Trusting One’s Self More Than One’s Culture

Teresa Wymore, an author of lesbian erotica who blogs at Flesh and Spirit, has posted an incisive rebuttal to Eve Tushnet’s critique of James Alison’s gay-affirming Catholic theology, which I wrote about here. (If that’s too “inside baseball” for you, read Teresa on Why Sex Matters instead.)

Teresa writes (Eve’s comments in italics):

Like many converts who are drawn to the Church, she seems to be seeking a perpetual engine of moral clarity, as if one’s hard moral choices shouldn’t rely on time, place, or circumstance but come in a handy indexed volume. Post-modern morality is a challenging thing because, like a box of squirming puppies, it means you have to be alert to changing priorities and consequences.

She begins her argument with her own coming out story. And then, there is this:

Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses?

Yes, she’s an apologist. Do you recognize the first step of any institution seeking control? Don’t trust yourself. Tushnet continues:

To my mind, Johnson’s approach places far too much trust in personal experience. He views our experience as both more transparent and less fallible than it is. To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots. Scripture is weird and tangly and anything but obvious-but at least it wasn’t written by someone who shared all our desires, preferences, and cultural background. At least it wasn’t written by us.

At this point, I see Tushnet has abandoned her reasonableness. Scripture is a result of personal experience, both produced and interpreted by the personal experiences of a fraction of humanity during ages of class oppression. I do believe it is divinely inspired; I’m just waiting for the divine interpretation. The Tradition that has given us our current understanding of Scripture is based in patriarchal culture, which Tushnet herself seems to acknowledge with a nod early, but now forgets.

And so I ask, with what experiences and values shall we interpret that Scripture? Who is wise enough that they should trust themselves to understand? Finally, Tushnet sums up her experience:

The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants.

I feel as if every week or so I discover yet another hidden treasure of the church that speaks to me in exactly the way I need in order to deal specifically with my struggles, resentments, longings, and strengths as a woman and a lesbian.

I want to ask why she gave up sexual relationships. Did she surrender that expression through discipline or did one desire replace a stronger one in her? My question, you see, is whether she chose her own sacrifice and finds more rewards when she chooses to support tradition and live in conformity with official teaching on sexuality. And yet, she seems to be telling other lesbians who find greater rewards in personal sexual relationships that they are not listening to God.

Tushnet has chosen to make a sacrifice of her lesbian sexuality, but maybe God wants her to sacrifice her attachment to a patriarchal tradition. I would say only she knows the answer to that. She would say the Church knows better than she does.

What would make me more open to Tushnet’s ideas is if she simply made the point that she chooses celibacy because she finds greater rewards in it, not because she’s choosing the moral high ground.

Teresa has hit upon the central question in the gay Bible wars: can I trust myself to know God’s will for me, or must I always defer to the institutional interpreters of the text? If, as individuals, we must be vigilant against letting our judgment be distorted by sin, that potential for error is only increased at the corporate level. It is a lot easier to hold an individual accountable than an institution, which is why scapegoating is such a powerful agent of social cohesion (as Alison tirelessly points out).

I’m sure I will be citing Teresa’s blog again in this space. Like me, she is working to stake out a position that is pro-erotica but anti-porn, that affirms the libido of the creative imagination while acknowledging how that imagination has been co-opted by our culture’s misogyny and violence. (Read her post “Mythbusting Women’s Erotica“.) Hey, anyone who’s a fan of James Alison and Bob Jensen has got to be an interesting thinker.