the dream of Christian community

In thinking about Christian community and the barriers to experiencing it, a friend wrote to me:

I think most Christians share the desire for community you talk about, but, as you allude to, a conditional version. You mention these conditions as barriers to community. Either it is a community made up of a particular subset of people (i.e. those they are not repulsed by)… or it is something they work to create, not just participate in (i.e. a problem to be solved). In thinking about these things I was reminded of this quotation from Bonhoeffer, which I find difficult.

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

On one hand I know that Bonhoeffer is right, that our ideas can become barriers to that which we are trying to seek, but at the same time I don’t know how to pursue that community while at the same time laying aside that dream.

In response, I wrote the following…


Tentatively, I’d say that our approach or posture toward community will stem from our posture toward God.

I wonder if the family analogy might fit in well here. The (archetypal) family is defined by a certain inevitability: you’re inescapably bonded by blood. Your connection is fundamentally secure. In daily life, we might try to please our parents and our parents might try to please us, whether out of spontaneous love, obedience to principles, or the desire to be praised. The dynamics of actually trying to act like family to each other are what take up most of our conscious attention. But it’s all within the bounds of inevitability, and more particularly, the inevitable and undying love of parent for child. There’s a deep knowledge that at some level the parent’s love for the child is a one-way street, and that the main thing the child is doing is simply being loved. The anxiety of disappointing or losing the parent is thus relieved for the (again, archetypal) child. Within that context of receptive love arises all the “action” of family life.

If we experience that same sense of inevitability in our relationship with God — if our justification is by grace alone, if our fundamental posture is one of receptivity, if God is our Father in this way — that will be the context for the action happening in our spiritual lives. The dynamics of trying to please God (i.e. repentance) are real, but they’re grounded on security and inevitability (in contrast to, for example, the dynamics of trying to please a new boy/girlfriend, where the anxiety to prove oneself and the liberty to leave is dominant). Which is why the passive reception of the Eucharist has become so central in my spiritual life, because it “embodies” that posture so well.

Regarding Christian community, it seems that “active surrender” will happen in this same way. If our community is truly familial — if our terms of brother/sister are real — then the work of pleasing each other and forging bonds will happen and be dynamic, but it will happen on a foundation of inevitability.

So, then, the obvious question is how to create a community founded on family-style inevitability, or where to find such a thing. If only it were as easy as showing up at the nearest congregation and immediately living like family with everyone there.

On the other hand, maybe there is something to that. And I only say that, with reservation, because I’m thinking of an experience I had last week. Long story short, there was some serious awkwardness and mutual suspicion between me and a friend of mine from church. We were having coffee, only to talk about church “business,” when he eventually brought up the issues between us, in a direct and uncomfortable way. We talked it through for a long time and ended it by praying for each other. I walked away from that conversation thinking about how rare it is to have friendships like that, where because of shared commitments to a shared faith, and to shared values of forgiveness/patience/etc, and also shared commitments to the same small church, we were basically forced to work through our shit. All of those shared commitments put us in a position of familial inevitability. And that brought about a moment of tangible “community,” in the sense of that word that we all seem to be longing to use it.

Moments like that are rare. But I can’t think of any other contexts, besides family and friendships with Christians where there is a recognition of mutual responsibility, in which I’ve willingly stuck with someone it would be easier to drift away from, and in which actual resolution and redemption have come about as a result.

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the new morality: perspectives (pt. 2)

In the last post, I defined the terms “social virtues” and “personal virtues.”

While guarding against a reactionary response that would disregard social virtues altogether, I hope to show why personal virtues deserve renewed attention.

The key insight of the new morality is a crucial one: that in order to treat all people justly, it is imperative to see them, and ourselves, within a vast context of social factors that have been unjustly contrived by history. Without that context in mind, our biases inevitably influence our judgments in ways we’re blind to.

While social virtues can be highly useful in redressing culturally entrenched injustices and creating a welcoming social environment for diverse people, they fail to compose a complete ethical system. We must be careful not to overemphasize them at the expense of personal virtues, for at least three reasons:

  1. Viewing people primarily through the lenses of systems and categories of identity can rob people of their individuality and neglect other aspects of their humanity and personality.
  2. In “real life,” in the constant and mundane interactions between persons, it’s personal virtues that actually improve relationships and promote well-being.
  3. The new morality of social virtue is subject to all the same flaws of any moral system that is imposed on people, including Pharisaicalism and harsh distinctions between law-keepers and law-breakers.

For points 1 and 2, consider the case of my friend, Raven. Among other things, she is a black transgender woman recovering from drug addiction and experiencing chronic homelessness. In terms of systems of oppression, she is socially disadvantaged in nearly every possible way. She is also a Christian believer who loves to sing and make other people smile with funny stories and kindness. According to her, these latter characteristics are at least as important to her sense of self as the former ones, and probably more important. An awareness of social virtues is necessary for me as a white cisgender woman to engage her with utmost respect, informed by the recognition that she has lived her whole life in a social world with little room for her in it. However, this awareness alone is not enough. In fact, it would be an unfair underappreciation of her humanity to view her exclusively through the lens of oppression; in this way I would rob her of her personhood despite my good intentions. To treat her with true justice, my interactions with her must also be characterized by the personal virtues of humility, “brotherly kindness,” good listening, and, ultimately, “agape” love. Love in this sense requires a comprehensive attempt to truly know and understand her, rather than seeing her merely as a matrix point of social injustice.

Consider another case: my friend, Brett. He is a white, straight, middle class male with a college degree. In terms of systems of oppression, in stark contrast to Raven, he is socially advantaged in nearly every possible way. In our cultural context, social virtue almost obligates me to “open his eyes” to the myriad ways the world has positioned him for success. Yet, it is still important for me to approach him with the personal virtues of respect, good listening, and, ultimately, the same “agape” love I have for Raven, because otherwise I rob him of his individuality in the same way I was tempted to rob Raven of hers. Things like his complicated relationship with his father and his aspirations to enter the ministry have to do with who he really is, more so than his lucky social positioning. Again, as with Raven, love here is the personal virtue that requires a comprehensive view of his personhood, beyond his categories of identity, even if I’m opposed to the systems and patterns from which he disproportionately benefits.

Balancing social and personal virtues in this way is admittedly difficult. Focusing exclusively on personal virtues would fail to account for the immense discrepancies between people like Raven and Brett. Personal virtues alone would leave Brett unchallenged in his position of relative ease, and they would leave Raven unaided with the heavy burden of finding a place for herself in a society not built for her. This would be a grave injustice. Yet, social virtues alone eventually rob both individuals of their full humanity by neglecting their personalities, their beliefs, their character, and their choices from discussions of their “identity.” Most real people, especially those untrained by the new morality, view these dimensions of themselves as more central and more inalienable to their personhood than the categories of identity typically highlighted by social virtues. Thus, both types of virtues are necessary for a more well-rounded ethical system.

Perhaps the biggest danger of elevating social virtues at the expense of personal ones is that it lends itself to Pharisaicalism and overly hard lines between “good guys” and “bad guys.” We saw this in the aftermath of the last election, for example. Using social virtues as an absolute standard, progressives drew hard lines between “bad” Trump supporters and “good” Trump critics, ultimately exhibiting the same prejudice and class-based discrimination that they claimed to condemn. This is the downfall inherent in any strict moral system. It creates Pharisees who define the rules of the moral game so that only they and their imitators can win it, and then they punish those who break the rules. In the old morality, the sexually promiscuous were the “bad guys” while those with good families were the “good guys,” even if the prostitutes were generous and the family men were racists. In the new morality, the patriotic conservatives are the “bad guys” while the social activists are the “good guys,” even if the conservatives are kind and the activists are selfish in their private lives. Both the old and new systems focus on a narrow set of moral values that only their architects can police, ultimately to the neglect of other equally important values. Such Pharisaicalism leaves out many well-intentioned people and embitters many others.

To move forward, we must first recognize what social virtues are and what makes them distinctive from competing moral frameworks. This new morality has provided us with vital insights into the patterns of injustice in our society, and many of those insights should be preserved. But, we must also guard against the inherent dangers of any moral system that becomes increasingly condemning and myopic over time. And, we must recover personal virtues as fundamental for individual character development, healthy human relationships, and the ultimate well-being of communities.

the new morality: definitions (pt. 1)

As I and my generation have come of age in the past ten years, we have brought about significant changes in how we define ethics in American society. We’re still in the middle of those changes, and it may be premature to start commenting on them already. Yet, as someone with experience in both of America’s ideological worlds – raised in conservative suburbia, then educated at large public university and now surrounded by urban progressives – it has become important for me to try to understand what is driving the emerging definitions of right and wrong, and to decide where I stand in relation to them, especially as a Christian. I think one of the most paradigmatic changes happening is the shifting of emphasis from personal virtues to social virtues.

In part 1, I’ll try to define these terms. In part 2, I’ll look at some of the dangers brought about by the new morality and argue for a more balanced relationship between the two types of virtue.

By personal virtues I mean moral values that every individual ought to practice, thought of as universal and not considered in light of who the individual is or what part of the world they are interacting with. These are the virtues that religion and philosophy invented: patience, self-control, generosity, kindness. They are what a person has when he or she is a “good person.”

By social virtues I mean moral values that, unlike personal virtues, do not aim at individual character development, but rather at the perfection of social systems. In practice, they depend on who an individual is in the world, and who they’re interacting with, centering around categories of identity including race, sex, class, sexual orientation, gender (non)conformity, geography, politics, religion…etc. The socially virtuous person is the person who acknowledges what we refer to as patriarchy, white privilege, and heteronormativity and who recognizes the harm these cultural systems have inflicted on people in certain identity categories.

In response, the socially virtuous person seeks to reject and replace these systems with the virtues that contemporary academia, and my generation as a whole, invented: using socially sensitive language (such as gender neutral terms and preferred pronouns), creating art and media that challenge identity-based character tropes, honoring those whose identities have been subject to compounded social exclusion, and generally redefining what is considered “praiseworthy” on the basis of who one is and what one has experienced rather than a standardized measurement of “merit.” Underlying this ethical system is the recognition that cultural values (especially in 21st century, multicultural America) don’t arise out of a vacuum, but are imposed by powerful people on less powerful people and are thus loaded with inherent bias. Therefore, creating a more just society involves not only helping less powerful people become “successful,” but also redefining what we think of as success. At least in theory, white-straight-men relinquish their power to define “what matters,” and give it to everyone else to define for themselves. (In practice, I think the new definitions of “what matters” still tend to come from concentrated centers such as academia and popular media, which may be an inescapable feature of any ethical system.)

Because these cultural systems are so pervasive and have such immense explanatory power, discovering them feels like truly understanding the world for the first time. Thus, becoming socially virtuous in this way typically begins with a sort of “conversion story,” e.g. I once was blind to systemic racism but now I see. It also demands continual moral improvement: you start by recognizing economic gender discrepancies, but you later progress into deeper levels of insight into gender performance and masculine fragility. Again, these insights are persuasive and even captivating because of their power to explain “society”: why women aren’t CEOs, why crime is so high in urban black neighborhoods, why white men voted for Trump.

In the next post, I’ll look at what can happen when only social virtues are emphasized and personal ones are lost.

just enough loneliness

What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear — Dag Hammarskjöld

The second chapter of Genesis teaches that at the core of our make-up is a need for human relationships and the sharing of selves: “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” But then, the third chapter of Genesis teaches that one of the most devastating consequences of humanity’s alienation from God is our alienation from each other: “they knew that they were naked so they made coverings for themselves.” One of the implications of this relational alienation is that loneliness, to one degree or another, is our new normal.

In myriad ways, modern society aggravates this post-Fall loneliness, in our atomized living arrangements, our solitary commutes to work, our screens, our cultural divisions, our lack of shared spaces, the list goes on. Some groups are especially vulnerable—singles, old people, and gay men, for example—but no one is immune.

Too much loneliness can drive you into a deep, depressive hole. It’s physically unhealthy, as bad as chain-smoking or obesity. Measured against God’s design, it’s also deeply unnatural for no one else to know about the hopes and fears rattling around in your mind every day, and for your meals to be consistently accompanied by screens and not faces. Too much loneliness can literally take the life out of you.

There’s something more to be said, though, because it turns out that just enough loneliness can move us towards new ways of connecting with others that we may not have otherwise explored. When leveraged well, just enough loneliness can push us out of our vortex of self-centeredness, towards empathy and service.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that it’s easier for unmarried people to serve God wholeheartedly because they don’t have to divide their attention between what God wants and what their spouse wants. Perhaps we could also say that it’s easier for lonely people—those with more unscheduled time and greater openness to new relationships—to serve others devotedly. To say it another way, having a happy family to come home to every night provides innumerable benefits, but it also provides the spiritual dangers of complacency and indifference to the world’s pain. Just enough loneliness can push us out of ourselves, out of our living rooms, into the lives of other lonely people who need to be reconciled to God, and who need the gift of human company.

If you experience loneliness, try not to waste it. Use it well, in order to better understand the sufferings and shortcomings of others, and to serve others without needing to impress anyone. Don’t share your meal with a screen if you can share it with a neighbor.

To Christians who are single and celibate, whether as a temporary season or as a long-term vocation, this idea is especially poignant. To me it feels both painful and encouraging to think that God can use our loneliness to help us become better servants and lovers of our neighbors. I would love to say that empathy and service take away that loneliness, and that you’ll find the kind of relational connection you’re longing for among “the least of these.” But the truth is that they often don’t, and that you probably won’t, because service means giving of yourself without looking for repayment. What you will find, though, is God’s blessing (Luke 14:13-14). In that blessing there is a deep, sober joy.

I think of Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who fell in love with men various times over the course of his life and yet fulfilled his vows. Only his closest friends knew of his homosexuality. He spent the last decade of his life living and working among the mentally ill, and writing about the spiritual life. His loneliness was painful, yet it was that loneliness which drove him to a radical level of service, and to a profound depth of insight into the love of God. Both in spite of and because of his loneliness he was well-acquainted with the blessing of his Father and the joy therein.

More than anyone, I think of Jesus: the only righteous one in a world of sinners, the only one who loved God in a world of idolaters, the only one who saw the truth in a world of blind guides. He understood even their thoughts, and yet no one understood him. Who has known loneliness like the Son of God among men? Yet by his wounds we are healed—and by his loneliness we are known, accepted, received, and beloved. May we learn something about loneliness, and love, from him.

generational losses & gains

The social commentary on my generation has already been prolific, and there is little to add in terms of the overarching trends, re: technology, identity politics, and mental health. So, here are just a few thoughts about what Millennial Christians seem to have both lost and gained, in comparison to our 20th century forebears. (Painting in broad strokes, of course.)

What We’ve Largely Lost

1. Doctrinal conviction.

Beliefs matter. They certainly impact life, and according to every religion, they impact the afterlife too. Whether God is a unity or a trinity, whether judgment day is real, whether our private actions matter in any transcendent sense – such questions deserve answers. Committed, convicted answers, even. Many of us are prepared to draw definitive lines on only a tiny fraction of the doctrines that former generations took for granted. Some attribute this to a fear of unpopularity or of causing offense, and that’s part of it. But I think it has more to do with our collective self-doubt. “What if I’m wrong?” And it feels more like a what-if-I’m-wrong than a what-if-we’re-wrong. Something about that personal assertion carries a lot of cultural baggage for us, and it leaves us with more grey areas than necessary.

2. Private religious practice as a legitimate barometer of spirituality.

Good ol’ Christian morals, like regular church attendance, private prayer, a sober lifestyle, and sexual chastity have slid a long way down the priorities list for us. Our recognition that such habits do not equate to godliness has overextended itself, so that we fail to see them as playing any major role in measuring the authenticity of our faith. This becomes especially problematic when we fault our churches or even God for our apathy, while ignoring the basic spiritual disciplines that have always sustained Christianity in personal lives.

What We’ve Gained

1. Better listening skills.

Young Christians seem to be much more willing to hear from other denominations and traditions. There seems to be less of a feedback loop, and more of an ecumenical spirit. Perhaps this is because unity and cross-pollination are more vital in the face of social marginalization than in times of social hegemony. I, personally, have been immensely helped and influenced by the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and liberal Protestant viewpoints that I’ve been exposed to, despite continuing disagreements. Our generation has also greatly benefited from our willingness to hear out the scientists, the mental health professionals, the Muslims, “the gays,” etc. Christian truth sometimes complements, sometimes disrupts, these other versions of reality, but in general we grow intellectually weaker by staying in the echo chamber and intellectually stronger when we engage constructively with the rest of the world.

2. The long-overdue disentanglement of “God” and “country.”

This could also be called “the long-overdue disentanglement of Christianity and the Republican Party.” Jesus never came to be an earthly messiah. He never founded any empires. For too long, American Christians have been looking for him to the build the American Dream (and, tacitly, the American Empire). They’ve tried to use laws, rather than the gospel, to make people moral. The current election has highlighted this generational divide in a painful way. Older Christians have largely made excuses for the appalling behavior and rhetoric of the Republican nominee, in the name of specific policies or (more often) in the name of defeating his opponent, while younger Christians have been baffled and disturbed by this willingness to compromise the reputation of the faith for the sake of politics. Few would call America a “Christian nation” anymore, and many of us see this as a move in a much more Christlike direction.

3. A more holistic approach to engaging with society.

It’s amazing to me how many of my friends – the majority, easily – aspire to “do good” in their career aspirations, much more than they aspire to “do well” financially. Young Christians seem to have a solid grasp of how the gospel impacts all areas of life and all parts of creation. Christ’s influence on our public allegiances is not relegated to our opinions on abortion or gay marriage. His love for us drives us to the edges of our comfort zones: racially, economically, geographically, for the victims, for the sexual minorities, for the undeserving poor. That impacts our politics, our career goals, our decisions about where to live, and our choices about who we marry, or if we marry.

What Neither Generation Seems To Have Figured Out, Yet

1. The difference between the love and affirmation.

Our parents’ generation couldn’t affirm, so they didn’t love. Because of that we think that we can’t love unless we also affirm. Yes, I’m thinking primarily of the “how should the Christians deal with the gays?” question. Notice how the question itself presupposes two distinct groups at play, with little crossover. Neither generation has answered that question in anything like a satisfactory way, if you value love and truth at the same time, or if you value pastoral care even a little bit.

I would love to hear feedback on this.

What else have we Millennials lost, gained, or not yet tackled?

 

why I’m grateful for my secular university education

In the Christianized subculture where I spent much of my childhood, characterized as it was by social conservatism and a sometimes thoughtful but often reactionary approach to cultural critique, there was frequent discussion of “liberal,” “secular” higher education and its evils. My parents and their friends were understandably apprehensive of college campuses. Whatever your background, you can easily imagine why the idea of thousands of 19-year-olds living together, under the tutelage of hundreds of self-proclaimed Marxists/feminists/atheists/fill-in-the-blank-ists who profess to offer exclusive access to knowledge, enlightenment, and humanism, would be distasteful to conservative evangelical parents.

But, I never fit in very well with the Christianized subculture in which I came of age, familiar as it was. I had no desire to stay within it in adulthood, because of its flaws and my own flaws working in synchrony. Thus, I never considered attending a religious university, and set my sights on UC San Diego (its department in my field of study is well-renowned, and I love my home city). Now, this side of graduation, I’ve identified some specific reasons for why I’m so grateful for that choice.

**My goal here is to articulate gratitude, not to make a comparison or persuasive argument.

My liberal, secular higher education taught me how to speak English the way normal people do. While there is certainly a place for the rich terminology granted to us by our biblical, theological, and ecclesial traditions, there exists in American Christendom a particular social dialect that is often unintelligible to outsiders. A lot of it is shorthand drawn from biblical imagery, as when you hear people say “a seed was planted.” That means that some portion of Christian teaching was shared with a non-Christian, with the hope that said person’s interest in Christ will grow over time. Like jargon everywhere, it serves the functional purpose of allowing people to say what they mean with brevity. But, it also creates the impression that the world of Christians who are fluent in the jargon is a different world from the one where the rest of us live. It can also prevent us from actually thinking through what we mean. Much of the time, phrases and idioms are parroted without understanding. My time at university forced me to avoid the American Christian dialect and taught me how to express my beliefs in everyday English.

Living on campus made me learn how to live with sex, drugs, rock and roll, etc (that is, with young people). It did not change my convictions about the moral status of these behaviors. If anything, it reinforced ad nauseum how damaging promiscuity is and how unattractive substance abuse is in otherwise amiable people. Nonetheless, learning to live with and love people who think of these behaviors as normal or natural saved me from becoming a moralist. Jesus preached against the self-righteousness of religious people much more than the self-indulgence of pagans. Spiritual pride is the deadliest of sins. Thus, living in an environment run by self-indulgent pagans solidified my own moral convictions while at the same time forcing me to learn how to “eat with sinners,” for my good and theirs.

Living on campus gave me the chance to become friends with people who are vastly different from me. One of my roommates during my first year was a sorority girl who seemed to know everyone at our school of 28-thousand. She’s pretty, bubbly, outgoing, a natural romantic. That’s not me at all, yet somehow we became friends. Another girl in my hall taught me how to skateboard, and we challenged each other frequently on politics and God, even though by the end of the year she was tripping on acid almost every day. Another friend of mine struggled with her self-image for the first two years that I knew her, until she decided to start the process of female-to-male transition last year. The point is that I made real, actual friendships with people I would otherwise have little opportunity to know. Living in the dorms was hard for a lot of reasons, but it was worth it for that.

My secular university education taught me how to be fair to my intellectual opponent.  On both sides of every ideological divide there is a pernicious tendency to read and cite the best, most nuanced sources produced by the acceptable side, and then compare that with pop journalism produced by the unacceptable side. This leads to a lot of straw man arguments, which in turn leads to a lot of self-congratulation despite the fact that no real intellectual work has been done. By exposing me to the best, most nuanced ideas produced by my intellectual opponents, my secular education made me a more fair-minded thinker. There is no need to resort to mockery as a form of self-defense when you understand that your opponent is sincere, and probably as thoughtful as you. Rational dialogue can actually happen between people who are in deep ideological opposition! It may be rare, but I learned how to do it at school.

My time at university deeply challenged my beliefs. I arrived at school with the presupposition that the search for truth would be worthwhile, no matter where it led me. That enabled me to take classes and read books without fear that my belief system would be undermined. If it was capable of being undermined, I didn’t want it. Many others have made similar attempts at objectivity and have arrived at different conclusions, so I know that teachability will not overcome confirmation bias always and in all cases. Nonetheless, there are times I have wanted Christianity to be false, because that would make some things in my personal life a lot easier. So my own confirmation bias was lessened, if still present at some level. Some of what I learned at school forced me to seriously reconsider some things I had assumed as true, in light of new evidence–and recognizing flaws in your belief system can be a painful process. Despite all of that, my faith came through the other side, refined and modified in some ways, but still intact, and still orthodox. Looking back now, I think my faith is, though much more humble, more confident than ever. It faced down its ugliest demons and came through victorious. That kind of intellectual and personal harrowing taught me not to fear the truth. If it’s true, and if God is real, then the truth unquestionably belongs to him.

God as father

Why is the biblical God typically (not exclusively) described in masculine terms?

So far I’ve had two friends cite this as one of their main complaints against the Christian God: “he” is too paternal. Too male. In an era when, thankfully, women are finally able to challenge the structures of male domination which have caused inestimable suffering, and when, unfortunately, the subsequent attempt to purge our culture of “patriarchy” has led to a unilateral rejection of masculinity even in its virtuous forms, this is not surprising. I have asked myself the same questions: is there a reason that God wants us to call him father and not mother? Since he is spiritual, not bodily (John 4:24), why does he use gendered terms at all? Why not something more philosophical or mystical such as “pure being” or “the One”? Something less tainted by the kind of emotional baggage that human male authority figures tend to create?

In fact, from the beginning, the biblical God has used a brilliant, non-gendered ontological self-descriptor: “I am,” which is the root of the Hebrew word Yahweh/Jehovah, the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible. This teaches us that God cannot be fully described by human language and that (his) self-existence far transcends the limited categories of sex and gender.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'” Exodus 3:14

All our ideas about God are limited by our “epistemic humility,” our inability to grasp anything beyond our familiar world of matter, space, and time. Anything we know of the divine is nothing more than a fraction of an infinite whole. That much has always been clear.

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand? Job 26:14

With that said, here are four ideas as to why the Bible generally presents God as a masculine, paternal figure.

1) The Bible anthropomorphizes God as a gift to us, making him more comprehensible than he would otherwise be.

The question “why use gendered terms at all?” points to a larger question regarding the Bible’s tendency to use anthropomorphizing terms to describe God, and worldly terms to describe otherworldly phenomena. Think also of how often Jesus spoke in parables, or short stories, rather than theological treatises. The Bible is mostly made up of stories and poems which were first composed orally and only later codified in written text. This reflects a fact about our world: most humans in most times and places have been illiterate, oral learners. As a species we tend to absorb information better and faster through storytelling than through argumentation. What’s easier to remember: a two-hour movie or a two-hour powerpoint presentation?

Human languages divide the world into categories which God doesn’t fit into, but which God nonetheless adopts in order to give us a foothold into understanding who he is. Language is limited, but without it we wouldn’t be able to say anything at all about God. One could object to this and say that, therefore, we shouldn’t even try and should be content to be agnostic. But if God has actually given us a set of images and terms and has told us to latch onto them, while recognizing their inherent limitations, then that is an incredible gift. There is a risk that we will take it all too literally and think that heaven is really made out of gold or that God is really male. But at least gold and fathers are things we can imagine, while heaven and divinity are not.

Especially considering that the vast majority of human learning is picture-oriented, the anthropomorphizing terms that the Bible uses to describe God are an expression of grace, proving that our Creator wants us to know him.

2) Many people lack father figures (more so than mother figures).

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the biological reasons behind this, and for people who have been around long enough, it’s a simple reality. It’s easier for fathers than for mothers to abandon their children, and so more of them do. That means many more people lacking a loving, protecting, paternal voice, which is universally desired – at least, I can think of no exceptions. The Bible has always called out “the fatherless” as a special group for whom God is concerned. Thus, God as father fills this gap when he tells us to call him abba, the term used at home with dad because you’re safe under his domain and you know that he loves you.

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8:15

*The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture (note from the NIV).

3) The fatherhood of God redefines human fatherhood.

Most human societies have placed little emphasis on the father’s role in child-rearing. The phenomenon of the stay-at-home dad is extremely modern, again because of biological reasons and the realities of pre-industrialized life. By calling God “father,” the Bible combines the traditional archetype of the distant authority figure who rules by domestic decree with the idea of an intimately involved parent who loves his children ardently. That is, God is “other” from us in his divinity and moral purity in a way analogous to the traditional concept of the distant patriarch. Yet he is compassionate and loving towards us in a way that challenges that traditional concept.

Thus the Bible subverts our assumptions about patriarchal gender roles by teaching fathers to love their children gently and to care for them intimately, in the same way that God loves and cares for us. Think of the father in the story of the prodigal son, who as an aged man runs to meet his rebellious son and kisses him before he has a chance to say anything. That father, representing God, refuses to be treated as a master or employer. Instead he insists on being affectionate and “prodigally” kind to his undeserving child.

And you saw how the LORD [Yahweh] your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child. Deuteronomy 1:31

And my personal favorite verse comparing human and divine fatherhood, in that subtle, piercing tone so typical of Jesus:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:11

4) The Bible doesn’t only use masculine, paternal imagery to talk about God.

There’s lots of potential for reflection here, but for now I’ll just list a few examples of the times that the Bible speaks about God as a mother/woman.

[David:] But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:2

[God:] Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Isaiah 49:15

[God:] As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. Isaiah 66:13

[Jesus speaking, right before the story of the prodigal son:] Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. Luke 15:8-10

God is not a man. We have to remember that. In his mercy he has revealed himself to us in certain ways so that we can start to know him even now. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of working through all of this, emotional baggage and all, and gradually learning what it means when we pray, “our father…”

 

femininity (en)couraged: part 2

Last time, I wrote about our unfortunate tendency to discourage femininity, in both men and women, and to overvalue stereotypical masculine traits. This time, I want to investigate the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth exemplifies both masculinity and femininity in a striking balance. This balance is one toward which we all, male and female, ought to strive.

Jesus disdained vanity, whether vain displays of masculine “strength” or vain displays of feminine “beauty.” He redefined both strength and beauty in a way that undercuts our tired use of both for self-promotion. He told Peter to put down his sword:

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52

And he told us to stop worrying about our clothes:

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin… Matthew 6:28

His definition of both strength and beauty is summarized in the beatitudes: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance through persecution. Taken together, these are the antidotes to vanity in all its forms.

Jesus was gentle with women and men and abrasive with women and men, basing his responses to people not on their gender or status but on his discernment of their motives. He demanded the same things from women as from men, and from members of all classes without differentiation: repentance and faith. No difference existed between his level of engagement with the important male of high religious standing in John 3 and the uneducated, foreigner female in John 4. In both cases Jesus discusses theological controversy with an equal level of interest, revealing deep spiritual truth to each one. He called both women and men to discipleship, neither patronizing women nor hyper-focusing on men.

And Jesus said [to the woman caught in adultery], “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? …Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 8:10-11

Then Jesus answered [the Canaanite woman], “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:28

Jesus was equally “emotional” and “rational.” He wept openly, being “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” at the sight of his friend Mary’s grief (John 11:34-35). Yet he was never carried away by emotion, instead maintaining control even when provoked by unconscionable injustice:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death… But Jesus remained silent. Matthew 26:59, 63

He valued “feminine” displays of tenderness above “masculine” competition. When a “sinful woman” barged in on a dinner party at which Jesus was a guest and began to anoint, kiss, and weep over his feet, he praised her as being more exemplary than his prestigious host. Her action had no economic, political, or public value of any kind, and was in that sense purely symbolic, yet Jesus treasured it.

Jesus blows apart our artificial binary between masculine and feminine virtues. For Christians, the only virtues are Christ-like ones. He is humanity at its best, for men and women alike. Thus, he exhibits the best of what we ignorantly consider “masculine” (e.g. strength, directness, courage, rationality) and “feminine” (e.g. gentleness, care, tenderness, emotionality), and he draws no line between them.

We ought to look to Jesus, studying his life and praying to him for help, as we seek to correct the imbalance between masculinity and femininity in our churches and in our lives.

femininity (dis)couraged: part 1

Mary vs. Eve

Much has already been written on the polarized visions of female sexuality typified by Mary the virgin and Eve the temptress. In our efforts to make Mary less stifling and Eve less objectifying, perhaps we have abandoned our positive visions of femininity altogether.

It’s not that we are against female persons per se, culturally. We are against a particular archetype of the feminine. I tentatively offer up four dichotomies as exemplary of how we imagine the feminine-masculine contrast:

  • emotional vs. rational
  • innocent vs. worldly
  • stationary vs. mobile
  • aesthetic vs. economic

What we think of as “masculine” is celebrated in both sexes. In politics and business, a woman must naturally exhibit or learn to mimic the qualities that are thought of as typically masculine in order to gain reception as a productive, important person — square shoulders, a lower voice, short hair, unflowered language, formal forms of address, abrasiveness, crude jokes, physically distant mannerisms. Masculinity is associated with seriousness while femininity is associated with triviality.

This affects not only women but men, and more severely so. Men who display “feminine” qualities, whether physical or personal, are socially punished for being too slender, gentle, sedentary, aesthetically sensitive, emotional, relational, wordy, refined. Their sexual prowess is considered deficient or their sexual orientation is doubted. They are often relegated to the world of women, shut out from male zones and denied male approbation.

A notable development in the history of our social imagination is the move of aesthetic appreciation from association with the masculine to the feminine. Pre-industrialization, the masculine worlds of education and scholarship emphasized appreciation for the arts and poetry. Boys studied the serious business of Homer and Shakespeare while girls studied homemaking. In the pre-capitalist epoch, the arts were considered central to the human endeavor, and therefore as belonging to the realm of masculine expertise, but industrialization overturned our cultural value system. Aesthetic appreciation contributes nothing to capitalist nation-building, which in the 19th century overtook the American imagination as the new most important human project, over and above spiritual or aesthetic pursuits.

This industrialized disregard for the arts as irrelevant and therefore feminine has persisted; for easy evidence, compare the rates of males in STEM majors with the rates of females in “soft” science/literary/artistic majors. It is highly ironic that aesthetic sensitivity (e.g. attention to color, design, figurative language) is now disparagingly associated with the feminine, considering the history of male domination in the arts.

Perhaps in our cultural effort to usher women into the “important,” “masculine” worlds of economics and politics, we have ceded too much ground by agreeing a priori to the proposition that only those worlds are important. Therefore, only masculinity is important. Unfortunately, the goal seems to have become to elevate women by making them more masculine. Furthermore, this infiltration of women into male zones and masculine roles has generated a reactionary response among men which has tended to restrict the definition of what masculinity means, detrimentally affecting men or boys who fail to fit the mold.

A healthier project may be to de-trivialize femininity itself and elevate the feminine worlds of art, interpersonal relationships, emotion, and spirituality back to their rightful place at the center of human life.

The next post will look at how the Bible intersects with these issues.

 

shorter catechism update

Four and a half years ago, I wrote this post and called it my own “shorter catechism.” A catechism is a teaching device based on questions and answers that Christians have long made use of. Back then, I wrote ten of my own questions and answers as a way to succinctly express some of the fundamentals of my (teenage) spirituality.

Since then, my faith has been deeply challenged and bruised. I couldn’t have known then the kind of mental discord and spiritual silence I would have to learn to live with. I’ve often felt far from God and I’ve often doubted his goodness and his existence. You could say that, in a small way, I’ve participated in the spiritual loneliness that Christ himself experienced, along with nearly every other biblical and historical saint.

And yet, God is good. I can say that honestly, if not as boldly as before. There are some hard things you have to believe in order to be a Christian. You have to wrap your mind around eternal destinies. You have believe in Adam and Eve. You have to submit to the idea of authority and hierarchy. Etc. It can hurt, at times.

And yet, I can’t tear myself away from the need for Theos or from the love of Christ on the cross. Those two stakes in the ground keep me standing.

Perhaps if I didn’t feel my need for salvation, it would be easier to live without articulated ideological commitments. In other words, I might be more easily swayed towards agnosticism if not for my deep-seated sense of spiritual and moral hunger, a hunger unsatisfied by my own disappointing efforts at intentional living. Some would call that psychological weakness. Maybe. But conviction of sin is like a light turned on in a dark room, and once that light goes on, everything else feels cowardly and self-deceptive.

Thus, everything I wrote four years ago is still true. I’m still a Christian, because Jesus is still the only one who can save me, and I still know that I need saving. Sometimes I’m growing, sometimes I’m barely holding on–may God have mercy on me. Yet God is greater, and God is good. My trembling grip on him is unfailingly overpowered by his unyielding embrace of me.

So, I’d like to repost that old “shorter catechism” as a testimony to the faithfulness of my Father in preserving my faith through this journey in the Beast’s territory. If you are a person who struggles to believe, I can relate. Reach out to me, and let’s talk about it.