Friday, October 18, 2019

Response to "Meeting Michelle" Part 1

In their never ending quest to promote the LGBTQP+ agenda, "Public Orthodoxy" recently publish the article: "Meeting Michelle: Pastoral and Theological Reflections on a Transgender Inmate," by Fr. Richard René.

In part 2, I will look at the underlying Biblical allusion in a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor, which Fr. Richard used to advance his point (Galatians 3:28), but given that St. Maximus is a difficult Father to read, and that my collection of his writings is far from complete, I asked a parishioner, Tikhon Pino, to comment specifically on Fr. Richard's use of St. Maximus. Tikhon Pino is a patristics scholar who acted as research assistant on Fr. Maximos Constas’s translation of St. Maximus the Confessor's Ambigua (Harvard UP, 2014), and so is well qualified to do so. So this could be the beginning of a "Stump the Parishioner" series.

Here are his comments:

That’s certainly one of the more superficial assessments of the transgender question that I’ve come across. Here we see a person who’s committed a violent sexual crime, and this priest simply takes him at his word that he liked to try on dresses as a child… and thus we have evidence that there’s something profoundly unique and mysterious about this individual? Never mind that his mom let him go on a gender-bending shopping-spree. I’m sure that doesn’t indicate further issues with his upbringing.

Anyway, given that the priest in question is so unwilling to move even beyond this poor man’s self-presentation as transgender, there’s not much hope for a deep reading of St. Maximos!

He refers, it seems to me, to three distinct things in St. Maximos’s theology:

1. One is the distinction between logos and tropos, or between the principle of nature (that which makes a thing what it is in accordance with God’s design) (=logos) and the mode in which things manifest or express themselves, whether in accordance with or contrary to nature. Usually this refers to the way we behave, but it can also refer to accidental features of a thing or the way it is (=tropos). Thus, St. Maximos talks about the birth or incarnation of Christ as preserving the logos but innovating the tropos (see Amb. 42). In other words, the essence or logos of Christ’s conception and birth is fundamentally and essentially human, but his birth is strange and unusual in that it was from a Virgin. Thus, though it has the same (human) logos, it has a different tropos. Maximos compares this to the water in Egypt that took on the quality of blood. It had a new tropos (e.g., being red), but it preserved the same logos in that it remained water. In fact, this is the case with every miracle. God does not destroy our reality or disturb nature; he simply makes things (which remain what they are) behave differently.

This whole distinction is ambiguously cast in the article as a difference between “our true identities” and the way we exist. But the principle of our nature is not, of course, “our true identity” in some nebulous sense. It is simply the way God made us and the way God wants us to be. It’s the basis, in fact, for natural law! That there’s a paradigmatic and normative sense of what it means to be human, with things that are good for us and things that are bad for us, makes it possible to say that there’s a right and wrong, and that God wants us to behave in a certain way, in accordance with our nature (see, esp., Amb. 7.17).

2. The second element of Maximos’s theology that he refers to is specific to Ambiguum 71, where St. Maximos exegetes the statement of St. Gregory the Theologian that “The sublime Word plays in all kinds of forms, judging His world as He wishes, on this side and on that.” The sense of ‘play’ that the essayist invokes is popular in certain modern (or postmodern) philosophies. But St. Maximos has a very different sense of ‘play.’

What St. Maximos himself says is about as far away as one can get from “suspending judgement” on moral issues. To begin with, he understands the word “play” as referring to the divine condescension of the Word, being the equivalent of the “foolishness” of God mentioned in 1 Cor 1:25:
“The great and awesome mystery of the divine descent of God the Word was accomplished through the flesh, a mystery in which the truth of right faith in God was given to human beings, and which, insofar as it utterly transcends the whole order and power of nature, was called the foolishness and weakness of God by the divine Paul, the great apostle, … whereas the great and God-minded Gregory characterized this mystery as a kind of “game,” on account of its surpassing prudence” (Amb. 71.2).
And again, ‘the “foolishness” and “weakness” of God, according to the holy Apostle Paul, and the “play” of God, according to Gregory the wondrous and great teacher, signify the mystery of the divine Incarnation, since in a manner beyond being it transcends the whole order and arrangement of every nature, power, possession, and activity” (Amb. 71.3).
To be sure, St. Maximos offers other interpretations. Another reading of “play” sees it as the very interchange that God undertakes between his own uncreated nature and our lowly world.
“The sublime Word plays in all kinds of forms, judging His world as he wishes, on this side and on that.” Is this not then the same thing that he says in his oration On Holy Pentecost, when he speaks about divinity and created nature? “As long as each nature remains in its proper domain, the one atop its lofty height, the other in its lowliness, God’s goodness remains unmixed, and His love for mankind is not communicated, and there is a great chasm in the middle that cannot be crossed
So here the emphasis of “play” is on the movement between God and creatures. So far, this has little to do with “suspending judgement” on anything like a person’s gender. But the passage that the author of that article seems to invoke is the following:
“We know that parents—if I may use examples we are familiar with to illustrate things that are above us—providing their children with opportunities to shake off their sluggishness, frequently condescend to their level, and thus we see them indulgently taking part in childish games, such as playing with nuts and knucklebones with them, or showing them many-colored flowers and colorfully-dyed clothing to beguile their senses, thereby attracting their attention and filling them with amazement, for young children have no other kind of work or occupation” (Amb. 71.6).
So far so good. The topic here is condescension. And the author of the Public Orthodoxy article would have us believe we must condescend to the level of self-identified transgender folk by countenancing some sort of mystery at work in their confusion about whether they are male or female. But if we look carefully at what St. Maximos says, it’s not about being open to some kind of [fallen] ambiguity surrounding our fellow sinners. He says very explicitly how God condescends to us:
“Thus, perhaps the teacher [St. Gregory the Theologian] is saying that God, who is superior to all, by leading us through the nature of visible creations, as if it were a kind of story, seeks to amaze us or attract our attention by the sight and knowledge of these things, as if we were no different than children, after which he directs us to the contemplation of the more spiritual principles within these things, and finally leads us by way of theology up to the more mystical knowledge of Himself, so far as this is possible” (Amb. 71.7).
The “play,” then, is God’s condescension to our sensible minds by speaking to us through creation and visible things, the way we capture the attention and interest of children through a pedagogy appropriate to their age and development. There’s nothing here to suggest that God 'suspends judgement’ on our immorality or pretends that perversions are mysterious fun and games.

But Maximos offers yet another possibility:
“Or perhaps the mutability of the material objects which we hold in our hands, which shift things around and are themselves shifted around in various ways, having no solid foundation, save for the first intelligible principle, in accordance with which they are carried along wisely and providentially, and carry us along with them—and whereas it might be thought that they can be controlled by us, they slip through our fingers far more frequently than we control them, and they rather almost repel the desire of those among us who insist on clinging to them, and so they neither maintain their hold over us nor are they held by us, since the only stable characteristic their nature possesses is their state of flux and their instability—perhaps this, I say, was fittingly called God’s “play” by the teacher, seeing that it is through these things that God leads us to what is really real and can never be shaken” (Amb. 71.9).
Here we see that God “plays” with us through the elusive character of the material world and created natures (though not fallen realities as such!), which lead us up to God by their very instability. Again, I’m not seeing how this either affirms the mystery of the androgene or leads us to ‘suspend judgement’ on moral issues.

And, finally, St. Maximos offers one more interpretation and a last chance to salvage some meaning in that priest’s article:
“And if we ourselves, in accordance with the prevailing sequence of our nature, are now born like the rest of the living creatures on the earth, after which we become children, and after which, in the manner of quickly fading flowers, our youth withers into the wrinkles of old age, and dying we are transferred to another life—then not without reason are we said to be the “plaything of God” by that God-bearing teacher. For this present life, when compared to the archetype of the divine and true life that is to come, is a child’s toy, than which no other such toy could be more insubstantial. The teacher states this much more clearly in the funeral oration for his brother Kaisarios, when he says: “Such is our life, brothers, of we who live only briefly: a sort of game played upon the earth. Not having existed, we were brought into being, and having been brought into being, we are dissolved. We are a dream that does not last, a phantom that cannot be grasped, the flight of a bird that passes and is gone….” (Amb. 71.10).
No dice, unfortunately. We’re mortal, and our lives are thus a plaything. Again, I don’t see how that justifies ambiguities surrounding the gender of a sex offender, however much that person deserves our compassion.

3. Lastly, the essay ends with some rhetoric about not having to compromise our morals even in “suspending judgement” any more than the Lord had to compromise his morals when he ate with sinners. I’m not sure why, then, the author leaps from “suspending judgement” to telling us how “the one who is perfect in love” sees neither male nor female. If one follows the logic of the essay, the transgender person is a sea of unfathomable mystery, and yet we might also be right to see them as perverse and disordered, while at the same time we have to suspend judgement, while at the same time we shouldn’t countenance the difference between male or female. Which is it? On the difference (or lack thereof) between male and female in St. Maximos, he cites an offhand remark in the Chapters on Love that merely echoes St. Paul. St. Maximos goes into this topic more in depth in Ambiguum 41; and it is nothing new for would-be scholars of St. Maximos to claim that the saint espouses some kind of eschatological transgenderism. But here it’s not necessary to comment on this aspect of St. Maximos’s anthropology, since the author of this article has merely thrown that comment in at the end without connecting it to any of his other claims. The only observation we need to make is that it does not follow at all from what he has said about tropos, logos, “play,” or anything else.

I think, in the end, the problem with this essay is not that the author seems to misuse St. Maximos (which of course he does). I think the real problem is that even the author doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. Is Michael-Michelle a mystery, or are we allowed to have moral convictions about his state? And if we’re allowed to have moral convictions about his condition, what are we being called to apart from the same merciful love we’re supposed to show everyone? It’s not clear from this essay. The only thing the author manages to get across is that he himself didn’t know how to assess this person he met in jail. Which to me proves why we need to have moral convictions in the first place. Because one day we might meet a man named Michelle and be confused about his identity--even if he’s in jail for violent sexual crimes.