Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Just the Facts, Ma'am"

          I cannot have been the only one to have noticed on Facebook and other public forums an overwhelming use of ad hominem arguments when discussing controversial topics.  Whether the hot-button topic is abortion, the ordination of women, homosexuality, the revival of the office of deaconess, altar girls, transgender washrooms, Russia, the Ecumenical Patriarch, gun control, or the value of ecumenism, things very quickly slide from the objective to the subjective.  Rather than dealing with the actual substance of arguments by either disputing the facts or their interpretation, the respondents often respond by pointing out how heartless, misogynistic, arrogant, or generally terrible their opponent is.  This may or may not be true, though it is difficult to see how someone could have such deep insight into the character of strangers, but even if true, it is irrelevant to the argument at hand.  What matters is the reasonableness of the argument presented, not the general likeability of the person presenting it.  One sees this too in ad hominem attacks upon the scholarship involved:  sources cited are derided as being too old or (among the Orthodox) too western, when presumably the only thing that really matters is whether or not what the cited source says is true.  Unless the old source has said something which has later been proven by more recent scholarship to be unreliable, the date or provenance of the quote is as irrelevant as the likeability of the person citing it.  After wading through post after post of ad hominem responses online, one is tempted to reply with the quote often attributed to Sgt. Joe Friday from the television show Dragnet:  “Just the facts, ma’am.”
            The temptation to avoid dealing with the facts has a long and deep root in our culture.  As early as 1941 C.S Lewis examined the phenomenon in a slightly tongue-in-cheek essay entitled, ‘Bulverism’ or, The Foundation of 20th Century Thought.  In it he wrote,

“The modern method is to assume without discussion that [one's opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this by busily explaining how he became so silly.  In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it.  I call it Bulverism.  Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’  ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument.  Assume that your opponent is wrong and then explain his error and the world will be at your feet.  Attempt to prove that he is wrong and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’”

            Lewis was, of course, decrying the comparative absence of reason from popular argument in his day—an absence he detected throughout his culture in arguments about religion, economics, and politics.  The Bulveristic approach is popular, then as now, because it is so easy to use—understanding, analyzing, and dissecting someone’s argument is hard work, especially if the argument is long and nuanced and argues for a position one finds personally repellent.  Ignoring the argument and the facts and simply throwing verbal rocks is much easier.  And it also pays greater immediate dividends, for people respond more quickly and more deeply to emotion than to reason.  Painting one’s opponent in (for example) the glowing colours of a modernist apostate ecumenist liberal—or perhaps the glowing colours of a fundamentalist fanatical anti-ecumenist zealot—are both easy enough to do, and very emotionally satisfying.  Listening to their arguments with enough sympathy to try to understand how they might actually have a point somewhere is a lot more difficult.  But if the issue under discussion is to begin to find resolution, this hard work must be undertaken.  We must begin with just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.
            I remember during a presentation at the weekend seminar “Marriage Encounter” how the presenter encouraged couples to hold hands while they argued.  The idea was that the tactile connection of holding each other’s hands would keep the discussion from escalating out of control.  I have never found it necessary to follow the advice in a domestic setting, but I still think it good advice in an ecclesiastical one.  Not, of course, that one can actually hold the hands of the person one debates with online (or even see their faces).  But we can hold hands metaphorically, and remember that the person with whom we may disagree is more than their online words—that he or she a person for whom Christ died, someone deeply loved by God.  We owe it to them for God’s sake to listen as dispassionately as we can manage, and respond with calmness and charity.  We don’t need ad hominem approaches.  We can hold hands instead, and listen to the facts.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Jesus and Women

If we read the New Testament through the lenses of our modern egalitarian culture we may miss some things in it which were shocking to the original readers and hearers, especially in the ministry of Jesus.  We moderns in the West do not bat an eye when a man stops to speak with a woman in public.  If I go down in the elevator of my apartment with a female neighbour, we both think nothing of it if I comment on the weather or if I ask her how she is doing today.  In the homes of my parishioners we hold Bible studies which the women attend as well as the men, the ladies contributing comments and questions as frequently as do the gentlemen, and no one thinks anything of it.  We mix socially across the gender divide with complete ease, and never even realize that there is a gender divide to be crossed.  We do not stop and think to ourselves, “I am speaking with a woman”.  For us the person with whom we are speaking is not “a woman”; she is just Christine or Susan or Amy.  We naturally project this egalitarianism back upon our reading of the Gospels, and assume it was also like this.  But it is not so.
            In the time of Christ (and in much of the Islamic world today) a respectable man would never speak publicly to a woman, even if that woman were his wife.  He would never start a conversation or exchange words in public with a woman he did not know.  And Rabbis would certainly not teach the Torah to a woman.  Indeed, there was a Rabbinical saying it would be better for the Torah to be burnt that to be taught to a woman.
            Given this we can appreciate how revolutionary was the example of Jesus.  We can appreciate how shocking it was for Him to say that He had the authority to forgive the sins of the sinful woman who wept at His feet at He reclined in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36f).  We often fail to appreciate how shocking it was for Him to speak to her in public at all.  Yet He did this sort of thing habitually, cheerfully trampling upon what was regarded as respectable in order to reach people.  Thus He spoke to the Samaritan woman in public, and even asked her for a drink from her bucket at the well (John 4:4f).  When the disciples returned to Him from their errand, John relates in a wonderful and typical bit of New Testament understatement, “They marvelled that He had been speaking with a woman” (v. 27).  Respectable Rabbis never did that, but Jesus seemed to do it almost unthinkingly.
            We see the same overturning of cultural convention in the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38f).  Martha as a good host was busying herself preparing a meal for Jesus and His disciples, doubtless with the customary Middle Eastern sense of lavish hospitality.  This was women’s work, and she not unnaturally expected her sister Mary to help her with this important and large task.  But Mary was not prepared to help her.  Instead she sat at Jesus’ feet with the male disciples, listening to His word and receiving His teaching.  What the Rabbis who thought the Torah was better burnt than taught to a woman would have said about this we can perhaps imagine.  What Martha thought we don’t have to imagine.  The Gospel account tells us plainly what she thought and (probably loudly) said:  “Lord, don’t You care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?  Then tell her to help me!” (v. 40).  Once again Jesus overturns the customs of His time, and refuses to send Mary back to the kitchen.  He gently chides Martha for her inflated concern about the meal, and tells her that Mary had chosen the best part—receptiveness to His Word—and that He would not take this from her.  Women as well as men were welcome at Jesus’ feet as co-equal disciples. 
            Jesus rejected some of the cultural norms of His day regarding women not through any cultural iconoclasm, but rather because He was preparing a new reality, one offered to both men and women alike—that of a new nature.  Through baptism in the Church, anyone could be born again, and live thenceforth with a new nature, the “new man” which was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Ephesians 2:15, Galatians 3:28).  Women could participate in this spiritual reality and spiritual power equally with men.  Whoever would be baptized into Christ would put on Christ, whatever their gender or race.  Jesus’ full acceptance of women as disciples pointed ahead to this new era of salvation.
            As the Church slowly expands its mission and begins to spread among its neighbours of Islamic background, we need to keep this revolutionary approach of Jesus in mind.  Much of the Islamic world bears a great resemblance to that of Palestine in the time of Christ.  In this Islamic culture, a man would never address a woman in public and ask after her welfare, or accept her hospitality if her husband were not present.  And a man might ask another man how his family was doing, but would never ask specifically how his wife was doing.  In that culture, even when women are not covered with the all-encompassing burqa, everyone is acutely conscious of the gender divide.  In our conversation with Muslims, we must be clear that what we are offering them as an alternative model for relations between the genders is not that of the secular West, which they all too often assume to be Christian, but that of Jesus.  When they look at the West and observe Miley Cyrus twerking, they not unnaturally reject this in favour of the more traditional and modest Islamic norms.  We must be clear that we Christians also reject such unseemly indecency and embrace a more modest model of behaviour.  That model is rooted not in the secular and degenerate West, but in the Gospels.  Not all egalitarianisms are created equal.  The example of Jesus offers a different kind of egalitarianism from that of the secular West—one that combines modesty with social equality.  It is this divine and Dominical egalitarianism which we offer to them and to the world.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The New American Family: Terminus Station

Time Magazine recently featured the story of a woman who decided to become a man and then decided to have a baby, which she eventually did.  The story was provocatively entitled, “My Brother’s Pregnancy and the Making of a New American Family”, and it included a photo of the mother of the baby, still sporting her beard, nursing her child (seen above).  The facts of the story are as follows.
            In 2000, when the woman (left unnamed with the usual political correctness) was nineteen, she decided she wanted to become a man, and later in 2003 at the age of 22 began the hormone injections involved in such a transition.  My guess is that her father’s decision to “come out” and declare himself gay at the age of fifty and the messy divorce which followed had something to do with her decision.  She did not have her breasts cut off through mastectomy as did many transgender women, nor have her genitals surgically altered.  She did however tightly bind her breasts.  The hormone therapy resulted in her hips thinning and hair beginning to grow over her knuckles and on her face.  She now called herself “Evan”.  Throughout all this she continued to want to bear a child.
            Her marriage partner was another woman, so of course conception by her was impossible.  (Some women who become men have male partners.)  She tried to conceive through artificial insemination, but was unsuccessful at first.  Eventually over the course of several years and $12,000 worth of fertility treatments, she managed to conceive and carry the child to term.  This New American Family now consists of two women (one with a beard) and child of unknown or unrevealed parentage.  The icon of the New American Family is a photo of the bearded mother breast-feeding her child.  The canons of the transgender movement of course do not refer to the act as “breast-feeding”, since “breasts” presuppose that a woman is involved and they are insistent that the mother is a man.  The new and acceptable term is “chest-feeding”.   
What is an Orthodox Christian to think of all this?  Granted that it is unnatural in the most basic of senses, since it is against nature for bearded men to conceive and bear children, but are there other lessons to be learned?  I can think of three of them, for by glancing at a trio of insanities we can learn what sanity really looks like.
            The first insanity is that which regards gender not only as fluid or as something one chooses, but also as something to be created.  Prior to this dark moment in the cultural history of the human race, gender was considered a gift, something received at birth, a gift containing both certain advantages and disadvantages.  Conformity to the dictates of one’s given gender was part of one’s larger conformity to and recognition of how the universe was supposed to run.  People did not invent their own moralities, but strove (or perhaps did not strive) to conform to a set of given truths—such as the truth that kindness was to be chosen over cruelty, that murder and theft were wrong, that self-sacrifice for the greater good was admirable.  (C. S. Lewis referred to such a shared universal inheritance as “the Tao”.)  Authentic human living meant conformity to these given transcendent truths.  These truths were not created by men, but discovered by them, and universally held to be true.  A father passed them on to his children, like a bird teaching its offspring how to fly.  The given nature of gender was one part of this complete package.       
          In the New American Family however, as in the transgender movement generally, gender is not a gift received, but the result of our sovereign choice.  We create our own gender, using technology as our tool.  (Let us pause to note the classist nature inherent in the transgender movement:  only the rich can afford to create their own gender with such expensive technology.  The poor of the Third World must be content with the gender they received at birth.)  The decision to create our own gender is part of our larger project of self-deification.  The serpent in the garden once promised that we could become like God (Genesis 3:5), and we have followed his counsel in refusing to accept the limitations of creaturehood.  We have become our own creators, and have used scientific technology to cast aside the necessity of submitting to God and His laws.  It is as if Mary Shelley had never written her famous novel.  By observing the horror that is the New American Family, we can relearn the truth that gender is a gift we receive, part of the large life-giving inheritance of transcendent truth given to all men.
            The second insanity is that which views a child as a commodity, as something to have simply because one wants to have it.   Once again everything here depends upon our unbridled and sovereign choice—if I want a child, then I must have it; and if I don’t want a child, I must not have one forced upon me simply because conception has occurred.  Using the twin tools of fertility treatments and abortion, we can have whatever we want, regardless of the insistent and intractable facts biology.  Prior to this, children were regarded as a gift, just as (for the Christian) everything in life was regarded as a gift.  God might close the womb and deny the gift or open the womb and give the gift (see 1 Samuel 1:5, 19), but the reception of the gift did not depend upon our will, but upon God’s. 
Such submission is intolerable to the New American Family.  As a part of the privileged and affluent secular West, it must have whatever it decides it wants.  If a family or a woman does not want to have a child, then the child, if conceived, must be aborted.  If a family or a woman does want to have child, then the child must be produced, even if it is impossible for two women (or two men) to conceive.  This is not to deny that the child produced may be loved and valued.  But we must recognize that the child has been produced on demand, like any other desired commodity.  And the mindset which regards one’s desires and demands as absolutely primary and imperative will inevitably produce other unforeseen and unfortunate results also.  Throughout the New American Family will run the silent but constant theme, “I must have whatever I want.”  Such selfishness (to give its true and traditional name) is a poor foundation on which to build authentic and selfless character.  Many people today are demanding and entitled enough already, and have little regard for the demands of self-sacrifice and self-denial.  The New American Family is likely to have even less regard for these demands.  The will to power becomes all.  One can almost hear Nietzsche stirring in his long sleep.   
            Finally we note how such insanities tend to increase throughout the generations, as madness builds upon madness.  Whether one calls this “the thin edge of the wedge argument” or not, experience teaches us that what one generation quietly allows, the next will exuberantly celebrate, and that this celebration will form the foundation for further developments.  St. Paul was referring to this process of inevitable and increasing degeneration when he reminded the Corinthians that even a little leaven would eventually leaven the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6).
We see this in recent history:  not long ago, the homosexual community insisted vociferously that sexual orientation was set at birth, and declared that a homosexual was born gay, with his homosexual orientation as firmly given at birth as if it had been set in stone.  Now we can observe the next step in this erosion of traditional values, and see how gender and orientation themselves are regarded as entirely fluid.  We can now pick our gender from a whole range of choices.  We have created a “transfeminine spectrum” which includes such categories as “genderfluid”, “nongender”, “transmasculine”, and most alarming of all, “cisgender”—the now preferred term denoting the state where one’s self-identity conforms to the gender of one’s biological sex.  What used to be called simply “normal” has now been transformed so that it is but one option among many.  Since each generation builds, for better or worse, upon the inheritance it received from the previous one, we can expect even more and catastrophic confusion in the generations to come.  Family, rooted in the given realities of gender, is the factory which produces authentic and healthy persons, and whenever the machinery in the factory has been altered or damaged, the persons produced by the family will be correspondingly hampered.  The downward spiral and consistent erosion of basic human categories reveals the importance of preserving inherited truth and of drawing the line against further erosion.
            In the public transit system in the city in which I live, a voice is heard over the light rail train’s loudspeaker as the cars approach the final stop.  It announces that stop as the “terminus station”, the end of the line, thereby inviting everyone to leave.  I believe that the recent celebration of the New American Family featured in Time Magazine is evidence that we have reached the terminus station.  I cannot see how the family factory can go any further astray than it has now gone; and unless we reverse the trajectory it is the end of the line for us culturally as far as family is concerned.  Time Magazine has kindly announced we are at our terminus station.  I suggest that it is time get off the secular transit in which our culture is riding, and return to an earlier form of travel.  It would seem that our culture stands at a cross-roads, where the choice is between the unnatural monstrosities of the New American Family, and the supernatural sanities of the eternal Family of God.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"That's an Outrageous Thing to Accept"

Missionary work no longer commands the cultural respect it once did.  Indeed, missionary work is often grouped together with other forms of cultural and colonial imperialism, and derided as an insensitive imposition of foreign culture, one rooted in a lack of appreciation for the self-evident values of the indigenous peoples.  In a word, who do missionaries think they are coming into another person’s home and telling them that everything there needs changing?  The charges (at least in the Protestant West) retain some tinge of credibility, in that the missionaries’ proclamation of the Gospel was indeed often accompanied by their concurrent desire to “civilize the Natives”—i.e. to make them (for example) rather less African and rather more English.  The eschatological nature of the Church and her Gospel were not well served by the fact that often missionaries flew a European flag over their mission station and were in fact funded by people in Europe who had more to their agenda than the simple saving of souls.  In coming at length to reject the paternalism of the colonializing power, people in these nations often came to reject the missionaries which sent them, along with their Christian Faith.
            We see such an understandable approach in the distinguished Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, pictured above.  As interviewed first by the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 1994 and now re-released, the author spoke as follows:  “Really, being a Christian, being educated in the things of the West…one really shouldn’t be any those things…the history of Africa is such that our business should be to restore what was lost…We betrayed [Africa]…my father, for instance, who became the first generation Christian, he abandoned the faith of his fathers…We were led into accepting that what our forefathers, our ancestors have done throughout the millennia was somehow misguided and that somebody else who had come from afar can straighten us out. That he has the way, the truth, and the life, and that we have been sunk in blindness.  That’s an outrageous thing to accept.”
            Mr. Achebe was no angry firebrand.  In fact he said in the same interview that he found many good things in Christian culture.  He spoke softly and with the gravitas acquired over a lifetime of suffering and experience.  I mention him specifically because he gave articulate expression to what multitudes of others are saying rather less softly and articulately.  What are we to make of his views?  Is the very concept of missionary work outrageous, a form of ideological imperialism?
            Any fair assessment must begin by agreeing with at least some of Achebe’s critique.  Especially in the English missions to Africa, one must admit that missionaries, despite possibly the best of intentions, have often acted as the instruments of colonialism and foreign nationalism.  In C.S. Lewis’ memorable phrase (from his essay, Religion and Rocketry), “‘Gun and gospel’ have been horribly combined in the past.”  Very often missionaries gave the impression, or even proclaimed boldly, that pretty much everything was wrong with the culture of the people they were trying to convert, and that all of the people from that culture who died before the coming of the missionaries were now in hell.  This, I suggest, is not only poor theology, it is also stupid strategy.  Telling a person that their grandpa and grandma are now burning in hell, but that they can avoid their company if they renounce everything their grandparents held dear is (not to put too fine a point on it) a hard sell, and would scarcely be characterized by its hearers as “good news”.  The Great Commission cannot adequately be paraphrased, “Go into all the world and tell everyone that they are damned unless they become like you.”  But it often formed the starting point for many missions.  Fortunately, (as Fr. Michael Oleksa points out in his excellent book Orthodox Alaska), the East has at least sometimes taken a more nuanced and sensitive approach than the classical West, one that can show greater appreciation for at least some of the “pagan” practices.  A better theology (and a better strategy) will stress primarily how the Gospel fulfills all that was good in the hosting culture.  It will look for points in that pagan culture which can serve as a kind of praeparatio evangelica, just as the Law served such a praeparatio in a Jewish context.
            But Mr. Achebe’s point concerned not just the ham-fisted methods of the missionaries, but rather the underlying assumptions of all mission work per se, and as such he might not have been much more sanguine about Orthodox missions than he was about Anglican ones.  Is it really true that saying a culture had been misguided for millennia, and that a visitor can tell them in what ways it needs fixing is outrageous?
            The first thing is to see that the original cultures from which the missionaries came were as at least misguided for millennia as the cultures to which they came.  That is, unless one is a Jew, every person on earth came from an ancestral culture which was once misguided.  Take the first Greek Christians for example:  at one point, they also had to accept that what their ancestors had done throughout the millennia was somehow misguided and that somebody else who had come from afar (namely the Jewish apostles and their successors) could straighten them out.  Mr. Achebe’s view is quite reasonable if all religions are equally valid, wonderful, saving, and if they all produced the same spiritual fruits and eternal results.  Being a Western-educated man, he doubtless found this easy to believe, as well as nationally congenial.  But this is a presupposition, not a fact—and a presupposition, one may add, with little real evidence to sustain it.  But anyway, if polytheism is not legitimate diversity, but dangerous idolatry, then his reason for indignation falls away.  The missionaries came offering what they said was a cure for a fatal disease.  If the Nigerians to whom they came in fact had no such disease, then the missionary project was indeed outrageous.  But what if they did have the disease?
            The Christian worldview says that with the tiny exception of Israel all the world had the disease and was sunk in blindness, sin, labouring under the tyranny of death and the devil.  God’s light came into that darkness like the point of a sword, striking the earth at once particular place—Jerusalem in the midst of the Holy Land—and radiating out from there.  Certainly God had not left Himself without a witness (Acts 14:17), but left His fingerprints throughout the world, so that His eternal power and divine nature could be clearly seen (Romans 1:20).  But despite this, the world mostly ignored Him and turned to idols, exchanging glory for corruption, and sinking further into death.  The divine cure consisted of remaking the world, creating a new nature, a new humanity, one freed from sin, guilt, and mortality.  God created this reality in His Son—in Him the world was renewed and recreated; in Him the powers of death had been pushed aside and banished; in Him eternal life and incorruption had entered the cosmos. 

            The nature of this cure dictated the nature of its diffusion and spread.   Eternal life and joy were all found in Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, and these powers could flow into us if we united ourselves to Christ.  Then His nature and life, His sonship and glory, would become ours as well.  But how could people the world over becoming united with Christ apart from missionary endeavour?  “How shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?  And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher?  And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)  Missionary work, at his apostolic heart, is not about the ascendency of one culture over another (the Church’s refusal to require circumcision was proof enough of that); it is one starving beggar telling another starving beggar where to find bread.  If, as Mr. Achebe would contend, the world is not starving to death spiritually, then all missionary effort is indeed useless ecclesiastical tomfoolery.  But the fact of spiritual starvation seems clear enough.  In fact, the really outrageous thing would be to deny it.