Collect


Collect for the Exaltation of the Cross

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the Cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself: mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part III: Magnanimity and Irony

Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is in any way possible, that somehow he can be cured and made human again. The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.

—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity1

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Beginning from precision, the unwavering devotion to fact that (I personally think) underlies the English Catholic tradition of spirituality, I move to its two immediate products: magnanimity and irony. Both are grounded in a precise recognition of our own ignorance, and a kind of delight in it.


Ladies and gentlemen: subtlety.

By magnanimity, I mean a particular combination of humility and charity toward others. A lot of it is summed up in the phrase ‘benefit of the doubt,’ but it can be formulated more thoroughly and exactly: When dealing with another person, since you can’t read their minds, read their words and actions in the best possible light, conceding every extenuating circumstance.

The mere acknowledgment that we can’t read minds is a taxing work for some of us. Knowing what people really mean is an addiction. And the fact that we may divine people’s motives correctly a lot of the time makes it worse, since it bolsters the illusion that we get it right far more often than that—and there is no rush like being right at the expense of others.

Magnanimity renounces this rush. Precision rules out our emotional belief in our own telepathic powers; it points out the gargantuan difference between any two people, such that accident and misunderstanding and malign coïncidence can have profound effects on virtually any interaction; it acknowledges that every word, tone, and gesture has multiple interpretations, and that we do not always convey or achieve what we want to when we act. Magnanimity takes these facts and embraces them, choosing to cheerfully accept the limits of our knowledge of others, and to imagine every word and deed—even those which hurt us—as being, maybe, the best response that person can manage to their circumstances. For after all, it may be. We don’t know.

This acceptance of ignorance leads us into the other fruit of precision, which is irony. As Alanis Morissette taught us in 1995, nobody really knows what irony means,2 but the general sense of it is of words, situations, or narratives that contain a contradiction: so, sarcasm contains a contradiction between the knowledge or beliefs of the speaker and the words they use to express it; the assassination of Julius Cæsar provoked the totalitarian centralization the assassins had been trying to avert; and half of all Greek myth is about someone making a prophecy come true by trying to prevent it. But I’m using irony in a particular sense here, one primarily derived from verbal irony, yet extending into a general temper of the mind.

Lovers, if they’re any good at it, are continually laughing at each other. This isn’t because they despise each other, but because they see the other closely enough to see all the ridiculous aspects of their beloved, and human beings have a lot of ridiculous aspects, both as a race and as individuals. This ability to see to coëxistence of the laughable and the serious is a first step in the doctrine of irony; it discerns, and embraces, the mass of lovable contrasts that make up every human character. In particular, this kind of irony is able to see the mixture of evil and good in people: prepared to deal with evil if necessary (as precision demands), hoping for good (because charity hopes all things).

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. … Just when you’d think they were more malignant than Hell could ever be, they could occasionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of. Often the same individual was involved. It was this free-will thing, of course. It was a bugger.3


For a practical example of irony at work, we can look to Socrates. A lot of people dislike Socrates, finding the irony he evinces in Plato’s dialogues a merely dishonest technique for sneering. I don’t read him this way at all. I think his irony was subtler than that: that it was, yes, a way to poke gentle fun at the egotistic windbags he so often spoke with, but also a way of inviting them to be better. His cross-examinations of Euthyphro, Protagoras, Gorgias, and ultimately the whole Athenian people certainly have an undercurrent of laughter, but I don’t think it’s hostile laughter. I think he really wanted them to exercise the virtue and intellect that he ironically attributed to them, and that his gadfly wit was a form of affection, rather than of affectation.

I think this specific form of irony is what underlies English humor. It takes more hostile and jagged forms, of course; but the cunningly bland understatement of its dry wit and the deadpan silliness of its … wet? … wit, have that distinctive tang that runs through Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, John Cleese, Douglas Adams, and—well, time would fail me to tell of Lewis Carroll, and of Winston Churchill, and of Simon Pegg, and of Martin Freeman. And these all, having obtained a good report through jests, received not the OBE.4

So then, precision, and from precision to magnanimity and irony. In my next, I’ll talk about what I mean by hierarchy and republic.

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1This miserably timely reminder comes from the chapter titled ‘Forgiveness,’ which, I think, has become an even more unpopular virtue than chastity.
2The word comes from the Greek εἰρωνεία (eirôneia), meaning ‘feigned ignorance.’ A lot of the word’s subsequent adventures become much more intelligible with this viewed as the conceptual point of origin.
3Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. In strict theological terms these conceptions of hell and heaven are of course nonsense, but Pratchett and Gaiman were not trying to write strict theology.
4Not that I know of, anyway. I didn’t check. I guess Churchill must have.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part II: Precision

He was finding the answer to Aston Moffatt’s last published letter difficult, yet he was determined that Moffatt could not be right. He was beginning to twist the intention of the sentences in his authorities, preferring strange meanings and awkward constructions, adjusting evidence, manipulating words. In defense of his conclusion he was willing to cheat in the evidence—a habit more usual to religious writers than to historical.
… With a perfectly clear, if instantaneous, knowledge of what he did, he rejected joy. He instantaneously preferred anger, and at once it came; he invoked envy, and it obliged him. The other possibility—of joy in that present fact—receded as fast. He had determined, then and for ever, for ever, for ever, that he would hate the fact, and therefore facts.

—Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell


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The first part of this spirit of courtesy is what I’ve called precision: that is, an exacting intellectual fidelity to the facts, as best we can manage. Honesty is of course one of the pillars on which all virtue and holiness have to be built, because if you refuse to deal with reality then you can’t do anything of importance. But I chose a different word from honesty, because what I’m talking about is slightly narrower than that—it’s a specific style or flavor of honesty. More than telling the truth, precision means maintaining a clear and complete picture of reality in one’s mind, including the shades of grey that our limited intellects always involve us in.

As an example, let’s say you feel a sudden, sharp pain in your back, and turn around to find someone holding a small knife with blood on it. It is quite reasonable to suppose you’ve been stabbed by this guy, and there’s no dishonesty in saying as much. But precision would do both more and less with the data. Less, in that it would acknowledge that Knife Guy only may have stabbed you, even if it’s likely; more, in that it would point out other possible explanations, as that someone may have stabbed you, thrust the knife into Knife Guy’s hand, and run away—and no, that isn’t a likely explanation, but unlikely things happen.

But precision isn’t the same thing as giving someone the benefit of the doubt, though it is the rationale for such doubt. It is, as stated above, fidelity to the facts. This is a possible but difficult quality to maintain in juxtaposition with sincere and passionate belief, in anything; which is probably why academics so often seem religiously dubious to less scholarly1 believers. And why people with fiercely held beliefs, no matter for or against what, are often willing to fudge the facts in proportion to their investment in those beliefs. For this fidelity to fact rules out any unwillingness to deal with facts that are inconvenient or even objectively dangerous.

The peculiarly English quality that (in my opinion) makes precision a part of the Anglican patrimony may not be obvious, and I certainly don't insist that mere accuracy is something unique to English Christianity. But it is intriguing to me that Anglo-Saxon England was a great center of scholarship during the Dark Ages (SS Bede and Aidan being the most famous exemplars), that troubled period between Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages proper, when the remnants of the Roman Empire were for the most part reduced to barbarism. Charlemagne's court, which hosted a minor renaissance of learning in this transitional era, was populated largely by English and Irish scholars like Alcuin of York, Joseph Scottus, and John Scotus Erigena.


The conclusion of The Dark Knight gives an example of a deliberate refusal of the quality of precision. Don’t get me wrong, the movie’s magnificent—but its magnificence lies in its exact statement of how evil functions, how it corrupts heroes themselves, and Harvey Dent is only the obvious example.

Commissioner Gordon: The Joker won. All of Harvey’s prosecutions, everything he fought for: undone. Whatever chance you gave us of fixing our city dies with Harvey’s reputation. We bet it all on him. The Joker took the best of us and tore him down. People will lose hope.
Batman: They won’t. They must never know what he did.
Com. Gordon: Five dead, two of them cops—you can’t sweep that up.
Batman: But the Joker cannot win. Gotham needs its true hero.
Com. Gordon: [understanding immediately] No!
Batman: ‘You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ I can do those things, because I’m not a hero, not like Dent. I killed those people; that’s what I can be.
Com. Gordon: No, you can’t! You’re not!
Batman: I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be. Call it in. […] Because that’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes … the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
Gordon’s Son: Batman? Batman! Why is he running, Dad?
Com. Gordon: Because we have to chase him.
Gordon’s Son: He didn’t do anything wrong.
Com. Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So, we’ll hunt him, because he can take it.

The problems with this exchange are legion—as, for instance, that taking life advice from a man who abandoned his ideals in favor of murdering people based on flipping a coin may not be the wisest decision available; or that this child has apparently just learned, from his father who’s the head of the NYPD, and the vigilante who wants to preserve people’s hope, that it’s okay to hunt an innocent man in order to make an example of him; or that the truth always comes out eventually, and when it does, Gotham’s spirit will be more brutally crushed than if they had had it from the beginning; or that the logic that people ‘need’ to believe in Harvey Dent and therefore it’s okay to lie about him, is exactly the logic that shielded pedophile priests. The use Bane makes of the truth in the following film, to demoralize and control the city before erecting kangaroo courts to massacre its leaders, is a natural consequence of the deception.


Regardless, neither Gordon nor Wayne considers the matter with enough precision to realize these facts, because they haven’t committed themselves to caring about truth. They’ve only committed themselves to caring about Gotham. And there’s nothing wrong with caring about Gotham; but this is a perfect instantiation of how the love of a lesser good like your hometown, if it isn’t governed by the love of a greater good like the truth, will ultimately destroy the very lesser good you preferred when you gave up the greater.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
    By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!2

The one who guides his mind by precision must act differently. The uses, evil or good, that the facts may be put to, can be legitimately considered in their turn. But fidelity to the facts themselves comes first—no matter what they are. For the thing about reality is that it intrudes itself upon you; you can only hold it at bay so long, and it will go right on operating around you even while you do your best to deny it. This is exactly why science, religion, and good art are so enduring: they’re rooted in the real world and not merely in what we’d like the world to be.

So then, precision, the commitment to recognize facts however much we dislike them (and, indeed, admitting our dislike of this or that fact is a part of precision, since we ourselves are facts): I take this to be the basis on which courtesy is built. In my next, I’ll analyze its first two consequences, magnanimity and irony.

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1It should be, but isn’t, unnecessary to point out that being scholarly and being intelligent are not at all the same thing.
2Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol I.37-42.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part I

‘This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew. It will not be enough for always. He is very jealous. But for tonight, it is enough.’
Before the other angels a man might sink; before this he might die, but if he lived at all he would laugh. If you had caught one breath of the air that came from him, you would have felt yourself taller than before. Kingship and power and festal pomp and courtesy shot from him as sparks fly from an anvil. The ringing of bells, the blowing of trumpets, the spreading out of banners are means used on Earth to make a faint symbol of this quality. It was like a long sunlit wave, creamy-crested and arched with emerald, that comes on nine feet tall, with roaring and with terror and unquenchable laughter.


—C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength


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If there is anything that American culture has been tragically cut off from, I think, it is courtesy. I don’t mean merely politeness; that can be found here and there even in this country—every age and nation has a mixture of civilized people and barbarians: typically the barbarians are more common, and the civilized people more wicked.


But I digress. When I speak of courtesy, I mean the exterior behavior and interior attitude proper to a royal court, the court of a king who is justly loved and admired by his subjects. And, to one another, the mutual respect and generosity of nobles who really do think highly of one another. If God is the king of creation and we are his adoptive children, even his physical relatives through the Incarnation, then we are ‘princes and princesses of the blood,’ and should think of each other as such.




I have a hunch that this is one of the gifts of the Anglican patrimony, something that the English spiritual tradition is specially good at. Each tradition has its own character: the Roman Rite and Church,1 I think, have a particular talent for simplicity, clarity, and law—which animates all the weaknesses and strengths of specifically Roman Catholicism. The straight answers to simple questions, the sparing beauty of a well-celebrated Roman Rite liturgy, the complexities of the moral life mediated through defined principles, are all expressions of the Roman spirit of obedience to the law.


The English tradition, by contrast, in both its Catholic and Anglican expressions, has been more marked by ornament and subtlety—the bold colors of the Mediterranean acquired a twilit quality in the insular north. In Mediæval England, there were a variety of liturgical forms that displayed sometimes dramatic elaborations of the simple Roman Rite: the Sarum Use,2 which was one of the main bases of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, opened with a procession in which all the altars in the church were censed, concluding with a series of prayers at the rood screen in front of the sanctuary.3 Likewise, when we look at English history, on spiritual matters, there is a persistently sounded note of courtesy; Hugh of Lincoln, Lady Julian, Thomas More, Katharine of Aragon, Edmund Campion, Chesterton, Charles Williams: all have this royal graciousness, a beauty so different from the stark and militant glory of Spanish saints like John of the Cross or Ignatius de Loyola, the æthereal quality of German mystics like Tauler, or the rationalistic clarity of French Catholicism exemplified in Aquinas, Pascal, or Garrigou-Lagrange.4 The humor and tact and generosity of these English saints have a family resemblance to them that I find striking.


There are a few dimensions to this charism of courtesy that I’d like to analyze—the grammar of spiritual courtesy, if you will. These are not simply beliefs, though they involve beliefs. They are habits and attitudes, implied by and implying a whole outlook on earthly things as seen in the light of heaven. The central reality which these dimensions reveal is expressed by C. S. Lewis in part of his commentary on Charles Williams’ Arthuriana.


For the purposes of the poem it is feigned that Arthurian Britain was a province of the Byzantine empire. The whole conception of Arthur’s kingdom and the offered grace of the Grail are attributed to the Emperor. From this point of view the Emperor symbolizes God. But we must see with our imaginations why God should be so envisaged.




The image of the Empire is the final form of something that had always haunted Williams and which he often referred to simply as ‘the City.’ The word is significant. Williams was a Londoner of the Londoners. On many of us the prevailing impression made by the London streets is one of chaos; but Williams, looking on the same spectacle, saw chiefly an image—an imperfect, pathetic, heroic, and majestic image—of Order. … Such is Byzantium—Order, envisaged not as restraint nor even as a convenience but as a beauty and a splendor.


Yet order, in the sense of discipline and civility, is not the whole of what Williams sees in Byzantium: if it were, the Roman empire might have been as apt an image as the Byzantine. He chooses the Byzantine because we think of it as something more rigid, more stylized, more scrupulously hierarchical, more stiffly patterned than the Roman. Its organization suggest something geometrical; and that was what Williams desired. His great saying ‘Hell is inaccurate’ implies his outlook on heaven. He was deeply aware of Divine Order as something of a flawless and mathematical precision imposing itself on the formless flux of natural moods and passions, imposing itself in the shape of virtue, courtesy, intelligence, ritual. Sin could be defined as ‘the preference of an immediately satisfying experience to the believed pattern of the universe; one may even say to the pattern of the glory.’ … His ideal poetry is that which can ‘grow mature with pure fact.’5


It is ‘the City’ that I want to define in this series, as best I’m able. Or rather, that one of its numberless neighborhoods which is the heavenly archetype of England. Its borders seem to me to lie along certain qualities, which I shall call:


1. Precision. By this I mean an exact, disinterested attention to facts, without reference to what use we want or fear they’ll be put to.
2. Magnanimity. By this I mean thinking as well of others as we can, allowing that they may be worse than that but hoping sincerely that they’re not.
3. Irony. By this I mean being able to acknowledge the evil and the ridiculous, without letting them spoil the proper pleasures of the pure and the noble.
4. Hierarchy. By this I mean being able to accept one’s own role and those of others without resentment, embarrassment, tyranny, or slavishness.
5. Republic. By this I mean a genuine belief in the equal dignity of all men, acknowledging their hierarchical callings as roles to play.
6. Largesse. By this I mean a cheerful readiness both to give to and accept from others, rooted in hierarchy and republic alike—such that a peasant and a king could exchange Christmas gifts and each be genuinely delighted and grateful.
7. Decorum. By this I mean a particular kind of consideration for others’ feelings, that seeks not only not to injure them, but to avoid any ‘taking advantage of’ one’s position or powers.



The rest of this series will be spent fleshing out these definitions.


Lancelot came to the Canon; my household stood
around me, bearers of banners, bounteous in blood;
each at the earthen footpace ordained to be blessed and to bless,
each than I and than all lordlier and less.


The Table ascended; each in turn lordliest and least—
slave and squire, woman and wizard, poet and priest;
interchanged adoration, interdispersed prayer,
the ruddy pillar of the Infant was the passage of the porphyry stair.6


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1For those not familiar, a Rite of the Catholic Church is a coherent tradition of liturgy, language, and devotion. A style with a history behind it, if you will. The word Church can mean a few things in technical language: in this context, it means a self-governing Christian body with valid sacraments; I have in mind specifically those Churches that are in full communion with the Pope. This is why Roman Catholic Church, as applied to the whole Catholic communion, is kind of a misnomer. The Roman Catholic Church, strictly, is the Church of the Roman Rite (and a handful of other Rites), whose institutional head is the successor of Peter. There are others, such as the Coptic, Syro-Malabar, Byzantine Greek, Chaldæan, and Maronite Catholic Churches who are in full doctrinal agreement with and spiritual submission to the Roman Pontiff, but who are institutionally autonomous (governed by their own Patriarchs), and whose traditions are generally non-Latinate and non-Western.
2Sarum is the Latin name for the city of Salisbury in the south of England; originally, this liturgy was simply the diocesan liturgy of Salisbury, established in the eleventh century. It became common throughout England, Wales, and parts of Ireland and Scotland, until its official suppression under Queen Elizabeth I in favor of the Protestant Prayer-Book, and its less official extinction as the underground Catholics shifted to the Tridentine liturgy. The ritual of the Sarum Use, as least as interpreted by the Oxford Movement, was largely revived in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Communion. Other English and Welsh uses included those of Bangor, York, Durham, Hereford, and Lincoln.
3In Catholic churches, the term sanctuary refers not to the building as a whole but to the area around the altar, where the Blessed Sacrament is confected and reserved (the part of the church with pews in it is the nave). A rood screen was a partition, usually of wood, that separated the sanctuary from the nave, surmounted by a crucifix flanked by figures of the Mother of God and St John; the rood screen was pierced by windows or latticework, often to the point of being more window than wall. (It is in this way quite different from the ikonostasis of the East, which normally obstructs the congregants’ view of the sanctuary and is meant to do so; the rood screen is designed to be a conceptual, more than a perceptual, partition.)
4The canny reader will have noticed that a number of these names were of alien nationality to the culture they’re identified with here: Austin of Canterbury was a Roman monk, Katharine of Aragon was Spanish, Loyola was a Basque, Aquinas came from Italy. I use them as examples of what I take to be the spirit of the pertinent culture, and of course culture is not the same thing as ethnicity or citizenship.
5Arthurian Torso: Williams and the Arthuriad, pp. 104-107. I can hardly recommend this book highly enough, and it is, of course, out of print.
6Stanzas 7 and 12 of Charles Williams’ poem Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass. The porphyry stair is a reference to the chambers of the Emperor in Byzantium.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

An Analysis of the Nashville Statement

A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the world we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine


—William Blake, Auguries of Innocence


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The Nashville Statement on a Christian view of sexuality has provoked a lot of reaction, not only from those who think we should revise that view, but among traditionalists themselves. I don’t consider myself beholden to it—the assertions of a group of men who don’t even claim the authority that I believe the Catholic Church really possesses will, inevitably, be of only so much value to me. But it’s caused enough of a ruckus among my friends and allies that I want to go through it.




I agree with a good deal of it, and for this reason I won’t spend much time on my agreements, since it’d unreasonably inflate this post. My difficulties with it, while fewer, are serious, and they begin in the preamble, with this passage:


Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.


No Christian, I think, need cavil at the assertion that mankind generally and man and woman in particular are icons of God’s glory. However—this is where the connotations get ticklish—it doesn’t follow from this either that there are no grey areas between male and female, or that any felt uncertainty or ambiguity in one’s own gender identity is an attempt to substitute our preferences for God’s plan. A vocation to celibacy is not an assertion of personal autonomy against God’s design for sex; being nearsighted is not an assertion of personal autonomy against God’s design for eyes. The Nashville Statement appears to be saying that any experience of gender dysphoria is either willful rebellion, or a disposition to it—and I don’t believe that that’s borne out by Scripture or the tradition of Christendom.


The vexed term identity comes up here too, which is no surprise. Generally, when I hear LGBT people use it, it’s a shorthand for something like ‘part of my story as a person’; whereas when I hear Christians use it, it’s a shorthand for ‘intrinsic, ontological attribute.’ Either usage could be defended, but it’s worth noting that, to the extent that either group insists on reading its own habitual meaning into the texts of the other group, there’s going to be a lot of misunderstanding, hurt, and anger. (For what it’s worth, I prefer using identity in the ‘story’ sense, partly because it seems to be more common.)


Some of the same implicit problems emerge a little further on in the preamble:


Our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be.


I don’t know about hopeless; God didn’t create us to be sinners, but we’ve managed that with remarkable efficiency. And speaking of which—on what grounds do we know that sin, which (as I’m certain the framers of the Nashville Statement would agree) affects us so deeply, can’t introduce a real discord into the relations between body, brain, and soul? There’s some evidence that trans experience is correlated to differences in the brain structure of the trans person, which may suggest that assertions that their body doesn’t match their identity reflect the reality of gender vis-à-vis the brain. And whether it’s a result of the Fall or not, we do know that there are various degrees and kinds of what are called intersex conditions: there are people who exhibit secondary and even primary characteristics of both sexes, or who have the phenotype1 of one sex with the DNA and sex organs of the other.2 We need not pretend that hard cases do away with the existence of the basic pattern; but we cannot and must not pretend either that the hard cases do not matter or do not exist. It goes far beyond Scripture to do so, and it’s a gross disservice to those who do find themselves, through no choice of their own, in between the normal categories.




Moving on to the content, I more or less agree with Article I, though its omission of divorce from the denial is a little sketchy. Of course, the evangelical world is very much divided about what constitutes proper grounds for divorce—though, if as the Statement says, the marriage covenant represents Christ and the Church, then Charles Williams’ dictum springs to mind: Adultery is bad morals, but divorce is bad metaphysics. I would also point out the incredible deadness of conscience about divorce in Protestant circles (I’d say evangelical, but that would seem to unfairly exculpate mainline Protestants, who are if anything still more cavalier about the austere view of divorce presented in the Gospels); in the context of a prophetic rebuke to the surrounding culture, forwardness about one’s own sins—especially when they are so topical—is badly needed, both for the world and for the church.


With Article II, I have one important difference. The affirmation states that God requires ‘chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.’ This, while true, is again misleading: God requires chastity of spouses toward one another as well, because chastity isn’t synonymous with abstinence from sex. It’s perfectly possible to be unchaste with one’s spouse, by engaging in sex that’s abusive, or objectifying, or closed to life, or merely excessive.3


Articles III and IV seem basically fine, but Article V gets difficult again. The text:


We affirm that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.
We deny that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.


The problem being, Why?




I don’t think it’s reading things into the document to say that this affirmation and denial are ‘aimed at’ transgender folks. And I dare say most transgender Christians would agree—if they wouldn’t, I’m sure I’ll be corrected—that our bodies, in both genes and phenotype, are integral to God’s design, and that male and female sex are holy and precious images of the Lord. But if, as mentioned above in discussing the preamble, we know that genetics and phenotype can be out of alignment or ambiguous, then what can the denial here mean? and what place can intersex people occupy in churches that, apparently, deny their existence?4 Scripture says that God made man male and female, and (though Scripture does not say this in so many words) it’s reasonable to read it as seeing the two sexes as peculiar images of God’s character, which is why their differences are metaphysically real and spiritually valuable, rather than only socially constructed or irrelevant to an advanced age. But as St Paul says that neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, for as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman, but all things of God—is it really so inconceivable that certain people, not merely in their tastes but in the very structure of their bodies, are icons of the unity and interdependence of the sexes, rather than of their distinction and simplicity?


Article VI, which states that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers, is very right and proper in this context. I’m not sure that it’s adequately supported by or consistent with the other contents of the Nashville Statement; but, credit where credit is due. I certainly had an unusual upbringing, in (I’ve since come to suspect) an enclave of good sense and compassion within the evangelical world; but at any rate in my own experience, I’ve found the actual behavior of evangelicals to be worthy of better beliefs than they often hold.5


With Article VII I start having more explicit problems. The text:


We affirm that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.
We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.




(Just like it says in the Bible: And Moses said unto the people, Also, ye shall not identify as homosexual or transgender, certes: Deuteronomy 22.31.) Now, I’m not certain what the framers of the Nashville Statement mean by self-conception. Like identity, it’s a word that could mean a bunch of different things. If all the framers meant is that sexuality and gender identity aren’t the sole or central aspects of who an LGBT person ontologically is, I could agree; but if, as I suspect, they’re saying that LGBT people shouldn’t consider their sexuality or their perceived6 gender a part of who they are in any sense, then I reject this entirely. I see no reason, Biblical or otherwise, to exclude our sexuality from our sense of who we are: it’s part of our story, and while we aren’t controlled by our stories, they are, well, the story of us. Insisting that being LGBT must be relegated to a footnote is (to me) neither intuitively obvious, nor justified by the pages of Scripture or the tradition of the Church. But even if we took an exclusively negative view of everything other than cisgender heterosexuality: Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.


Articles VIII and IX seem again to be fine to me. Article X comes across as dangerously ambiguous, however.


We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.


There are several ways this could be read, but I’m not much satisfied by any of the ones I’ve come up with. Does the phrase essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness mean those who disagree with the Nashville Statement aren’t even Christians? If so, I again totally reject this assertion. I am a Catholic, and my body of doctrine is considerably more demanding than the framers of this document would assent to; not only about sex, but about the Church, sacraments, and authority. Nevertheless I insist that they are Christians, my brethren through baptism. This isn’t because I consider the Real Presence in the Eucharist or the infallibility of the Holy See matters of indifference, but because I don’t consider Christian and wrong incompatible categories.7 But the beliefs about church authority held by the framers and signatories of the Statement, I gather, are mostly of a sola Scriptura nature—to use the convenient summary from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England: Holy Scripture containenth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, or be thought requisite to salvation.8 The point here being, the Bible has very little to say about homosexuality (five verses)9 or transgenderism (zero verses), so where do you get off making this an indispensable condition of Christianity?


Articles XI, XII, and XIV, again, look fine on the surface of them. Article XIII gives me pause:


We affirm that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.
We deny that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.


In itself, the denial is not so much a specific doctrinal stance, as a description of what the words God’s revealed will mean. But the affirmation is more problematic. Though I’ve left Calvinism far behind, one of Calvin’s sayings springs to my mind: Where God hath shut his holy mouth, we would be wise to close ours. And—I’m sorry—where has God said that gay or trans identities aren’t a thing? III Corinthians 8.5? IV Concordance 1.16?




I’m concerned about this partly for doctrinal reasons (it may be silly, but even as an ex-Protestant I want and expect more vigorously Scriptural confession from my former compatriots), and partly for personal ones. I’m not trans myself, though I experienced some gender dysphoria as a child; it went away, as dysphoria sometimes does; but for some people, it doesn’t go away, and Article XIII here is dangerously ambiguous about this. It could easily be read in the cruellest sense, that those who continue experiencing gender dysphoria are secretly resisting God’s grace—something I believe we have no right to say. Nor, given the total absence of trans issues from Scripture, is this directly justified by the Bible, and someone who seriously believes that only the Bible is infallible should limit and qualify their beliefs accordingly.


So all in all, I don’t find the Nashville Statement satisfying. And I find it especially lacking in its dealing with trans issues: I feel that it jumps to conclusions that aren’t justified by Scripture, and are inconsistent with what we know of trans identities through biology. One or two of my trans friends have pointed out that, coming so soon after Trump’s order banning trans individuals from the military, it’s also pretty tactlessly timed; and while that doesn’t affect its truth or falsity, it does matter, courtesy being the social form taken by charity. The fact that certain figures like Matt Walsh appear poised to encourage all the same mistakes about trans people that we are barely getting past with gay people is also discouraging.


To any LGBT people, especially trans or genderqueer people, who are reading this: I love you; more importantly, God loves you; and if shit goes pear-shaped for you in this country, I will do what I can to defend and help you. My house is a safe place for you.




To any signatories or sympathizers who are reading this, I hope you’ll reconsider, on Biblical grounds. I don’t think that the word of God really supports the cultural lines that are drawn in this statement, and I think it rushes to judgment on matters that the conscience of Christendom has not yet pronounced on—which, to me as a Catholic, is an important omission. And regardless, I hope and pray that you will take great care to live up to Article VI. I don’t know how much you know about trans people and their lives, but it’s Article VI, rather than any other point, that most people (Christian or not) like to ignore in the way they treat trans people.


✠     ✠     ✠


1Phenotype means the visible characteristics of something: e.g., identical twins have identical phenotypes, while fraternal twins will have some differences. Male and female phenotypes would include the literal shape of the genitals as well as of the breasts, the amount and location of body hair, tendencies toward musculature, and so forth.
2One of the better known examples of this is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or CAIS. Some people experience some degree of insensitivity to androgens, i.e. hormones like testosterone, which (among other things) prompt the development of male characteristics, like phenotype and brain structure, in fetuses with XY chromosomes. An XY fetus with CAIS will be genetically male and develop testes, but the male phenotype won’t develop, leading to an entirely female appearance; for many people with CAIS, the only symptom of abnormality is the absence of menstruation during or after puberty.
3Not that I think there’s some absolute amount of sex that is too much. But it would be perfectly possible for a married couple to have sex that in itself is mutually honoring and self-giving, but to be so preoccupied with it that it distracts them from other legitimate needs and duties.
4I give full weight to apparently here. Both from reading others’ work and from having my own read, I know that it’s very easy for a reader unfamiliar with the author’s mind to take something totally different and entirely unexpected from their words. But until and unless clarification is forthcoming, I take the Nashville Statement to mean what I’m addressing here.
5We were the sort of evangelicals who distinguishes ourselves with vigor, not to say contempt, from fundamentalists, if that gives you the idea.
6Provisionally ignoring whether this perception is ontologically right or not.
7Of course, I have a kind of advantage over the Nashville Statement authors, in that I have no problem believing that those who are objectively outside the pale of orthodoxy will go to heaven; Christ is the only Savior, but not everybody knows what’s happening when he saves them, as I would put it, and the advantage the Church visible has is one of knowing what’s going on. Hence I can comfortably place the pale of orthodoxy wherever Rome sees fit to put it, without needing to believe that the opponents I thus gain are necessarily hell-bound.
8I don’t believe this. But anybody who does had better make damn sure they don’t start requiring things that aren’t in Scripture from the faithful.
9The five verses in question (Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, Romans 1.26-27, I Corinthians 6.9, I Timothy 1.10) address homosexual immorality—but of course it must be pointed out that Side A believers would argue that homosexual immorality is as wrong as heterosexual morality, but that marital relations between gay men or lesbian women aren’t immoral, and that these verses are accordingly irrelevant.