Newsletter #20: Together in Hope (in Norway)
Today's newsletter: hope and the imagination, the genesis of gender, and love in friendship
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:
Hope and the Imagination
The Genesis of Gender, the Genesis of our Trans Neighbors
Love and Friendship
Hope and the Imagination
This week I’m in Norway with the Together in Hope Project. We’re a project-based ecumenical choir out of the Twin Cities that has focused on promoting healing and reconciliation through music. Our first project, in 2018, focused on Catholic-Lutheran relations on the 501st anniversary of the Reformation. The project commissioned So That the World May Believe: a Motet for Unity and Service by Norwegian choral composer Kim Andre Arnesen, and we premiered the piece as the opening concert for the Annual International Festival of Sacred Music and Art at the Papal Basilica St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. The piece was dedicated to Pope Francis, who received a copy shortly after we sang and met him at a Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square. We also performed the European premiere of Arnesen’s Holy Spirit Mass and had opportunities to sing in the Sistine Chapel and other locations in Rome.
You can listen to a clip of us singing at St. Peter’s here:
This year, we will be premiering a new work by Arnesen, The Stranger. Our new project (which was supposed to occur last year, but then… the pandemic) is in partnership with the USA for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), and seeks to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and displaced persons. We will be performing the world premiere of The Stranger at Trondheim International Olavsfest, contributing to this year’s festival theme of Hope.
On our first night in Trondheim, Olavsfest Director Petter Myhr joined us for dinner and spoke briefly about hope and the imagination. He shared that one of our great challenges when it comes to hope is the limitation of the imagination. We can only hope for what we can imagine. But the hope that the world needs is more than this. What our imaginations can provide is insufficient. We find ourselves facing a void. And we fail in hope, not only because we cannot provide what it requires, but because we cannot even imagine what it requires.
Yet hope is demanded of our time. In Norway, we are close to war and the possibility of war. We cannot provide the support needed for each displaced person. We face a myriad of crises.
How can we hope for something beyond the possibilities of our imaginations? The beginning of an answer might be found in encounter. If I meet the Other, I am forced to go out beyond myself. In coming to see and understand and know the Other, the limits of my imagination are challenged. How do I meet the other as they are, not merely as my limited imagination would reduce them to?
Through encounter, and the longing for communion with the other, the Orthodox theologian Christos Yanaras has argued that we can bring to life a new space, a space of loving intercommunion. Life is passed between persons through the act of love and longing between them. We find ourselves enlarged by the new selves brought to birth through love. This doesn’t just expand our sense of self. It expands our very selves, and thus the possibilities of the imagination.
Likewise, Jean Luc Marion argues that the beloved can make himself lovable through the act of self-disclosure. Through encounter, the Other can teach us the mode in which they are revealed, and thus loved. This is not merely a sharing of words to describe oneself, but a vulnerability that welcomes another to our very being, both unknowable and also capable of ever deepening knowledge. They extend their selves to us, and through this communion, we are made capable of an entirely unique mode of knowledge and love.
In no communion is this greater than in communion with God, He who is Himself infinite being and knowledge and love. In communion with God, we ourselves are stretched towards transcendence, expanded in the direction of infinitude. The possibilities of our imagination, and thus our capacity for hope, are raised and deepened. In Catholic theology (and much Christian theology more broadly), reception of the Eucharist doesn’t just result in the consumption of God; it makes our very selves into Christ. And we can begin to truly hope.
We can get an introduction to the expansion of the imagination through the experience of choral music. In particular, Arnesen’s composition of The Stranger presents a pedagogy of expansion. Our group first learned the piece accompanied by a piano. For many choral works, this is sufficient to gain an understanding of the piece. Many compositions prioritize the choir, such that there is no loss of the overall sense of the work when a pianist substitutes for the orchestra.
This was not the case for The Stranger. Our choir rehearsed The Stranger accompanied by a pianist for several months before traveling to Norway. We gained an understanding of the piece based off of that accompaniment. Parts of it were… odd. Changes in style seemed to occur abruptly. And some of us struggled to make sense of portions of the work musically. But we gained an understanding of the work from a choral perspective and arrived in Trondheim this week ready to layer in the TrondheimSolistene, a superb Norwegian chamber orchestra that has been nominated for three Grammy awards and is recognized as one of the greatest in the world.
Our first rehearsal shocked many of us. The orchestra did not add a layer to the piece. Rather, the orchestral composition fundamentally changed the work. It extended and repeated melodies across those transitions, smoothing and altering them. The instrumentation (particularly the percussion, cimbalom, a traditional flute) brought the piece into non-Western modes that were suggested but not quite achieved with the choir alone. The orchestra brought the piece not only to an elevated place established by the choir, but to an entirely new place altogether. So in our Norway rehearsals, the addition of the orchestra did not require us to refine the piece we had learned, but to learn a new piece altogether. We thought we knew the piece based on our months of rehearsal, but we realized we hardly new it at all.
This is similar to the expansion of the imagination, to what we need for our hope. We must spend our lives in pursuit of what the world requires, only to realize that what the world requires is something else altogether. But that doesn’t mean the preparation was not worthwhile. We must use it to enter into these new imaginings, which are only occasioned because we opened ourselves to them.
And when we enter into these imaginings, they will shape not only our future, but also our past. Poetry critic Harold Bloom has written of the concept of “inevitability.” He argues that the best poems possess “inevitability.” This does not mean they are “predictable.” They often surprise us. But when you read the poem, as you read it, you come to realize that each word was absolutely necessary, that no other word could have taken its place. Each proceeding word is both an absolute surprise and absolutely the inevitable. Good music possesses this trait as well. I was surprised by the orchestral composition for The Stranger. It was not at all what I had predicted. But I now realize that this is exactly how it must be, and it could not have been any way.
There’s a comfort in this, once you’ve reached that place. But, of course, you don’t see that before the change has come, before you’ve reached that word in the poem, before you’ve actually heard the orchestra. I think the imaginings that we will realize we need for hope will be like this as well. We will not see them coming. But if we open ourselves to them, they will come. And we can find a comfort we could have never before imagined.
(Unfortunately, I don’t have a recording of The Stranger I can share now, but I’ll be sure to send a link along as soon as I have it!)
The Genesis of Gender, the Genesis of our Trans Neighbors
The above reflections also help to explain the challenge of loving those who struggle with their gender identities. Last week, I wrote about Abigail Favale’s most recent book, The Genesis of Gender. In her book, Favale gives an intellectual history of “gender theory,” contrasts it with a Christian anthropology, and discusses the implications of the latter on how we understand and respond those who struggle with their gender identities or who identify as transgender or non-binary.
I wrote about some ways in which the Resurrected Christ might push back against the views of nature with Favale adopts, particularly those arising from the Aristotelian tradition. In the latter, perfection involves a body with all of its parts functioning in their created Edenic state. Favale argues against the “medicalidealization” of trans or non-binary persons, the removal or hindrance of functioning bodily organs, because this would involve a mutilation of the body. It would result in an inhumane wound. Under this view, such wounds are unfulfilled potentialities, manifestations of a lack of perfection, of a lack of actuality.
The Resurrection poses a challenge to such an Aristotelian conception of human nature, of nature generally. In the Resurrected Christ, it is the wounds that give us the image of wholeness, of integrity, of perfection. The longing of the Christian mystics for the stigmata, for a God-given gift of mutilation, is a longing for a wholeness that transcends secular natural law theory. These mystics recognize that the wounds make them more whole.
While I understand Favale’s view, I would argue that deeper communion with those who struggle with their gender identity, or who identify as transgender or non-binary, might allow for an expansion of our conception of human nature. Just as communion with Christ challenges what we can imagine as integrity, wholeness, and perfection, communion with these persons might challenge and expand how we conceive of their experiences, and of our own.
Love and Friendship
I recently submitted an abstract for the 2022 Fall Conference sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. My proposed paper expands on ideas from a paper I presented several years ago, on “A Christian Case for Falling in Love with Your Friends.” In that previous paper, I discussed erotic desire in the Christian tradition, and the relationship between love and friendship in ancient Greek philosophy, medieval Catholic writings, and contemporary Orthodox theology.
My presentation took place as part of a panel with Ron Belgau, a friend who has written at length about Catholic sexual ethics, and Margaret Monaghan Hogan, a philosophy professor who presented on the theology of marriage. After presenting our papers, the three of us answered questions and, though we all spoke from positions of Christian (especially Catholic) orthodoxy, our most interesting answers (I think) came from points of disagreement. Hogan, in her paper, had argued that the love between man and woman in Christian marriage constitutes its own essence, largely because of the distinct type of union between man and wife. One attendee asked whether this essence is unique to the marital relationship, or whether it (or an analogous essence) can be found in other relationships as well. Hogan answered with the former. This was the exchange between Belgau, Hogan, and myself…
Q: This question is for Professor M. Question. So, are there other analogous bonds that take on their own reality? Or is marriage unique in that respect?
Hogan: I think I made that claim early on, that marriage is unique in that respect. It’s sui generis. And we’ve neglected this. And this is one of the reasons why we haven’t had an adequate theology of marriage to address some of the contemporary issues that my colleagues talked about.
Q: So there aren’t really analogues, then?
Hogan: No. And I think that if you go back and you see, you even have Aristotle talking about it, physisyndiastikon. By nature, physi. And syndiastikon, two becoming one. So this inclination of man and woman to each other, that’s natural. And in forming this union, brings into being a new being, the being which is the marriage itself. And it’s that which has juridical standing, at least, in the Church, but does not have metaphysical meaning at this point in directing the theology of marriage.
Belgau: If I could just briefly comment on that, I would agree that marriage is sui generis, that it is a unique kind of bond that, because of the physical nature of the bond, because of the possibility of procreating children, it’s different. But I think that, for example, commitment to a religious community is a similarly indelible bond, of saying, ‘This is a communion that I am irrevocably committed to,’ which has an analogous juridical character. I would also say that if you look at the Old Testament, speaking of covenant, God’s covenant with the Israelites, the primary human analogy that is in mind there is covenants that are sort of–we don’t have a good analogy for them today–it’s kind of a covenant of friendship, in the way that you see between David and Jonathan. But it’s also something that is instantiating human communities. So for David and Jonathan, their covenant is not only important between them, but it is Jonathan as the physical successor of Saul who forms a covenant with David who has been annointed to be king after Saul, who agree that David will be the King, and Jonathan commits himself to David. So I think that there are other instances of this kind of deep commitment, whether we’re talking about religious vows or that kind of covenant friendship in the Old Testament. But I also think you don’t want to blur that with the kind of bond that you have in marriage, which has that sort of natural relation to sexuality.
Hogan: Let me just step in there. There are different kinds of union–and you get it. And I think this has to be played out, and we have not played this out. So you have what’s called a physical union, and you have a moral union. And the communities that you’re talking about–religious communities and unities of friendship, friendship between two women, friendship between two men–that’s very important, that we have these deep notions of friendship. But in marriage you have both a combination of a physical union and a moral union. And so that’s what makes it distinctive from other kinds of relationships. And we need to play that out to have an adequate theology and philosophy, both of friendship and of marriage.
Belgau: Yes. And I agree with that.
Me: I disagree, somewhat. [Laughter from those in attendance.] Certainly, when you have the marital relationship, you have the thing between husband and wife, and that is its own thing, which is the marriage. But I think that both Christos Yanarras and Jean Luc Marion would push back and say that this is kind of what happens in every relationship, that actually between you and God even, the knowledge of God is actually a relation, which is kind of its own thing. And the only way to love God is to have that space, the pull between one another that is ever deepening. And I think this is also the case in human relationships. And I think I would also would push back on the claim that marriage is unique in that it’s both physical and spiritual, whereas all the other relationships are only spiritual. I do believe that–and Christos Yanarros says that–for example, in the erotic relationship between a mother and her child, there’s this physical component as the mother feeds her child from her body. Right? And so there is this physical union as well. And I think this happens in friendships, when you do all kinds of physical things together. I think, especially, when you’re feeding one another. That is a physical erotic substantiation of the relationships. I do think there is something unique and special about marriage. But I don’t know that I would say that what makes it unique is that there is this physical component to the erotic relationship.
Hogan: Of course, I didn’t say that. I said there are these–and this is what makes marriage so complex. So I listed these different ends, the end of the union of man and woman. I listed the end of procreation. I listed the end of the perfection of man and woman. They’re individual. You serve one another, in the individual accomplishments that you want to bring about. So, while I want to say that it’s complex and that it’s done on all these different levels, it’s the blending of all of these which is in the union of marriage which makes it distinct. So it has to be studied apart from these others. Chris did a wonderful job of friendship. But these things are related in the specific way in marriage, and we have to play that out. But I want to say to the young people here–because if you get to be thinking, ‘This is just a terrible thing, this whole thing called marriage’–no, no. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. And as your marriage develops and lasts over the years, these relationships, these activities of your relationship and the way that you accomplish these ends, change over time. And so, it’s wonderful to be married, as complex as it is, in trying to get all these goods accomplished within marriage, it is a real joy. I think often, ‘I could never be the person I am today if I had not married my husband and had the life that I had.’ He brought about in me the perfection of me in ways that I could never have done. And so my focus is on, what is the nature of marriage, how do we relate these goods to one another in the way that we accomplish them appropriately, that we remember that all of these ends are gifts from God to lead us back to God, and marriage is a way of our journey back to God.
Belgau: And if I could say very briefly about Chris’s point–I think, I can fix dinner for people that I love very deeply. I can fix dinner for a homeless shelter. Fixing dinner is an important expression of love and concern for others. But there’s nothing unique about it. Even things like nursing a baby. If a mother dies and another mother can nurse that baby, that’s fine. But there is something very unique about the marital bond. And I think that it’s important, while talking about all these others. And friendship can be a very very deep bond. It can be an image of God’s love. But the uniqueness of the two becoming one flesh is something you don’t see in other examples.
I had written the first version of my paper during a stage in life in which I was trying to promote a “traditional Christian sexual ethic” and provide pathways for same-sex love outside of marriage. But I discovered, and I have since discovered again and again, that those who most actively undermine alternatives to same-sex marriage are… its opponents. Part of why I had hoped to provide was an argument for deep relationships outside of marriage, creating pathways for full integrated flourishing for those who, like me, were gay and trying to live by Catholic teaching. I tried to make compelling arguments that marriage was not the end-all-be-all for inter-communion and human perfection.
Ironically, the greatest challenge to this during my presentation, came not from my discussion of secular sources, but from Hogan. I had attempted to “dethrone” marriage as the requirement for those with same-sex attractions who wanted deep relationships enabling human perfection. But we returned to echoes of writers like Matthew Vines in Hogan’s comments, such as “I could never be the person I am today if I had not married my husband and had the life that I had.’ He brought about in me the perfection of me in ways that I could never have done.” This is what people like me are seeking: the perfection of me in ways that I could never have done. If my paper argued that this can (and should) have contexts outside of marriage, Hogan pulled us back into the institution of marriage. Years later, I expect that pull as a matter of course. Nowhere are the Catholic arguments for same-sex marriage stronger than in “Theology of the Body” evangelization.
Still, I hope for an expansion of our imaginations. I hope for an expansion of our hope. I hope for the substantiation of deepest love in other places as well, in friendship, in hospitality, in community.
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I have been in a relationship with my same-sex partner for 25 years, and I would never be the person I am today without him. I support marriage as a religious institution for man and woman and the distinctiveness of that relationship, but when it comes down to concrete lived experience, people as Hogan seems to have difficulty to explain what exactly is so special with marriage between man and a woman. What I ask myself, is whether different kind of unions have to be emotionally different from each other, in order for the distinction between them to be justifiable.