Monday, October 15, 2007

Senior Essay


Introduction: The Long Road to Rome

Oscar Wilde died in 1900, as he had predicted he would. “Somehow I don’t think I shall survive to see the new century,” he told his friend Robert Ross. “If another century began and I was still alive, it would really be more than the English could stand.” According to W. B. Yeats, the Decadent movement came to an end that same year: “In 1900, everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did, I have forgotten.”

Including Roman Catholicism in a list with madness, suicide, and absinthe is accurate in the context of the Decadent movement. Many of the prominent figures of the “Yellow Nineties” were converts, including Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Gray, and Marc-André Raffalovich. Francis Thompson had been baptized into the Catholic faith as a child. Philippe Jullian has remarked that Catholicism “exerted a considerable influence on the best English poets” of the fin-de-siècle, and the historian Brocard Sewell notes in his study of Gray and Raffalovich that “decadent” converts to the Church were so numerous and so prone to scandalous behavior that the Pope was careful to assign decadents who took holy orders to parishes outside of England in order to protect Catholicism’s reputation in Britain.

Wilde came close to joining the Catholic Church during his time at Oxford. His letters to William Ward, a fellow student and a Protestant, exhort Ward to allow himself to “feel the awful fascination of the Church, its extreme beauty and sentiment.” “Do try to see in the Church not man’s hand only,” Wilde wrote, “but also a little of God’s.” In another letter to Ward, Wilde confessed to being “caught in the fowler’s snare, in the wiles of the Scarlet Woman — I may go over in the vac.”

Wilde did not go over in the vac, and would have faced negative consequences if he had. His college friend David Hunter-Blair was himself a devout Catholic and would have been delighted to see Wilde join the Church, but for the most part Wilde’s friends and teachers were Protestants who considered conversion to Rome something of a scandal. The last legal penalties on Roman Catholics had been removed before Wilde was born, but anti-Catholic sentiment survived, as can be seen in the British public’s reaction to Pope Pius IX’s decision to reinstate Catholic hierarchy in Britain and appoint the first archbishop of Westminster since the Reformation. As Patrick Allitt puts it, “Anti-Catholic sermons rang from Anglican pulpits, Queen Victoria said her throne was under attack, and the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, fanned the flames by denouncing the ‘papal aggression.’” The promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870 worsened matters. One of Wilde’s cousins all but struck Wilde out of his will for even considering conversion to the Roman Catholic Church — Wilde’s father received £8000, his brother £2000, and Wilde himself only £100, and that on the condition that he remained a Protestant. Wilde would also have been forced to abandon his involvement with the Freemasons, an organization he had joined in 1875 and which, according to a letter in 1877, he was “rather keen on.”

Not all of the obstacles were external. Wilde himself had considerable doubts, as can be seen in his hesitation to accept an invitation to meet with Cardinal John Henry Newman: “I am awfully keen for an interview . . . [but] perhaps my courage will fail, as I could hardly resist Newman I am afraid.” He declined the invitation.

A priest at a chapel near Oxford where Wilde often visited Mass offered Hunter-Blair an explanation of why his friend Oscar’s fascination with Catholicism did not result in a conversion:
Behind his superficial veneer of vanity and foolish talk there is, I am convinced, something deeper and more sincere, including a genuine attraction towards Catholic belief and practice. But the time has not come. The finger of God has not yet touched him. There will come some day, I am convinced, a crisis in his life when he will turn to the Ark of Peter as his only refuge. Till then we can only pray.
The crisis that would eventually drive Wilde to “turn to the Ark of Peter” came in May 1895 when he was convicted for “acts of gross indecency” — in other words, sodomy — and sentenced to two years of hard labor, but Wilde had begun to reconsider Catholicism even before this crisis. He told Alfred Douglas in 1894 that if that their libel case against Douglas’s father Lord Queensberry succeeded they “must both be received into the dear Catholic Church,” to which Douglas responded that, if the case failed, “we certainly won’t be received anywhere else.”

The first six months of Wilde’s sentence were the most difficult, and, as he told André Gide later, he often thought of suicide. In July 1896 he was granted to permission to keep writing materials in his cell and given access to a larger library of books, which improved his health and spirits. Included on the list of books requested by Wilde were a biography of St. Francis and the works of Dante, as well as the novel En Route by J.-K. Huysmans, which tells the story of a French aesthete who is inspired by the beauty of the Church to abandon decadence and enter a Trappist monastery. On the day of his release from prison, Wilde sent a messenger to a group of London Jesuits with a request for permission to go on a six-month retreat with them. While waiting for the messenger to return with an answer, Wilde explained to the gathered company that be believed the religions of the world to be like the colleges of a university, with Roman Catholicism “the greatest and most romantic of them.” When the Jesuits sent back a note denying Wilde permission to go on a contemplative retreat, according to Ada Leverson’s account Wilde “broke down and sobbed bitterly.”

Oscar Wilde contracted cerebral meningitis in Paris three years after his release from prison and died on the afternoon of November 30, 1900. The night before, Robert Ross had called Father Cuthbert Dunne to Wilde’s bedside and helped him administer the sacraments of baptism and extreme unction. Wilde was barely able to speak at the time, although Father Dunne later insisted, “from the signs he gave as well as from his attempted words, I was satisfied as to his full consent.”

It is possible to attribute Wilde’s deathbed conversion entirely to Ross’s efforts rather than Wilde’s own, but the history of their friendship complicates this interpretation. Far from goading Wilde into conversion, Ross had in the two years before Wilde’s death discouraged him from taking such a step. As he wrote to Adela Schuster in December 1900:
Being Catholic myself, I really rather dreaded a relapse, and having known so many people under the influence of sudden impulse, aesthetic or other emotion become converts, then cause grave scandal by lapsing, that I told him I should never attempt his conversion until I thought he was serious. . . Furthermore I did not know any priest in Rome sufficiently well to prepare for a rather grave intellectual conflict. It would have been no use getting an amiable and foolish man who would have treated him like an ordinary person and entirely ignored the strange paradoxical genius which he would have to overcome or convince. Mr Wilde was equipped moreover for controversy, being deeply read in Catholic philosophy especially of recent years.
In spite of Ross’s reluctance, Wilde’s intention to enter the Catholic faith did not disappear. He told the Daily Chronicle in the summer before his death, “Much of my moral obliquity is due to the fact that my father would not allow me to become a Catholic. The artistic side of the Church would have cured my degeneracies. I intend to be received before long.”

A study of Oscar Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism runs the danger of being as ambiguous and obscure as Wilde’s relationship with the Roman Church. His story cannot be made to fit conventional conversion narratives. His life did not follow the pattern of sincere faith followed by sincere repentance, as did John Gray’s, nor that of openly dueling allegiances to flesh and spirit, as did Francis Thompson’s. Neither can Wilde’s Catholicism be rehabilitated by overstating the agreement between Catholic philosophy and his own. There are similarities – an affinity for ritual, skepticism toward reason, and indifference to efficiency – but the most pious critic could not make an orthodox Christian of the man who wrote Salomé. However, the preponderance of Catholic converts among Decadent writers suggests a connection between aestheticism and Catholicism.

To the extent that Decadence disregards certain facts of human life and nature, it cannot be sustained for a lifetime. To the extent that Catholicism fulfills the ideals of the Decadent movement while avoiding its missteps, it makes sense that Decadent writers turned to it in their maturity. Joseph Pearce’s declaration that “the way of decadence was only the way of the Cross” is too simple, but but a study of Oscar Wilde may reveal Catholicism to be Aestheticism’s culmination.

Intentions: "The Decay of Lying" and "The Critic as Artist"

Wilde ends “The Truth of Masks” by admitting that he does not “agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree.” He implicitly protects the judgments of “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying” with the same disclaimer by presenting them in dialogue form. Every conclusion about Wilde’s own beliefs drawn from Intentions is a matter of inference, although the book’s many consistencies may serve as a guide.

One thing than can be inferred from “The Critic as Artist” is that its author regards most of his fellow Englishmen with a degree of contempt. They are the masses who will forgive “everything except genius,” the public which “always feels perfectly at ease when mediocrity is talking to it.” Wilde speaks of “the elect,” and means it. Unfortunately for prospective hagiographers, he disdains their religion and their morality as much as their taste. “To be good, according to the vulgar standard of goodness,” Gilbert explains, “merely requires a certain amount of sordid terror, a certain lack of imaginative thought, and a certain low passion for middle-class respectability.” Gilbert also offers the epigram that would haunt Wilde during his libel suit: “All art is immoral.”

To wring crypto-Catholicism from such an avowedly anti-moralistic text would be to hazard blasphemy. However, the philosophies of Gilbert and Vivian share a crucial weakness which, taken with the rest of their beliefs, makes clear how reasonable it would be to think of them as eventual catechumens. They both prefer art to life. They both speak for whole paragraphs about art’s superiority and life’s vulgarity. Life, from their “artistic point of view,” is a failure. Vivian in “The Decay of Lying” attacks literary realism with special zeal. He considers it better for life to imitate art than the reverse because too great a fidelity to accuracy will leave an author nothing to discuss but curates, match-girls, and coster-mongers, “their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues.” The goal of the artist is to light a path of escape from the “depressing and humiliating reality” of human nature which reveals all men to be equally dull.

Wilde humiliates reality even further when he has Gilbert say that the critic, who is yet another degree removed from action, is even more of a true individualist than the artist. The interpreter of Hamlet is subject to more restrictions than the poet fitting his thoughts to the form of a sonnet, which for Gilbert makes criticism stand in “the same relation to creative work that creative work does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and thought.”

Neither of Wilde’s glib mouthpieces confronts the obvious truth that life cannot be ignored. Its catastrophes may “happen in the wrong way and to the wrong people,” but they do happen. Art may serve as a distraction from life, and may even be ruled its superior, but it can never replace it. This raises the question of whether the advantages of the contemplative and artistic life can be translated to reality and thereby avoid the tragic consequences of solipsism. It turns out that the application of Gilbert and Vivian’s epigrams to life rather than art looks surprisingly like some exotic strain of high-church Catholic orthodoxy.

The Church affirms Wilde’s paradox that a man cultivates his individuality by imitating something other than himself. Wilde cites Goethe’s aesthetic maxim that “it is by working within limits that the master reveals himself,” but he might as easily have quoted the Gospel of Matthew: “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me…and ye shall find rest unto your souls, for my yoke is sweet and my burden is light.” The limitations imposed by Christ on the human soul are no more limiting than the constraints imposed by poetic form on the master poet. In fact, both are liberating. The paradox of an authenticity achieved through self-limitation is a translation into aesthetic terms of the moral paradox of liberty through slavery. Wilde himself admits that the imitation of the character Jesus Christ qualifies as an example of life imitating art.

The similarities between imitation of Christ as a moral figure and imitation of art as an aesthetic ideal can be recognized by any moralist, religious or secular, but to render Wilde’s praise of the critical temperament applicable to life requires a more distinctly Christian perspective. “People sometimes say that actors give us their own Hamlets, and not Shakespeare’s,” Gilbert says, but “there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet” apart from an actor’s singular interpretation. “When Rubinstein plays to us the Sonata Appassionata of Beethoven, he gives us not merely Beethoven, but also himself, and so gives us Beethoven absolutely.” The similarity between this idea and Matthew 10:19 is partial but significant: “But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.” Far more essential to a Christian interpretation of Intentions is the theology of God’s ownership of each human life. Man is not his own Creator, nor is he even the author of his own life story. Lucifer’s claim that he was self-begotten was a grievous sin, and it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, not Pharaoh. His eye is on the sparrow, and He has promised to care for men as diligently as he cares for the lilies of the field. Divine Providence is the author of human lives, and yet each man is his own life’s interpreter, or, to use Wilde’s language, its critic.

Wilde, it seems, shared in the fate of mankind, which had by his own admission not yet satisfied “the desire to know the connection between Beauty and Truth.” His confidence in his ability to fashion his own life with exquisite design could not exist long in a world where fate “has hemmed us round with the nets of the hunter,” nor could his indifference to the objective world survive the suffering and sorrow to be found in prison. However, the theology of aesthetics that he puts forward in Intentions suggests, though does not fulfill, the Christian sentiments that would offer him a solution to the problem of evil.

A Woman of No Importance

Despite his insistence that there can be no such thing as a moral or immoral book, the moral content of Wilde’s own work should not be ignored. When Sir Edward Clarke asked Wilde to endorse his summary of The Picture of Dorian Gray for the purposes of the Queensberry libel trial, in which it was Clarke’s purpose to prove that the book was not an example of sodomitic and corruptive influence, Wilde was careful to point out to the courtroom that Clarke had made one important omission:
That the picture as is stated in the last chapter…became to him conscience; and in the last chapter the reason he destroys it is that he says, ‘This picture mars my pleasure in life. It is conscience to me; I shall kil it; I shall get rid of this visible emblem of conscience,’ and by trying to kill his own soul the man directly dies. That is the only small addition I wish to make.

Wilde’s correction to his own counsel suggests that Wilde believed, in spite of his own antinomianism, that any interpretation of Dorian Gray that neglects the book’s moral content is necessarily incomplete.

The moral content of A Woman of No Importance is apparent without any exegesis from the dock. It indicts the English upper class for treating adulterers and adulteresses differently, for adhering so strictly to God’s laws about infidelity at the expense of his commandment to love thy neighbor, and for their thoroughgoing philistinism in the face of Lord Illingworth’s incisive wit. Mrs. Arbuthnot was cast out of respectable society for having a child outside of marriage, but Lord Henry Weston, whom the American Puritan Hester Worsley describes as “ a man with a hideous smile and a hideous past,” is a man without whom no dinner-party is complete. “What of those whose ruin is due to him?” asks Hester. “They are outcasts. They are nameless. If you met them in the street you would turn your head away.”

Her first suggestion for a fairer system is that both man and woman should be punished and “both go forth into the desert to love or loathe each other there,” but she amends this when she discovers that Mrs. Arbuthnot, who is the mother of her beloved Gerald Arbuthnot as well as the most moral of the women she meets at Lady Hunstanton’s country house, is a fallen woman. “I was wrong,” she admits. “God’s law is only love.”

It would be strange to assume that Hester Worsley’s moral thinking is coincident with the dramatist’s. That her impassioned speech on justice is followed by an anticlimactic request from Lady Caroline that Hester pass the cotton just behind her, as long as she is standing up, confirms this. Her speeches condemning English unfairness to women seem to have been written in earnest, but her final decision to leave England for the classless country of America does not sound like the man who said of Lord Illingworth, “If you can bear the truth, he is MYSELF.” It is Wilde’s double Lord Illingworth who completes A Woman of No Importance’s moral vision. For example, his statement “My dear Rachel, intellectual generalities are always interesting, but generalities in morals mean absolutely nothing.” This is a more Wildean refutation of the English system of ostracizing adulteresses regardless of the circumstances of their adultery than Hester’s. The other characters regard Lord Illingworth as immoral, and justly so, but this only makes it more remarkable when he offers a moral aphorism that is so plausible.

In fact, his behavior raises the question of whether morality or immorality is more humane. Lady Caroline takes class very seriously, whereas Lord Illingworth calls the Peerage “the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.” Lady Caroline’s classism is tempered by morality and compassion. Because his is not, Lord Illingworth is free to be unserious about it, and therefore more merciful. Wilde is not simply interested in portraying Lord Illingworth as the most entertaining figure in the play, but also in making clear that the man who does not take anything seriously is not subject to the puritanical and bourgeois injustices that his aphorisms ridicule. His indifference makes him less unkind than his supposed moral betters.

Wilde’s claim that Lord Illingworth was modeled after himself is an echo of a claim he made about The Picture of Dorian Gray in a letter to Ralph Payne in 1894: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me.” This is not the only similarity between the two characters: Wilde reused several of Lord Henry Wotton’s lines in scenes between Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby. Ada Leverson made light of this economy in her one page satire “An Afternoon Tea”: “The two men, exactly alike, who are smoking gold-tipped cigarettes?… Those are Lord Illingworth and Lord Henry Wotton. They always say exactly the same thing.”

Significantly, these two dialogues involve not two men, as in “The Decay of Lying,” but a man and a woman. They also take gender as a topic for discussion. The first act of A Woman of No Importance may be taken as the more mature version, although Camille Paglia has pointed out that the Duchess of Monmouth’s claim that she has disarmed Lord Henry Wotton “of your shield, Harry: not of your spear” has some bearing on the place of gender in the Wildean parlor.

The genders of the two wits are vital to their conversation’s structure and content. Mrs. Allonby’s wit reveals itself in long and inventive speeches when she is in strictly female company, but, in an expression of her feminine subordination to the leadership of men, most of her best jokes with Lord Illingworth are in immediate response to lines of his. The joke that “the Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden” and “ends with Revelations” depends upon the speakers’ sexes. Lord Illingworth likens his exchanges with Mrs. Allonby to a romance, which makes their discussion of wit’s place within a love affair especially relevant:
MRS. ALLONBY: Twenty years of romance! Is there such a thing?
LORD ILLINGWORTH: Not in our day. Women have become too brilliant. Nothing spoils a romance so much as a sense of humour in the woman.
MRS ALLONBY: Or the want of it in the man.
LORD ILLINGWORTH: You are quite right. In a Temple everyone should be serious, except the thing that is worshipped.
MRS. ALLONBY: And that should be man?
LORD ILLINGWORTH: Women kneel so gracefully; men don’t.
Illingworth’s claim that a sense of humor in the woman spoils a romance is only superficially undermined by his fondness for Mrs. Allonby. He continues to be more interested, at least romantically, in Hester Worsley. Illingworth obviously does not dislike having Mrs. Allonby as a sparring partner, but his caution against comedy in women can be taken seriously as a statement about complementarity, something both Mrs. Allonby and Lord Illingworth believe should exist between the sexes. Mrs. Allonby’s very clear idea of the Ideal Man depends upon it, as does Lord Illingworth’s advice to Gerald that “no man has any real success in this world unless he has got women to back him.” Women are not meant for success in the way that men are, according to Lord Illingworth, but no man can achieve success without women.

Wilde connects his belief in complementary roles for men and women to religion by explaining the difference between the sexes in terms of worship. Men can be comedians because laughter is the proper occupation of the object of worship; women cannot because their place is to revere and not to be revered. If this is the relationship between worship and humor, then God, as an object of worship, has access to a kind of comedy that mankind does not. In the same way that De Profundis put forward the idea of Christ as mankind’s storyteller, A Woman of No Importance suggests that God might fruitfully be understood as a comedian, which would carry some of the same advantages that come with a storyteller God. “The world has always laughed at its own tragedies,” Lord Illingworth claims, “that being the only way in which it has been able to bear them.” In Reading Gaol Wilde encountered a tragedy that he could not turn into a bearable joke. If Wilde had a commitment to finding the humor in every situation, as his lifelong flippancy suggests, then his success at this task demands not an expert humorist but a divine one. If God can laugh where Wilde could not, then the task left to Wilde is not comedy but worship.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

A review of The Picture of Dorian Gray published by the St. James Gazette suggested that a book so offensive to morality deserved only to be “chucked into the fire.” In Wilde’s reply, published two days later, he criticized this attack: “The poor public, hearing, from an authority so high as your own, that this is a wicked book that should be coerced and suppressed by a Tory Government, will, no doubt, rush to read it. But, alas! they will find that it is a story with a moral.” However, the end of Wilde’s letter to the editors calls the story’s moral “an artistic error.” This tension between Christian morality, which calls excessive love of beauty a sin, and aestheticism, which calls morality an artistic error, stands at the center of the novel.

The two principles are personified by Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward. Wilde’s comment that “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me” suggests that in the conflict between corruption and conscience his ultimate loyalty lay with the latter. Basil Hallward’s conscience is not merely moral but particularly Christian, as can be seen, for instance, in his reaction when Dorian reveals his own disfigured portrait:
“Pray, Dorian, pray,” he murmured. “What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also.”
Wilde was contemptuous of the bourgeois Anglican idea of ethics, but he found something to admire in the Christian doctrine of redemption. Immediately following the above passage, Basil quotes the book of Isaiah: “Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow.”

I have argued that Wilde understood God’s relationship to creation as being like an artist’s relationship to his art. Basil Hallward’s relationship to Dorian Gray’s portrait illuminates this comparison, in particular the inability of either God or the artist to exercise control over their creations. Not only is a work of art completely independent of its creator’s commands, it is even free to disregard its creator’s intentions and the plans for which the creator designed it. Basil Hallward could not have realized that the portrait he painted would gain the magical ability to prevent Dorian Gray from aging. In much the same way, Wilde believed, God did not realize what he was creating when he made Oscar Wilde.

De Profundis

De Profundis contains several explicit renunciations — of Lord Alfred Douglas, of shallowness, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake — but its most interesting revelations are those it does not put so plainly. A close reading shows that many of the decadent beliefs that had obstructed Wilde’s path to Christian faith no longer existed by the time of his release from prison.

Wilde’s flippancy was one of his most enduring traits, and one of the most problematic. Friends like Robert Ross, who had entered the Roman Church himself some years before, hesitated to recommend Wilde for catechesis because they feared that he was not in earnest. “I wish you were not so hard to poor heretics,” complained Wilde to Ross in a letter, “and would admit that even for the sheep who has no shepherd there is a Stella Maris to guide it home.”

De Profundis shows no sign of Wilde’s usual cultivated insincerity. In fact, for the work of a dramatist renowned for his comedy it contains very few jokes at all. This may be attributable to Wilde’s cross-examination by Edward Carson, during which he was confronted with the danger of persistent public levity about serious matters. When Carson asked Wilde if iced champagne was a favorite drink of his, Wilde answered, “Yes, strongly against my doctor’s orders.” Carson, who was growing impatient with his witness’s jokes, responded, “Never mind the doctor’s orders.” In his closing remarks, however, Carson used Wilde’s wit against him, reminding his audience that iced champagne is something “which Mr. Wilde indulges in, contrary to the directions of his doctor.” Another joke that produced the same effect, if more immediately, was Wilde’s notorious answer that he did not kiss Walter Grainger because “he was a peculiarly plain boy.” If the material consequence of Wilde’s suit against Queensberry was his imprisonment, the more lasting literary consequence was that he was cast “from a sort of eternity of fame to a sort of eternity of infamy” – a consequence in part attributable to the popular perception that Wilde was impertinent to the court and the law and not deserving of public sympathy. No wonder, then, that the author did not put the levity of his epigrams into De Profundis.

The same uncharacteristic seriousness can be found in the recurring themes of De Profundis, including the most prominent of these, which is pain. Sorrow is a motif in De Profundis, “the supreme emotion of which man is capable,” “the most sensitive of all things,” “my new world.” It replaces exquisite poses with the “intense…extraordinary reality” of the suffering man. Wilde gropes for a word to describe what he has received at the hands of his suffering, and decides that it can only be described as “revelation.”

None of these lessons is particularly Christian. Moral atheists acknowledge that suffering often jars men into empathy, that the more a man loves the more he will suffer and sometimes vice versa, and that selfish indifference to the suffering of one’s neighbors is made more difficult by the unavoidable reality of one’s own pain. Some will even recognize that suffering on the part of the perpetrator is necessary to balance the injustice of a crime. However, Wilde does not understand suffering simply as a pragmatic means of learning a valuable lesson, nor as the mechanism by which the geometric scales of justice are restored. He is careful to note that is suffering is unjust, and he is adamant that he cannot return to a life of pleasure despite having already learned the lessons which sorrow had to teach him. To understand the importance of injustice and permanence to Wilde’s struggle to comprehend his own suffering, something more than secular logic is necessary.

“I know not whether Laws be right/Or whether Laws be wrong,” Wilde says in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” In De Profundis he seems more sure that his imprisonment is unjust, but the message of both prison pieces is that the question of justice is irrelevant to prisoners. It is known that Wilde had access to the Bible during his imprisonment, but it is not clear whether or not he ever came across this passage:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving an example, that ye should follow his steps.
Wilde and the New Testament acknowledge that suffering can serve as punishment for a crime, but both agree that this is not the most important role that suffering plays in the world. Sorrow’s effect on the contrite soul is poetic, not mathematical. “Water can cleanse, and fire purify,” Wilde says. “Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will…with bitter herbs make me whole.” It is suffering itself, not its proportion to desert, that carries spiritual advantages.

Among its many consolations, Christianity gives the soul in pain a language in which to talk about sorrow and its fruits. Wilde certainly uses Christian terms in his own narrative. He quotes Dante’s saying that “sorrow re-marries us to God,” and claims that “[w]here there is sorrow there is holy ground.” But even beyond its advantages for the suffering soul wishing to express his predicament, Christianity has attractions for the suffering aesthete in particular. For one thing, the pettiest tragedy becomes grand when its participants realize that, more than a woman’s hand in marriage or a business deal or a £700 legal debt, the salvation or damnation of a human soul is at stake. If modernity killed tragedy in literature by making it mean and common, then Catholicism can save tragedy for real life by giving it the “purple pall and mask of noble sorrow” that Wilde declares would make tragedy bearable. It replaces the grotesquerie of the modern with that of the medieval and trades modernity’s pathetic broken-hearted clown for Catholicism's demons and saints.

For Wilde, “what is dumb is dead.” Tragic circumstances become a proper tragedy only when they are expressed, and so the desire to put his tragedy into a narrative overwhelmed him. After all, it is remarkable that he would write a letter to Douglas in the first place, since Wilde seemed to believe, at least at the time De Profundis was written, that any further communication between them could only be poisonous. Still, Wilde felt compelled to make Douglas understand the gravity of what he had done, and the stubborn refusal of Lord Alfred Douglas to do so is an example of a larger problem: Wilde’s pain is essentially inexpressible to any man except himself. “The martyr in his ‘shirt of flame’ may be looking on the face of God,” he writes, “but to him who is piling the faggots or loosening the logs for the blast the whole scene is no more than the slaying of an ox is to the butcher.”

Where Wilde finds Douglas unwilling and himself helpless, the figure of Christ provides him with an ideal narrator and an ideal audience. No human man could possibly have the experience, the compassion, and the artistic genius to express the pain that hard labor wreaked on a man of privilege and the humiliation that the philistine public heaped upon a man of genius. Christ, being divine, “took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece.” Christ is unique in this way, even among gods, and so Wilde must either give up the desire for his life to fit a grand and comprehensible genre or accept Christ as his “external mouthpiece.”

Ironically, Douglas was faced with a similar need for a better narrator than himself when he tried in later years to dispel the rumors of impropriety that surrounded his relationship with Wilde. He imagined that he could enlist medical evidence as proof that he had never engaged in sodomy: “If I had ever allowed anyone (either Wilde or any other single person) to treat me in that way, surely a medical examination would reveal the fact.” When the medical profession proved to have no such expertise, Douglas experienced for himself the futility of possessing a truth he could not tell convincingly.

Wilde’s ability to read his own fate as tragic rather than simply unfortunate is more than vanity and an affinity for aesthetics. The genre of tragedy, in his understanding, is transformative. To give continuity to a chronicle of misfortunes is to establish some connection between instances of wickedness and suffering, and between suffering and redemption. By placing sin and contrition within a single story, the two events are connected and the latter redeems the former. Wilde puts it this way: “Christ, had he been asked, would have said — I feel quite certain about this — that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swineherding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life.” It is not quite the sacrament of the Host, but this notion of redemption through tragedy made possible by Christ’s narration places Christ as the mediator between mankind and salvation, which is in its own way eucharistic.

In his earlier writing, Wilde had expressed skepticism that life’s tragedies could ever possess the transformative or even the descriptive significance of art’s tragedies:
The evil faces of the Roman emperors look out at us from the foul porphyry and spotted jasper in which the realistic artists of the day delighted to work and we fancy that in those cruel lips and heavy sensual jaws we can find the secret of the ruin of the Empire. But it was not so. The vices of Tiberius could not destroy that supreme civilization, any more than the virtues of the Antonines could save it. It fell for other, for less interesting reasons.
Under the reasoning expressed here in Intentions, it is possible for an artist to create a symbolic representation of his age, as the sculptors who animated the busts of emperors with a spirit of decay did, but the symbol of an age does not necessarily give a master clue to its history. The vices of Tiberius express the spirit of a decadent empire, but ultimately Rome fell for other, less interesting reasons.

De Profundis suggests a reversal of this position. Douglas used an overly precious pseudonym to communicate with an imprisoned Wilde, and, according to Wilde, “your seemingly casual choice of a feigned name was, and will remain, symbolic. It reveals you.” Even non-artists have the ability to live with symbolic meaning: “I have said of myself that I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life.” Belief in a meaningful connection between symbolism and reality, as well as the admission that such symbolism is within the reach of such ordinary men as might be found in Reading Prison, enabled Wilde to accept Christianity’s offer of a redemption through tragedy that he might earlier have thought impossible.

The Scarlet Man: Homosexuality and Catholicism

To assert the importance of gender in Wilde's comedies introduces the question of what role homosexuality played in Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism. The Catholic Church of the twenty-first century has been a vocal opponent of any extension of the sacrament of marriage to include same-sex couples, but the relationship between Rome and homosexuality in Victorian England was very different. This polemic by Charles Kingsley is directed at Catholics, but the charges he makes of “maundering die-away effeminacy” could as easily have been directed at the London’s homosexuals:
. . . there is an element of foppery—even in dress and manner; a fastidious, maundering die-away effeminacy, which is mistaken for purity and refinement; and I confess myself unable to cope with it, so alluring is it to the minds of an effeminate and luxurious aristocracy.
The Catholic doctrine of clerical celibacy was especially disturbing to Anglicans, who suspected that alienation from family life inhibited a man’s ability to be a “muscular Christian.” According to Frederick Roden in Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture, “in Protestant culture, the sole arena for erotic passion is heterosexual marriage.” Insofar as Catholic priests in England claimed to be masculine but refused to play any of Anglicanism’s designated masculine roles, they were “queer” in the sense of challenging Victorian culture’s understanding of acceptable sexual identity.

The Catholic Church also provided an outlet for men to express homoerotic sentiments at a time when homosexual acts were prohibited by British law. The monastic tradition, for which the Church of England has no equivalent, was an especially fruitful one for men interested in discovering positive depictions of erotic love between men. Raffalovich, speaking of such Catholic writers as St. Aelred of Rivaulx, writes in Uranism and Unisexuality: “The literature of today dares only in such moments of sensual and sentimental defiance what the poets of divine love have cooed about and moaned over with delight.” Raffalovich was himself a gay Catholic who in 1899 became a Dominican Tertiary.

Though the Catholic Church would continue to insist on the sinfulness of sodomy throughout the Victorian era, Wilde did not consider the Church’s position to be a significant obstacle to his conversion. His letters from Italy in the years following his conversion casually narrate stories of the homosexual relationships he had there, and Wilde considered the belief that “Messalina was better than Sporus” to have more to do with bourgeois conventions than the moral content of homosexuality. He resisted the argument that leading a virtuous life would necessarily involve giving up his love for men: “To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble – more noble than other forms.”

The Catholic Church continues to prohibit sodomy in its catechism, but, in the religious culture of England in the 1890’s, the Church was noticeably more hospitable to gay men than the Anglican alternative. For Wilde, his homosexuality may have done more to push him towards the Catholic option than to drive him away from it.

Wilde the Hellenist

The previous pages have pointed out Catholic themes in Wilde’s pre- and post-prison work, but why, if his life and work were so animated by such concerns, did he never made the leap of conversion until his final days? Wilde’s biography affords many excuses: he came very near in his Oxford days but was discouraged by social pressures and the attraction of freemasonry; he intended to go on retreat with Jesuit priests following his release from prison but was denied permission; while in Italy, he asked Robert Ross to take steps to arrange his conversion, and Ross, doubting Wilde’s sincerity, balked at assisting him. Still, the fact that Wilde’s fascination with Christ and Christianity never materialized in a formal conversion may be taken to indicate some deficiency is his faith.

Yet Wilde faced a greater obstacle to sincere faith than cagey Jesuits and skeptical friends. He had developed a particular attachment to Hellenism, as many Oxonians of his generation had, and the philosophy of Greece, as Victorian culture understood it, stood in Wilde’s mind as a pagan alternative to Roman Catholicism. Prior to studying at Oxford, Wilde studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin, even taking the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek. “The Soul of Man under Socialism” calls Christ an Individualist, but the essay ends with the pronouncement, “The new Individualism is the new Hellenism.” This story appears in a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas written in 1894:
Percy left the day after you did. He spoke much of you. Alfonso is still in favour. He is my only companion, along with Stephen. Alfonso always alludes to you as ‘the Lord,’ which however gives you, I think, a Biblical Hebraic dignity that gracious Greek boys should not have. He also says, from time to time, ‘Percy was the Lord’s favourite,’ which makes me think of Percy as the infant Samuel — an innacurate reminiscence, as Percy was Hellenic.
One is either biblical or Hellenic, and Wilde disapproves of attributing the “Hebraic dignity” of one to the physical beauty that properly belongs to the other. Any attempt to be both Christian and Greek is “the pathological tragedy of the hybrid, the Pagan-Catholic,” a phrase that appears in a letter to Robert Ross. Wilde meant it to apply to Ross.

To understand Wilde’s relationship to Hellenism, it is necessary to understand the flowering of Greek scholarship that took place in the years immediately before Wilde’s arrival at Oxford in 1874, and in particular the tensions between the Hellenistic movement and Christianity. Four decades separate J. S. Mill’s 1834 estimate that ten years’ worth of Oxford honors graduates had not produced more than six men who had ever read Plato at all and Charles Alan Fyffe’s estimate that more than half of those pursuing honors degrees at Oxford had passed an examination on Plato’s Republic. During those four decades, Benjamin Jowett had introduced his lectures on the Republic, and the book was then placed alongside Aristotle’s Ethics on the list of required texts. Jowett went so far as to refer to Plato’s dialogues as “the greatest uninspired writing.”

Enthusiasm for Hellenism was especially great among Decadent writers. Walter Pater, whose Studies in the History of the Renaissance Yeats called “the very flower of decadence,” promoted the recreation of Hellenic culture in Victorian England: “The Hellenic manner is the blossom of the Hellenic spirit and culture, that spirit and culture depend on certain conditions, and those conditions are peculiar to a certain age. Reproduce those conditions, attain the actual root, and blossoms may again be produced of a triumphant colour.”

This interest in Greece aroused some suspicion in those who did not share it. Some of this concern related to the perception that Greek philosophy might be not a supplement to Christianity but a rival to it. H. H. Almond, speculating on Jowett’s religion, concluded that he “was a Platonist all over,” and, like many, was skeptical about the possibility of being both a “Platonist all over” and an orthodox Anglican. A satire of Jowett appearing in The New Republic showed a Dr. Jenkinson preaching a sermon on the Psalms that mentions very little Scripture and instead quotes Plato and Aristotle and eventually refines Christian doctrine into a mild form of Platonic idealism. Dr. Jenkinson’s call for the Apostle’s Creed at the end of his sermon is the piece’s punchline. Jowett himself was always conscientious about placing Christianity above Plato in his writing, but the lengths to which Christian Hellenists went in order to make Plato’s philosophy more compatible with Christianity indicate a certain amount of anxiety on their part about pagan philosophy’s relationship to Christian revelation. Some were less cautious than Jowett: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s journal records an evening during which he heard “Pater talking two hours against Xtianity.”

A Victorian man who displayed an interest in Hellenism was liable to other imputations than religious heterodoxy. At Oxford especially, Greek studies served as a kind of code for homosexual interest. Linda Dowling’s Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford explains in detail the way in which homosexual men capitalized on the revival of interest in Hellenism. Once Jowett had elevated Plato’s reputation and made study of the dialogues a curriculum requirement, homosexual men could “not be denied the means of developing out of this same Hellenism a homosexual counterdiscourse able to justify male love in ideal or transcendental terms.” Hellenism’s influence on Victorian homosexual culture was not limited to the universities. The term Uranist, which was coined in the 1860’s to refer to “sexual inverts” and subsequently became popular with Victorian homosexuals, derives from Greek mythology; the title of The Importance of Being Earnest is a pun on this term. Gay right activist George Ives, whose one hundred and twenty-two volume diary describes his relationships with Wilde and Douglas, among very many other things, named the secret society he founded to support the repeal of Britain’s sodomy laws the Order of Chaeronea, named after the battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) in which homosexual soldiers of the Theban Band were killed. Ives even added 338 years to the dates on his correspondence in order to count the years of the modern era from the date of the battle.

Wilde took these academic, pagan, and homosexual Hellenisms and developed his own idea of the Greek spirit, much as he created distinctly Wildean Christs in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” and De Profundis. A comprehensive description of Wildean Hellenism will not be attempted here, but three themes are particularly important: Hellenism’s egalitarianism, its sexual purity, and its emphasis on physical beauty over any other kind of beauty. These themes have been chosen for their influence on Wilde’s thought, and because his letters suggest that, by the end of his life, he had renounced all three.

Writers prior to Wilde had noticed homosexuality’s potential for social leveling. John Addington Symonds explained the idea in a letter to Edward Carpenter in 1893: “The blending of Social Strata in masculine love seems to me one of its most pronounced, and socially hopeful features. Where it appears, it abolishes class distinctions.” Carpenter himself later observed something similar, writing that “it is noticeable how often Uranians of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way, which although not publicly acknowledged have a decided influence on social institutions.” Wilde’s involvement with George Ives gave him considerable exposure to Symonds and Carpenter’s idea of Uranism’s leveling effect, and there is evidence that he endorsed it. Ives’s diary quotes Wilde as saying on several occasions that “Love is the only democratic thing.”

It is strange that Wilde should have embraced this democratic spirit considering the snobbishness of his public persona — indeed, the snobbishness of having a public persona — but, aside from his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde also had homosexual relationships with men like Charles Parker, Alfonso Conway, and Alfred Wood, who were, respectively, a valet, a newspaperboy, and an unemployed clerk. Geoffrey Wheatcroft tartly defends the coexistence of these seemingly contradictory beliefs:
Owen Dudley Edwards is a considerable authority on the popular literature of the period, and usefully traces Wilde’s influence on later writers . . . before telling us that “Wilde has, idiotically, been called a snob.” There might be statements made about him more idiotic than that, but it isn’t easy to imagine them. In his letters and in his work Wilde’s snobbery is as transparent as it is harmless. It’s true that he combined this with an intermittent affectation of radicalism, but if Dudley Edwards thinks that it’s impossible to be both a self-proclaimed leftist liberal and a crashing snob, he should get out more often.
Edward Carson was not so willing to allow Wilde his egalitarianism. In his cross-examination during the Queensberry libel trial, he made a point of mentioning that Alfonso Conway “sold papers on the pier,” referred to Edward Shelley as “this boy selling the books,” and even asked Wilde whether he knew that Shelley “had from fifteen to twenty shillings a week.” When Carson questioned Wilde about Charles Parker, who was in Carson’s description “a gentleman’s servant out of employment,” he was more explicit about his incredulity that Wilde could have had any wholesome reason for befriending a man of low social position: “What I would like to ask you is this. What was there in common between you and this young man of this class?”

Having provoked Wilde into making implausible statements like “I don’t think twopence for social position” and “I recognise no social distinctions at all of any kind,” Carson was free to ridicule these unlikely claims in his closing statement. He first reminds the jury of Wilde’s elitism regarding his art, and his indifference to the literary opinions of any but the “artistic.”
Gentlement, of the jury, contrast that with the position he takes up as regards these lads. He picks up with Charlie Parker, who was a gentleman’s servant and whose brother was a gentleman’s servant. He picks up with young Conway, who sold papers on the pier in Worthing and he picks up wth Scarfe, who I think also was a gentleman’s servant; and when you come to confront him wth these curious associates of a man of high art, his case is no longer that he is dealing in regions of art, which no one can understand but himself and the artistic, but his case is that he has such a magnanimous, such a noble, such a democratic soul that he draws no social distinctions.
The transcript records that the audience reacted to the idea that Wilde had a democratic soul with laughter.

If Wilde’s claims of egalitarianism struck the courtroom audience as improbable, his insistence that the love between himself and Douglas was purely spiritual struck the public as almost inconceivable. Wilde was willing to confirm Carson’s inference that “the love that dare not speak its name” to which Douglas’s poem “The Two Loves” refers is a love that exists between two men, but he was careful to distinguish it from “sodomitical” love. When asked by Carson why “the intense devotion and affection and admiration that an artist can feel for a wonderful and beautiful mind” (Wilde’s words) should have any need for concealment, Wilde responded that “there are people in the world who cannot understand [it].”

Victorian thinkers prior to Wilde also considered Uranian love closer to the Platonic ideal described in the Symposium than to sodomy, and Wilde was not the only one to defend its nobility on these grounds. Symonds, who credited Plato’s dialogues with his own Uranian awakening, took from Platonic philosophy not only its endorsement of erotic love between men but also the idea that love in its highest form transcends the physical. He called the identification of male love with sodomy a “vulgar error.” Marc-André Raffalovich distinguished between unisexuals who engage in sodomy and those who are “sensual without being debauched,” meaning those who did not. It was this distinction between the baseness of the carnal and the purity of the spiritual that allowed Wilde to think he might describe in glowing terms one man’s “extravagant adoration” of another and yet deny that the reference was “sodomitical.”

This commitment to chastity proved unworkable. Symonds abandoned the Platonic ideal in his work and his life, publishing essays that questioned whether the cerebral aspect of homosexuality was as ideal as Plato proposed as well as taking numerous working-class male lovers in England and Italy. Wilde, too, indulged in physical relationships with men, despite his claims to the contrary during Carson’s cross-examination. Jenkyns describes Wilde’s capitulation to physicality not as instance of the flesh falling short of philosophical ideals but as a dangerous rationalization:
Indeed, Wilde and Douglas both indulged the illusion that a knowledge of antiquity had contributed to their downfall: the vulgarians in the jury-box, inadequately informed about Greek morality, had crudely misinterpreted the purity of their writings. If anything, the reverse was true: they were self-deceived by their dabblings in Plato. In The Critic as Artist Wilde recalled Arnold’s remark that there was no Higginbottom by the Ilissus; he might have reflected that there was no Charles Parker, no Alfred Wood. He persuaded himself, or so he claimed, that these wretched youths were the modern equivalents of Lysis and Charmides. A little Plato is a dangerous thing.
Whatever he may have said in his own defense during his trials, Wilde certainly admitted the physical nature of his homosexual relationships when he included his indictment of Douglas in De Profundis. His lament that Douglas drew Wilde to the worldly pleasures of food and wine — an “illiterate millionare would have suited him better” — was not quite an open confession that his attraction to Douglas had been primarily sexual, but it certainly was an admission that, though Wilde was a cultivated man, he was as susceptible to the snares of physical satisfaction as the rest of mankind. In the years after his release from prison, Wilde abandoned any pretense of infusing his sexual relationship with intellectual significance, indulging in relations with “very pretty Italian boys” and “beautiful young actors.” He was involved briefly with two young fishermen in the French Riviera and found them “both quite perfect, except that they can read and write.” The illusion that his interest in young men was in any way Hellenic had dissolved.

When Wilde argued in his 1894 letter that the phrase “the Lord’s favorite” should not be used to describe a “gracious Greek boy,” he grounded the boy’s unfitness for Hebraic phrases in his physical beauty. In his own interpretation of the Greek tradition of paederastia, Wilde kept the traditional tenet that the elder man should possess intelligence but placed a greater emphasis on the beauty of the younger man than on his capacity for intellectual development. When, during Carson’s cross-examination, Wilde claimed Shakespeare as an example of a poet who had had such a pederastic relationship, he spoke of the object of Shakespeare’s affection as “a wonderful and beautiful person,” more notable in his ability to inspire poetry than his ability to write or appreciate it. This interpretation of Greek love allowed Wilde to extend the label “Platonic” to his relationships with men of no literary talent, such as Charles Parker and Alfonso Conway.

Wilde wrote that “Beauty is a form of Genius — is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation.” He believed that he was justified in loving men like Parker and Conway, who had little besides their physical beauty to recommend them, and a man like Alfred Douglas, whose good looks accompanied selfishness, shallowness, and a cruel temper. In his mind, it was the same love that Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, and Plato had felt. However, the intellectual asymmetry inherent in Wilde’s idea of paederastia grew to grate on him. Just as he eventually ceased to demand that his lovers be able to read and write, Wilde also stopped insisting that his friends have handsome profiles, and instead chose his closest friends for their goodwill, as in the case of Robert Ross, or their poetic ability, as in the case of Ernest Dowson. Devotion to physical beauty for its own sake became another Hellenic idea discarded.

These strains of Hellenism in Wilde’s thought were eroded by circumstances: Wilde thought he was an eminently democratic man, and he was ridiculed for believing so; he thought he could love men without committing sexual acts with them, and he was wrong; he thought he could safely devote himself to a person of great physical beauty but dubious moral character, and it destroyed him. Wilde accepted these developments, and acknowledged that the diminishing importance of Hellenism in his thought brought him nearer to the Catholic Church. He wrote to Ross in 1897:
Yesterday I attended Mass at ten o’clock and afterwards bathed. So I went into the water without being a Pagan. The consequence was that I was not tempted by either Sirens, or Mermaidens, or any of the green-haired following of Glaucus. I really think that this is a remarkable thing. In my pagan days the sea was always full of tritons blowng conches, and other unpleasant things. Now it is quite different.
Contrast this with an 1876 letter in which Wilde admitted feeling “slightly immoral when in the sea . . . sometimes slightly heretical when good Roman Catholic boys enter the water with little amulets and crosses round their necks and arms that the good S. Christopher may hold them up.” Clearly, the tension between Hellenism and Catholicism was present even then. Perhaps the actor Kyrle Bellew was right when he said to Wilde, rather boldly, “I am a Catholic – you would have been one too had you been spared Greece.”


Wilde’s participation in the English tradition of Catholic decadents, dandies and wits began long before his baptism. The Decadent philosophy Wilde espoused during his literary career led him towards Rome with its successes as well as its failures, making his conversion both a fulfillment and a necessary repudiation of Decadence. He insisted in De Profundis that a moment of contrition could transform the character of past sins; his final acceptance of Roman Catholicism can be seen as having the same kind of transformative effect on the Catholic elements of his life.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ideas of Purity in Late Antique Zoroastrianism and Christianity: A Comparison

I wrote this paper partly as an expression of contempt for the professor and partly from a genuine fascination with Zoroastrianism.

In the period during which the two faiths had the most direct contact neither Christianity nor Zoroastrianism could be said to have had a univocal orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the first two centuries of the Christian church had revealed certain key themes and resolved several points of theological controversy within the religion, and Zoroastrian thought was achieving new levels of theological and polemical sophistication under the sponsorship of the early Sasanian kings.

One idea that was important to both faiths during late antiquity was ritual purity. Such eminent scholars of religious studies as Mary Douglas have attempted to locate similarities among the various understandings of purity in the religions of the world, but the purpose of this paper is just the opposite: to highlight the differences between ideas of purity, in particular the differences between the Christian and Zoroastrian conceptions. While the two faiths’ rituals regarding impurity are to a large degree similar to all cleansing rituals—washing with a liquid, water in the case of Christianity and ammonia-rich bull’s urine in the case of Zoroastrianism—the two theological explanations given for why purity is important bear little resemblance. This difference in rhetoric, as will be shown, reflects two contrasting understandings of ritual purity, each of which expresses certain concepts and preoccupations that the other religion would be unable to describe using its own language.

Zoroastrianism is monotheistic in some respects and dualistic in others, but its purity rituals emphasize its dualistic elements. In Zoroaster’s cosmology, time is divided into three ages, of which the contemporary one is the second, the time of “mixing” (Gumezisn) of good and evil. The prophet predicted that the third age, “separation” (Wizarishn), would come about when the forces of the evil being Ahriman had been defeated through the purification of the universe. Until that time, according to Zoroaster, Ahriman and Ohrmazd, the benevolent god, are engaged in a battle in which all of mankind is enlisted. The three pillars of Zoroastrian ethics – “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” – are understood to be the mechanisms by which individuals are able to help Ohrmazd and weaken Ahriman. In purity rituals in particular, impure objects are understood to be the property of demonic forces and pure objects are understood to be resistant to them. In this territorial conflict, the two sides of good and evil are on essentially equal footing.

The act of purification should not be understood as devotional; a Zoroastrian priest’s attitude towards a purified object was not the same as his attitude towards the sacred fire of a fire-temple, truly an object of worship. Rather, sacrificial vessels were purified as a practical measure to guard against contamination of a ritual by evil spirits, and after being used in sacrifices the vessels were discarded. The taxonomy of purity and impurity is likewise amoral: impurity derives from “dead” objects, a classification which includes the obvious objects (human and animal corpses) but also any part of the body that becomes separated (nails, hair, semen, urine, menses, saliva, blood). Food, which likewise passes through the boundary between human body and outside world, is also subject to considerable scrutiny and precaution regarding purity.

It is important to note that impurity is not attributable to immoral action. The expulsion of semen involved in intercourse is considered to be unclean and couples are required to engage in a purification ritual afterward engaging in intercourse, but Zoroastrian scripture is emphatic that fruitful marriage is always preferable to celibacy. Unlike Christianity, Zoroastrianism’s theology includes no skepticism regarding sex; the fact that it carries with the inevitable consequence of impurity could not be said to imply anything about its moral standing as a behavior but rather renders it, at most, inconvenient.

However, while it is true that ritual impurity was not considered to reflect any moral failing, indifference to impurity certainly was. Zoroastrianism understands a separation between matter (getig) and spirit (menog), but the two are inextricably linked. One’s actions in the material world affect the cosmic battle between good and evil. As Zaehner points out, Zoroaster assigned purity and virtue eschatological significance: “. . . Zoroaster seems to have been interested in establishing the Kingdom of Righteousness here on earth.” Purity had to be maintained not simply as a loving tribute to the benevolence of the creator but as a concrete step towards an eschatological golden age.

Purity also had moral significance on the scale of the individual. Individual judgment, as described both in Zoroastrian scripture and non-canonical literature, takes place when the soul arrives at the “Bridge of the Requiter,” meets its spirit-double (den), and is judged according to the deeds of his life, a reckoning in which his adherence to purity laws is given considerable weight. The importance of purity to this judgment is highlighted by the prominence of impurity among the punishments of hell. The Arda Wiraz Namag, which details a virtuous man’s journey through hell, places greater emphasis on the “impurity and filth” involved in hell’s various torments than on the pain inflincted by them. Clearly, zealous maintenance of as much purity as can be achieved is morally relevant to each individual as well as to the human race at large.

The social and class implications of adherence to purity laws bear mention. While Mary Boyce suggests that purity laws were kept by high and low class Persians alike, the stringency of Zoroastrian purity rituals, and menstrual practices in particular, became markers of high social standing relative to such ethnic minorities as Rabbinic Jews. As Yaakov Elman explains:

Although medieval Talmudic commentaries assume that [the menstrual policy of tractate Niddah] was a rabbinically inspired severity, it is clear from Rava’s response to R. Pap (in B. Niddah 66a) that he considered this stringency to be a custom, and not a prohibition. The Babylonian Talmud itself testifies to the popular origin of this stringency—perhaps in response to a “holier than thou” attitude perceived by the populace as emanating from their Persian neighbors, a social pressure to which the rabbis themselves sometimes responded (e.g. B. Sanhedrin 37b). Surely, we must conclude that Babylonian Jewish women did not have to remain isolated on spare rations in a windowless hut for up to nine days, as was prescribed for Zoroastrian menstruant women.

Zoroastrians themselves were equally sensitive to the social implications of their purification rituals. Intermarriage with non-Zoroastrians was forbidden; the justification given was that non-Zoroastrian women, not keeping the menstrual laws, would be unclean. However, the effect of protecting the Persian elite against any incursion from ambitious outsiders interested in political and social power was incidentally, if not coincidentally, achieved. The rhetoric of pollution and impurity also appears in several anti-Jewish and anti-Christian polemics from Sasanian times, indicated the extent to which it was part of their self-image.

Christianity’s understanding of ritual purity is deeply connected with the controversy in the early Church over the place of Jewish law in the new Christian religion. Discussion often focused on the most prominent and distinctive laws: those regarding circumcision, kosher food practices, and the impurity of menstruant women. Saint Paul’s epistles put forward a decisive judgment on the question of kosher laws (“For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost”) and circumcision (“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision”). However, the Church’s potential adoption of an idea of ritual purity similar to Judaism’s remained an open question, nowhere more clearly than in the debate over the observance of Jewish menstrual laws. A third century document known as the Didascalia Apostolorum implores female Jewish converts to Christianity to cease their observance of the laws of niddah (menstruation) on the grounds that to persist in observing niddah would devalue the sacrament of baptism. On the other hand, Dionysius of Alexandria believed that the impurity associated with menstruation was still relevant to Christianity inasmuch as it precluded contact with the Eucharist:

The question touching women in the time of their separation, whether it is proper for them when in such a condition to enter the house of God, I consider a superfluous inquiry. For I do not think that, if they are believing and pious women, they will themselves be rash enough in such a condition either to approach the holy table or to touch the body and blood of the Lord. . . [T]he individual who is not perfectly pure in soul and in body, shall be interdicted from approaching the holy of holies.

Even in Scripture, the importance of impurity is unclear. There is some ambiguity in the story told in Mark 5:25-34: when Christ feels “that virtue had gone out of him” after the woman with a twelve-year blood flow touches the hem of his garment: is this because he expended power in healing her, or because contact with her impurity had diminished his power? The woman’s fear at being identified as the one who had touched Christ’s garment suggests that the latter reading is plausible, which would indicate that the Christ of the Gospels accepted, or at least took seriously, the Levitical categories of purity and impurity.

Paul is adamant that Levitical dietary restrictions are irrelevant to believing Christians, but the New Testament is not clear on the broader question of food purity. Matthew 15:11 reads “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” However, Paul declares that Christians should not eat meat they know to be left over from an idolatrous sacrifice. His explanation that this rule is for “his sake that shewed it” ignores the question of food purity and focuses instead on reminding pagans of the folly of their sacrifices, and his subsequent exhortation to “eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God,” if it is not to be taken as a blanket statement of antinomianism, is similarly uninstructive. Christians who considered pagan gods to be insubstantial fictions might subscribe to the belief that food consecrated to a nonexistent being would be morally indistinguishable from unconsecrated meat. However, many late antique religions regarded rival religions’ gods not as fictions but as demons—the Roman attitude towards the Jewish god, for example, or the Rabbinic attitude towards Christ —which would complicate an attempt to see meat that had been offered to idols as benign.

In addition to the controversial adaptation of Jewish purity to a Christian context, there is in late antique Christianity a prominent conception of purity that does not derive from the Jewish tradition. In a divergence from the traditions of both Judaism and Zoroastrianism, Christianity developed extended theological justifications for an ethical celebration of virginity and celibacy. The early monastic tradition from the desert fathers in Egypt to Basil the Great in Cappadocia insisted upon chastity for monastic brothers and sisters. The theological understanding of sexual purity rests upon the absolute priority of the next world relative to the vanity of the material world. By this logic, to become enslaved to sexual desire would be to have un-Christian attachment to worldly things. Christians were permitted to marry, but the Gospels emphasize that being a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” is to be preferred: “Him that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” Other kinds of bodily purification through ascetic trials, including fasting and abstaining from sleep, flourished among the anchoritic monks of Egypt.

While Dionysius of Alexandria can speak of being pure “in soul and in body” within a Christian context, Christianity does not have a concept of ritual purity in the physical and amoral sense in the way that Judaism and Zoroastrianism both do. Saint Pelagia was a courtesan prior to being saved and turning to extreme asceticism, but her transition from harlot to holy woman did not include any ritual of purification directed specifically towards her sexual impurity. Nevertheless, baptism rendered her not only newly Christian but newly “virgin.” It was her dedication to sexual purity that allowed her to regain this purity—a matter of spirit, not flesh. Tertullian admits in De Spectaculis that, even in the case of stadia and pagan spectacles, “it is not the places in themselves that defile us, but the things done in them.” In short, Christianity has some idea of purity “in body”—the idea of virginity, for example—but it almost always subordinate to purity “in soul.” Usually, the latter even has the power to confer the former, as in 1 Corinthians 7:18 (“Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised”). Even bodily purity, therefore, is oriented towards the moral cultivation of the individual soul rather than towards the intrinsic importance of eradicating pollution in the physical world.

Having mentioned the social value of Zoroastrian purity laws relating to women, the importance of purity and especially virginity to Christian women also bears mention. Gillian Clark’s Women in Late Antiquity discusses the extent to which women achieved freedom from the constraints of having a husband either through consecration to Christ or through widowhood. These women used their independence to exert power within the Church. It was common for wealthy widows to select a priest or parish and become a patron of either charitable works or the arts. These women eventually became so influential (and their would-be heirs so frustrated) that Roman law adjusted to prevent widows from bequeathing money to the Church.

The rhetorical differences between Zoroastrian and Christian ways of talking about purity should be clear: the former is primarily material and done for the sake of the cosmic battle between good and evil while the latter is primarily spiritual and done for the sake of moral betterment through diminished worldliness. However, there are implicit as well as explicit differences between the two. For instance, Zoroastrian purity was a social phenomenon: disposing of a corpse within the constraints of the purity regulations governing burial requires the cooperation of a large group; conspicuous menstrual protocols reinforced solidarity within the Sasanian Persian elite; many of the purity regulations regarding the disposal of nails and hair required a communal repository on the outskirts of town, which discouraged the solitary living practiced by Christian monks. Christian asceticism, on the other hand, had the opposite effect. Anchoritic monks were obviously solitary, but even coenobitic monks spent the greatest part of their time in solitude. Where Zoroastrianism used purity to call attention to the importance of the material world, Christianity used it to call attention to the material world’s utter vanity. Where Zoroastrian purity is inclusive, involving every member of the community in order to enlist them in an ultimately eschatological battle, Christian purity is a method for distinguishing between the saintly and the insufficient, those who “can receive it” and those who cannot. The attempt to integrate those Persians not involved in the priestly hierarchy of the fire-temples into Zoroastrian religious life contrasts sharply with Christian asceticism’s belief that Christians who rejected celibacy were categorically less holy than those who took on that burden.

A contrast between Zoroastrian and Christian visions of the eschaton further illustrate the differences between the two. The final stage of human history as inaugurated by a cataclysmic religious event is central in both faiths, but the nature of the cataclysm varies. In Zoroastrianism, this world will be cleansed by the forces of Ohrmazd and an era of peace will begin. Christianity, on the other hand, does not offer to purify the existing earth but instead offers a new one on which the era of peace will take place. Both faiths’ cosmologies begin with a narrative of a perfect world corrupted by some supernatural evil influence, but their solutions diverge. The Zoroastrian emphasis on purifying this world and the Christian emphasis on transcending it make sense in this context.

The theological trajectory of Christianity in late antiquity seems to suggest that the Church was moving away from ritual purity and towards purity of the spirit. This skepticism regarding the corruptibility of objects can be seen in Persian Christian martyrologies. These stories often signal the dramatic conversion of their main characters by having them commit some ritual outrage: for example, the fourth-century story of a female saint who stomps out a sacred fire during “the time of her impurity” in order to indicate her contempt for Zoroastrianism. Also, Christians living in Babylon did not attempt to mimic elite Zoroastrian menstrual practices in the way that Jewish women in the same area did, not because they were necessarily less socially ambitious but because their own faith lacked even an approximate equivalent to the Zoroastrian custom, and so they were without any practice upon which they could base any rival development in that direction. These facts indicate that Christians who came into contact with Babylonian Zoroastrians were skeptical of their emphasis on ritual purity, observing very few similarities between Zoroastrian purity and purity in their own religion.

To assert any influence in either direction, either through mimicry or repudiation, is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to note that merely the use of the concept of purity was insufficient to forge a significant common ground between the Christians and Zoroastrians who lived near one another in late antiquity. Both attempted not merely to manage sinfulness but to purge it, and so developed ways of talking about purity and how it can be achieved. However, the differences between the two faith’s attitudes towards the idea of purity renders this parallel essentially superficial.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

An old disability studies paper

Looking back, I find the first three parts uninteresting, and part one difficult to read, but parts five and six include most of what I still find interesting about disability theory.

“He Hath No Form Nor Comeliness”: The Disabled God and an Alternative Theology of Physical Disability

‘Tis not the continent, but the contained,
That pleasance makes or prison, loose or chained.
What groweth to its height demands no higher;
The limit limits not, but the desire.

Francis Thompson, “Epilogue: To the Poet’s Sitter”

I. A Liberatory Theology of Disability: Nancy Eiesland’s Argument

Nancy Eieisland’s first published book, The Disabled God, is subtitled Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Eiesland’s efforts to apply disability studies to the discipline of theology trace their motivation to Eiesland’s own experience with a congenital joint disorder, a condition that relegated her from birth to wheelchairs, braces, and a series of complicated surgeries. Her life story intersected with her vocation as a theologian – Dr. Eiesland is currently a professor of the sociology of religion at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology – to produce this very personal 1994 study in disability theology.

Eiesland describes two ways in which the church has failed to establish a healthy relationship with its disabled members: theologically and practically. The church’s primary theoretical error, according to her, has been to accept what she refers to as “an individual or functional limitation approach to disability,” or what Lennard J. Davis would call “the hegemony of normalcy.” Where Davis accuses literature of perpetuating the myth of “normalcy” by encouraging readers to identify with the normativity and universality of main characters, Eiesland accuses the church of failing to identify with disabled parishioners precisely because they fail to conform to their images of normativity and universality. For both theorists, the problem lies not in the challenges posed by the disability itself, but in the failure of the majority to integrate the disabled. The American Lutheran Church defines people with disabilities as individuals “whose difficulties are sufficiently severe to set them apart from the norm or ordinary ways of living, learning and doing things.” This definition is typical of the Christian response to disability that Eiesland documents insofar as, firstly, it marginalizes the disabled by placing them outside the norm, and, secondly, it places the responsibility for accommodation on the disabled individuals themselves by locating the disability within the individual rather than within society’s “architectural and attitudinal barriers.”

Having mishandled the task of defining disability, the church also commits three fatal theological errors in its ministry towards those it has so defined: an insistence on a link between disability and moral character, a doctrine of virtuous suffering, and a network of charity that relies upon segregation and marginalization. There is considerable scriptural support for the longstanding Christian belief that disability is linked to personal sin. When Jesus heals the lame man by the pool of Bethesda, he sends him away saying, “Go and sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.” The very concept of a just God is suggestive of such a doctrine – that God’s wrath is bodily punishment, and vice versa. Obviously, strict adherence to this doctrine of divine retribution through disability is complicated by the existence of congenital disability like Eiesland’s own, which is inflicted from before birth.

The church has attempted to temper the lesson of John 5:14 by reinterpreting disability as divine testing, special training in the virtue of humility that God sends to people with the strength to handle such a life. Eiesland is dissatisfied with this alternative also, pointing out that it still establishes a wall of separation between the “temporarily able” church and the disabled. Such marginalization is gentler than the marginalization that comes from condemnation of the disabled for their supposed sin, but does nothing to lessen the isolation and depression that disabled Christians feel, nor does it give the church any motivation to rectify “unjust social situations” that fail to accommodate disability. Extolling virtues gained through suffering makes alleviation of that suffering seem less urgent.

When the church does take steps to alleviate the suffering of the disabled, its efforts to do so have the ultimate effect of reinforcing those attitudes and social institutions which cause the suffering in the first place. Ministry to the disabled has historically taken the form of almsgiving and healing, both of which, in Eiesland’s opinion, perpetuate the indignity of disability that is the primary source of its misery. According to her social accommodation model, a better response would be for the church to incorporate disabled members into its community by making church life more accessible. The strongest evidence of the church’s failure to engage in this kind of ministry is the American Lutheran Church’s decision to deny ordination to people with disabilities on the grounds that it would interfere with the fulfillment of their responsibilities. The ALC, while declaring that handicapped Lutherans “have the right to participate fully in society and utilize community service[s] the same as every other citizen” in accordance with the UN’s declaration on the rights of the disabled, relegated the handicapped to “lay ministry” at its 1986 General Convention.

Eiesland is careful to make clear that all of these theological slights to the disabled community create very real and material problems for disabled people. She devotes her entire second chapter to the personal stories of two women: Diane Devries, a quadriplegic, and Nancy Mairs, who developed multiple sclerosis at twenty-nine. In her discussion of the Eucharist, Eiesland brings in her own experience of receiving the Eucharist:

I would be alerted by an usher that I need not go forward for the Eucharist. Instead I would be offered the sacrament at my seat when everyone else had been served… Hence receiving the Eucharist was transformed for me from a corporate to a solitary experience; from a sacralization of Christ’s broken body to a stigmatization of my disabled body.

As a disabled person herself, Eiesland realizes that such stories of negative experience are valid evidence against the church’s present way of doing things, just as much as philosophical arguments are. For her, even if the church were to correct its doctrines pertaining to the disabled, the real test of success would be whether disabled members reacted to church practice with feelings of isolation and depression.

II. “Diversities of Gifts, but the Same Spirit”: Heterodoxy in Eiesland’s Model

There are several problems with Eiesland’s polemic against contemporary church practice. First, her adherence to a social construction model of disability is incompatible with orthodox Christianity’s insistence on objective reality. Christianity has stood as a bulwark against the modern threats of solipsism and moral relativism by clinging to the idea that mankind was created by God for a specific purpose – to praise God and live within his laws – that it is within man’s power to accept or reject, but not to change. Thinkers like Rosemarie Garland-Thomson call disability a “culturally fabricated” notion, pointing out that concepts of “corporeal inferiority, inadequacy, [and] excess” are, like femininity, determined by culture. Eiesland draws the natural conclusion, then, that what culture has established culture can cure.

If God truly did create man his own image, then it is not within man’s power to cure disability simply by adjusting his attitude towards it. Discrepancies between the ideal body that God designed in the garden and the deficient body of a quadriplegic are objective and must be dealt with as such. Lennard Davis contrasts the modern idea of normalcy, which is determined through statistical averages, with the classical concept of the abstract ideal. Eiesland and Garland-Thomson’s refutation of the former does not speak to the validity of the latter, especially given that Eiesland, as a Christian, accepts that, for the human body, such an ideal does exist.

Tom Shakespeare places the British social model of disability in opposition to a medical view. The former defines disability as “the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments.” Because the medicalization of disability against which this definition is set depends on some ideal of a normal body that disabled bodies fail to live up to, the medical model of disability is vulnerable to the valid point that, from a secular perspective, no such objective ideal exists. It is this same secular moorlessness that motivates the outrageous statements of philosopher Peter Singer. In a Christian framework, murder is wrong because God endows each human soul with infinite worth, and it is not necessary for disabled individuals like Harriet McBryde Johnson, the Georgia lawyer who famously debated Singer at Princeton, to justify herself. It is only in the absence of objective morality that such justification becomes necessary. Unfortunately, McBryde Johnson offers no philosophically robust alternative to Singer’s dictum that the only inhibition to killing a creature is that creature’s conscious aversion to being killed, even though this dictum leads him to condone infanticide. Without rejecting the social model of disability in favor of a more Christian understanding, neither can Eiesland.

Another flaw of The Disabled God is that its author neglects the Christian virtue of humility so persistently that it discredits her argument. At one point, Eiesland goes so far as to advocate the sin of pride, that children with disabilities be “taught by disabled adults to be proud of the characteristics valued in the community of people with disabilities but devalued in the dominant society.” In addition to promoting pride, Eiesland’s advice serves to reinforce self-segregation of the disabled, which does no less to contribute to their isolation than marginalization by the church. Perhaps most problematically, the attitude exemplified in this sentence and evident throughout the book betrays a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge that disabilities have real disadvantages that are not socially controlled. Blind men will never experience color; neither will deaf men ever enjoy music. The “individual or functional limitation model” against which Eiesland rails admits this difficult truth, while her social construction model does not. All of these problems and inconsistencies suggest that an alternative both to current practice and Eiesland’s critique might strike closer to the actual truth of the disabled Christian experience.

III. “If Thou Doest Not Well, Sin Lieth at the Door”: A Refutation of Eiesland through the Lens of Genesis 4

Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Jesus Christ.” His refutation of material differences might validly be extended to say that in Christ there is neither able nor handicapped. However, Paul does not mean to say that gender, for example, is utterly irrelevant. After all, even in the garden “male and female created He them.” Discerning the paradoxical nature of the equality that Paul describes in Galatians provides the key to a theology of disability that is as liberating as the one Eiesland describes but is in closer keeping with traditional Christianity.

The fourth chapter of Genesis tells the story of the brothers Cain and Abel. Cain is a “tiller of the ground”; Abel is a “keeper of sheep.” Each offers the best portion of the fruits of his labor as a sacrifice in praise of God. God finds favor with Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. This is not because Cain did not offer his sacrifice in a genuine spirit of thankfulness to God, but simply because it is a fact of Jewish law that animal sacrifices are appropriate and plant sacrifices are not. Cain, presumably upset at this seemingly arbitrary hierarchy of offerings, is visibly angered by God’s disapproval. God answers, “Why are thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.”

Paul’s insistence that all who are baptized in Christ are fundamentally equal does not demand that God react to Cain and Abel’s respective sacrifices with equal favor. Neither does it suggest that Cain should have been a shepherd instead of a farmer, in order that he might have offered a better sacrifice. Rather, it means that Cain should have accepted his inferior status with grace. His crime was not his inferior offering, but his expectation of praise, his pretension to equality with Abel.

The story of Cain and Abel simultaneously reinforces and subverts hierarchy – Abel is superior to Cain, but his superiority is ultimately unimportant. The people of Israel are God’s chosen nation, and gender differences have consequences for individual behavior, but none of these differences inhibit any human being’s ability to fulfill the most important task of all, which is to love God and keep his commandments. In other words, material distinctions between men are both real and relevant, but pale in comparison to the greater, universal quality of being a child of God.

The consequences of this interpretation of Genesis 4 for disability theology should be clear. It is not necessary for society to adjust in order to make blindness as irrelevant a distinction as hair color, or to eliminate every disadvantage of being wheelchair-bound. The most important attitude change in the effort to manage disability must take place in the minds of the disabled themselves. By accepting their lot as Cain should have, the disabled might redirect the energies they now devote to effecting cultural change to making the most of the distinct role that their handicaps carve out for them.

IV. “My Yoke is Easy and My Burden is Light”: A Brief Comparison between Disability and Feminist Theologies

Eiesland reacts to the ALC’s refusal to ordain disabled people with considerable anger. She interprets the ALC’s demand that pastors “be sufficiently able-bodied, ambulatory and mobile” as a condemnation of physical and psychiatric disability as inferior. A brief glance at the question of female ordination to the ministry proves that Eiesland might be jumping to conclusions.

In an Apostolic Letter issued in 1994, Pope John Paul II reiterated the traditional church teaching that women are ineligible for ordination to the priesthood. The rationale behind this teaching is that priests, during the Eucharistic ceremony at Mass as well as during the act of absolution in the sacrament of confession, act in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ,” and therefore must share certain vital characteristics with Christ. However, John Paul is quick to point out that the veneration of the Holy Virgin “clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them.” It is not that the Church violates women by denying them the sacrament of ordination; rather, it is women who violate God’s plan by demanding that they be permitted a role which, according to Christ’s own laws, they cannot adequately fulfill.

The clearest explanation of the difference between denial and discrimination is given in the Gospels by Christ himself: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Christ does not propose to free men of their bonds, only to make their bonds light. He will enslave them to his law, but, as Christians are meant to love God’s laws, the yoke will be light. If women react the impossibility of female ordination by renewing their love for the roles which they can assume, it will be no oppression. It is exactly this kind of pacific grace that the Catholic Church prescribes, and which, by extension, provides be a Christian solution to the problem of disability.

An example of the intersection of feminism and disability studies might further illustrate this point. Susan Wendell points out that both disability and femininity are relegated by the patriarchy to the private sphere, with the consequence that female family members of people with disabilities are saddled with their care. While it may be true that care for disabled persons is seen as a family responsibility rather than a social one, and it may further be true that this has the consequence of forcing women into caretaker positions, but this does not change the fact that many mothers do not see this task as oppressive. To tell a mother who loves taking care of her children that the task in which she delights is a cruel imposition creates more oppression than it prevents. Oppression, like inclusion, is a matter of attitude.

V. A Positive Theology of Disability

Many disability theorists would agree with Rosemarie Garland-Thomson that “disability is perhaps the essential characteristic of being human.” A theological unpacking of this statement introduces layers of meaning that its secular author may not have intended.

One common emotional reaction to disability is a feeling of not being at home in one’s own body. Eiesland describes the story of Nancy Mairs in detail: after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Mairs begins to find her own house “too big” for her, then finds her own body eerily foreign. As Eiesland puts it, “[h]er body had betrayed her.” This sensation of being not-at-home is more formidable than the alienation from normalcy that the disabled feel, because it is alienation not from a social group, or from an ideal, but from oneself.

This experience of the rebellious flesh that betrays itself by its own imperfection is a personal illustration of the abstract concept known as the Fall. Ever since original sin was introduced into the world, man has been broken and unable to fulfill the task of perfect virtue for which God made him. Disability studies and orthodox theology intersect when original sin is understood as a universal disability.

Another aspect of disability with universal implications is helplessness. The reliance of disabled individuals on caregivers is only an extreme example of part of the human condition which Garland-Thomson calls “the fact of human dependency.” If disability is simply a matter of being unable to live a satisfactory life without help from others, then all of mankind is disabled. According to Christianity, this fact of dependence is even more true of mankind’s relationship with Christ, without whom all men would be damned.

“Modern Western medicine,” Susan Wendell says, “plays into and conforms to our cultural myth that the body can be controlled.” It is precisely this myth of control that both Christian humility and non-medical definitions of disability attempt to refute. In this way, the phenomenon of being disabled is a perfect symbol for the universal human experience of existing in a universe controlled by forces that do not answer to you.

VI. Conclusion: The Disabled Christ

Eiesland describes her agenda regarding the Eucharist as a shift from the model of “virtuous suffering, or conquering lord” to “a formulation of Jesus Christ as disabled God.” She is correct that the disabled God is an edifying way to think of the Incarnation. After all, while Christ existed on this earth for thirty-three years before his death, the most iconic image of God in all of Christianity is Christ crucified and bleeding. Saints show their godliness by imitating his wounds through the miracle of stigmata. According to Christian theology, it is not by living but by being the paschal sacrifice that Christ ransoms mankind’s sins and redeems humanity.

Eiesland might go further than she does in outlining the concept of the disabled God. If Christ’s disability is fundamental to his divinity, then this is relevant not only to our understanding of the Eucharist but to the commandment for Christians to imitate Christ. If the perfection of mankind looks like a beaten and bruised man dying on a cross, then mortal men can aspire to a less tortured relationship with their own frailties. The image of the disabled Christ shows that infirmity is inherent to humanity, and our hope lies not in repairing disability, but in redeeming it.