Monday, August 29, 2011

Porn - It's not fruit.

 I don’t have a television. I watch DVDs on my computer instead. I’m rather proud of this fact, which is why I’ve mentioned it even though it has little to do with the rest of this blog. I believe the Buddha called it “bragging”. So sad.
At my parent’s house, however, television has a significant entertainment role. Recently I was watching with my mother a discussion on whether porn is unhealthy. My response to that question was “Duh, of course it’s unhealthy.”  However I could see why some people on the telly disagreed.
Our difference lies in how you define unhealthy. For some people “Unhealthy” behaviour is symptomatic of an unhealthy person. When those people say porn is healthy they mean that you don’t have to be “some sicko” to watch porn; virtually everybody watches porn so it is part of a healthy life.
I define healthy differently. For me it’s not about categories to which we can belong. We are all healthier than a dead person. We are all at the same time able to think of people much healthier than us. I couldn’t run a block at the moment so in fitness terms you may be much healthier than me. But it doesn’t follow I belong to a category of sick people. It’s a bell curve or a spectrum of some sort but it’s not two different tick boxes on a form.
To use a different example - is a cream bun healthy? Of course not. It has near to no nutrients and a massive refined carbohydrate content. There may be a rare person who is actually healthier after eating a cream bun (a diabetic entering a hypoglycaemic state) but we can safely call it an unhealthy snack. Obviously.
However a cream bun eater is not necessarily a person on an insane death wish. In fact there is no one cream bun eater at all. One may be a fourteen year old footy player whose activity levels laugh off all those calories. One may be an occasional snacker. One may be staving off depression with sugar. And another may have a terminal illness and couldn’t give a shit about acquiring diabetes.
Basically if we intend the question “is eating a cream bun healthy?” to mean “is the eater of a cream bun healthy?” we can never answer it. They are always healthier than a dead person. They may or may not be healthier than the average.
But who cares if a cream bun eater is healthier than the average person? Why would anyone spend so much attention on the person with the cream bun rather than the variable in question, the cream bun itself? The reason is because they are actually asking should we worry about person X for eating a cream bun. Or sometimes should I worry about myself because there’s a cream bun in my hand.
To return to porn then, those people on telly who thought porn was healthy were actually saying “Don’t worry about me because I watch porn.” Or perhaps they were saying “Don’t bother me, don’t feel entitled to censor what I watch because you’ve declared me sick.” That’s what happens whenever you have these debates while people feel threatened.
I worked for many years in drug and alcohol services and regularly I would find people denying that cannabis or alcohol or heroin was unhealthy. I would often think to myself “Of course it’s unhealthy. It’s not fruit.”
At the time I was smoking about twenty cigarettes a day. I knew and admitted they were unhealthy. The real difference between me and the cannabis, alcohol and heroin addicted people I worked with was that no-one was capitalising on my admission that smoking was unhealthy. No-one was going to take away my kids or institutionalise me or even expect me to listen to a lecture just because I admitted what I was doing was unhealthy. I could say my smoking wasn’t healthy but that I was, thank you. The people I worked with thought that if they said what they were doing was unhealthy it would be read that they weren’t healthy people. And if they weren’t healthy then us workers could bother them legitimately because that’s what unhealthy people get.
To put it another way when we ask whether some thing- a drug, a cream bun or porn - is unhealthy it’s both science and politics. On the one hand it’s information without effect so that people can make informed choices. On the other hand it’s the basis for policy decisions which impact on peoples lives effectively without their consent. When we ask whether some one is healthy it’s even more clearly political. It has direct consequences for that person’s power. When we ask whether something is unhealthy but we really mean or are heard to mean, whether someone who does that thing is healthy we get all sorts of politics firing off and objective science is way too frightened to pop up its head.
Thinking back to those drug work days helps me to see that it is only from a privileged position that I can admit porn is unhealthy. I can hear someone tell me I shouldn’t be consuming that porn, because it doesn’t even cross my mind that they will control me if I agree with them and then consume porn anyway. I am always a healthy person (that is someone who doesn’t have to accept bothering) who may or may not be doing unhealthy things.
That’s why for me the question as to whether porn is healthy is whether it adds to my health or detracts from it, not what type of person it indicates I am. The issue is not whether anyone can bother me but whether or not I, in my sovereignty over my life, will count porn as healthy for me or not.  And like the cream bun or cannabis the answer is pretty obvious. I mean seriously “it’s not fruit.”
Now I’m aware that cream buns or cannabis are more easily contrasted with fruit than porn is. Evaluating substance use is not a simple affair while engaging with porn is an even more complex human activity.  If people want I’ll happily post my arguments in a future blog as to why I consider porn generally unhealthy (and there will be exceptions).  I would only be making those arguments however in the context that people are entitled to make unhealthy choices. That goes for cream buns and cannabis too.
Just for this blog though here are ten things porn isn’t.
1. Physical exercise (alright not much physical exercise).
2. Watching a film for the quality of its writing or acting (with rare exceptions)
3. Reading a book for the quality of its writing. (with rare exceptions)
4. Actually doing the rompy rompy with someone you fancy.
5. Increasing your repertoire of experiences to chat about on a first date.
6. Writing, like a blog.
7. Masturbating to your own unique fantasies.
8. Learning to knit, fire twirl, bake bread... (also helps with 5)
9. Cleaning (never gonna happen but we can dream)
10. Giving yourself a moment to live without media mediation.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Prodigal God: My Rambling Response.

Aaaargh. I agree with this piece but I’m not happy with it. Why? I’ve published it partly to just get it out of my head. I have a lot of other things to think about and having this sit on my hard drive is stopping me. I recommend it for the dedicated only.
My younger brother Simon and I probably seem similar from a distance. From the proximity of our relationship though it is as if we’re opposites in our theology and philosophy. You can read his blog here. You’ll see he’s intelligent and caring and humorous and ridiculously knowledgable on the bible.
Me and Simon love each other but often there’s scant common ground to our opinions. That makes for a very fertile ground to write on because he not only helps me to define my own views in argument but he shocks me into recognizing my assumptions. Simon occupies a perspective I genuinely care to oppose as well – I find it life-denying (in part), he finds it life affirming. He similiarly isn’t ambivalent about my views.  Hot heads have prevailed at times. Clear thinking requires respect and more than a little effort on both sides.  Basically its great for my writing!
Simon loaned me many months ago, The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. This slim novel expands on a sermon Keller once heard and has repeated as a Presbyterian minister. Keller is also the author of the New York Times Bestseller “The Reason For God” and for him this sermon is the clearest possible exposition of the Christian Gospel.
In this response to Keller I’ve had two tasks. I’ve given my own view of the subject matter – the fascinating parable of the prodigal son in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. I’ve also outlined Kellers views and tried to show how I think he gets it wrong. This would probably make an easier read as two seperate posts especially for those readers who just aren’t that interested in Keller’s mistakes. Kellers mistakes are not however as uncommon as you might imagine if you’re reading them here first – they are part of a certain Christian orthodoxy. Subsequently even if you’ve never heard his name I think he’s worth rebutting.
I also think this is another too long post. But telling you that hasn't made it any shorter.
A response to Timothy Kellers' A Prodigal God.

Luke’s Gospel contains several parables. Arguably the most well known is usually referred to as the Prodigal Son. A younger son spends his share of his inheritance wastefully while his Father is alive. In poverty he returns home intending to beg for employment as a lowly hired hand. Instead, to his surprise, his father restores him to his household with a great celebratory feast. When the older son refuses to join in the celebration his father pleads with him to change his mind. 
In The Prodigal God Timothy Keller explores the meaning of this parable. Keller points out that the Prodigal Son is an extra-biblical title that focuses the story on the younger son and his reconciliation with his father. The parable (see for yourself in Luke 15) is about both younger and elder brothers perhaps even more so about the elder brother. Certainly, without neglecting the younger brother’s story, Keller’s focus is on the older brother.
In a nutshell Keller argues that the position of the elder brother is one in which he has sought to control his father through his own obedience. Put simply he feels “owed” in a way that is betrayed by his father’s forgiveness of his younger brother, hence his angry refusal to join the celebratory feast. In Keller’s interpretation the older brother is only doing good for himself. Keller contrasts this with obedience to the father motivated by submissive[1] love. Such obedience would not have permitted the older brother to resent the younger brother’s return to the family because he would not have felt entitled to resent anything. Keller takes us to other parts of the Gospel to argue that this submissive obedience is the prescriptive message of the parable.
Keller elaborates on this theme with a range of extra-biblical sources. Keller draws a sharp distinction between doing good for God and doing good for ourselves – for what God will have to give us if we are good. Keller’s strongest example of this is Salieri in Peter Schaffer’s play, Amadeus. Salieri declares God his enemy in response the rising star of Mozart eclipsing his talent. After all Salieri has served God dutifully while Mozart is decadent and irreligious. Because Salieri was only doing good for his own benefit however Mozart’s talent destroys his motivation.
It is clear however that Salieri’s story is not a good fit to the parable of the prodigal son.  For one thing Mozart isn’t repentant. More importantly though the elder brother in Luke 15 does not give up being “good” like Salieri does. He doesn’t refuse to do his chores or demand his inheritance from his father. That may come next but it isn’t in the story. Instead the elder brother refuses to celebrate his younger brother’s return. That refusal is the brother’s only transgression.
Keller is basically inserting too much into the story. From my own reading of Luke 15 the issue is not one of the elder brother’s right attitude towards the Father but right attitude to the brother. Specifically if we add nothing to the text then we see that the father expects his older son to be joyful for his sibling’s restoration to the family. In fact the father asks, in my favourite translation, the New English, “How could we help celebrating this happy day?” (Luke 15: 32) Joy in the younger brothers’ return is both unforced and inevitable.
What prevents the older son from being joyful is his sense of (in)justice. Perhaps even that is assuming too much. He says “You know how I have slaved for you all these years; I never once disobeyed your orders; and you never gave me so much as a kid, for a feast with my friends. But now that this son of yours turns up, after running through your money with his women, you kill the fatted calf for him?” So very specifically it is injustice of the sort that unfairly compensates him and unfairly rewards his brother that screws with his joy. He might be fine with a bit of injustice in his own favour.
These are two distinct sides to this injustice. Firstly the son may have resented his duties. That’s certainly indicated by the use of the word “slaved”. It’s as if all the time he worked at home while his brother whooped it up in decadent style he comforted himself with the belief in a greater regard by his father. This is the side that is explored by Keller. I wouldn’t exactly call it controlling but there’s definitely a contractual expectation held over the father in it. Notice however that it isn’t until his brother is welcomed home that he complains. The elder brother is not saying “I expected the fatted calf”, he’s saying, “I expected it before you would give it to him.” The issue is justice. The son expected the father to be just.
The other side to the injustice is the outrage that “after running through your money with his women, you kill the fatted calf for him.” The first side is about the injustice to the elder brother, the second is about the injustice to his father. The first can be contrasted with love for the father to some extent but the second is potentially consistent with it. The elder brother has no joy for his younger brother’s restoration in this regard, because he can’t let go of what the brother has done to the father. Once again it is a choice between joy or justice for the elder brother.
Any uncertainty that joy is the central message of the parable is banished by the preceding two parables in Luke 15. In the first a shepherd leaves his flock of ninety nine to search for one lost sheep. My New English Bible has the “delighted” shepherd cry out “Rejoice with me!” once he recovers his sheep. In the second parable of Luke 15 a woman holds a party with her neighbours over finding a single silver piece she had lost.
It is also very clear what all this rejoicing is meant to be about. Luke 15 begins with the Pharisees and doctors of the law grumbling about how Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke15: 2.) After the first parable Jesus says “In the same way, I tell you there will be greater joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine people who have no need to repent.” and after the second parable, “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” There should be no doubt then that what Jesus is saying is that the correct response to the restoration of a sinner to the family is rejoicing. Jesus is bringing to his grumbling audience’s attention that their sibling relationships with the sinners he is eating with is broken because of their lack of joy at their inclusion.
So what could produce this joy? I struggle to see how Keller’s submissive love of the father would lead to an unforced and inevitable rejoicing over a brother’s restoration. I’m not saying they’re inconsistent – but the former won’t produce the latter. In fact as I’ve mentioned above if the brother who is to be restored wronged the father then there is a tension between loyalty to the father and joy for the brother. Instead the problem lies in the relationship between the brothers. There is a lack of love. The three parables together are saying “You value a sheep, you value a coin, but your own brother you would rather see lost? Really? Where is the love?”
If you accept my above paragraph then you can see the contrast between joy and justice is actually between (brotherly) love and justice. I think this is a fascinating theme because I see it in my own life and I don’t consider myself unique in this regard at all. There is a common measure of morality which is set by how much you actually want people who you deem immoral to suffer. For example, a really good person would of course want a mass murderer to end up in hell. Only a bad person would want them to be in heaven.  If I have interpreted this parable correctly then Luke’s Jesus is actually saying that this measure is false. Here Jesus is asking his listeners to adopt a familial love towards sinners that is greater than their love of justice.
Let’s remember that when Jesus was preaching Jerusalem was an occupied city. Luke is commonly dated as being written within a decade prior to the temple’s destruction by Roman forces. The Pharisees like all Jews felt humiliated by regular Roman blasphemies against God.  If we imagine that some of the sinners sitting with Jesus might have been Jewish collaborators with the Romans doesn’t this give us a fresh sympathy for the Pharisees’ grumbling at the start of Luke 15. Such collaborators would be a good fit for the disgraceful behaviour of the younger brother. The older brother’s attitude is understandable in this scenario while the father’s is truly radical. To the Pharisees the father’s behaviour and Jesus’ would have easily seemed immoral. In fact it still seems immoral today.
Is there a lot between Keller and my interpretations? Not necessarily. Justice is enmeshed with control. I think of the helplessness I felt when I was on unemployment benifits and they were almost cut off for no reason. With some form of justice – even cruel justice – you can predict what will maintain your payments. You can have some control. So where I say justice you could insert Keller’s idea of controlling the father. I think you miss out on what sort of control we’re looking at though. Additionally I think there are two crucial differences between my own and Timothy Keller’s way of thinking.
The first difference goes to the nature of sin. Keller defines (redefines in my opinion) the elder son’s transgression purely in terms of his relationship to his Father. In this way Keller is sharing in a theological perspective that all sin is against God. In this view the wrongness of any interaction with God’s creation (other people, animals and the world) is only derived from the wrongness in our relationship to God that such an act speaks to. To use a simple analogy a work of art has no right to be in and of itself. Treating it disrespectfully or unlawfully is in both cases a crime against the creator and in the latter a crime against the state. God is understood to occupy both places in relation to us and it is this which creates sin in how we treat each other. While it’s not clear that Keller holds this opinion of sin in its entirety he adheres to it in his book.
I think there is a tragic aloneness to this perspective; the only relationship that matters is between ourself and God. If every person we meet are only met as opportunities to love God do we ever come to terms with their basic realness? We are living as if their basic realness is incidental to how we interact with other people – whereas to me it seems fundamental.
I also can’t shake the following dread; A purely vertical (us to God) basis for sin means that if we believe God has withdrawn his love from any part of his creation all bets are off. If the artist says “Meh, I don’t want that art work anymore,” we can’t say that endless, pointless torture of them is unjust[2]. They have no intrinsic moral rights. In practice this means that if we want to treat someone with absolutely no regard we merely have to declare them God forsaken. I would much rather anyone’s morality towards me was based on primitive empathy towards a fellow human being.
Of course as a non-theist I am likely to define sin as horizontal. Any wrong I do others is ultimately between me and them rather than me and God. However as I argued above I’m actually being more faithful to the text in Luke when I stress that the issue here is the love lost between the sons rather than a lack of love for the Father (God). Certainly there would be a great many Christians for whom their morality is based on seeing other people (and animals) as fellow beings – with the unity of their creator being the very reason for that empathy. I would consider embracing a radical siblinghood of all people to be a very theistic position and consistent with the parables of Luke 15. Yet this simpler reading is profoundly overlooked by Keller.
Secondly Keller is approaching the text to make a very specific theological argument. The only way a person could reach his conclusions is if they draw on theology outside of Luke 15. Keller does this so overwhemingly I don’t think you could say he gives Luke 15 meaning without also accepting that he takes the simplest meaning away.  Is Keller drawing on the same limited theological script to interpret all of the bible? That’s a possibility I can imagine because his script is recognizable as one that is often used in that way. That script is a doctrine known as the doctrine of free grace (also called anti-pelagianism). This doctrine is clearly supported in the Bible (particularly by Paul but also elsewhere) and I don’t mean to dispute its basis. However it is wrong to say that it is the only message of the Bible and that all the bible speaks to it.
Kellers’ idea that the older son’s real sin is to try to control the father with his obedience is merely a substitution for calling them a pelagianist (someone who believes they can earn their way to salvation). Keller claims that the presence of someone looking for the lost sheep and lost coin in the first two stories should point us to the missing “looker” in the third story - that Jesus deliberately doesn’t mention anyone who searches for the lost younger son so that we search the Gospel specifically for Jesus, the perfect older brother. This is sermonising from what isn’t there.
 Keller has to do this in order to introduce Christ (as the one who looks for us) into the parable. Keller has to introduce Christ to make the parable about an argument for accepting the free grace of God in contrast to attempting to work our way to God. I defy anyone to find a sensible position for Christ in the parable of “the prodigal son” without obviously altering the story. I think it’s a tragedy Keller distorts the parable to stress this one doctrine of Christianity when the simplest reading of the parable contains such incredibly amazing teaching – just not on anti-pelagianism.
Despite my criticisms this response/review was a challenge to complete precisely because I couldn’t maintain any great rage against the book. Timothy Keller is wrong in all the ways he disagrees with me (of course) but his theology is hardly evil, even if it potentially has unfortunate consequences. It is also true that Keller’s understanding of Luke 15 has very fortunate consequences. Keller challenges judgmentalism through the universality of sinfulness. Keller encourages a radical generosity through a belief in Christ’s purchase of us. One thing I am personally grateful to Timothy Keller for is leading me to reread the parable of the prodigal son.  I hope you will too.

P.S. Simon that gratitude extends to you - probably one of the very few who'll read this far.

[1] By submissive I do not mean that Keller means fearful submission. Kellers’ submission is based in overwhelming gratitude. Keller has to insert this gratitude however from other parts of the gospel into this parable. It is essentially gratitude for Christs atonement for our sins.
[2] Yes, this is an allusion to traditional understandings of Hell.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Get Messy- Gay marriage and Empathy.

I'm throwing this up without the usual edit. I've been feeling a little safe in my writing. This is a little less safe. Hope it makes sense.
(Not actually Rick and Bob)

I recently read about as great a conservative Christian blog post on the “issue” of Gay marriage as I’m ever likely to read. (I put issue in inverted commas because as far as I’m concerned there’s no issue at all. If you don’t like Gay marriage don’t have one.) It’s here.
I am not going to get into attacking the arguments against same-sex marriage in this post. The arguments tend to pull us back from our real world into logic land or worse scripturesville – alternative realities of words, words, words. Instead of crawling up into our heads through our arses I want to show a different way of thinking about Gay marriage which is also a different way of being. It’s a way to stay in the world while being ethical. I’m calling it empathy led ethics.
To begin lets undefine our topic rather than define it. Let’s think of the relationships we know. Starting with our own – why did we enter them, why did they end? How gently do we treat their memory? Why? Seriously take a moment and absorb those feelings.
And then other people. Like your parents. Your best friend. Real people you know. Imagine an invite to their twentieth wedding anniversary. Is it a celebration? Excruciating? A distasteful hipocricy? A joyful or painful reminder of your own relationships? Something you wouldn’t miss or something you wondered why you were invited to? Now we’re really discussing marriage.
Notice how this real thing called marriage is massively messy. As a first step to being ethical it feels like a step backwards; nothing is clarified. Isn’t philosophy supposed to proceed from clarity? Maybe you thought you knew what marriage gay or otherwise was but all these real details have confused the picture. That’s just it if you want an ethical discussion of something real you don’t get to keep it neat.
Discussions of Gay marriage often try to retain this neatness. They cease to be about Rick and Bob getting hitched instead of just unceremoniously fornicating. It’s not really about gayishness or marriageness anymore. It’s about “the institution of marriage”, its about homosexuality and heterosexuality as eternal categories.  It’s about Gods plan for human sexuality.
The very moment we start thinking about Gods plan for human sexuality it breeds an arrogance in us. Get in touch with your own body - you may feel it in your chest. Notice the swelling. Walk around talking about God’s plan for human sexuality. Notice the swagger. You’re thinking big for your boots. It’s intoxicating – a heady drug. Real peoples lives are best kept out of your sermonising though. This isn’t really about silver haired Rick and the new lover whose making his eyes sparkle. This is about absolutes.
But lets think instead about Gods plan for Rick and Bob. Really think about Rick and Bob. All of a sudden humility rushes in. You don’t even know Bob do you. Sure you’ve been kinda friends with Rick for a while but all you know about Bob is what Rick has told you. And now you think about it you don’t know what Ricks like outside of a few interests. You wouldn’t presume to steer him away from a large investment in painting as a hobby. Or from a holiday in North Queensland. Allow yourself to reflect on Ricks full personhood. Messy them up like we just did for marriage. Blow your mind and do the same for Bob.  Now consider the proportion of what you know of them. Shut’s you up, eh.  
Now this is not a general shut down of ethical discussion. If we were discussing Rick beating Bob or sleeping around on him– even if that was in a consensual pollyamorous bdsm way you might have an empathy attack that overrides your humility. Rightly or wrongly you can imagine Bobs reaction (relief perhaps?) to your intervention (maybe confronting Rick) and your imagination could guide your intervention. Notice that empathy encourages intervention – it’s not anywhere as good for just mouthing off - because empathy is concerned about the people involved not abstractions.
Now the effectiveness of empathy is that it self-corrects continuously. As you get closer to Rick and Bob you get feedback about your intervention. Keep putting yourself in their position, keep learning about their position. If Bob seems happy your humility may override your empathy again. That’s your message to back off. The default position is humility. The first thing you know is how little you know.
The real awesomeness of empathy though is that there is no leaving your body. You’re not required to spend long periods of time (in your head) wandering around the very ancient Middle East with Moses ,ancient Greece with Aristotle or even ancient Rome with Jesus. You can stay right where you are living your life. How cool is that?
For me there just isn’t any empathy attack when I consider Rick and Bob getting married. I tend to think marriage may kill the spontaneity in a relationship but without a clear sense that Rick and Bob are at risk of this I would let humility rule. I might be concerned if I thought Rick really loved Pete or Jenny instead but assuming he and Bob were likely to be happy [1]  I'd have no motivation for any intervention. Certainly there’s not enough empathic concern to override humility.
What about those people who believe Rick and Bob are going to be unhappy for deviating from Gods plan? What about those friends and family who honestly believe that Rick and Bobs relationship will be fraught with tragedy because Gods plan is good for us? Can they claim empathy as a motivating force to break Rick and Bob up and to oppose a marriage which might make such a break up harder? In my opinion, yes.
There’s no real escaping that we have to base our initial empathy attack on prejudice – that is on a pre-judgement of the situation based on how we think the world works. Even Scripture can be a source of that pre-judgement. The beauty of empathy is that it corrects because it learns from the subjects of our concern. Approaching Rick and Bob, with the default position of humility riding shotgun, we check and re-check to see if they really need our help. If they don’t we slide over and give the wheel back to humility.
Now if your eyes never leave the gospel page to look at Rick and Bob then you’re not practicising an empathy led ethics. You’re claiming to be led by empathy by asserting that Rick and Bob need your help but you’re not living by it. You’re not staying in the world. You’re off touring the Meditteranean with St. Paul instead.  
What if though the source of your concern for Rick and Bob is not visible in this world? What if it’s their afterlife you’re really worried about but there’s no way to discern why Rick and Bob are heading for hell from approaching them in this life? Quite frankly, then you’re stuffed. The idea of an afterlife which rewards without observable rhyme or reason is profoundly counter-empathic. “Rick and Bob are happy and healthy and will spread happiness and healthiness but they should stop it anyway or they’ll end up in a hell I can’t see” is about as anti-empathic a statement as you can make. Meditating on such an arbitrary afterlife rips you out of this world, disconnects you from other people and in my opinion renders your contribution to an ethical conversation unintelligible. If you think its’ a reason to bother Rick and Bob let alone sensible basis for government policy you’ve lost touch with the real.
Opposition to homosexuality (and let’s not pretend opposition to Gay marriage can be based on anything else) used to be about its real world implications. Lesbians were kleptomaniacs, Gay men were suicidal, and bisexuals were vampires. Now only a small number of people believe these have anything to do with sexuality itself rather than clinical sampling, homophobic environments and media bias. That was inevitable as more and more happy and healthy same-sex-loving lives were lived out in the mainstream. Now opposition to homosexuality has to be based on a retreat from empathy.
Often arguments “for” Gay marriage also avoid empathy. Partly this is because they meet their opponents on their opponents’ playing field. One you often hear is how weak the scriptural basis against homosexuality is. That’s true but surely that’s an argument “for” scripture not “for” homosexuality –unless we’re conceding that if a lost gospel emerges that explicitly says no to same-sex marriage we’d submit to it. I wouldn’t.
I used to be involved with Queer politics and one of the great dangers of queer politics is how many young people lead it. The danger here is that a lot of these young people haven’t had much sex. Falling in love was maybe more common  – however the love you feel at 19 is (lets be honest) often self-love with company. All that might be changing now that Queer youth events are more common but in my day there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for young same-sex dating. This produced a queer politic that was very theoretical. There were more attempts to change language, curriculums and library collections than there was to walk down the main street hand in hand with someone you loved of any gender. We demanded the publication of queer stories but we didn’t actually have a lot to write about. Sometimes I thought we had imported a general cultural homophobia into our politics, as if our preferred queer political subjects were celibate. The reality is we were just inexperienced.
Back then I thought we were doing Queer politics wrong. Somehow semiotics had become more important than love and sex. Now I’m a helluva lot older and I’m even more certain that I want to live MY life, not someone elses manifesto. And I want my ethics to be based in this world as I learn with humility as my default and empathy as my guide.
Have fun messing it up.

[1] Lest anyone think I’m pushing for a simple pleasure basis for good there’s A LOT of complexity behind this simple word “happiness”. There are physical aspects but also character aspects (dignity for example). Rather than define it let’s undefine it so as to keep it both messy and real.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Thanks to those who’ve dared to read my posts so far. I am loving the process of writing and already find my thoughts shifting from my first post. Does anyone else find that life is always more complex than any statement we make about it?
The practise of writing is very much the practice of my thinking... this sentence for example. As I write I am forced to focus, really listen to myself and clarify. I have to think - how is writing like thinking?
One way writing for me is very much like thought is in the importance of tone. My dislike towards certain systematic theologies is not always about their conclusions so much as the style by which they reach them – the absence of humour and the emphasis on logic for example. I consider the style of my writing as no less than the orthopraxy (right action) of orthodoxy (right belief). Feel free to take me to task over my style as much as any argument I’ve made. Am I too wordy? Too glib? Unkind?
The hope I have is that in six months time everything you’re reading now will seem like crap. That would mean my thinking has improved as well and there are some deeply important questions I hope to improve my thinking on.  Maybe that’s not an encouragement to read what I have to write now but I’m grateful if you do.
Coming up soon will be a short piece on John Wesley. I’ve almost finished John Pollock’s biography John Wesley 1703-1791 but it’s left me uninspired. I found it well-written but lacking in contextual information so if anyone can recommend another book on the early history of the Evangelical movement I’d appreciate it.
I’m also halfway done writing a review and response to Timothy Kellers’ The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. I’ve very much enjoyed diving into chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel. There are some ideas I discuss in this I really want to get right so I won’t be rushing it. It will take a flash of inspiration to see it finished in the next few days.
I can’t stop thinking about the phrase a “failure of imagination” lately. It might capture what happens when a theist can’t see how an atheist can be hopeful and moral for example. A “failure  of imagination” is also perhaps what I commit in my first post in regard to the prescence of Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist. Expect a piece on this sometime soon.
Lastly I’ve been browsing emerging church websites like We have something a bit similar here in Bendigo (auspiced by Anglicans I think) and they really excite me. I may get round to a piece on them.
Of course seeing as I’m not actually a Christian there are a lot of non-Christian topics I’ll cover too. Wittgenstein and philosophical “seriousness” maybe? Something about Taoism? Or the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous? Whatever it will be I’ll love writing it.
Thankyou my enablers.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Apostle Paul and the Sisters of Christ

Writing down my thoughts about the theology outlined in Paul Romans 1-8 I encountered a problem. Paul’s central thesis is that the Jew and gentile alike, by putting their faith in redemption through Christ rather than through completion of the law or status of their birth, can die to sin and become a Son of God. This “Christian” is by virtue of their status as a Son of God, co-heirs with Christ, even in one passage Christs younger brothers. My problem is should I repeat Pauls masculinist language of brothers and sons? Could I assume that he was simply using masculine gendered defaults to stand for all genders? Or would I in fact be obliterating something of Pauls theology if I “fixed” his gendered terms in my discussion?

The issue is important because I am not concerned with what Paul suggests as practical solutions for his time. These can be arguably left behind. Instead I am concerned with whether Paul is preaching a gendered hierachy that extends to the organisation of eternal splendour. Does Paul believe that women and men occupy the same place in paradise?

The issue is complex because Paul is establishing our human relationship to both Jesus and to God. Sometimes these two relationships are described in hierarchy to each other (1Cor 15:28) while at other times they are almost interchangeable (Rom 8:9-11). Paul also has something to say about a metaphysical and pre-cultural hierachy between men and women. At other times he addresses all humanity without distinction. It is possible to identify six different “places” in the text –Christ, God, human, Christian, male and female. Often they are conflated – Christ with God, Christ with Christian, human with Christian, male with female.

As Paul moves through describing these relationships in different ways this reader faces a problem. Faith-based scriptural criticism assumes a unitary message of scripture. Therefore if Paul says something in one place it is to be “faithfully” interpreted by his other comments on the topic – and by the rest of the bible. Even without the presumptions of faith the reader is inclined to synthesise what they read of Paul into one coherent philosophy. This is despite the fact that this particular reader, myself, would be betrayed by one of my own letters held against another. Sometimes I don’t even notice my own inconsistencies. So how much is Paul’s consistency a false reality? Analysing Paul myself I feel like I’m re-producing an orthodoxy rather than being knocked over by one singular possible reading[1].

Additionally if we strive for consistency we still have to decide which texts inform and which are informed. And this decision can radically change our end product. Consider 1 Cor 11:2-16 where man vis a vis woman is paralleled with Christs relationship to God this can be interpreted in the light of Collossians 1:13-20 which by describing Jesus and God in equitable terms means that Paul is suggesting a similar different-but-equal relationship between men and women. Alternatively we can inform the passage in light of 1 Cor 15:28 where Christ is clearly subordinated to God (at least in my translation). It’s not long before this process leads into a treasure hunt for passages which support one thesis or another. In Tim 1:17 Christ is again given a description possibly equal to God while in Tim6:14-16 God is unapproachable and alone possesses immortality; Lord of Lords while Christ is Lord. In Ephesians 1: 15-16  Jesus is elevated but clearly by God who is above him (even “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ”). And on it goes with axe to grind in hand. Who reads like this? Who wants to? And what of 1 Cor 8: 4-6 where “God, the Father”is “from whom all being comes” while the Lord, Jesus Christ is “through whom all things came to be” – could this be  the real template of male and female in Pauls eyes? And what does it mean for our question?

Then there are our attempts to infer from Paul’s bigger picture what he means in the particular. How fanciful are these? For example Paul is vigorously opposed to symbolic distinctions between Jew and Gentile amongst Christians while he proscribes distinctions for men and women in the church. This can be given great meaning given that Paul talks of Christian life as being a substantially different one to that which preceded conversion, suggesting that the life post-baptism is already or at least foreshadows the life after death. Christians are renewed internally and Christian life is a life of the spirit rather than the body which perishes. Paul is adamant that distinctions relevant to the life of flesh are irrelevant to Christians – (though he is no breatharian of course). Paul even creates a people of Abraham who are based in faith rather than natural lineage. This redefines Gods people in a way that divides the spiritual from the physical even before Christs incarnation. Gender however remains intact as a real division from the very beginning of humanity through to the present spiritual life of Christians.  So from all this we could infer that for Paul the differences between men and women unlike the differences between Jew and gentile are a) spiritual not just physical and b) will endure after death and resurrection as they do after baptism.

The above argument is compelling to me but it’s worth realising that now we have wandered some distance from the direct text. With a cause and a similar approach its possible Paul could espouse almost anything. If you combine wild inferences with interpreting passages in the light of each other and especially if like myself you have little other data to work with then at some point you know it’s you not Paul making the “Ouija board” of scripture speak. Paul is writing letters and this means he is in a conversation where he addresses particular points. Generalising from his comments to one audience regarding one point to produce a theology for all time is unlikely to be fair. This is borne out by the inconsistencies which must be silenced to create such consensus.

Just to make a call though I think Paul does include women in an equal way with men in salvation. My basis for this view is Galatians 3:26-24.  This is the singularly clearest definition of Pauls term the Son of God that I can find. Here he almost seems to be specifically writing to answer my question, “Are women Sons of God?”.
“For through faith you are all sons of God in union with Christ Jesus. Baptized into union with him, you have all put on Christ as a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus. But if you thus belong to Christ, you are the “issue” of Abraham, and so heirs by promise. “

However to accept this as Pauls only belief in the matter I have to disregard the following;
·         Paul sees a gendered hierarchy as springing from the created order before the fall.  Gender is thus  ascribed to a spiritual order rather than a natural one. Further a gender hierarchy of man above women is described as being exactly about men and women’s relationship to God with men as the image of God and women as the image of men. (1 Cor 11:2-16)
·         Paul also sees gender as analogous to the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5) as well as God and Christ (1Cor11 12-16) – and both are enduring post-death distinctions.
·         Paul thinks angels recognise gender and find the bare tops of women’s heads offensive. (1 Cor 10:10)

One thing to say in Pauls defence (sort of) is that he seems to have a very limited ability to see the multiple experiences of his statements. Pauls thinking seems much more analytic than empathic. My heart aches for those women who hear that they mustn’t address their congregation (1 Cor 14:34-35). Think of the life of a small faith community. By such decrees hearts are broken – and what a loud silence Paul’s sympathy makes.

Consider also 1 Timothy 5 where Paul effectively winds back welfare for widows (and then immediately after argues for a double stipend for preachers). Paul may well have the correct interpretation of scripture on his side (he certainly cites a fair bit of it) but where is his understanding of the effects of making women dependant on their brother-in-laws instead of entitled to community support. Paul makes no mention of the lost autonomy the women will experience.

Here is a man who held the clothes of people involved in stoning a Christian – and he seems to only recant the anti-christian part of it not stoning ones dissidents generally. Reflect seriously on the thud of stone on flesh and you might wonder if Paul has something missing in his makeup by today’s standards at least. Subsequently even if we would intuit from Paul’s statements that women are lesser in the eyes of God, Paul might be blithely unaware of such a conclusion. He can seem like he has the common sense of a boffin – quoting scripture to make one point without awareness of all its emotional impacts.

This brings me to the final problem regarding Paul’s opinion of his sisters in Christ – the weight of scripture. This problem is one which we are inside as Paul both comments on and is scripture. For me it is a given even if scripture was to say otherwise, that men and women are spiritual equals. By which I mean; if there was a God they wouldn’t be much chop if they didn’t value women and men equally. My authority for this is my relationships with women – possibly Pauls missing ingredient. Yet if I was to say that scripture holds men to be greater than women some people would read that as if I had said that such a hierarchy was right and true. And for many Christians Paul is scripture. As I have more interest in promoting feminism than accurate biblical understanding the whole merit of this essay is questionable. Why write it? Why give it to you to read it?

The answer is probably pride. Possibly also loneliness. Why do we reach out to others in writing anyway? Why did Paul? His letters come to us through centuries from the road, a boat, a prison cell.  He misses his friends, he burns with purpose, and he bristles with hurt. While I’ve mentioned his insensitivity Pauls’ writings also include perhaps history’s finest clarifications of and call to love (1 Cor 13) and he teaches a tender mindfulness towards others (1 Cor 10:30-33). From these fragments can I ever really define him? Can I fairly prosecute him? Can I forgive him? This may seem a strange place to end up but I find to decide Paul excludes women from an equal salvation would be to condemn Paul and to condemn Paul is to somehow miss the whole point. Paul is in a way a conundrum of compassion for the world awoken in someone who seems terribly bad at it. Paul’s great message is that the spirit of Christ rather than the law is our justification before God. Yet this runs contrary to the busy bodying instructions he makes to communities about women’s hats, widow’s incomes and even aids for digestion (1 Tim 5:23). Just like Peter who is the cowardly Rock, Paul is a work in progress. Just like me. So please don’t hang me for this writing in 2000 years. And in turn I won’t hang Paul.

[1] This sentence is true with an important qualification. I’m talking about inconsistencies in Paul in response to the questions asked by this essay. Any fault lines drawn through Paul are created by our own purposes. It’s a very different claim to say that Paul is contradictory in and of himself.   In fact to wax philosophical, read entirely in isolation it may be impossible for Paul to contradict himself. But that’s a question beyond this essay.