In part one of my response to Dr. Rachel Lu’s “Eros Divided: Is There Such a Thing as Healthy Homoerotic Love?” I outlined some of the dangers of viewing ourselves–Christians–in contrast to our secular/progressive/modern peers when promoting the Christian way of life. In particular, I expressed concerns about how this can hide hypocrisies and encourage condescension rather than engagement. There is another danger, however: the danger, in the process of combating our “opponents,” of becoming them.
In 2011, sociologist Christian Smith gave a presentation on secularism at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s Fall Conference. He gave an account of how, in an effort to distinguish themselves from religious organizations, many atheist groups have come to resemble them, an unsurprising phenomenon from the sociological perspective. In the same way, I worry that the more Christians work to define ourselves in contrast to other groups, the more we will drift away from a grounded Christianity and take on the spirit of those others.
From a spiritual perspective, this can be explored through a new rendering of Rene Girard’s concept of mimetic desire. According to Girard’s concept, we “catch” desire from others, especially those we admire and respect. We have a tendency to imitate the desires of others. David O’Connor explains this concept by saying that desire can be contagious, and this might explain why people frequently become romantically interesting to us as soon as our friends or rivals find them so. This may explain one significance of contemplating Scripture or the lives of the saints. We not only gain notional knowledge but can also learn to love as they love, through the activity of mimetic desire. They long for Christ, and we can “catch” that longing.
I would like to expand the concept of mimetic desire into a concept of mimetic opposition. As we engage in opposition with others, we learn to fight like they do. We take on the modes and tactics of their opposition in an effort to defeat them, and the spirit of their opposition attaches to us. The heat of an argument doesn’t occur in a vacuum but is a mimesis, a mutually contagious imitation.
The insidious thing about oppositional activity is that we can be convinced we maintain our original opposition to the other because of our differing conclusions, even while beginning to resemble each other more and more in the mode and expression of opposition. And even if our conclusions change, we can find a deluded solace so long as they remain “different” from whatever conclusions that other side holds at the time. This might explain the atheist organizations that begin to look more and more like Christian churches while still claiming to be opposed to them.
Thus, we should engage in careful discernment as we oppose those whom we perceive to be undermining a Christian/biblical worldview. As we engage in opposition, we may not be as firmly rooted as we believe. Rather, we change in approach and disposition and, over time, may find ourselves engaged in the very project we originally sought to overcome.
This can be seen in Dr. Lu’s characterization of “the secular left,” to whom she attributes the overarching goal “to undermine the norms of marriage.” She seems to presume bad faith from its claims that it seeks freedom and the pursuit of human dignity. She argues that it uses the “personal struggles” of those who experience “homoerotic desire” as a “necessary tool” in its efforts that are really aimed at undermining, rather than uplifting.
But she presents a disengaged mischaracterization of goals. Many of my liberal friends would argue that such an agenda is actually aimed at affirming the good of those who identify as gay or lesbian and creating a space in which sexuality is seen as a good. But in failing to even consider a positive aim, however misguided it might be, Dr. Lu imitates the dismissive way in which opponents of Christian teachings on marriage argue that the overarching goal of these teachings is the maintenance of a bigoted patriarchy and that the supposed aim of affirming human dignity is simply a façade.
These mischaracterizations of goals mimic each other’s condescending dismissiveness and disengagement. This cannot be seen as a Christian approach which views heresy, in G. K. Chesterton’s words, as a “half truth.” A Chestertonian approach to this issue might involve affirming the good of our “opponents’” arguments and then contextualizing them within a fuller framework. This is not the approach of Dr. Lu’s essay.
Nor is her approach properly catechetical. One of the most blatant departures from a Catholic approach, in a catechetical sense, is Dr. Lu’s explicit rejection of the language and frameworks for sexuality presented in today’s magisterial documents. The goal of her essay is to “argue that the intellectual project of affirming a gay or homosexual identity as such… cannot ultimately succeed.” A brief reference to the Catechism’s teaching on “homosexual persons” (CCC 2359) will reveal that Dr. Lu’s project ultimately requires the rejection of current official Church teaching on these questions. She argues that the category “homosexual persons” must be rejected, even while the Catechism uses it. Therefore, her project cannot be properly understood as catechetical, even if it may be theological in an exploratory way. Her mimetic opposition towards the “gay rights agenda” may have led her to a rejection of the Catechism’s approach to this question.
I also worry that Dr. Lu’s broader approach to theology and knowledge works within a mimetic opposition framework, partly by combating a current perspective from the vantage point of its position at an earlier phase. If I am right, this might help explain the fact that the only theological citations she makes are to one text by Karol Wojtyla, another by C. S. Lewis, and a single reference to the Catechism. These are all sources drawn from the last century. Throughout, however, she makes vague and uncited references to the “Church Fathers” and the pre-modern “tradition” of the Church.
Though I highly value the texts she draws from and work to integrate them into my own thought, I believe that her lack of direct contact with the broader tradition of the Church gives her approach a particularly modern bent. I don’t mean to imply that these texts carry less weight or authority simply by virtue of their recent publication. Nor do I believe something ought to be dismissed simply because it is “modern.” We are all moderns, given that we live in the modern world. Rather, I simply find her associations of the “Spiritual Friendship movement” with modernity, allegedly in contrast to her own work, strange and unfounded. I will elaborate on this point in my next post.
More in this series:
You can find this post and others like it in my collection of writings, “I Desired You: Volume 2.” Available here.