In February of 1994, in what was its March issue, First Things published a statement on the homosexual movement signed by twenty-one people, of whom I was one. An excerpt from that statement was published in the Wall Street Journal on February 24. I do not intend here to rehearse the argument of that statement or to defend it. In my own view, it was certainly not perfect, and I see ways we could have made it better. Moreover, I think the Wall Street Journal excerpt was inadequate, losing part of the point of the statement. But I have not changed my mind on the question involved; and a reader, in order to understand what follows, will have to keep that in mind, and, if he or she disagrees with the statement, bracket such disagreement for the moment.
The day the Wall Street Journal excerpt appeared, things began to explode on the campus of Oberlin College, where I teach. Since Oberlin has been described by Newsweek, for example, as a “gay mecca,” perhaps this was not surprising, though I could never have predicted the intensity of the reaction. In order to provide a context for what follows, I must describe briefly here the reaction at Oberlin. But just as I do not seek to rehearse again the argument on the issue, so I also do not intend here to take up the topic of “political correctness.” My experiences provide in many ways a textbook example of that phenomenon, but I am interested in something I regard as ultimately more important.
What happened? Posters went up around the campus, xeroxes of the WSJ piece, with arrows pointing to my name and various statements written on the posters (“rampant homophobia,” “read this and fear”). Over the next few days several more rounds of posters appeared, attacking me, for example, as “super bigot.” It is not too much to say that an uproar had been created. Students expressed outrage that such views were held by someone at Oberlin. They called for a boycott of my classes this fall (since I was on leave during the spring semester of 1994). One student was quoted in the student paper as calling for a march past my home, though I did not expect that to take place and it did not. The student senate voted to reprimand me, and the student paper editorialized against me, charging that I had compromised my “academic objectivity.” Students talked publicly about bringing charges against me through the college’s judicial system, and a student who is cochair of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Union was quoted as saying, “Some people would like him out of here.” Fifty-one members of the faculty (about a quarter of the total) signed a letter criticizing the statement on homosexuality—charging that it engaged in “repugnant stereotyping,” was “intellectually naive,” and provided “sanction for a homophobic agenda.”
For at least the first week, while the uproar was at its height, I felt largely isolated—an experience that is almost paralyzing, since one hardly knows how to respond under such a circumstance. Over time, at least the appearance (though not, in truth, the reality) of some balance was restored when letters providing support of various kinds for me appeared in the next week’s edition of the student paper. (I myself did respond in writing to the letter signed by members of the faculty.) Some defended the right of free speech, some testified to my good character (which I appreciated greatly, though there is something unsettling about having to be defended on such grounds), and a very few expressed substantive agreement with my views. A couple of brave students wrote letters expressing such support. One member of the faculty did so. At this point he remains the only member of the faculty who has publicly expressed agreement with the position adopted by me and other signers of the First Things statement.
Events such as these remind us that, despite torrents of talk about diversity at our elite colleges, they lack anything resembling genuine intellectual diversity. But, although this much summary has been necessary to give the reader some context for the reflections that follow, I repeat that I do not intend here to add another chapter to debates about political correctness. What follows is, as best I can manage, “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Although I have over the years defended in print a number of positions that are relatively unpopular in our society, this experience is unlike any other I have had. And I have found myself reflecting on what it means to bring one’s life to a point—which is, on the one hand, a place of solitude, and, on the other, a moment of significance. (The irony has not escaped my attention that this is not unlike the way gays sometimes speak about the experience of “coming out of the closet.” But to take up here the similarities and differences would draw me back into substantive discussion of the argument, which is not my aim. The reader who disagrees with my normative views is simply going to have to stop reading or prescind from such judgment for a while.)
The experience involved for me an act of recovery—and this in several ways. In the midst of unrelenting public attack, one regains some sense of what counts in one’s life—not what I would like to count, but what does in fact count for me, what matters to the person I have become. In that sense I recovered myself within my deepest commitments.
Thus, for example, I reclaimed the significance of the local community of believers. The Lutheran congregation that I attend (which I attend for the simple reason that it is here in Oberlin) is neither particularly large nor noteworthy. It has the virtues and the vices of many small congregations, and I have to admit that worshiping there seldom stirs my soul deeply. But, as the apostle writes, we are many members with many gifts, but one body in which burdens are mutually borne. The reaction of many people in the congregation (when a local newspaper carried an article about the controversy at the college) was immediate and powerful. They spoke words of support in conversations with me. Several said something like, “I would like to write a letter on your behalf, but I know I probably wouldn’t get it right, so I am praying for you.” Which was, of course, precisely right. And, although I am by temperament a person not eager to be prayed for publicly, when the pastor included me in the special intercessions of the prayer of the church, I found it affecting and appropriate. Many members with many gifts—I am probably better at offering arguments, but they did what they did better than I might have were the tables turned. One body—reminding me how foolish I would be if I thought, finally, that I could offer arguments simply on my own apart from the way of faith and life that the entire body sustains.
There are, however, other ties that are also very important in a person’s life—chief among them, at least for me, the bond of the family. A few years ago I wrote a little piece titled “I Want to Burden my Loved Ones” (FT, October 1991). It was written in fun, but also in all seriousness, arguing—in relation to questions about care for dying patients and advance directives about one’s own care at the point of death—that the impulse to handle these problems autonomously was mistaken, that the family was a context in which we are quite properly burdened by others. And my recent experience—at, remember, a small college in a small town, where anyone’s business is everyone’s business—reminded me of how deeply implicated we are in the lives of our family. One might think that my signature on a document does not involve my wife or children, but life teaches otherwise. The experience intrudes into their own lives in conversations with friends or teachers, and they are, in a sense, forced to make it their own. They didn’t ask for it, but it found them. And if I have burdened them, as I have, perhaps I have also—to the best of my ability—helped them to understand how important it may be to bring one’s life to a point.
I recovered also some of the psalms that I have never quite known what to do with, psalms that have been a puzzle for me. Christians use them regularly in worship, but what are we thinking when we do so? A few examples, which could readily be multiplied, may suffice:
Be gracious to me, O Lord! Behold what I suffer from those who hate me, O thou who liftest me up from the gates of death, that I may recount all thy praises, that in the gates of the daughter of Zion I may rejoice in thy deliverance. (9:13–14)
Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of thy wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me. They close their hearts to pity; with their mouths they speak arrogantly. They track me down; now they surround me; they set their eyes to cast me to the ground. (17:8–11)
Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me. Oh guard my life, and deliver me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in thee (25:19–20). Save me, O God, by thy name, and vindicate me by thy might. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For insolent men have risen against me, ruthless men seek my life; they do not set God before them (54:1–3).
Enough. We get the picture—of one who has attempted in integrity to be faithful to God, who because of that is surrounded by enemies, and who brings that situation before God. I suspect that most Christians are uneasy with making the prayers of such righteous Israelites their own. We are uneasy because such claims to our own integrity are difficult for those who with St. Paul have taken seriously the deep division even within the self that seeks to serve God and have learned to claim Christ as their righteousness. This note of the righteous sufferer is, of course, not the only note sounded in the Psalter. A Lutheran pastor, having heard of the controversy raging at Oberlin, wrote to thank me for the position I had taken and to offer encouragement and support. But she also, very nicely, reminded me not to suppose that this cause was simply my own to assert, and she in turn cited the psalmist (19:13):
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me; then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.That is, of course, one very important way to deal with psalms that are puzzling and troubling in their protestations of righteousness. We set them in the context of other psalms which remind us that we cannot plumb the depths of our own self and must finally hand that self over to God for judgment and safekeeping.
But what do we do with the psalms themselves—those that assert one’s integrity and ask for deliverance from enemies that surround one? I myself have generally made two moves in dealing with them. The first I learned from C. S. Lewis, who suggests that we place ourselves not with the righteous sufferer but with the evildoers—that, in making such psalms our own prayers, we remember soberly that we might have brought others to a point where they felt as isolated as the psalmist sometimes feels. The second—and for Christians ultimately more telling—I learned from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who reminds us that we make these prayers our own only when we see Jesus as this righteous sufferer. We pray them as our own only “in him,” the righteous sufferer who calls on God for vindication.
Bonhoeffer’s reading is, I think, the first and the last reading that a Christian ought to give such psalms—but, I now believe, not the only one. For between those first and last readings may come another that is closer to the psalmist’s own experience, one that enters into the text’s own trajectory (as we like to say these days). For this is, in fact, what it may feel like to try—as best one can—to be faithful. No one should seek such experience, and perhaps we should even be hesitant about assuming that it is our own, but if others persuade us that they do indeed surround us, then we can pray these psalms as our own, as—perhaps—that righteous Israelite did. Cautious as Christians must inevitably be to make such a move, I am not prepared to say we cannot or ought not.
But, of course, the final reading remains that in which they are the prayer of Jesus, and it did not escape my attention that this entire experience took place during Lent. How casually I tend to read the New Testament texts that speak of sharing in Christ’s sufferings and even most puzzlingly (in Colossians) of completing “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” One could, melodramatically, make too much of such passages—as Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch early in the second century, so famously did in a letter written on the way to his martyrdom: “Let me be fodder for wild beasts—that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ.” The spirit that could seek such experience is, I confess, alien to my own. But to accept what comes when one has attempted to be faithful, and to make it one’s own by drawing it into an imitatio Christi, seems right to me, and surely Lent exists in part to ask us to take such possibilities seriously in life. We read these psalms as the prayer of Jesus, accepting—even if not seeking—a share in the sufferings of his Body. Some people said to me at the height of the uproar: “It will pass; a new cause will come along.” Which is true. (Indeed, a little more than a month later the college’s administration was kind enough to provide through one of its personnel decisions a new cause, a new object for hostility, thereby providing me some breathing space.) But the passing of a moment is not the same as taking it up and bringing one’s life to a point around it. When the moment passes, life continues, more or less as it had before. But if we take up the moment, accepting a certain kind of death that it brings, we may be renewed—which is quite different from the simple continuation of life.
Beyond the recovery of such obvious truths, an experience like mine may also uncover some of the deeper meaning of the moral life, meaning that cannot be taught in the classroom. At one point, a couple weeks into the uproar, I had a short conversation with a faculty colleague, a little older than I, whose judgment I respect and whose counsel I have often sought. Although sympathetic to the concerns of the statement I had signed, he could not himself affirm its view, though he could and did offer support from his own perspective. But when we spoke, he commented that the standard upheld in the statement was a very “difficult” and “demanding” one. (He had in mind the larger concerns of the statement, its concern not simply with the homosexual movement but with the results of the sexual revolution more generally in our society. And, in fact, some of the strongest language in the statement—language entirely omitted from the WSJ excerpt—dealt with standards that applied to heterosexuals.) Our standard, he said to me, was such a demanding one that he was reluctant to affirm it. He could not say that he himself had always lived up to it.
That set me to thinking about how we render moral judgment today. Beginning perhaps with the generous thought that we should not “impose” on others standards that we ourselves do not meet, we end with a morality that demands less even of ourselves than we ought. The norms to which I adhere are not those I can keep or do keep; they are those to which I hold myself accountable. I do not see how I could manage that if there were not ways to recognize my accountability—if, that is, I were not part of a community that regularly confesses its sin and seeks to begin anew. Only from such a perspective, I suspect, could I have the courage to set forth an ideal of which I myself may often fall short. The moral life is much more than we can or should teach in a classroom; it involves disciplines such as confession and absolution.
Still more, the moral life involves—how not to put the point too melodramatically?—preparing to die. Thus, Epictetus: “Let others study cases at law, let others practice recitations and syllogisms. You learn to die.” Thus also Socrates, who speaks of pursuing philosophy in the right way as practicing “how to face death easily.” And in death we are, finally, isolated and alone. Others may and should do what Paul Ramsey called “companying” with the dying, they may through the virtue of love actually help to carry our sufferings, but they cannot enter the void with us. Christians believe, of course, that One has kept us company even there, but that belief is experienced as hope, not possession. To learn to die, therefore, we have to learn to be alone.
This we are very reluctant to do—at least I certainly am. We value the ways in which our lives are joined with others in bonds of life, family, property, and reputation (the very bonds to which the second table of the Decalog points). Therefore, it is rather hard to sing sincerely the words of Luther’s great hymn (at least as that hymn was translated before we settled for less poetic translations designed to avoid allegedly sexist language): “And take they our life / Goods, fame, child, and wife, / Let these all be gone, / They yet have nothing won; / The kingdom ours remaineth.” Most of the time, if the truth were known, I probably prefer my good name with my colleagues to such a sentiment. And it is therefore useful—indeed, it is central to the moral life—to bring one’s life to a point, even if that is experienced as a point of solitude and isolation. This also cannot be taught in the ethics classroom, but this is what it means to begin to learn to die.
Once we come to see that our self is at stake in such moments, we will get quite a different slant on the truth we think we understand. It cannot be simply my personal view, my personal cause. For that alone I would scarcely risk or endure isolation. Few “opinions” of mine are likely to mean as much to me as my good name among colleagues. So if it is my cause that is at stake, that good name is likely to trump other considerations. No, the truth we think we understand must have about it an impersonality; it cannot simply be one’s own private view or opinion. The truth I think I understand and for which I must stand up is, in reality, a truth that I stand under and to which I look up. To put the point again in the language of hymnody, in such moments I prefer “Beneath the Cross of Jesus / I long to take my stand” to “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.”
That the truth we understand must be a truth we stand under is brought out nicely in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength when Mark Studdock gradually learns what an “Idea” is. While Frost attempts to give Mark a “training in objectivity” that will destroy in him any natural moral sense, and while Mark tries desperately to find a way out of the moral void into which he is being drawn, he discovers what it means to under-stand.
He had never before known what an Idea meant: he had always thought till now that they were things inside one’s own head. But now, when his head was continually attacked and often completely filled with the clinging corruption of the training, this Idea towered up above him-something which obviously existed quite independently of himself and had hard rock surfaces which would not give, surfaces he could cling to.
This too, I fear, is seldom communicated in the classroom, where opinion reigns supreme. But it has important implications for the way we understand argument. During the course of the uproar at Oberlin I discovered to my surprise that the cause I defended had become genuinely an impersonal one—not my own. It was not the sort of thing over which one could become personally irritated or annoyed. Indeed, I have on occasion over the years been far more annoyed by minor criticisms of my writings than by the direct and personal attack I now experienced. For it was impossible to regard the position I defended as my own; indeed, I cannot imagine subjecting myself to such criticism for the sake of anything so minor as an “opinion” of mine. In such moments one needs a truth with hard surfaces to cling to and stand under, and this experience has renewed my fear that the teaching of ethics alone seldom offers such truth.
If trying to stand under the truth means the practice of an ars moriendi, we begin to see what the moral life really requires. I have been reminded of two favorite passages of mine, the first from Peter Geach, the second from C. S. Lewis.
Every man is given sufficient grace to make the right choice, but many reject that grace and are lost. How this choice does come a man’s way, what chances men have and how they take or reject them, we shall not know till the Day of Judgment. In the stories of the Vikings there is recorded that one Viking was named Bairnsfriend because he would not share in the popular sport of tossing infants from spearpoint to spearpoint; let us hope that he took his chance; in such ways the Grace of God may show itself despite the most corrupting environment.
And from C. S. Lewis:
In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely “First Servant.” All the characters around him—Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund-have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.
Two examples, each quite literally of bringing one’s life to a point. And although our opportunities generally come in far less dramatic ways, we can learn from such examples what is and what is not within our power.
It has occurred to me any number of times that were I deliberately to aim to bring my life to a point, the issue of homosexuality would not have been the issue I would have chosen for the occasion. And, again, had I intended to bring my life to a point—a point of solitude, but also of significance and discovery—I would have done things a little differently. Certainly I would have changed a word here and there!
But, in fact, we do not decide to bring our lives to a point. We are brought. The most important things have always been decided in advance and are not ours to determine. We can seize the occasion and seek to live faithfully, but we are ultimately not makers but responders. Hence, any account of the moral life is inadequate if it does not help us learn how to deal with what may come upon us without our choice—illness, suffering, a child, death. Few of the current approaches to morality do this or even seek to do it. If, therefore, we are not, like Prufrock, to measure out our lives with coffee spoons, we need to reclaim an older wisdom that may help us learn what it means to bring one’s life to a point.
Gilbert Meilaender is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things.Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter