September 29, 2011

The Wheel Goes Round

One aspect of the sexuality debates is the extent to which those opposed to same-sex marriage ground their arguments in circular reasoning. Most of them are aware enough to see how empty it sounds to say, “Same-sex couples cannot marry because marriage is only for men and women.” So their thesis usually takes a more nuanced, but no less circular, form. “Only a man and a woman can marry because only a man and a woman are capable of procreation.” When it is noted that men and women who cannot procreate are still permitted to marry, and that marriages do not end with the end of the ability to procreate, the language shifts to, “Only men and women can marry because only a man and woman are capable of performing a procreative act.” By “procreative act” they mean an act that could be procreative if the couple were procreative.

It is very easy to become caught in the linguistic and logical thicket such thinking is based on, but in the long run it is of the form, “A procreative act is an act which, if the couple were capable of procreation, would be capable of procreation.” This strange thesis entirely begs the question, in part because “acts” aren’t procreative — people are. Procreation is not a matter of form, but of substance and capacity. If the couple aren’t capable of procreation, no act they perform can be “procreative.” In the long run this is just another way of framing the assertion that only men and women can marry.

To get a bit technical, this is the assertion of a counterfactual conditional as if it were an indicative conditional. (The difference is between “X would be if Y were though it isn’t” and “X is if Y is and it is.”) Saying something “is” when it “isn’t” — though “it would be if it were” — is at the heart of this logical fallacy.

One of the exponents of this view declared that it is analogous to angling: even when a fisher fails to catch fish he is still fishing. This is a misleading analogy. The proper analogy, from the traditionalist perspective, is “sex is to procreation as angling is to catching fish” (i.e., sex and angling being the activity and procreation and catching fish the particular and assumed desired result of that activity). Sex without the possibility of procreation is sex, but it is not procreative. It is nonprocreative sex — whether whatever makes it incapable of leading to procreation is artificial (birth control) or natural (temporary or permanent infertility, or the sex of the members of the couple).

The traditionalists simply want to restrict sex to those who formally embody the capacity for procreation, whether they are actually capable of procreation or not. And that is just another way of limiting sex, and marriage, to a man and a woman: the very premise that needs to be proven. And so the wheel spins another round.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Thought for 09.29.11

In sorting through a pile of old rubber stamps at the parish office today, it struck me that when we say a child is “marked as Christ’s own” in baptism that it is not unlike marking them with the rubber stamp that reads, “Property of Jesus; Do Not Remove From Church.”

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 22, 2011

Scriptural Exhaustion or Inclusion

There are two primary ways to read Scripture. Both are “literal” in that they focus on the text itself, but they differ in how they attribute meaning to the text. The exhaustive view believes that a single correct reading excludes any other and exhausts the possibilities of meaning; the inclusive acknowledges that a given text may be capable of many meanings, including that discerned by the exhaustive school, but remaining open to meanings not yet discerned. The exhaustive view asserts clarity, often assumes perspecuity, and a univocal certainty. The inclusive accepts a degree of ambiguity, recognizes that texts convey meaning, that the meanings can be manifold, and the readings provisional.

The inclusive manner of reading is that of the rabbinic and the Patristic eras, of the Catholic tradition and (ironically) also of liberal protestantism; the exhaustive is represented in several strands of protestant conservatism. The inclusive manner allows the church to hold a number of interpretations, and part with those that science or reason eventually show to be untenable. The exhaustive, in the long run, often finds itself unable to navigate the waters of reality, having run aground, not on the text, but on the inflexibility and failure of their own interpretations to offer a credible word to a skeptical world.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 17, 2011

Quick Reviews 09.17.11

My reactions to some things I've seen recently — in condensed form.

The Debt — The BBC’s “MI-5” (aka “Spooks”) with falafel. Slow-starting but builds nicely towards the end. Some fine performances could have done without the mixed efforts at Israeli accents.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark — visually stunning (in del Toro fashion) but otherwise toothless allegory about old house with IBS. Kudos to the housekeeper and the handyman who seem to bring some emotion to the situation. Stepmom with cell phone and midlife crisis Dad... not so much.

“Torchwood: Miracle Day” — far too long mix of insightful political morality and "Huh?"-inducing SF non sequitur of the most Torchwooden sort. John Barrowman, I had no idea Max Factor had started a line in polyurethane. And career note to Lauren Ambrose: find a script about something other than death.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 14, 2011

Word of the Circus

Word is circulating on the English semaphore and heliograph system that the Archbishop of Canterbury is thinking of taking an early retirement.

This has, quite naturally, brought about the commencement of the delicate ballet of succession, much of which happens offstage, of course. Offstage ballet is not nearly so interesting as offstage brass (á la Mahler or Wagner) — but come to think of it there has been a bit of onstage brass by a few of the bishops thought possible to succeed. There has been some furtive edging of mitres ever slightly so much closer to the invisible fairy ring which will ultimately appear, as if by magic, on the day of the announcement, to circle the Chosen One. Would it not come as a surprise to all if Harry Potter were, after all, to be the youngest Archbishop in recent history!

On a more balletic front, it is also rumored that in an effort to portray the drama of this offstage action, Cirque du Soleil is working up their next extravaganza, titled Cantuar. It will be their usual mix of humorous clowning, stellar acrobatics and above all contortionists in rochets. The show is to open with a spectacular example of dexterity called, "Qui? Moi? Mais non!" in which the bulk of the ensemble represent their eagerness to climb a slender rope while pretending they just happen to be hanging around in its vicinity. The buffo humorists will join in a chorus of "J'n'suis pas digne!" as a bevy of tightly clad androgynes (portraying the Crown Commissioners), huddle to one side in a tight-knit circle. Oh, what a show it will be!

With tongue in cheek,
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 11, 2011

Hard to Forgive

There is no debt ceiling on forgiveness. A sermon for 9/11/11, Proper 19a.

SJF • Proper 19a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

It is timely that the Scripture readings appointed for this day should deal with judgment and forgiveness. As you are no doubt keenly aware, this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America, the day that will for ever live in infamy by its numeric nickname Nine-Eleven.

It is abundantly clear that much was done on that terrible day that cries out for forgiveness. America was viciously attacked; thousands of innocent people met death in its most terrifying and capricious form, doomed to die by horrible means, suddenly and unprepared. Many were vaporized in an instant, unaware what was happening to them. Others were forced to make that agonized and desperate choice between being burned alive or hurtling to their deaths on the street below. Many more were crushed under the weight of those buildings, suffocated and snuffed out in darkness. None of us who witnessed that horrible day will ever forget it, and the TV news shows will not let us forget even if we wanted to, as they run those video clips again and again, and endlessly analyze.

What makes forgiveness all the harder in this case is that those who carried out these crimes knew what they were doing. They wanted their acts to be as terrorizing as indeed they were — that’s why they are called terrorists: they did not mean only to bring destruction, but to instill fear, horror, and anguish; and this not only in those they directly harmed, but in our society and nation as a whole.

How can we forgive such wrong? How can we forgive such terrible crimes? We know how hard it is to forgive someone even when they say they are sorry — how much harder to forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness, who think that what they did was right and justified, and even think they were doing a religious duty!

If somebody steps on my foot in the subway, and then apologizes, it’s fairly easy for me to forgive, although I may still feel the pain in my foot. If someone steps on my foot by accident and then looks at me like it was my fault, I will not be in such a forgiving mood. But if someone looks me in the eye, and then deliberately stomps on my foot, with a “so there” thrown in — well, what am I to do?

My natural impulse is to feel that only the repentant deserve forgiveness; that forgiveness is something that must be earned and asked for. It is only logical, this calculus of tit-for-tat: only those who acknowledge their faults deserve to be forgiven. This seems fair and square.

Unfortunately, God does not make things so easy for me. God does not say to me, Forgive those who say they are sorry. God does not say to me, Forgive others in proportion to their repentance for the harm they have done to you. God does not give me the option of measuring how much I forgive against how much someone else repents — or doesn’t. I am not told to balance my forgiveness against another’s apology; instead I am told to balance how much I forgive against how much I have been and expect to be forgiven. The wicked slave in Jesus’ parable is punished in the end not for his failure to pay his master what he owed, but for not forgiving the debt that was owed to him.

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This is a hard teaching, no doubt about it. How much easier to keep it to myself; to treat forgiveness as if it were simply earthly coin of the realm: to balance the books of grace as if grace were a commodity that I could control, so much forgiveness doled out for so much apology; no forgiveness given unless asked for, and certainly not given to those who do not ask for it or to my mind deserve it.

What does God think? That forgiveness should be free? Do I want grace to abound when I am the wounded party and no one says they’re sorry? Does that make sense to you? Don’t we want forgiveness to be costly, to be won from us, purchased from us, earned from us by those who have done us wrong? Like the worst of the medieval bishops who sold indulgences and offered the church’s absolution in exchange for gold, dare we fall into the corrupted tit-for-tat that puts a price on grace?

+ + +

And of course, there was a price for grace — it’s just that we did not pay it. For all the while we quibble and bargain, bartering forgiveness as if it were ours to dole out, a quiet figure hangs before us on a cross. He is the one who committed no wrong, earned no just punishment. He is the one who suffered so much at the hands of those who meant to do him ill, and even thought it was a religious duty to do so, who they were right and weren’t in the least bit sorry for what they did. As that innocent man was dying, after having been unjustly tried and tortured, as he hung up there to die, they did not look with sorrow or pity upon the one whom they hated. They cursed and mocked him as he died, spitting in his direction, putting out their tongues and treating him as the greatest fool who had ever born. All the weight of the world’s wrong gathered there and pressed down upon the crucified Christ: all of the hatred, all of the sin and ignorance and pride that had been stored up or would yet come to be. The sin of the whole world pressed down upon that dying man as he hung upon the hard wood of the cross.

And what did he do? He begged God to forgive them. He stretched out his arms of love. He did not cry out to his Father, “See what they do, O Lord my God. Punish them as they deserve!” No, he cried out, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Christ is our example and our Lord. He to whom the greatest wrong was ever done, forgave in full, forgave it all. No wrong, however bad, however painful, done to us can match what was done to Christ, yet he called out to God to forgive in full, without being asked by those who most needed the forgiveness, without the repentance of those who sinned against him.

And he challenges us to do the same: to find the strength to forgive those who sin against us, recalling how, in him, our debts have been forgiven. In order to do so, we will need to fight against our natural human impulse for revenge. We will need to quell our anger and our wrath, to recall that God has said, “Vengeance is mine,” and to echo the words of Joseph in the Old Testament passage this morning, and say, “Are we in the place of God?”

After we have quieted our anger, we will also need to go further, to quiet our need to hear the apologies of those who have done us wrong, and what is worse, who continue to wish to do us wrong. This will not be easy. It is not easy to forgive when you have been badly wronged, seriously injured, terribly assaulted. Do you think Jesus found it easy — dying there on the cross? It won’t be any easier for us to forgive. It is not easy to forgive when you know that the hand stretched out to forgive may receive another bite worse than the first. It is not easy to forgive — but it is the only way to be forgiven. The wise man spoke truly, “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

God challenges us to stretch our little fabric of forgiveness until it covers a multitude of sins. Not seven times, but seventy-seven — which is to say, there is no debt ceiling on forgiveness. God reminds us that he is judge, he is the one before whom every knee will bow, every tongue confess, the one to whom we will all be required to render our account: the account of how much forgiveness we have freely given away.

Let us pray. Eternal Father, help us to find the strength to forgive those who have injured us, to pardon those who have assaulted and wounded us, that when we come to the last day to stand as we must before your judgment seat, we may find the wells of your compassion and forgiveness overflowing for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

September 10, 2011

A Poem for the Extraordinary Day

From 2008, but especially on this anniversary.

Prophecy in Stone and Mist

This prophetic image was carved in stone at the base of one of the niches in the primary portal of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine some time in the late 80s or early 90s. I was always struck by this small carving only a few inches across, with its portrayal of the great deluge washing over the towers of human industry and commerce.

The prophecy in stone rang true. However, little were we to know that the waves would also be of human origin.

Some years before the assault, I snapped this picture of Saint Paul's Chapel and the Towers, disappearing as if by an apotheosis into the heavens. These are the Towers of Memory and of dedication of those lost that day, and since, to the need to dominate and control others.

Stone and mist, both speaking towards what was to come, neither heeded quite for what they said.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 7, 2011

Thought on Marriage 09.07.11

The church's role in marriage is essentially decorative. That is what solemnization means — to "dress up" with "solemn" ceremony. The church does not "make" the marriage; that is the work of the couple, whose vowed consent is the crucial element in the matrimonial confection, much as some hold the words of institution to be in the Eucharist. But the church's witness and blessing do not constitute the marriage. Rather they add a level of decorum and ceremonial gravitas. It is a matter of style rather than content, and the Episcopal Church (at least) holds that a couple is just as married in the city hall as in the cathedral.

In all of this the church follows the lead of its Lord, who didn't, as far as we know, ever do more in this regard than "adorn" a wedding feast at Cana of Galilee.

This is what makes the decision to allow clergy to bless same-sex unions or marriages, but not to officiate at the exchange of vows so very odd. The officiant over the vow exchange literally adds nothing to the vows other than the decorous and solemn ceremonial; the blessing, we hope, does add some real substance to the mix, and is surely the properly ecclesiastical share in the event. To allow clergy, in these cases, the exercise of the churchly ministry and bar them from the essentially civil functions of prompter and recorder appears to give more weight to the latter role than it warrants. One might well say that the blessing is as much of a "solemnization" as the assistance given in the exchange of vows and the pronunciation that what everyone has just witnessed has in fact taken place.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG