Sunday, August 26, 2012

Man Bits & Lady Parts. Or, The Nones Have It.

The BBC webpage--which acts as my default news service, perhaps because it shows a quaint old-world desire for objectivity--recently published two articles back-to-back which put US churches in a no-win (Why is faith falling in the US?). The first, from a conservative voice, argues that erasure of boundaries and an accompanying loss of vigorous language make everything so mushy that, in the end, why should anyone bother? The second gives the inverse: the broad evangelical church condemnation of homosexuality has had, and continues to have, a disproportionate alienating effect on young people.

On the one hand members of a church like the Episcopalians, in their efforts to welcome the LGBT community, come consciously to celebrate an indeterminate language which leaves neutral observers feeling they just drank dishwater. On the other, exclusion of homosexuals, at whatever level, has produced a geometrical growth in the "Nones," those who refuse all religious affiliation. Among young adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine, thirty per cent are Nones, and their numbers continue to rise.

All this fuss and confusion over man bits and lady parts, and how they are employed! Of course, we all recognize how much passion and desire swirl around these bits and parts. But according to Rene' Girard there is really nothing intrinsic about why we desire them: after the simple sex instinct is granted it is because everyone else desires them that they really becomes desirable. The fact that people talk about them all the time and that they are used continually in advertizing to sell billions of dollars of merchandise are ample confirmation of this constant modeling. More to the point, in Things Hidden Girard argues that heterosexual desire always has something homoerotic in it, because the same-sex rival for the love of the romantic other-sex beloved is him/herself secretly desired! Otherwise s/he would not be a rival. (Yes, a little mind-twisting, but think about it.)

In which case romantic love is in pretty tricky waters from the get-go.

But what happens when the churches confronted by a gathering confusion of difference between the sexes begin to feel the pressure? Certainly they can opt for the evident gospel example of Jesus ignoring the legal boundaries, and turn to celebrate the loss of difference. Thus the first article reports on the decision at the recent General Convention of the Episcopal church voting to approve transgendered clergy and a liturgy for same-sex marriage. At a special communion service after the votes a bishop made an offering prayer thanking the non-gender-specific "Spirit of Life" for "disordering our boundaries."

But, then, what happens to the beautifully insistent, resonant language used by that great subverter of all boundaries in whose name all this is done? What happens to the cultural coding that makes everyone sit up and know immediately that something real is going down? What happens to "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"? Or to "Call no one on earth your father, you have but one Father in heaven"?

Jesus' open table fellowship in which he broke the boundaries between pure and impure is connected by a main artery to the cross. By a leap of divine imagination Jesus was able to see how the temple in Jerusalem was the engine for all divisions and he would eventually have to go there to confront it. The temple did not simply represent the ritual holiness of priests and their offerings. Its zealous commitment to the Davidic lineage and its military Messiah was pitched in immediate and direct rivalry with the Roman citadel built right above it. Here was the violent heart of human culture in Judea and all the cultic and national dividers expanded in a shock wave from its sacred center. When Jesus sat down with the publicans and prostitutes, the lepers and Samaritans, his itinerary to Jerusalem and his date with the explosive temple-praetorium axis were already decided. That's why he had the freedom to throw a party for all these outcasts.

In light of this any melting down and disordering of language that does not pursue its argument to the abolition of our contemporary temple, the military-industrial-media complex, is little more than one more instance of joy-riding the gospel. The bits and parts that we should be concerned with are the weapons of war that male and female, and every shade either side and in between, all equally carry. (And these include the weapons on the streets of Chicago, New York, Aurora, Milwuakee...). Here is a language that can be clear and arresting for humanity of the 21st century. Let's hope that the worthy subverters of difference carry their program all the way to the violent heart of the problem.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Note to Paul Ryan

The recent addition of Paul Ryan to the Romney Presidential ticket focuses attention on philosophical principles at stake in U.S. politics. The Roman Catholic Ryan has more than once credited Ayn Rand as a key inspiration for his life and thought. But lately he also tried to distance himself a little from the high priestess of individualism, saying when it came to "epistemology....give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand." 

Apart from the hoary old trick of citing Aquinas to burnish orthodox credentials one wonders if Ryan has actually read the Angelic Doctor's political thought. But just before we get to that, here's a little historical memory.

In England back in the Middle Ages there used to be common land, an area of agricultural fields set aside for the villagers on which they could grow crops. Part of the massive social engineering that took place at the beginning of the 19th century were the "enclosures" of the common food-producing space. A local lord or landowner took the land into private control and this was one of the major factors forcing a migration to the new industrial cities and creating the English working class.

Aquinas in all likelihood would have been horrified. His famous definition of the ends of human existence is "to live in community and know God." He also said: "Laws are said to be just from their end, when they are ordered to the common good; and from their author, when a law does not exceed the power of the one who declared it; and from their form, when they impose burdens upon their subjects in order to the common good according to an equality of proportion. Since one man is a part of the many, each man, what he is and what he has, belongs to the many, just as any part being what it is belongs to the whole (Summa Theologica II-II, q. 25, 6 ad 2).

But, really, it is just as useless for me to quote Aquinas as it is for Ryan to cite him. Part of the point of the 19th century history is to show that a whole lot of things have changed since the high Middle Ages. Our concrete conditions are unrecognizably different, and the thought world in which we exist has also been shifted irreversibly, by people like Descartes, Hume, Kant, Freud, Nietzsche...

The idea of a common world still has direct appeal, of course, but it has to start somewhere else than Aquinas' Aristotelian-categories-plus-scripture framework. Aquinas also spoke from a deep human sense of solidarity based in standard sacrificial practice, as well as the simple need to hang together to survive the multiple threats of the environment. The huge changes in our material and intellectual circumstances which gathered pace in the 19th century, involve enormous imbalances between classes of people and regions of the world. But they have conclusively changed the global cultural perspective in which we understand ourselves. Everyone is a little individualist and capitalist now, even if only in their heads. And that's why Rand remains Ryan's essential political inspiration.

At the same time, however, at a deeper level, it is also possible to understand Rand's thought very easily as a reaction to the ever increasing mimetism of human history. To see it this way changes the thing dramatically.

What happens when the work of the gospel strips away the solidarity of an intact sacrificial system ("I am a member of the in-group and have no other way of thinking and want no other.")? In these circumstances it is no longer possible to look at the world and not see victims, and, in the absence of a genuine conversion to love and compassion, that must produce an ever-increasing resentment and rivalry. In these conditions "the other" becomes an intolerable threat. What better way, then, of dealing with the crisis than inventing a literary-romantic mythology of the nonrelational individual? This is just what Rand did, depending on Nietzsche before her, who did somewhat the same thing, but with infinitely more finesse. Like Nietzsche she also understood that Christianity was the real problem. She called it "the best kindergarten for communism possible."

But just because you invent a romance of the godlike individual does not mean mimesis goes away. It's still there, and more than ever, precisely as the individual pitted against the crowd. And this in fact is the ideology of Paul Ryan and the forces he represents, relentlessly mimicking the very thing they hate, in all its power and danger. In fact, very quickly they gather a crowd to combat the crowd, each element imagining in its mind that it is acting the sovereign part of the individual. Moreover, they intend to become the only crowd, single and united, overturning in an orgy of self-contradiction, the myth of the individual from which they started.

The discovery of both mimesis and compassion as neurally based human responses is the obvious thinking path out of the crisis. We are wired into each other whether we like it or not. This wiring is no longer connected to the public grid of sacrifice and as such can very quickly fuse into a violent melt-down of catastrophic proportions. But not if we consciously and deliberately--as relational beings--opt for a connection to the other that is nonviolent and giving. The metaphysics of an Aquinas really make no sense in a Randian world (note to Paul Ryan!), but a post-individualist anthropology of compassion does. Oh, for the politician with the clarity and courage to preach it!

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian