilemmas in early human development. The young, growing child’s fear, confusion, and vulnerable subordination to (and emotionally charged dependency on) adults who have fatally confused practical cleanliness with ethics infuses and colors way too much.

Learning to manage one’s own life in the toilet is hardly the crux of our highest and most ethical self-understandings about human embodiment or adult lovemaking, however much all people probably pass through some version of that phase of being socialized as a young child.

This part of our call to journey is too big to explain in a post. Suffiice it to say that the fear, loathing, shame, guilt, and disgust which negative religious (and other) legacy views can so easily lay, mainly upon us as embodied – consistently neglects the blessing and value of Play. But surely we are Homo Ludens, though not only Homo Ludens.

In the possible healing of that sad, sad, sad, legacy failure of right discernment among believers may lie some of the greatness, joy, and discovery of our journey. Gay is good is a catch phrase which calls us to set out on the pilgrimage to discover just what is capable of good in queer sexuality, queer diversities of human nature and of human community, queer varieties of embodiment.

This is hardly the formless, inchoate path that the professor presumes it to be. He seems to think that this new Queer Path must be narrowly adolescent and incapable of best practices critical reflection upon all things new and queer. This suggests to me that the professor has known very few, real, alive queer people who have, indeed, matured and grown wiser and more caring as they grew even more openly queer in their daily life, work, and loving family life - as they continued to live in a whole bunch of different overlapping social groups. Nor does it suggest that the professor has bothered much with the rainbow colors of contemporary queer studies, active across and among a number of different best practices approaches. Is the professor mistaking non-conformed conversations for ultimate gibberish, as conservatives nowadays so often do?

Lacking a hegemonic tradition, Gay is good cannot be a real journey into real truth, real good, or effective human living and effective human community. (Per the professor.)

Presumably, all of those things are especially reserved for the professor as a conservative believer.

Meanwhile, Queer Folks continue to let our views of sex, human nature, and human embodiment get dramatically re-positioned. Much disgust, dirtiness, loathing, fear, shame, and guilt drop away. Much modern biology, psychology, anthropology, ethology, sociology, cross-cultural and cross-historical comparative studies – our whole contemporary inheritance – may freely and vigorously come into play. One pursues long-term, decent, caring relations with the other man or woman one loves – not because everything else is awful and dirty and sinful – but because such deep, long relationships have a capacity for growing and fulfilling key aspects, positive potentials, innate to sex, innate to the best of our human nature, and innate to the life cycle dramas of embodiment as we are born, mature, grow, age, give of our best, and die.

Three. Liberal Thinking is not innately defined as the professor wishes to exclusively define it. Liberal Thinking need not always be narrow, closed, undercut by partisanships, rootless, or totally defined by this or that obvious context of application.

Part of Professor O’Donovan’s limitations is that he counts, mainly, upon what he likes to call – past and transcendent realities, or in another phrase, the hegemonic tradition. Neither of these summary reference points is at all capable of living well, i.e., wholesomely, with – sexuality, human nature in its best capacities, and/or embodiment as a whole sign/reality of creatureliness.

To be born, right into the midst of receiving these legacy past-transcendent realities – to inherit the hegemonic tradition – is, from a liberal perspective, to inherit both its famous blessings and successes, as well as its infamous failures and even its craziest curses. At least as we have often institutionalized the hegemonic tradition, a liberal viewer will easily find that abuses of power and mistreatment of neighbor are rampant, built upon precisely the foundations offered by the hegemonic tradition.

In the professor’s approach, crazy and mean things get done because humanity is at bottom, basically crazy and mean. What can we expect? Crazy and mean are par for the sinful human course. This is way too pat, way too easy. And it may not, actually, be as true and final as it is claiming to be? We are off the hook so cleverly. We never have to inquire into just how and when and if, our legacy has been transmitted to us, unwittingly or wittingly, as a little piece of crazy or mean business, used most often against somebody else – a non-believer, an alternative believer, a statistically minority person, an outsider of this or that sort.

When a liberal thinker tries to study and learn the lessons of the failures, as well as the successes, we are very far from the loose, shifting, Anything Goes sort of caricature of liberalism which the professor offer us as a foil for making his dense, artful case.

Yes, the mostly negative legacy religious views claim they are living well, and wholesomely. They encourage us to discern our illness of sin, but do so entirely in too narrow and closed and final a manner. How often is the professor’s conservative brand of religion so self-confident in its legacy diagnosis of original sin. Close examination shows that this sort of religion often gets vigorous by negatively characterizing, disciplining, judging, and penalizing this or that aspect of sex, human nature, and embodiment. All are preached – as occasions of heinous sin. All that remains in the legacy is two valorizations – married life, and celibacy. But neither is very well understood, or even capable of being positively etched, except as negative instances of an absence of all the sexual sins in our received dictionaries.

More widely, the professor feels free to speak as if only his conservative sort of believer had a good key to ethics, the discernment of goods, and the consistent application of practical reason. But, empirical studies in the social sciences, and common sense life among our diverse neighbors, shows us that people who are not Saved By Jesus As Their Personal Savior still perceive the compelling call to live ethically, decently, responsibly, peacefully, and wholesomely. Thanks to the awkward lessons of our legacy as we receive the hegemonic tradition, we learn just how conformed believers can carry on, for the worse.

Another way to get at some of this is to tease out the professor’s implicit reliance on what liberal thinking would call, A Penal Frame. His summary idea of original sin is that the human world lies under divine judgment. But this depends for its depth, meaning, and coherence as a baselines, almost entirely upon viewing the crucifixion of Jesus as an especially revelatory high moment, construed according to some penal frame, highlighted off from the rest of our available witness about Jesus. Liberal thinking tends to try to retain a flexible, inclusive intellectual grasp upon the larger witness to Jesus’ reality as the revelation of God to us via Incarnation and his three ministries of embodiment, teaching, and healing.

The liberal critique of Penalisms is still going on, an unfinished, open-ended journey beyond closed Penalisms of all sorts. For some of the latest in liberal developments, start maybe at Father James Alison’s U.K. website: . This liberal thinking community is not lost, directionless, adrift in the shifting fashions of the worst of modern civilization – just because it discerns an occasion of journeying far beyond the dubious commitments of Penal Frames.

Saturday, August 05, 2006 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Eric V. Jeuland said...

One analogy:
First things first: Until we undermine the massive homophobia which is killing people, we’ll have very little theologically to say to our oppressed brothers and sisters.
Sometimes in Emergency Medicine the docs must fix the bullet wound to the heart before they operate on the brain tumor, even if the tumor will eventually kill as well. Sometimes the urgent is worth doing before the important-but-not-yet-lethal.

More detailed (but less verbose than drdanfee)
Oliver O’Donovan is right as far as he goes, but he does not go far enough. In fact his blindness to one obvious conclusion pretty much invalidates all of his care and patience.
He makes the point that Liberalism as a project sells gays short by seeing them only as ‘a group needing to be saved from tradition.’ His strongest point is that this in turn sells the Gospel short because liberators seem content only to liberate, not to seek a more nuanced view of God-human relations, and a bigger God. If humans are *only* oppressed, God is *only* liberator, and not friend, or ground of being, or Love, much less mysterious Trinity.
However, ‘Gay liberation’ is not just a tool of Liberalism-as-death-of-all-Tradition, but a specific fruit yielded from liberalism-as-corrective-to-bad-tradition. It is precisely listening to gay experience in the past hundred years that has led to the gay-liberation movement. It’s just a movement, not The Gospel—but still a movement with a point.
As an evangelical speaking these questions, he’s wondering if the liberal liberators are using the oppressed to make themselves look good. However, he hasn’t yet dealt with and acknowledged the fact that gays were oppressed in the first place by everyone—and there was no movement at all against the injustice.

He’s right that regardless of the justice issue, the church will have to deal with the humanity of gays, not just their status as oppressed-and-in-need. And once that starts, the traditional themes of gift, obedience, transformation, imago dei, etc. will return. But he’s wrong if he assumes we can begin that existential conversation and edification while our brothers and sisters are still in the mouth of the lion—homophobia.
Once homophobia is well on its way toward eradication, the specific (‘specific’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘narrow’, it may simply be a sign of ‘deliberateness with regard to an important, fixable task’) liberalism inherent in the Gospel, Christ, and Trinity will be less stringent about gay rights, and those traditional, evangelical, theological conversations will be unimpeded and once again central. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 5:30:00 PM  
Blogger Eric V. Jeuland said...

and one more thought about Oliver O'Donovan and Gay experience... how much queer/lgbt theory has the church really read and studied?

I've barely taken the time and I'm far better than most these days, having gone to left-loving college and seminary.

We really haven't really started the listening process at all, have we?


Judge not lest ye be judged

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 5:37:00 PM  
Blogger A. D. Hunt said...


All of you but Marshall are incredibly arrogant and rude concerning O'Donovan. He has in fact written and conversed extensively with homosexuals and the issues before the Communion.

Perhaps rather than reading a snippet on a blog post you should go get his book "Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion" before you continue to lambast the man.

Friday, May 01, 2009 11:15:00 AM  

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