spluttering up the beach to Nineveh . . .
fleeing from the word
Jonah, if you remember, was a most unwilling prophet. The word of God came to him, telling him to go and preach against the great city of Nineveh, for its wickedness had come up before God. Jonah immediately went in the opposite direction. Rather than heading across the fertile crescent to Nineveh, he rushed down to Jaffa and booked passage on a ship. Scripture tells us that "he went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord" (Jon 1:3) Not only was Tarshish quite the wrong way to go, it was a serious attempt to get away from the presence of the Living God. Why was Jonah so frightened? What was it about Nineveh that scared him? We get a clue later, when Jonah gets cross with Nineveh for repenting on cue. He hated Nineveh. He wanted it to be destroyed. He knew it to be wicked. Why go somewhere which should be destroyed and shout at its inhabitants to change their ways? They will probably give the messenger a rough time! Jonah did not appreciate that he was being sent to Nineveh for the good of the people there, yes, but also for his own good. At the end of the story he tells God that he hadn't wanted to go because he knew God was a loving God, and was too angry at the thought that the people of Nineveh would get off so lightly. But we're not told that at this stage.
Jonah is the son of Amittai, which is to say son of "My Truth." So the whole story is set up from the beginning as one in which someone who is wedded to their own truth comes to learn God's truth the hard way. He knows what is wrong with the gentile world, but was at first able to hear only half of the word of God. He heard it as he was able to receive it: as a stern word of rebuke that he was to pass on to others. That was the state of his soul. Luckily, God had chosen someone who, invincible as he was in his righteousness, knew perfectly well that it is a terrible thing to fall into the presence of the living God, and suspected, at some level of his being that if, he, Jonah were to obey God, God would certainly break through the carapace of ordered adhesion to true religion, and come into contact with a much more turbulent, stormy world, the world of shame and fear and hatred that is the underside of all ordered righteousness. Shame is a compulsion which heeds only one command: flee! And Jonah fled.
Thank heaven for Jonah's flight! Think how much more damage is caused by those who are not vulnerable to their own shame, who really do manage to fool themselves that their righteousness and God's are cut from the same cloth. Something in Jonah's being was vulnerable to the suspicion that the word of the living God would wreak havoc with his own carefully covered hatred and fear -- the suspicion that that hatred of others and fear of himself were aspects of the same as yet unredeemed dimension of his own life. In that vulnerability was his flight, and through it, ultimately, he was reached so as to be taught how to be a bearer of God's word.
Andrew Sullivan has a line which catches this dynamic exactly: "Shame forces you prematurely to run away from yourself; pride forces you prematurely to expose yourself. Most gay lives, I'm afraid, are full of an embarrassing abundance of both." (Love Undetectable, London: Chatto & Windus, 1998, p. 92) Faced with the prospect of shouting at an uncomprehending Nineveh with the hollow pride of those who love neither themselves nor those whom they must convince, Jonah, who knew at the root of his heart that he had been given something to say, went, as many of us do, into exile. Shame forced him prematurely to run away from the presence of God. He didn't yet know that the presence of God is where he is as someone loved: in fleeing the presence of God, he was running away from himself.
Now someone who has run away from themselves is not easy company. They are not at ease with themselves, and other, less complicated, people easily pick up the vibes. If we are in violence towards ourselves, that violence is magnified and projected onto, and picked up by, others. Jonah in full flight is in the center of a storm, yet he is asleep in the bowels of the ship. That is, he doesn't appreciate at all that there is a storm going on, even less that it has something to do with him. Like so many who are in flight, he has managed to cut himself off from the pain and violence which is his, so the violence rages around a superficially imperturbable and serene center. Jonah's shipmates, who are after all his hosts, are not fooled. Like the good, straightforward pagans they are, unbothered by the responsibility of the command not to hide behind sacred structures and to face the living God, they react as good pagans know how to when threatened with a violence beyond their ken: they cast lots, for they have known from time immemorial that if they sacrifice the troublemaker, then peace will ensue.
Quite rightly the lot falls on Jonah. Of course: he is the outsider, not one of them. Furthermore, he has the sense of superiority of the Yahwist in gentile company. In short, he is the obvious recipient of the short straw. When the worried sailors form an unanimous circle, their fingers pointing at him, Jonah understands what's going on. He draws himself up with all the superiority of his birthright and tells them that he is a Hebrew, with real access to what is really going on. After all, it is the Hebrew God who is in charge of all that surrounds them. The shocked fingers both signal the unique excellence of the victim-to-be -- from his point of view he is much better than they -- and the unique awfulness of his transgression, about which the sailors need no explanation: the violence which has engulfed them is clear indication that something terrible is afoot.
Let us imagine Jonah, waking from his sleep, but wakened only at one level of his being. The shouts of the panicking sailors summon up in him at least the "pride" part of his being -- the knowledge of his faith and his privilege in having been addressed by God. A good Jewish prophet knows how to react to violent interaction with pagans: you stand up for your uniqueness and get yourself lynched. Isn't that what it's all about? He hasn't yet allowed the word of God to get to the deeper part of him, his shame, where he might be loved, and so stop causing all this chaos. At that level he is still running away. He is not yet aware of the real source of the turbulence, and so can't act out of the calm of one who is loved.
So Jonah himself suggests to them that they cast him overboard, and all will be at peace. In flight from bearing the word of the living God to its appointed destination, he knows at least the surface story of what must happen to a good Hebrew prophet: he gets lynched, and that's how he gets to be canonized as the good guy. His hosts, however, are savvy enough in their paganism to appreciate that one really shouldn't sacrifice someone so easily -- it probably occurred to them that the self-importance of their guest was at least a contributing factor to his being so obviously a candidate for victimhood. In other words, that he was asking for it, and one shouldn't yield too easily to playing the part of the lynch-mob for the benefit of stoking someone's prophet-martyr complex.
So, with a decency not to be despised, they do their best to pay no attention to Jonah's confession, and carry on trying to get to calmer waters under their own power. To no avail -- the crisis which Jonah's flight from himself and the presence of God has brought upon them is far stronger than one with which they can cope. In very truth, their lives have been thrown into tumult by something much more turbulent than a normal social life can know about, let alone negotiate peacefully -- Jonah's resistance to the determination of the living God to get through to the heart of someone He loves. As the loved-one flails about, trying hard to avoid that love, he unwittingly causes real chaos around about him.
Finally, the sailors give up. They recognize that the whole situation is beyond their puny mechanisms for putting things right, and agree to sing to Jonah's score. With an appropriate covering prayer, whose entire purpose is to transform what they suspect to be a Jonah-inspired murder into a divinely inspired sacrifice which will bring all the trouble to an end, they consent to cast Jonah overboard, and do so. Immediately, of course, peace and calm are re-established, and they recognize, as good pagans after a lynch sacrifice, that they have been visited by a trangressive god of extraordinary power -- one who brings chaos, and then brings order out of a violent sacrifice. So they quickly do what good pagans should: they reproduce the violent lynch in a liturgical sacrifice, and show their fearful adhesion to this new order by making vows: "Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows." (Jon 1:16) At this point these delightful stage extras sail off into the sunset, presumably to a barbarian island north of France and east of Ireland, where to this day their religion is alive and well, and mistakenly thought to have something to do with the living God.
Meanwhile what about Jonah? Remember where he had been before: half of him had been awakened -- the pride half: just enough for him to put up a good stand on behalf of his religious heritage, orthodoxy and the true faith. His shame half, the half that had led him into flight, was still unrecognized, and so was playing its compelling role in the drama, urging the sailors on into throwing him overboard. To be killed as a martyr is, after all, a jolly convenient way of sorting out the conflict of pride and shame -- the pride tells you that this is what should happen to a good man and a prophet, the shame is a dishonest consent to that. It says: "I hate myself and cannot live with myself, but on the other hand, I know that it is wrong to kill myself. What if I manage to set it up so that I get killed "in the course of duty"? Then of course, the only story that people will read will be the unambiguous one, the story of the prophet and martyr. Who need know of the suicidal shame that was, in truth driving my story with its violent and unreachable compulsions? Who need know that I was worse than a pagan, for I was co-opting them into my terrible drama, while allowing them to be blamed for it, when all I really wanted to do was to kill myself?"
Such, we may imagine, were the conflicting facets of Jonah's soul as he pitched over the side of the vessel, and into death. Jonah, of course, did not have the advantage of having read the book of Jonah, and so knew nothing of what is, for us, the most memorable element of the story: "And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." (Jon 1:17) Jonah had thought he was plunging into death. There must have been something of relief in his descent. At last it was all over. But it was not. Unknown to him, while he thought he had engineered his death, setting it up so as to avoid finding himself in the presence of the Lord, God had a different idea. His plan was to tag along while Jonah would not allow himself to be reached, and then, when he had plunged into the deep, to hold him in being while he was devoured by all that tumultuous fear, hatred, and darkness which had glowered beneath the surface of his faith. The great fish is nothing other than God holding Jonah in being in the midst of the darkness and fear. It is as if, in the midst of a suicidal depression, there where even a person of faith can find no foothold, where there is no remedy, where the person's very being is disintegrating and there is no light, nor even a tunnel at the end of which a light might be, just a downward sucking whirlpool which drags you out of being, even yet you are held in being by a force which is not your own. I imagine the great fish to have been transparent, so that Jonah was not aware for a good part of those three days and nights that he was anything other than being lost, utterly swept away by forces whose swirling he had always dreaded. He could see and feel the darkness, and yet not be aware that, in the midst of that, he was being stitched together, reached, held at a depth which he had been unable to imagine.
Yet, as the storm of destruction went on, Jonah eventually found that he had been reached, that, in the midst of all that, there was, after all, a real "he" that could be reached, that could be held in being, that could be put together, so, as the three days and nights went by -- maybe years in which the suicidal depression had left him flailing without being or belonging -- for the first time he finds himself able to do something utterly new: "Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish" (Jon 2:1)
Earlier God had addressed his word to Jonah, but the word of God was not heard as a word is heard by a person, it was heard as a goad which produced the Pavlovian response of flight. Jonah hadn't been up to complain of God raping him, like Jeremiah, had not even tried to excuse himself on the ground that he was a man of unclean lips, like Isaiah, before getting on with his task. He had just bolted. Now, in the depths, where he has been reached, and an "I" put together that is capable of dialogue, he prays to one who is no longer described as just "Lord," or "God," but, for the first time, "the Lord his God," and comes out with one of those psalms of gratitude for deliverance from the depths of distress, with all the usual imagery: the pit, the flood, weeds wrapped around his head, definitively cast out and so forth. When he gets to the end of his psalm he says something which is both a bit of a surprise, and yet what it is all about. The RSV translates it: "Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!" (Jon 2:8-9) However, that's not quite what it means: that still sounds like a self-righteous Yahwist being one-up on the gentiles. It would be a little closer to the Hebrew to translate the passage: "Those who hold fast to what is vain apostatize from their own loving-kindness, but I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed." These are the words of someone who has been reached, and has realized that he had been holding onto vanity, and so had apostatized from his own being where alone he might be loved, but now is turning towards the source of that being with the voice of thanksgiving. When Jonah announces that deliverance is of the Lord, "the Lord spoke to the fish and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land." (Jon 2:10) It would not be impious to observe that the very moment that Jonah was able to speak as one who had ceased to apostatize from his very own being, in that moment the fish had served its purpose, and Jonah had made it to dry land.
on the beach
In the rest of the story, Jonah gets to Nineveh, and scarcely opens his mouth when the whole city goes into an over-the-top repentance routine. Even the cattle get decked out in sackcloth in what must be one of the campest scenes in Scripture. Jonah is furious -- in fact the whole thing is an elaborate Jewish joke in which God camps Nineveh up completely just to get through to the anger of his humorless prophet. Finally God does break through to the point where Jonah is able to confess his desire to die, the real nihilist in comparison with whom the sinners of Nineveh are guileless. Then God is able to plant in this soul of a wounded prophet, in the form of the unanswered question with which the book ends, a hint of the depth and breadth and tenderness of his love: "'and should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?'" (Jon 4:11) But it is no purpose of mine to do a reading of the entire book -- which, let it be said, is to this day the appointed reading for Yom Kippur, the bleakest penitential day of the Jewish year. I want to stop on the beach, since that is where I find myself, and ask you to join me there as I bounce off you some of my splutterings, as we gather ourselves and head for Nineveh.
Jonah's story is exactly the classic story of death and rebirth -- so much so that Jesus is on record as having used it as the only sign which would be given to his interlocutors (Mt 12:39-41; 16:4; Lk 11:29-32), and I bring it to you here because I have found myself inscribing my own story into it and am sure that I am not alone. My own story has been one in which I knew at some level, since the wrenching experience of falling in love with a school colleague when I was nine years old, that the word of God was one of love; but as I grew I was unable to allow myself to hear it in the depths of my being. Those depths were utterly prisoner to the voices of hatred which form us as gay people, the lynch shout of the school playground, magnified into adult tales of horror at the sort of people we are becoming, and canonized by an ecclesiastical voice which has been so tied up in all this that it has been incapable of discerning between the voice of the world and the voice of God so that it says: love, and do not love; be and do not be. The voice of God has been presented as a double-bind, which is actually far more dangerous than a simple message of hate, since it destabilizes being into annihilation, and thinks that annihilation to be a good thing.
And of course, the true horror is not that there is a "they" out there, doing this to a pure and innocent "us," but that we are all deeply personally involved in the "they," finding it both necessary and apparently righteous to hold onto vanities and apostatize from the source of loving-kindness, even when, deep down, we may suspect, and then repress, the utterly destabilizing possibility that whoever God be, he cannot be involved in all this. The result is that at some time our "I"s are likely to have been fully consenting participants in the hatred and fear -- often it is those of us whose conscience is worst who are most drawn to, most defensive of, and most likely completely to identify with, the sternest and most watertight expressions of religiously or politically orthodox hatred, hoping to whitewash all our ambivalence by turning ourselves into crusading martyrs for the cause of some righteousness which we know, deep down, will never be ours.
In my own case, the exile into which so many gay men, at least, send ourselves, as our battle between pride and shame wags our lives like some unremitting tail on a hapless dog, was a real geographical one, acted out a whole ocean away over many, many years. Like Jonah, I managed to set myself up to be thrown overboard in a storm which was at least in part my own, and like Jonah, I found that just where I thought that I had at last managed to get myself thrown completely away, I found myself caught and held through the depths in which the utterly terrifying and yet completely gentle, unambiguous "yes" of God started to suggest into being the consciousness of a son, to bring forth the terrifying novelty of an unbound conscience.
I find myself having been vomited up on the shore, and wondering where on earth is Nineveh, and what on earth to say to it. As I stumble up the shore, spitting out remnants of salt water, astounded to be alive, let alone to be a human being, there's so much to be worked out, and I come to you for help, to ask you to join me in my splutterings.
elements of the birth of a catholic conscience
I'd like to stop and think a little about the novelty I described, that of the consciousness of a son or daughter, the unbound conscience. This is really quite extraordinary. For normally we think of conscience as to do with morally informed decisions or dilemmas, and consciousness as to do with awareness of being, even though the two are the same word in most Latin languages. Here I am talking about a being held in being that is not over against anything at all, not as a concept or an idea, but as a state of being that is simply not frightened of not being, and rather than being worried about whether or not certain things are right or wrong, is excitedly curious about what I am being given, as part of a becoming whose parameters I can neither measure nor imagine. And not being able to measure or imagine this means that I'm spluttering about, not really quite sure what life project I am to build, because not really sure what story constructively to tell.
The old story was easy to tell, because it was always a story over against others, with goodies and baddies, the taking of positions, and the desire to be a hero or a victim, or both at the same time. The new story has no clear script, though it does have a short preface: the preface is one of being killed, and finding oneself held in a life that can no longer be destroyed.
Another part of this birth of the consciousness of a son, is that it is simultaneously the birth of the consciousness of a brother. For me at least, part of my exile was never being able to say "we," never belonging or feeling quite part of anything through childhood, school, university, religious life. In 1995 I had the extraordinary good fortune to find myself in Chicago, attending the gay parish mass organized by AGLO, with its regular attendance of 300-400 guys. Not only was this the first time in my life that I had ever been to Church because I wanted to be, rather than out of some mysterious obedience (and this after seven years of priesthood!), it was the first time I had ever been to a liturgy in which I was an invited guest at the party, rather than a tolerated spectator at someone else's party. A principal effect of this was that I found myself able for the first time ever to say "we" and actually mean it, relax into it, relish it, and roll around in it.
Shortly after this experience I read a holocaust survivor's description of the lengths to which the captors went to destroy any possible sense of "we" among the inmates. Where people could be reduced to individuals, they were stripped of their humanity. Where people managed a "we," their humanity was indomitable even when their lives were so easily destroyed. Yet the ecclesiastical package of doctrine and practice, classifying us as defective heterosexuals, recommending and institutionalizing the closet, and refusing any suggestion that we be treated as a class, and therefore with a respect according to who we are rather than what it is afeared that we might do, has had as its effect, wittingly or unwittingly, this constant reduction of our humanity. How much more extraordinary, then, is the fact that the discovery of the conscience of son and brother for a gay man should be the discovery of the most profoundly Catholic sense of conscience. For this is not the heroic Protestant conscience, an "I" all alone against a wicked church or world. This indestructible conscience of a "we" beyond being killed is the very possibility of Church as sign of an as-yet-unimagined kingdom.
A friend has suggested to me that what I experienced in this birth of a hitherto unsuspected "we" was merely the solidarity of the suffering group. I can imagine such a solidarity, but that is not what I was feeling, for there was in it no sense of group limits, of a group over against other groups, even of a group over against ecclesiastical structures. It was part of the birth of a Catholic conscience: that "I" is only possible as part of a potentially limitless, and hence universal "we" and that "we" are being called into a playful, exciting, responsible construction of a new creation.
I bring this up, because, as I stagger up the beach I find myself becoming aware of, and coming into contact with other tentative shore-treaders, cast-ups from analogous storms, vomitees of similar whales. Are we huddling together for comfort, sharing the solidarity of the survivor, with the temptation to wallow in what has happened, so that what we share is a mutually comforting self-pity? I suspect that this is not what it's about at all. If we have come through death and find ourselves born again and held in being at a level which we never imagined, this is of itself a forward-looking thing. For the amazement is not that we have survived: in one sense we haven't. We've been killed, lost a being, and find ourselves being given a new one. No, the amazement is that it is our experience of being killed which both empowers and obliges us to learn to tell a new story at a depth and in a way which actually makes it good news for others. Remember, we have not been asked to preach resentfully to the sailors on the boat, but to Nineveh. And God adores Nineveh so much that he would not have us talk to it until we're able to imagine it as utterly lovable, so that we find ourselves thrilled with all the transformations in that great city, and which God, who sends us as a few laborers into a huge harvest which is doing pretty well without us, is bringing about before we even open our mouths.
hints of a new creation
As part of my splutterings, I would like to give a tentative example of this dynamic: among the forces which we have found contributing to our death has been a particular sort of understanding and use of the doctrine of Creation. You all know what I'm talking about: creation has been presented as part of a moral story which goes something like this: God created everything good, and in particular God created male and female as complementary to each other. Original sin happened, so the order of creation, with its natural laws of flourishing as we grow towards the Creator, has been severely corrupted. Luckily, Jesus was sent along, and by paying the infinite price of agreeing to die so as to cancel out the infinite debt which humanity had amassed against God by perverting his creation, he saved us. This means that our lives now consist in being empowered to recover and live out the original order of creation, a task which is arduous but possible. Since in the original order of creation, male and female were made complementary to each other and told to multiply, it is manifest that any other form of coupling is intrinsically disordered and must of its nature be a partaker of the order of original sin, not of the order of renewed creation. Therefore, while many of us may be weak as regards avoiding particular incidents of inappropriate coupling, these can be forgiven so long as they are not justified. However, any attempt to justify any other form of coupling must be resisted as a serious offense against the objective truth of the order of Creation, and ultimately one which could exclude us from heaven.
Now, this is a pretty watertight argument, and the moment an argument is watertight, a responsible intellect has to wonder whether this can really be a theological argument at all. Curiously, I don't want to go down the path of arguing with it, since I suspect that to do so is to stand on the beach shaking a fist at the sailors on board the long-departed ship: that is to say it is likely to be an argument born from resentment, not from grace. It is furthermore the case that there is no point arguing with a watertight argument, since those who produce such arguments are, by definition, the sort of people whose first reaction when challenged by something different is to see it as a threat, and to circle the wagons. It is only when the Indians ride on by without paying them any attention that they may be drawn out of their circle and nudged by a timorous curiosity into the free flow of grace; and if they don't come out, judging an invitation to play to be a threat to their goodness, well, that's God's problem, not ours, and they are well in his hands.
No, I'd rather look at it as we find ourselves and each other on the beach, wondering at how our experience at the hand of this story of creation-as-moral-package leaves us in an extraordinarily good situation to prepare our words for Nineveh. I suspect I am not alone in understanding that this moral package, which seems an expression of Christian orthodoxy, is very much at work in what has killed us. However many caveats are put into it concerning the distinction between acts and orientation, this package grinds down on us and says: "as you are, you are not really part of creation. While it is true that for heterosexual people their longings, desirings, seekings after flourishing and sense of what is natural really do correspond to the order of creation, however much they may need pruning and refining on their path of salvation, this is not true for you. Your longings, desirings, seekings after flourishing and sense of what is natural, however they be pruned and refined through experiences of partnership and love, have absolutely no relationship with creation. There is no analogy between them and creation. For you creation is a word whose meaning you simply cannot and do not know from experience, since everything most heartfelt that you take to be natural is intrinsically disordered, and it is only by a complete rejection of your very hearts that you may come to know something of what is meant by creation. Until such a time as this happens, limp along, holding fast with your minds to the objective truth about a creation which can have no subjective resonance for you, and when you are dead, you will enter into the Creator's glory."
I suspect that all of us have, to some extent or other, allowed this package to bear down on us, have interiorized it, and have allowed it to chew deep down into our souls. It is part of the theological double-bind: love but do not love; be, but do not be, which I mentioned earlier. This is a profoundly destabilizing force, since over time it means that our lives are not real lives, our loves are not real loves, our attempts to build stable and ordered relationships have no real worth, our minds and hearts can only produce sick fruit, not worth listening to or countenancing, let alone receiving or blessing. We are not children in a garden, we are living blasphemies, and since with every footfall we tread illicitly on a sacred lawn, it would be better not to tread at all, let alone walk confidently and make something of our stay. Many of us experience this as having killed us.
But here's the part which interests me: those who are killed are free from their killer, and can stand back and wonder what it was all about, not with a view to pointing out what was wrong with the story, but with a view to rescuing and revivifying what is right. Let me say this more strongly: where we have found ourselves killed by forces which include a blasphemous and sacrificial understanding of creation, as we come to find ourselves held by God in a being which is immune from death, so we are in a quite extraordinary position to begin to provide something new to offer Nineveh, its people and its cattle: an emerging understanding of creation that is tied in with the sense of an utterly gratuitous being held in being over against nothing at all. For this understanding, the particularly privileged starting point is that of those whom the apparent order of creation has reduced to nothing at all. I think St Paul was onto this when he told the Corinthian community:
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1:26-29)
We are in fact set free to begin to reimagine creation starting from our position as ones who, though a thing that is not, have found ourselves held in being by a force of invincible gratuity depending on nothing at all, part of no argument, simply giving life out of nothing. And this, let it be clear, is not only a permission to jump up and play, but is also an invitation to rescue a part of the Good News that has fallen prisoner to Babylon.
There are few more important dimensions of the Good News than the access which it gives us to our Creator as our Father, and to the sense of creation as of a given and undeserved participation in an extraordinary and constructive adventure out of nothing, the shape and fulfilment of which becoming and flourishing is as yet very difficult to sense, the rules and natural laws of which are discovered by its participants as they develop. And, wonder of wonders, we who were treated as "not-part-of His creation" are beginning to discover ourselves as "delighted-in co-workers in My creation" (cf., Is 62:3-5).
Again, what is extraordinary about this is not that it is a secret gift to us poor downtrodden queers, but rather that God is using his unspeakable creative vitality to make out of what seemed like an excrescence on the face of creation what it really has been all along: a delighted-in, precious and valuable part of His creation which is able to offer to others a quickening of their awareness of what an adventure it is to be a child created from nothing! You have heard it said "the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner" (Ps 118:22) but I say to you, "unless we find ourselves sharing in the being rejected, we have no sense of the coming into being of the head of the corner," and if that sounds blasphemous, then perhaps it is because God who was "counted among the transgressors" (Mk 15:28) makes a habit of waving blasphemy like a red cape before the horns of the theological wisdom of the world.
The Christian understanding of creation has been in crisis for several hundred years, a crisis provoked almost entirely by the obstinacy with which the order of creation and the order of this world, which includes its human social structures, violence and prejudices, have been yoked together. The doctrine has found itself press-ganged into service as a raped handmaiden of those for whom the status quo is sacred, and has been wielded as a weapon justifying every conceivable resistance to change -- think of arguments about the naturalness of slavery, about a pyramidical monarchical form of government being the structure most analogous to God's ordering of the world; think of the huge problems surrounding the discovery that the earth goes round the sun -- and I don't mean the row between the Roman Curia and Galileo, I mean the shifts in ordinary people's imaginative vision and social relationships which the fallout from the discovery has tended to produce; think of the battle lines drawn up as the birth of the understanding of evolution crossed those whose literalistic reading of Genesis was part of their maintenance of established order, values and so on.
And yet the increasing shrillness of those who have insisted on reading God's creation from established order, thus turning the Christian doctrine into a sacred tabu rather than a truth which sets free, has never successfully impeded the ongoing, vulnerable, tentative truth about God's creation from emerging, usually at the hands of those considered its enemies. I think we find ourselves at the tail end of this long, sad argument. I rather suspect that the issue of gay love and relationships, really rather unimportant and banal in itself, has become a sort of hermeneutical flashpoint because those who find the "natural" order of the world and of their own lives gradually melting away beneath them under the pressure of an ever more obviously socially constructed world -- and that means one for which we are invited to take responsibility -- are flailing about trying to establish an order outside themselves. A crisis of identity needs someone else to be responsible for it so that they can be sacrificed and decent order and stability established, which of course it never really is. It is the mysterious center of the Christian faith that the one who finds him or herself to be that sacrificial hermeneutical flashpoint gets to be the one who tells, not as accusation but as forgiveness, the story of what was really going on, thus enabling many, many others the peaceful breaking of heart which allows them into the dizzy party. This means that we are coming into the wonderful position, having been sifted like wheat, of turning again to build up all our brothers and sisters (cf., Lk 22:31-32).
While in theory the teaching on the natural order of creation should fall even-handedly on straight and gay alike, in fact there is usually enough residual sense of being "natural" among straight people for the teaching not to pursue them to the depths of their being as it tends to do with us. The result is that we have found ourselves forced through into being the advance guard of a serenity about nothing human being simply "natural," but everything being part of a human social construct, to the extent where we can begin to imagine God quite removed from any justification of the present order, and yet ever palpitating beneath the vertiginous possibilities of the bringing of a divine order into being. This is likely, increasingly, to be immensely important as straight people face the fragility and directionlessness of what seemed natural, except it be received as an invitation to build something for which the rules of the game are being written as we go along. The collapse of the "natural" is not the collapse of belief in creation, it is what alone clears the human space of violent idolatry and allows the persistent gentleness of the Creator and his invitation to adventurous participation to become apparent.
These are only splutterings -- but I'm beginning to sense that we've been invited to recover something of immense value to our brothers and sisters in Nineveh, and that as we develop it, we will find that we offer to them not a rebuke, but a relief, and a relief that will be turned into a shared delight.
and so much more to come . . .
I have talked here about Creation because the potential for a rediscovery of a Catholic sense of creation seems to me to be both such a joyful one, and one inviting of deep and far reaching reflection; one which, given time and leisure, I would love to explore more fully. But we could have talked about reading the Bible, and the same dynamic would have become apparent: one of the reasons why the gay issue has become so vastly over-important in Christian circles is because we belong to a generation that is finding it increasingly impossible to read, understand, and not be scandalized by, the Bible. So either we stop reading it, or we cover up our scandal by hanging onto an idolatrous literalism which is completely invulnerable to penetration by the living word of God. For those tempted to this latter course, once again, the unflinching holding to a peculiar literal reading of certain texts held to deal with gay people is the last gasp of a struggle, already several centuries old, desperately to try to get sense out of Scripture without letting go of power and learning instead to read the texts from the only place from which they can fruitfully be read, which is in the company of the crucified and risen victim as he accompanies his disappointed disciples to Emmaus. Scripture as vulnerability to God rather than Scripture as protection from God.
Once again the mechanism is the same: those who are ground down and killed by the idolatry of a certain reading are given the extraordinary pleasure and task of turning again and confirming our brethren, making it possible for the Scriptures to become the finely-tuned instrument through which the Spirit of God plays words into all our hearts. In this task too we will find we have something to offer to Nineveh, something which we will be surprised to find being greeted with cries of relief.
I could go on -- the same dynamic is true of the doctrine of revelation, of salvation, of the sacraments. However I don't want to suggest that we must all become theologians. What I am suggesting is that as we take on board the gratuity of finding ourselves alive and on the beach leading to Nineveh, we will learn to respect what brought us there, and look back at our journey and our lynching without resentment. We will increasingly find a vivifying and unstoppable dynamic inviting us to create new structures of being together. This dynamic has in itself nothing to do with our being gay or lesbian, yet it has been released because God himself is once again making out of a serious refusal on the part of humanity to accept part of itself as God-given -- which is a refusal to accept being created -- God is making out of this refusal a spectacular show of creative forgiveness. For this is the sort of show which can subvert hard carapaces and melt stony hearts into what we really want to be all along, but are too frightened to access -- playful, spoiled children called by name to frolic and to be indulged at an enormous party.
There is coming upon us an invitation to be heralds announcing this party, so let us sit together upon the beach before Nineveh and ask each other like good Catholics how the hell we're going to put off doing anything about it.
This talk originated as a presentation for the third annual conference of the Roman Catholic Caucus of the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement held in London in March 1999.