I first encountered Camille Paglia in 1991, just after she had published the essay, “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex.” Blame Bob Godfrey. I was pastoring a church in Kansas City and happened to be visiting Escondido and stopped by Bob’s office. He had just read the essay and recommended it as a brilliant skewering of the attempt by mainline (liberal) Presbyterians in the PCUSA to promote homosexual marriage (an oxymoron) by domesticating and suburbanizing Ben and Barry’s rebellious and wild sexuality. In that essay she argued that homosexual encounters are not for suburban bedrooms but for back alleys and, as a practicing lesbian, she resented the attempt by the PCUSA to repackage her intentional, volitional rejection of divinely established norms. What Paglia might not know is that this is what the mainline does: accommodate to the culture in order to retain its privileged status within the culture.
Paglia is at it again. She’s deconstructing Gay Orthodoxy in the pages of this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, telling the truth about homosexuality and the suicide of the West at the behest of late-modern feminism. Before you get your hackles up, there is a sane, reasonable, biblical place in the account of male-female relations that is between late-modern feminism and wacky patriarchalism on the Palouse but that is the stuff for another post. Here, today, we should pay attention to two things: 1) The truth of what she said and 2) Its remarkable source.
There are universally known laws. Paul says so in Romans 1-2. Any Christian who denies that there are universally known laws, is not only denying the plain teaching of Scripture but the catholic tradition and particularly the Reformed tradition. Both pagans and Christians know those laws. We all, to some degree or other, by nature after the fall, seek to suppress that knowledge but, in God’s providence, it’s just not possible to suppress it completely and sometimes those the truth of those laws pop out, in surprising places.
One of those universal truths is that there is such a thing as nature. The Christian conviction that there is such a thing as nature or creation and that it was made good distinguishes us from the Gnostics. There is, as Ken Myers has been reminding us for years, “giveness.” There is human nature. There is biology. Humans are male and female. Without becoming too detailed, God intended that males and females should relate to each other sexually. It is obvious from nature that homosexual behavior is not only counter productive but personally, physically, sexually, emotionally, and spiritually destructive. J. Budziseweski has been pointing this out for some time.
Americans, including American Christians, have an ambivalence toward nature. The American republic came into existence partly through the recognition that there is such thing as nature and that some things are contrary to the nature of things as constituted by God. The Declaration of Independence speaks of “nature and nature’s God” in the first paragraph. Our case for self-government was grounded in the nature of things, in the existence of “self-evident” truths. It has been fashionable for at least 30 years to mock the very idea that there are “self-evident” truths but, as I keep saying, jump off a three-story building and ring up afterward to tell me how it went.
What’s that you say? You can’t? Why not? Oh, I see, because you’re dead. How did that happen? Gravity, you say? You mean to say that the laws of physics apply to you even though you don’t recognize them? Really? Well, that is something isn’t it?
Of course it’s silly but that’s the world in which we now live. We pretend as if there really aren’t any such things as binding, fixed realities to which we must submit or else but there are such.
At the same time, we Americans are a “can-do” people and we’ve long recognized that appeals to nature can be used to mask other agendas e.g., sloth or an entrenched class structure that values status over merit, behaviors and structures that are not actually grounded in the nature of things and we have rightly rejected such false appeals to nature. That can-do spirit has helped to create an amazing economy and republic, which, even in its present weakened state, is formidable. Yet, that suspicion of agendas cloaked in appeals to nature can lead to an undue suspicion of any and all appeals to nature. This is particularly true in our age when we flatter ourselves by thinking that, through technology, we can be as God: everywhere at the same time. Oh yeah? Let the power grid go down for an hour and see how divine you are when your phone dies and you can’t charge it.
This gets us back to Paglia. Strangely perhaps, she believes in nature. She believes that by nature there are boys and girls and that the differences between them are not mere social constructs but are, in fact, rooted in the nature of things. Boys are generally wired one way and girls another. The differences can’t be ascribed entirely to nurture. Like some others, she’s worried that late-modern feminism, in its drive to wipe out differences between the sexes-—as I write this, the state of California is days away from a new and incredibly stupid law, AB1266, according to which children are allowed identify their own sex (or tran-sex) and choose bathroom facilities and sports teams accordingly. Quite sensibly, Paglia is worried that the late-modern feminist movement is turning little boys into little girls. There’s more than a little evidence to support her concern. Christina Hoff Sommers has been sounding the alarm on this for sometime. The system is rigged to favor girls and to create incentives for boys to behave more like girls.
In the interview she hits a resonant note. One of the unintended consequences of the professionalization of the military is that very few people ever have much contact with it. The draft had its downside and, as I recall, the generals favored eliminating it—all this occurred as I was approaching draft eligibility so I paid attention—but it was a distinctly masculine culture. It was a place where boys became men, where they were not only not discouraged from being masculine and aggressive but where masculinity and aggressiveness was valued and disciplined. My early school experience was quasi-military. We lined up. We marched. Gym teachers (men) barked orders and now I realize why: In the late 1960s we had been at war in Vietnam for several years. Ten years before our involvement in Vietnam, we were in Korea. Ten Only a few years before Korea, millions of American men had military training. The men who ran our schools had been in their 20 during WWII or during Korea. Military and masculine influences were more common and accepted. I remember Jr High students in ROTC uniforms. There were shooting clubs, in school, where, under adult supervision, boys learned to handle firearms. Have you noticed how squeamish reporters are when talking about firearms? It’s as if they are icky and yucky. It’s not as if some of them don’t know it. The real point of the GQ interview with Phil Robertson, now lost in the political controversy over some of his remarks, was the writer’s discovery of what a sissy he had become. It was a lament over the loss of rugged mascuinity.
In the 60s and 70s, in school we played games where, under adult supervision, we threw balls at other children standing against wall (dodge ball). If we got a cut on the gravel playground we packed dirt into the wound to stop the bleeding and we kept on playing. Today, judging by the news, it seems that if a child threw ball at another child the school would be placed on lockdown and SWAT would sweep the building looking for the offender.
The culture has been flipped at every level of education. In university I worked a number of part-time jobs. One of them was driving a cab and making deliveries for the university and the state. The “Women’s Studies” office was my least favorite stop. Every other office on campus was friendly and helpful but not the Women’s Studies office. They were surly sexists. They knew I must be an oppressor because of my sex. Back then their misanthropy seemed harmless. They were in cramped quarters. Today, however, they run the universities. What was boutique and exotic is now the establishment.
Perhaps the most revolutionary thing Paglia says in the interview is that homosexuality is a choice. She calls the idea all homosexuals are born homosexual “the biggest canard.” In this there is a great irony. We live in a time when everything is described as a preference, and a social construct—everything that is except for homosexuality. That, the received wisdom says, cannot be a choice. The other great irony is that according to one of the godfathers of the late-modern Deconstructionist movement, Michel Foucault, homosexuality is a social construct. Truly we have entered the Twilight Zone, when we get more truth about the nature of things and sexuality from a lesbian atheist and a French Deconstructionist than from ostensibly normal emergents, mainline Presbyterians, and others who care more about getting along than about getting it right.
This brings us to the second and shorter point: Christians should learn from and agree with pagans, when they tell the truth. The Apostle Paul agreed with the pagan poet Epimenedes and quoted him to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:28). He also quoted a pagan “prophet” in Titus 1:12. The Apostle John made use of a well-established term (Logos) from pagan philosophy in his gospel. In using it, he revolutionized it, but he did use it and in order to use it he had to be aware of it.
Throughout the Christian tradition, theologians have always made use of insights and vocabularies of the surrounding, broader culture. Calvin read and quoted Plato, Cicero, and Seneca among others. Our orthodox Reformed writers in the 17th century did the same. They weren’t afraid of the pagan classics nor were they afraid of non-Christian writers from their own time. The Christian use of those materials, plundering the Egyptians, is not evidence that the Christians have capitulated to non-Christian ideas or thought patterns. It is evident that they are not ignorant and afraid. It is evident that they are literate and intelligent and willing to affirm the truth as it appears.
Engagement with pagans is evidence of a doctrine of providence that understands that humans are created in the image of God and despite their best (or worst) efforts, sometimes that image shines through and when it does, we are ought to recognize it. In the modern period some Dutch Reformed theologians have described this (or a similar) approach to providence as Gemeene Gratie. I hesitate to translate the phrase because the moment I do, it will bring a bombardment of bombast by its opponents but it’s usually translated as common grace.
The Reformed have typically affirmed both the epistemic and moral antithesis between belief and unbelief and the creational commonality entailed in general providence. We do not have to choose between them. Unfortunately, in the modern period, some on either side have tried to force us to choose between them. We should not. We should stand with Kuyper here, even if some of us are a little reluctant to use his terminology. At the level of epistemology there is an unbridgeable chasm between belief and unbelief. Pagans who deny God and who seek to live in his world as if he was not are fools. They are stealing from God and they will be called to account.
Nevertheless, in the providence of God, between creation and the parousia, life is such that pagans do see and speak truth. Nothing about the antithesis prevents us from acknowledging that reality. We are not obscurantists. We affirm the goodness and falleness of creation. Fearlessly, confident in the Scriptures and the Christian faith, we engage the world about us, even a lesbian atheist who, despite what we might expect, has the good sense to see that boys and girls are not mere arbitrary social constructions and that deviance from the divine norm is not a biological or moral necessity but a choice with tragic consequences.