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How to be a radical

Urban Hannon’s writing has appeared in First Things, Ethika Politika, and other publications. He currently studies theology in Rome.

Back in my undergraduate days, some friends and I came across a collection of Ivy League lightbulb jokes, published by an on-campus blog. Each one opened with the classic, “How many students from [insert school here] does it take to change a light-bulb?” And they answered by capitalizing on some common stereotype of each of the various Ivies. For Harvard it was, “One, he holds the lightbulb and the world revolves around him.” For Princeton: “Two, one to stir the martinis and one to call the electrician.” The best was probably Yale’s—answer: “None, New Haven looks better in the dark.” But the self-deprecatory Columbia response was priceless: “Seventy-six students: One to change the lightbulb, fifty to protest the lightbulb’s right not to change, and twenty-five to hold a counter-protest.” Anyone who will venture out onto the Columbia quad during his lunch break will learn how accurate, and how pathetic, is that characterization.

I mention my own alma mater’s embarrassing infatuation with protests because the subject of this essay is how to be a radical, and I want to be clear from the outset that the Columbia protest-counter-protest game is the furthest thing from what I have in mind. I hate to rain on the parade of angry activists along College Walk, but the truth is there is nothing radical about their bitter stalemate by the sundial.

The good news is that the Church can do better than Columbia’s protesters, and my purpose is to gesture towards how. Happily these days we Catholics have the chance to be genuinely radical—happily, that is, not because there is any great value in nonconformity as such, but because otherwise the standard options on offer all look pretty sad (imagine being excited about this next presidential election...). Given the truth and richness of our own Catholic intellectual tradition on the one hand, and its utter alienation from the culture in which we live on the other, today we Catholics can offer a real alternative to the world’s cacophony—to what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “the white noise of pluralism”—if only we will resist the tooeasy urge to take sides in those petty fights.

Confession time: I am about to do something that I despise. I hate it when writers do etymologies. Honestly, why not just open with, “According to Merriam-Webster...”? Or worse: “In today’s first reading...”? It makes me want to slump forward in my seat into what P.G. Wodehouse might have described as a sudden somersault of sleep. So I’ll keep it brief, I promise. We get the word “radical” from radix, the Latin for, literally, “root”—but of course, the Latins were hyper-concrete where we English speakers would tend to opt for abstractions, so “origin” and “ground” and “basis” get the point across too.

To be radical, then, in the sense that I am after, is to return all the way back to the source of an argument, to dig all the way down to its foundation. To go with the Latinate metaphor, we are radical when we refuse to follow a particular tree along the course of its growth and development, because we think that it has been planted in the wrong place all along. Ditching the metaphor: We refuse to accept a dispute as it has been presented to us, because we know that by then far too much has been presumed already. This, I want to suggest to you, is the stance that we Catholics ought to take towards practically all the debates going on around us today. Rather than taking sides, we need to step back, see what the sides have in common, and, most probably, take sides against that.

Borrowing from Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas had an aphorism that sums this all up rather nicely:Eadem est scientia oppositorum—that is, “The knowledge of opposites is the same knowledge.” In other words, every contradiction reveals a more fundamental commonality. For in order to contradict one another, rival parties need to agree about what it is they are disagreeing about. What the one asserts must be precisely the same thing that the other denies, or else there is no contradiction at all. Their “A” and “not A” must be based upon the same “A.” Hence, every conflict necessarily will take place in a context—a shared context. Put it this way: To do battle, the contenders will have to have some common ground to stand on and fight over. Every disagreement, therefore, is built upon a deeper, prior agreement. Eadem est scientia oppositorum.

It follows from all of this that the simplest way to contradict someone, the way that requires the least imagination and insight, is to dichotomize, to assert the exact opposite of his position. My enemy says “X,” so I counter right away with a loud and clear “Not X!” However, as I intend to argue in these pages, this easiest way to oppose someone is indeed too easy. While it makes picking a fight very simple, unfortunately, in our circumstances, it makes winning that fight all but impossible.

What I am proposing, then, is that we Catholics should not be too quick these days to disagree with our cultural opponents, at least in any straightforward way. For disagreement is like a mirror. When we let them pick a fight with us on their terms, we let them turn us into simply their inverse image, which is going to be just as distorted as the original. A wench’s reflection is no lovelier to behold than the wench herself. Eadem est scientia oppositorum.

I am grateful to the Yale theologian Denys Turner for glossing this Aristotelian maxim throughout his academic career. But I would commend to you especially Turner’s treatment of the Pseudo-Denys’ apophatic masterpiece The Mystical Theology in his own apophatic masterpiece The Darkness of God. In that book, Turner lays out the mystical strategy of the Pseudo-Denys, that mysterious fifth-century Syrian disciple of Plotinus—if you will: the Saint Augustine of the East.

As Turner explains, the Pseudo-Denys elevates his mind towards God in prayer, by ascending intellectually the hierarchical ladder of being. Following the example of Sacred Scripture, and moving transcendently from base physical things all the way up to the spiritual summit of creation, the Pseudo-Denys methodologically applies to God the names of each of the things God has made. He asserts a divine name, negates that divine name with its contrary, and then transcendently negates the negation: “God is light,” “God is darkness,” “God is a brilliant darkness.” In other words, Denys names God, only in the next instant to lose his grasp on that name due to its dialectical tension with the next one up the list, until eventually even those dialectics themselves fall away, and he enters with Moses into the cloud of Exodus, the cloud of liturgical incense—the cloud of unknowing, to be shamelessly anachronistic about it. “Hence, as we move from complexity to simplicity,” says Turner, “from the multiplicity of creatures to the oneness of their cause, from differentiation to lack of differentiation, we must encounter, and then transcend the last differentiation of all: the difference itself between similarity and difference.”

What’s the point of this crash course in mystical theology? Simply this: For us Catholics to be radical, in the Dionysian sense that I am after, is for us transcendently to oppose oppositions themselves. Specifically, we must oppose the oppositions that constitute our culture’s own in-house disagreements today. We Catholics do not share enough in common with our fellows’ worldview to take their resolutions for granted, so we cannot simply adopt a pro or con position. Instead, under the patronage of the Pseudo-Denys, we must rise above the conflicts we see all around us, in order that we may see over them to the truth that they obscure.

Let’s put our radical thesis another way. In order to play a game, the contenders, however much they may focus on their division and hostility, still at least have to be playing by the same set of rules, or else they are not contenders against one another at all. But the warning for us is that all games were not created equal, and not all rules are conducive to fair play. When we Catholics allow the world to dictate the terms of a debate to us, effectively what we are doing is agreeing to play their game by their rules. The problem is, even when truth is on our side, that is a game we often have to lose. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” presumes that we are not letting hell decide what it would mean to prevail.

We cannot beat the world in an argument that has been rigged in its favor, which is the only kind of argument that can be had when we uncritically employ the world’s own distorted concepts and categories. Yet no matter how many times we have tried anyway and lost—and, just in case you haven’t been keeping count, our record in this ill-conceived “culture war” is terrible—like the gambling addict at the blackjack table, somehow we never learn our lesson. In our daily struggle with acedia, usually we are far too eager to dissipate ourselves into any distraction, into any Twitter debate, into any game at all, and we let our enthusiasm get the better of us over and over again. It is time to walk away from the table.

In practice what this means is that we cannot simply deny the falsehoods being proclaimed all around us. Denial is too easy, and it concedes way too much. To deny an assertion is already to have accepted its formulation, to have accepted the quid est (what it is), and simply to squabble over the utrum est (whether it is). It’s not unlike giving an answer to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” If in his frantic excitement all the accused husband can see are the two preset “yes” and “no” options, then he’ll grab onto the better one as fast as he can, when what he should have done is questioned the question. Similarly, a denial of the culture’s claims is an implicit agreement with the culture’s account of what we are fighting over. And to be blunt, if you agree with our enemies today about what it is we disagree about, you are as foolish as the self-accused wife-beater.

Consider abortion. Assertion: “Unborn children don’t have a right to life, but women do have a right to defend their own autonomy by killing them.” And the corresponding denial: “Unborn children do have a right to life, and women do not have a right to defend their own autonomy by killing them.” Shouting this at the top of their lungs has been the pro-life movement’s modus operandi for decades. And it is exceedingly stupid.

How so? Here’s a lesson from my law school days: “Rights” are claims to the most basic level of concern that one individual can demand from any other individual, even a total stranger. Historically, a “right” was for when a random passerby’s horse got spooked and broke your fence. To think that this is the level of care required of parents for their children is horrifying, and insisting on it is not conducive to ending abortion. By looking at the unborn child as an individual rights bearer, rather than as the young son of this mother and father, the pro-life movement plays into the same anti-familial anthropology that made abortion seem viable in the first place. Basing everything upon a “right to life” merely reinforces the individualist, voluntarist premises whose fatal conclusion we are trying to deny.

Now when the question is posed, “May a mother kill her unborn baby?” the pro-choicers say, “Yes because he’s violating her autonomy,” and the pro-lifers say, “No because that would violate his autonomy,” when what we should say is, “Are you insane? They aren’t autonomous! She’s his mom! She has to love and nurture him with everything she’s got, and he has to let her form him and love her right back. That’s who they are. Stop talking about mothers and sons as though they were accidental business associates or less. He is bone of your bones and flesh of your flesh! Love him! Killing him is unthinkable, not because he has rights against you, but because he is yours.” But unfortunately, the pro-life movement is too caught up in this rights language to step back and see the more complete Catholic understanding of the thing, which, by situating our moral precepts within a metaphysical and social context in which they actually make sense, could offer a far more attractive answer to the culture of death.

Zooming back out: The point is that we cannot assume that the way the world’s arguments typically are set forth will be sound. As heated as they often can be, really these are intramural contests that take all of the interesting points of contention for granted. In a culture as depraved as ours, we can almost guarantee that the in-vogue way of conceptualizing a given issue is going to be confused and unhelpful. Entering into those debates uncritically, by simply adopting one of the equal-and-opposite default positions, is just going to entangle us in that confusion and, in the long run, obscure the Church’s radical alternative.

Another example—and one on which I have spilled a lot of ink elsewhere—is the issue of same-sex lust. I’ll be honest with you: Here our collective failure to be radical breaks my heart, because this is a case where real Catholic doctrine is so much more consoling and sensible than anything else being proposed today. But instead, rather than playing Christ to the woman at the well, our “conservatives” seem determined to act the part of her self-satisfied detractors. Once again, we are wasting our breath unthinkingly denying the claims of liberalism, without ever considering whether we ought instead to attack the categories that make these claims appear intelligible in the first place.

There are different angles at which we could cut into this mess, but let’s start here: Sexual orientation is a myth. It simply is not real. The tidy psychological binary between “heterosexuals” and “homosexuals” is just one of many stupid inventions bequeathed to us by the nineteenth century, and it is long past time to trash it. Honestly, this is all just a bad reductionist sham. The notion that which sex someone would rather rub up against reveals some essential aspect of his personality is impoverishing, and the belief that these two nice and neat categories of gay and straight are adequate for describing anyone’s messy experience of sexual desire is ridiculously naïve (thus the infinite expansion of the LGbt acronym). Yet by now we are so used to this bizarre conceptual scheme that we never bother to notice just how formally arbitrary and empirically oversimplified and historically anomalous it is. For the sake of chastity and sanity, we need to move on.

In both its conservative heteronormative and its progressivist gay-rights varieties, the lie of sexual orientation is completely foreign to our Catholic tradition and—as too few moral theologians have noticed—totally incompatible with it. Once again, we perceive the inadequacy of simply attaching a negative sign to the claims of the culture. Eadem est scientia oppositorum. Our sad confused libertine contemporaries tell us every day, “Being a homosexual is normal and just as good as being a heterosexual, and therefore sodomy is fine.” Cue the myopic contrarian conservatives, who strain their extra-deep voices as they scream back, “Nuh-uh! Being a homosexual is abnormal and is way worse than being a heterosexual, and therefore sodomy is evil.” And then I rend my scapular in excruciating frustration.

Let’s be clear: Sodomy is indeed evil—and so is the allegedly “normal,” “healthy” practice of self-abuse, where the loveable other is dispensed with altogether (not that I would consider ranking mortal sins to be all too useful an enterprise—without the precious Blood of Christ, they all lead to the same place). The evil of sodomy, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the relative values of gayness and straightness, because neither of those things is real any-way (sorry Straight Pride Paraders). Sodomy is not wrong because it springs from a distasteful psychological condition, but because it lustfully thwarts the rational-animal purpose of sex: children. “Homosexuality” has nothing to do with it, nor has “heterosexuality” anything to do with the ethical goodness of marital relations. It’s as if conservative Christians today think that an aesthetic attraction to the opposite sex is some kind of moral accomplishment. Stupid!

The truth is that there is no such thing as a homosexual, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual. There are just people. There are just men and women, confused and lonely and fallen and beautiful. There are no categories to hide behind. It’s just us. No masks, my friends. Just you and me.

In light of this, the message that we Catholics should be proclaiming to those who sometimes struggle with lustful passions towards their own sex is not, “Oh, so you’re one of those people with objectively disordered desires, a member of that group whose temptations are really unseemly.” (Note the implicit not-so-subtle addendum: “unlike mine.”) “Well, as long as you never fall into sin and let us hermetically seal you off from the rest of us with this nice technical sounding label and don’t make us uncomfortable with too much talk about this unattractive tendency of yours, then we welcome you with loving arms.” Right . . .

What we should say instead is this: “So you’re tempted in this way on occasion? Sorry about that, man. Life’s a vale of tears. But frankly I wouldn’t worry too much about it. If you could only see how each of us is tempted on a daily basis, you wouldn’t be so embarrassed. And that’s all okay, because our hope isn’t in us anyway. Saint Therese said that she would not fear even if she were the greatest sinner in the world, even if she had committed every single sin in the book, because her confidence had nothing to do with her own merit and everything to do with God’s goodness. In His Church, we are all fallen. Mysteriously, this is the story He’s telling. So there is nothing especially different about you or me or ayone. We’re all in the same boat, and that boat is the Barque of Peter. We’re just a bunch of sinners trying to love our way to heaven together. But for the grace of God go I, every single day. So come join our ranks. Fight with us for chastity and charity. Check into the field hospital. We’re in this one together, friend, and we love you—period.”

That is what a pastoral approach to same-sex attraction looks like: not puritanical squeamishness, not condescending philanthropy, and not lustful indulgence, but chaste spiritual friendship—having the humility and the self-knowledge to tear down the polite “heterosexual” façade and identify with your brothers and sisters. It’s costly. It’s worth it. And, by the way, it is the only adequate answer to that heart-wrenching line in the Obergefell opinion: “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.” Now granted, that’s a bad philosophy of marriage, but it’s a very good confession of a deep human fear that, if we’re man enough to admit it, all of us have known. We need to be ready to comfort one another out of this fear, out of this loneliness—not with carnal sin, but rather with the serene, vulnerable love of Christ: “I am with you always. Be not afraid. I call you friend.”

Let’s leave this example on the ground, and fly back up to twenty thousand feet. These days our Catholic pop apologists are fond of bragging about what they like to call the Catholic “both/and.” And fair enough: Sometimes the Church has affirmed the motivating concerns of both of two warring factions—but only materially and secundum quid. Formally and per se, it’s really less of a Catholic “both/ and” and more of a Catholic “Ugh, what the hell are you two talking about?” Think about it: If the Church tells two interlocutors that, in their zealous conflict against one another, in fact they are both correct, what she effectively is telling them is that they each have such a poor grasp on their own cherished position that they don’t even understand its basic entailments. If she harmonizes two apparently contradictory principles, she does that by taking a page from the Pseudo-Denys and transcending the limited and obscuring vantage point that both interlocutors share in common.

How do we do that in practice? Here’s how to be a radical, distilled into a method: Before we Catholics start fighting over answers in the deadlocked stand-offs all around us today, we first need to step back and try to discern whatever the question is that is implicitly being asked in each case. Next, in the light of our luminous tradition, we need to evaluate that question as it had been posed, and most likely critique it and even reformulate it completely. Then we can set about answering that better question. And finally we can use that new and probably radical sounding answer to understand why the original, poorly formulated version of the question had to lead to such a bitter and irresolvable stalemate in the first place. Our part as Catholics, I am arguing, is not to answer the world’s questions; it’s to attack them.

I want to make explicit that I am not so much arguing here for particular resolutions, no matter how much I may approve of them, but for a general stance. My purpose is not really for you to finish this essay agreeing with me about abortion or same-sex lust or anything else, but rather for you to walk away having situated yourself intellectually within the Church rather than the world. This is not so much about specific conclusions as it is about attention to the premises—especially the implicit premises—that get us there. I want your mind to be freed to think beyond, and against, the default dichotomies du jour. Allow me to conclude with one last etymology, because at this point it doesn’t much matter if you fall asleep. In his excellent essay on “The ‘Intellectual’ and the Church,” Josef Pieper vindicates my summons to be a radical when he reminds us, “By the way, the source of the word ‘nonconformity’ is Scripture: Nolite conformari huic saeculo, ‘And be not conformed to this world’!” Even for radicals, there is something comforting about having the Holy Ghost in your footnotes.