Our Accidents, Ourselves

JMJ

Know yourself is one of the maxims of Delphi, γνῶθι σεαυτόν gnothi seauton, which has come down to us by way of Socrates and others: Know Thyself. Finding seems to be the first step to knowing. So, “find yourself” (a la the 1960s) and then “come in and know me better,” says the Ghost of Christmas Present. The first question that arises is what is this myself that I should know? It’s not who am I but rather, what, exactly, is the I that I should be looking to know? One needs to identify the subject long before one can know the location, height, depth, and width of the subject. This is, in some ways, the reverse of standard detection work. In this one finds clues leading to the person who committed a crime. But for knowing yourself you need to find the person first – before the other things come into play.

Two stories highlight what we might describe as the fungibility of identity. As a child, I lived in the Deep South: rural Georgia within a couple of hours’ drive of the Florida border. In fifth grade, my family moved to upstate New York where my step-father’s family lived. Once there, the cultural status of two groups had changed for in upstate New York both Italians and Jews were considered white. They were not so in the Deep South in the 1960s. Although my childhood brain did not uses such words at the time, this was a realization of the cultural construction of whiteness and race. Of course, even in upstate New York, there were still racial “others” but Italians and Jews were on “our side.”

More recently, a friend tells me the story of a parish in his town which was traditionally an African American parish. When the founding pastor retired, the local Ordinary had no available clergy and so accepted the offer of help from a priest from South Africa. There was a discovery in those days that clergy from South Africa are not at all of the same mindset as African Americans! In America, we tend to focus on one thing – in this case, skin color – and draw from that an idea of the people involved. While my friend correctly made the point that race is part of a person’s identity, it is very much a cultural identity: it’s not based on the skin color alone.

As I hope these stories indicate, we seem to be doing this wrong. We do this, as well, with sexuality. As with race, we use the “sexual identity” of the person to categorize the entire being. In Catholic anthropology (our understanding of the human being) each person, each self, is a union of soul and body: a spiritual-physical hybrid that is a little lower than the angels who have no physical element, and a little higher than the animals who have no spiritual component. The self is exactly this hybrid. Coming to “know thyself” is coming to know this hybrid being. Americans often confuse mere aspects of the self (usually spiritual ones, but sometimes physical ones) with the entire self. So how are we to “know thyself”? Our culture wants to do this whole thing backward: we want to find clues to the person – in order to know the person at all. Especially in the first person, though, who is doing the searching at all? Who discovered my sexual or racial identity?

This question of who is me has haunted me since my mid-twenties, even in the midst of my own coming out process of “discovering my sexuality”. Coming out changed my relationship with my friends and family. It changed my relationship with the Episcopal church – which was then my faith community and also where I was employed. Most importantly, it changed my understanding of (my relationship with) myself. How can these things change so much and yet I am still me? Am I still me? In those days a friend said yes, that this had been me all along and now (at age 24) I was becoming more of myself. This was the understanding of “coming out” that was and still is described in the community. This is why someone might come out at the age of 70 and break up with their spouse and move out. They have finally found themself. Who were they before, though? Before coming out is one a shell of oneself? A shadow? A fairy changeling? Is one a fake person before coming out? A lie? Who was doing the searching for this “lost self”?

At issue is a question of ontology: what am I? Specifically in this essay, what does it mean to “be” gay? It stresses some out who feel that “gay people are forced into celibacy by the Church.” However, that presumes that “gay people” is an ontological category. To rephrase this question in the midst of my own journey: who was I before I came out? Who was I when I was “out”? And who am I now, trying to live in active conformity to the Church’s teaching on sexuality? If someone says, “I am gay” what makes them different from others? If one stops using that language, what is the difference?

For a long while I bought into the idea that in some way a personal identity is performative: one is what one does. This idea was once very common among sexual minorities. By this logic, anyone who has even once had sex with someone of the same sex “really is” gay – even if they reject that label. What becomes, then, of someone who, by choice, no longer engages in this activity? What is the identity of someone who no longer does gay things? In light of performative identity, they are still “secretly” gay. Once you’ve performed it in any way you’re tagged with it. There was a long time in the movement when those who engaged in gay sex – but did so secretly – were styled as “only homosexuals”. One had to be out to be “really gay”. Why do you flaunt your sexuality? Well, to be gay, of course: otherwise I’m only homosexual. One must be out, loud, and proud to be gay. Marching in parades or wearing pink triangle pins made one gay even though one may not have engaged in sex for a long while. This was a variation on the performative definition, only using a different performance and stage.

At some point in the last 40 years, the accepted idea of sexual identity drifted from being performative to emotive. One is gay simply because one feels a sexual attraction to members of the same sex. It matters not if one ever does it: one is still gay by virtue of the feelings. This is how one can be “secretly gay” even if they’ve ever done anything gay at all. They still have these emotions, these feelings.

The emotivist definition allows modern folks to project this issue back through time. Anyone can be imagined to have felt this way by reading clues in their life. Thus history is filled with people whom we imagine felt this and they were all secretly gay! In the Bible and Church history, then, we can project that same-sex couples were “really gay” even if they are never depicted as having sex. See those love poems? Gay. Further, we can see those historic places where same-sex action is depicted as also really gay. Greece, for example, and the Isle of Lesbos. Gay! Why? Because in all of these cases we read in our modern emotional understanding of the feelings. They can be imagined to feel like us, so they are like us. That’s so gay.

The emotivist definition now runs the show: I feel this, therefore I am this. I need only imagine that you, also, feel this, therefore you are also this. The process of “finding yourself” now becomes a process of simply being aware of these feelings and then acting on them. But this part is not what causes your “self” to change: it’s the feelings themselves. In 40 years this emotive idea has expanded to excuse a lot of things: thus it becomes possible to say (as I heard recently), “I don’t care if he was married to a woman, the fact that he gets excited about [a list of ‘gay culture things’] means he is gay.” These things were art, antiques, and good food, by the way.

This came home to me as someone angrily fought with me at the entrance to my parish church. How could I go in there where they oppress gays? I had to admit I’ve never believed myself to be oppressed by the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church and that I was trying to live the traditional teachings. “But you still feel this attraction?” And I said yes. And he said, “Gaslighting…” and stomped out. He assumed the idea that identity is emotive. It doesn’t matter what I do in his eyes. One is this simply because one feels it.

We have “emotivised” a lot of things, actually. We don’t limit it to sex and sexuality: in fact, we allow it in cases of race and even age. (Age is a number, you’re only as old as you feel…) Politics and language are almost entirely about feelings now. Painful moral choices are relegated to emotional readings. Things that make me feel bad are bad. Things that make me feel good are good. People who cause any sort of pain or discomfort are accused of making “microaggressions” and of “hate”.

None of this is to deny there are Christians who experience same-sex attraction, but what does it mean for a Christian to “be” gay now? As open relationships and polyamory become more common amongst those in same-sex relationships, those who identified as gay Christians experience a disconnect since they seek to replicate monogamy and a sort of 1950s-style family life. What is one “performing” when the definition of “the right way to do gay” has changed? If one doesn’t accept the current ideological line of the gay community, is one actually gay? To “be gay” now requires not only sexual choices but also an inclusion of “trans” and other items which in the past were not part of the deal. Can one in today’s world “feel gay” if one rejects gender ideology, abortion, divorce, and an overall culture of disposable people and relationships? Rejecting all these things often leaves one excluded from the “polite company” encompassed by the rainbow flag. So it seems that there may be a right way and a wrong way to be gay. If one is not doing gay right, is one performing it at all?

How is it, then, that we are who we are? How can God “make me this way” and yet tell me that to feel this is a sin? Feeling is the right word there – since mere feelings of this are the defining category. Notice how many times the Church’s teaching – and the reaction to it – gets attached only to the “being gay” by which they mean “feeling gay”. No one is able to answer the question about “what makes you different” without using either doing or feeling. Is it possible we’re wrong? Is “feeling this way” and “doing this” only a false consciousness? What if there is a better way to think about this – or at least a way to open up the conversation? Is it possible we’re going about this backward? In other words on the next page I’m going to argue that one is not “more” of oneself after coming out – but less.

Substance, Form, Matter & Accident

St Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, understood reality to be made up of substances. A philosophical substance is not the same thing as a scientific element. A substance is a specific unique thing in the order of creation. A star is a substance as is a kilt. A car is a substance as is a dog. Coffee is a substance as is water, heat, and a cup.

On that last example, let’s build out a further set of things: form and matter. As substance is a philosophical concept and not a scientific one so, also, are matter and form. Matter is the physical part of something’s isness. We never see matter without form though: the latter is the spiritual part, the conceptual part if you will, of something’s isness. When matter (which is generic) coheres with form (which is specific) we have a unique substance. If a cup of coffee can be imagined as a specific substance (instead of a combination of them) the liquid might be seen as the matter and the cup the form. This analogy breaks down really fast so don’t think about it too much, but do try, for a moment, to imagine a coffee hour at church with no cups.

Finally, a substance, comprised of matter and form, has qualities that, philosophically, are called accidents. A cup of coffee can be cold or hot, iced or a latte (or an iced latte). It can have lots of cream and sugar or be a medium roast. It can be good or bad. It can be stale, have a lid, a paper cup holder; be made out of ceramic, paper, or plastic. It can be Turkish or Thai, Italian or french roast, it can be instant, organic, or decaffeinated. This can go on ad infinitum. While I might quibble about caffeine and instant, each of these accidents can change or be missing even, while we still have a cup of coffee. The accidents can change but the substance remains because its form and matter still cohere.

Now, wrap these philosopical terms around a human person.

In Catholic anthropology each person is, properly, an individual substance: they have each their own form and matter, with their own accidents. The soul is the form of each person: it is created ex nihilo (out of nothing) at the moment of conception. Your physical matter is 50% Mommy’s DNA and 50% Daddy’s, but your form is 100% God’s and you are a divinely-directed substance with your own power and presence in God’s created order. There are also accidents to your person: your hair color, your race, your emotions, your tastes, your height, your eye color, your heart rate, etc. These things can come and go without your substance ever being changed. You are still you when you’re angry or happy. Snickers is wrong in that you’re still you when you’re hungry. You’re still you when you are dressed up or down. You are still you when you are eating or sleeping, when you are dirty or clean. You are you if you get wounded in an accident, have a limb decapitated, or when your hair gets grey and falls out. You’re still the same you when you take hormone shots. You are you even when your accidents change.

How then are we to live?

It stresses some out who feel that “gay people are forced into celibacy by the Church.” However, that presumes that “gay people” is an ontological category. As I hoped to show above, the definition has changed so many times there is no real “gay” to point at. When someone of my age group spoke of “queer theology” in the 80s we were not speaking of “LGBTQ++” theology as it is used now.

So, there’s the Big Bang which brings all of Universe, formless and void into being. Then there’s the Planck Epoch 10-43 seconds after the big bang, gravity happened. So a flash of light, then light pulling together. By 1 second… mass. Then by 20 mins… plasma. “After recombination and decoupling, the universe was transparent but the clouds of hydrogen only collapsed very slowly to form stars and galaxies, so there were no new sources of light.” (Wiki)
There was light…
Light divided from the darkness…
And the firmament divided…
The firmament populated with stars…

There was a big bang of matter and form, but then accidents happened. Gravity, substances, things happened after the Bang. It begins to feel to me as if that is true of humans as well. As I mentioned before, your physical matter is 50% Mommy’s DNA and 50% Daddy’s, but your form is 100% God’s and you are a divinely-directed substance with your own power and presence in God’s created order. Your accidents happen though. It seems like sexuality, per se, is a gift from God. However what happens, how it unfolds in each life, based on things around, psychology, etc., this all seems to be unrelated to the initial beginning.

You already see where I’m going with this, but one’s sexual expression is only an accident. Our culture treats it as if it is our form (soul) and we wrestle with it as if it has a moral weight on its own. Yet the concept of sexuality-as-being is entirely new.

A Christian is called to live chastely by which we mean “according to the teachings of the Church”. Thus, there is only one way that sexual activity is in keeping with God’s plan for our salvation even though there are many ways in which one may opt to express their sexuality. However expressing sexuality, as such, is not what sex is for. It’s an accident of the person, not the person. In different cultures, it has arisen and been expressed differently.

There were men and women who engaged in same-sex action in the past, yes. But they were simply human persons (each was their own substance) who were engaged in certain sexual actions: they were not labeled differently as persons. They were not conceived of as different categories of persons by virtue of what they did. In fact, in many cultures which approved (or at least did not disapprove) of such actions, everyone still got married and had children as a social obligation. Some also had lovers on the side. These lovers may have been of the same sex or opposite sex, as one might prefer. They were not “gay” as we think of it today. When we call these ancients “gay” or “lesbian” it is a projection back on their culture, a form of historic colonialism where we make the past out to be like our modern, capitalist America. The moral sense of these accidents (sex acts) differed from culture to culture, but at no point were people not human beings. At no point was their status as an ontological substance changed or challenged.

In our culture, we have elected to read from the accident (the emotions, the feelings, the action) to the whole person. We do this also with race. We see a person’s skin color and refuse to see any more. The person is there. We think of our accidents as “ourselves”. Yes, some accidents are more permanent than others, but they are still only accidents: St Paul says, in Christ, we are neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free. Our accidents do not define us – even if they clearly remain. One is still a person of a certain age and standing on society but in baptism one can be transubstantiated if you will: one is now being conformed to Christ (albeit rather slowly because of our sins).

Catholic Anthropology insists that we are body-and-soul eternally united into one being. The feelings, as such, even the actions of the body, are only accidents to this eternal spiritual/material hybrid being which is each of us.

So the construction of sexuality has changed and the content of the label changes repeatedly. We are drawing boundaries based only on desire. In tagging a difference between, on the one hand, our brothers and sisters in Christ who experience same-sex attraction and those, on the other hand, who do not share this experience, we’re placing a division where there is none. We’re treating a constantly-shifting cultural marker as if it were an ontological reality. In doing so we’re denying the reality of the substance of each person, using the accident of “their sexuality” as a sort of synecdoche for the entire person. Yet, since that accident is only culturally constructed, it’s not even an actual part of the person being indicated in the language.

What does it mean to be a “gay Christian”? This whole essay has been an attempt to indicate there is no logical answer to that question -there are only culturally constructed boundaries. These boundaries move so much that one cannot say “I am this…” since the words mean different things at different times. Thinking in this way, we are all directed towards chastity, and we can all also live within the Church’s teaching. It’s not that “gay people are forced…” it’s that there is no separate class of people: we are all called to the same thing. We have different paths to get there though, different crosses to carry. But we are carrying them to the same ends: the integration of the whole self into a process of salvation.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.