Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

On pseudo-radical antigay arguments

This and this both seem to me to run aground on the same basic reality: gay people exist, and no amount of quasi-Foucaultian “deconstruction” is going to change that. Even if you could dispense with the concepts of hetero/homosexuality, there would still be people who are exclusively, and more-or-less unalterably, attracted to members of the same sex. And many, if not most, of these people will want to form romantic relationships, which are widely and plausibly regarded as an important part of a good life for most people. Moreover, experience shows us that same-sex relationships can foster many of the same goods and virtues that opposite-sex ones can (and may have unique ones of their own).

These facts are inconvenient for religious conservatives because the options they have traditionally proposed for gay people–feigned heterosexuality or permanent celibacy–are so unappealing. The damage that results from living in the closet is so apparent now that hardly anyone seriously advocates this in public anymore. But celibacy is hardly a better alternative for most people. There’s no particular reason to think that gay people are in general more cut out for celibacy than straight people are. (This is true even if celibacy is pitched as a bohemian alternative to the “bourgeois” nuclear family.) Certainly people can be called to celibacy, perhaps as part of a religious vocation, but it’s unreasonable to demand this of gay people as a class.

I suppose it might be a sign of how much headway gay rights have made that opponents are now resorting to such counterintuitive and esoteric arguments.

Can conservatism protect your daughter?

Say what you will about conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, he certainly knows how to troll liberals.

Yesterday, the Times published a column in which Douthat offers an explanation of why, as some research has apparently shown, parents who have daughters are more likely to vote Republican. Douthat sketched a post-60s sexual landscape in which men hound women for commitment-free sex, and women spend their prime child-bearing years without landing a husband. This situation, he theorized, can increase the appeal of social conservatism to parents who worry about such a fate for their daughters.

This set off a round of the usual Twitter outrage among liberals. And much of it was well justified–Douthat’s column could be read as endorsing the retrograde sexual ethic or a bygone (and in many ways mythical) era. Virtually all liberals–and many conservatives–think we’re on balance much better off living in a world where premarital sex and previously taboo forms of sexual behavior like homosexuality don’t invite the full force of social disapproval (not to mention legal sanction). Moreover, the findings that Douthat’s argument leans on can be given a much more unpleasant interpretation.

But in fairness, Douthat’s conclusion was actually pretty modest. You don’t have to be crazy to think that contemporary sexual norms have drawbacks as well as advantages. Or that those drawbacks might disproportionately affect women. Certainly Christians, whatever their political views, can’t sign on to a regime of anything-goes sexuality.

All this notwithstanding, as (yes) the father of a daughter (and of a son for that matter), I’m glad my kids aren’t going to grow up under the sexual norms that prevailed when I was young, much less those of the 1950s. If for no other reason, this is because (1) girls and women today aren’t held to quite as rigid a double standard and (2) being gay is much less stigmatized. I don’t want my daughter to live in a world that tells her she’s a slut for expressing her sexuality, and I don’t want either of my kids to think there’s anything wrong with being gay.

Having kids has made me more conservative in some ways (and more liberal in others). Yet this hasn’t translated into increased support for the policy objectives of the organized conservative movement. As far as I can tell, these have very little to do with addressing the real problems facing people today, including young people. A policy that actually supported commitment and family formation, for example, would include paid parental leave, something that is largely anathema to the Right. Contemporary social conservatism seems driven largely by a tribalistic opposition to anyone who doesn’t fit a very narrow definition of “real” American. And it’s far from clear to me how a platform of cutting taxes on the rich, gutting the welfare state, and opposing gay marriage will make life better for my daughter (or my son) as she grows up.

If there’s a problem with contemporary sexual mores, it’s not clear there’s a policy fix for it. But to the extent there is, I don’t see any reason to think conservatism provides it.

Can Methodists consistently oppose homosexuality?

The Book of Discipline is, in effect, the constitution of the United Methodist Church. It contains the law and doctrine of the church, specifies how it is organized, and enunciates the church’s stance on various social issues, among other things.

Notoriously, the BoD states that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and this is a major obstacle to the church blessing same-sex unions or ordaining non-celibate gay people.

But Heath Bradley, who is the UMC campus minister at Vanderbilt University, had an interesting post recently asking if the rejection of same-sex relationships is consistent with other statements about marriage made in the BoD. He points out that it rejects several of the major rationales used to deny the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. In particular, the BoD denies “male headship,” or the view that men should have authority over women; complementarity, understood as the view that men and women are, apart from each other, inherently incomplete; and “procreationism,” or the view that marriage is essentially or primarliy for the sake of having children.

How, then, he asks, can the UMC justify its position against same-sex relationships if it denies these underpinnings of “traditionalist” views on marriage?

And yet, after all this we still assert in the BOD that gay marriage is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (161 F). In light of this, I think a fair and modest proposal to our sisters and brothers on the traditional side would be to explain to us how we can continue to hold this view while denying the main lines of support that have traditionally gone into this negative judgment. If we reject patriarchy, complimentarity, and procreationism, as we officially do in the BOD, then on what basis do we continue to make this judgment about gay marriage? If the fundamental goods of marriage are ” love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity” (161 B),  then why exactly does a marriage have to include a male and female partner? Hasn’t experience clearly taught us that same-sex couples can exemplify all of these virtues?

Rev. Bradley notes that traditionalists could still appeal to the (apparent) biblical prohibitions of homosexual acts; but he points out that Methodists generally interpret individual biblical passages in the light of larger ethical “frameworks.” So if the UMC denies the frameworks that underpin most defenses of “traditional” marriage, then on what basis does it continue to proscribe same-sex relationships?

Favorite books read in 2013

This is not based on any kind of rigorous methodology;  these are just the books I enjoyed and/or that “stuck with me” the most throughout the year. As should be obvious, these were not necessarily books published in 2013.

Fiction:

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this late last year after seeing the film version starring Keira Knightley. I’m frankly in awe of it, and nothing I can say will do it justice. But the thing that probably struck me the most was Tolstoy’s ability to draw fully realized characters and make the reader truly view the world from their perspective (including, in one case, a dog!). I can see why some people have compared Tolstoy to God: he intimately knows and truly loves each of his characters (sometimes, one senses, in spite of himself). And I haven’t even mentioned the delicately intertwining stories, the astonishingly clear and beautiful scenes Tolstoy draws, the social commentary, and the philosophical and religious musings. Basically, this book deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

True Grit, Charles Portis

I’d seen both movie versions, but had never read the book. Portis’s unforgettable characters, deadpan dialogue, and tightly constructed plot made this a hugely enjoyable read.

Non-fiction:

The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, James Oakes

Oakes’ recounting of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged around a particular brand of antislavery politics isn’t just a fascinating story about two important figures at a pivotal point in American history (it is that, though!). It also serves as a rebuttal of sorts to radicals of every stripe who think they’re too pure for the grubby business of electoral politics.

Systematic Theology, vols. 1 and 2, Paul Tillich

I disagree profoundly with some of Tillich’s basic theological positions, but his thought remains, nearly 20 years after I first read him, a source of stimulation and insight.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

I’m not sure Wills persuaded me of his main thesis, namely, that Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was, in effect, an ideological re-founding of the Republic. But his erudition is undeniable, and his analysis of the address in light of classical and contemporary examples of funeral oratory is extremely illuminating. He also writes like a dream.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford

Spufford avoids nearly every cliche of contemporary religion writing and provides the freshest take on Christian faith I’ve read in ages. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt without being sappy. As I said in my “non-review,” I think Spufford captures how many of us in the “post-Christian” West experience our faith.

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

This father-and-son team (an economist and philosopher, respectively) ask why the richest societies in history have so much inequality and so little genuine leisure. They blame a combination of political and philosophical failures, and argue for recovering a broadly Aristotelian concept of the good life than can help us get off the production-and-consumption treadmill. Their skewering of trendy “happiness” research and its associated policy prescriptions alone is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is their critique of liberal “neutrality” regarding the good life.

I’ve got a couple of books going now, and if any finish any before December 31st that blow me away, maybe I’ll update this. Also, looking this over, I realize that I really need to read more books not written by white men.

American Christians should relax about church decline

Popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for CNN on “why millenials are leaving the church.” She really means the evangelical church, and she cites issues like excessive politicization, an anti-science attitude, and hostility to LGBT folks as reasons why people in her generation are jumping ship. She suggests that churches need to come around on these issues if they want to draw in today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Since I’m neither an evangelical nor a millenial, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Mainline churches have problems with numbers across the generational board, so we’re not exactly in a position to lecture evangelicals about how to boost theirs.

But maybe that’s not really the point. I don’t want to attend a church that’s anti-gay or that tells me I can’t believe in evolution because I think those positions are wrong. Will a pro-gay, pro-science church attract more members? I frankly have no idea. But I do know that it’s better to live by what you consider to be the truth.

It seems to me that behind much of this anxiety about church decline is an unstated assumption that America is still the center of Christendom. Numerically, this just isn’t the case, as Philip Jenkins and others have been pointing out for some time. Whatever the future of Christianity is, it isn’t likely to happen here.

In light of that, maybe American Christians need to get over the idea that it’s up to us to ensure the future of Christianity. This could actually be quite liberating, allowing us to experiment with new forms of church life and take bold steps to live out our faith without constantly worrying about how it’s going to play to whatever demographic we’re trying to attract. Maybe we need to have a little more faith.

The biggest problem facing us is not the numerical decline of the church. It’s things like climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, and wars and rumors of wars. If Christians worried less about the former, they might discover the resources for interesting and fruitful ways of responding to the latter. And communities that can do that might actually be worth paying attention to.

Methodism, homosexuality, and me

This NYT article interests me as someone who is about to join the United Methodist Church from an ostensibly more “progressive” denomination, at least with regard to the equality of LGBT persons.

Thomas Ogletree, a UMC minister, is facing disciplinary action after he presided at his son’s (same-sex) wedding. The UMC has continued to maintain that the “practice” of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As with most mainline denominations, there have been efforts to change this, but, in the UMC’s case, they have met with limited success.

This is partly due to the fact that a significant number of the delegates to the church’s general conference–its supreme legislative body, which meets ever four years–come from outside the U.S.–particularly places where conservative views on homosexuality still prevail. At the conference’s most recent meeting, in 2012, even an “agree to disagree” resolution couldn’t pass. Though it’s unclear how much of an effect acts of “civil disobedience” such as those of Rev. Ogletree may have on the direction of the larger denomination, this seems to be a stance that more “progressives” feel compelled to take.

So as someone who does support full LGBT equality in church and society, why would I consider joining a denomination that seems to be a long way from affirming it?

The main answer is that my family and I have found a home in the local UMC congregation we’ve been attending for about the last two years, and we want to formalize our commitment to it. We left our previous church for a variety of mostly non-theological reasons and were attracted to this one by its growing number of young families, dynamic pastor, flourishing homeless ministry, and combination of theological substance and progressive social vision, among other reasons. I’ve also come to appreciate some of the distinctive emphases of Wesleyan theology–combining at its best a Protestant emphasis on sheer, unmerited grace with a Catholic emphasis on personal and social holiness that I find quite appealing.

Our congregation is a “reconciling” church and so aims to welcome LGBT folks at all levels of parish life, even though this contradicts the denomination’s official teaching. This makes them (us) the loyal opposition, a position that could grow increasingly uncomfortable if, as seems likely, the denomination continues to move at its current glacial pace on this matter.

The “medium chill” and keeping Sabbath

Grist’s David Roberts has written a follow-up to his “medium chill” post of about two years ago that expands on the idea and its social and political implications. In the original post, Roberts argued, based in part on “happiness research” and in part on personal experience, that it’s more fulfilling to work less to allow more time for enjoying life’s intangible goods–even if that means making less money.

In the follow-up post, he concedes that research he cited in the previous post that seemed to show that happiness levels off after a certain income level (about $75,000) may have been wrong; nevertheless, the relationship between wealth and happiness does seem to be “logarithmic”–that is the increase in happiness you get from each additional dollar is less than the previous one, even if it isn’t zero. The basic point seems to stand: after you’ve reached a certain level, adding more income isn’t going to increase your happiness or life-satisfaction much, if at all.

But if you have reached that level–if you even have the option of “chilling”– you are likely among the richest 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Which means that access to a life with possibilities for fulfillment beyond the struggle for material security is severely maldistributed, to put it mildly.

And if you are so fortunately situated, it’s due to luck far more than hard work, pluck, or anything else that you could plausibly claim to have merited. Where you were born, who your parents are, and your genetic make-up have a lot more to do with your success in life than anything you contribute (assuming there’s some irreducible element that can’t be chalked up to any of these other factors).

Because those of us with more have it not mainly by dint of the sweat of our brow, but because of circumstances well beyond our control, there is no justification for hoarding all that good fortune. (“You didn’t build that,” as President Obama might say.) We need policies–liberal policies essentially–that distribute access to the world’s goods more equitably in order to allow everyone a shot at a flourishing human life.

He goes on to speculate a bit about the possibilities for human life freed from the necessity of working more to earn more. Life should not be about being a fitter, more productive worker bee; it should be about cultivating our innate capabilities for creativity and self-expression in community with others. The seemingly laid-back medium chill turns out to have a rather radical, utopian streak.

All, or nearly all, of this resonates with the Christian view of life as I understand it. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf argues that Christianity’s contribution to the common good is a more substantive and appealing vision of human flourishing than the one that has gained much ground in the modern West. According to Volf, this is the view that the good life consists primarily in the satisfaction of individual desire or preference.

Not surprisingly, he considers this to be a deeply impoverished view of human life. Not only has it lost sight of the love of God, but by focusing on individual satisfaction it is opposed to any robust idea of human solidarity. By contrast, for Christians,

[w]e lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by our neighbors–when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history, notwithstanding our fragility and failures. (p. 72)

This account is clearly incompatible with a society in which everyone has to scramble endlessly to “get ahead” in material terms–e.g., Thomas Friedman’s horrifying “401(k) world.” Christians should want a world in which people are free from the pressure to constantly “invest in themselves” to please some boss or keep up with the Joneses.

In the Christian view, we aren’t made for working ourselves to death or for endless accumulation, but for lives “rich with relationships and experiences,” as Roberts puts it. In Biblical terms, we might think of the “medium chill” as a way of keeping Sabbath, as described by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:

Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. (Journey to the Common Good, p. 26)

This restful withdrawal from over-work and over-consumption is a precondition for genuine community and human flourishing. A good society would be one that made this a possibility for everyone.

Technology, love, and paying attention

I really enjoyed this post from Michael Sacasas at his blog “The Frailest Thing.” He argues that it’s not smartphones (or any other attention-grabbing gadget) per se that make it hard for us to pay attention to the people we encounter–it’s us.

It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all.

This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved.

Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.

Even though this is a problem endemic to the human condition, technology can exacerbate it:

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant, nor is any other technology to which we might lend our attention. The thing about attention is that we can only direct it toward one thing at a time. So when we are in the presence of another person, the smartphone in the pocket may make it harder to pay attention to that person. But the smartphone isn’t doing a thing. It’s just there. It’s not the smartphone, it’s you and it’s me. It’s about understanding our own proclivities. It’s about understanding how the presence of certain material realities interact with our ability to direct our intention and perception. It’s about remembering the great battle we fight simply to be decent human beings from one moment to the next and doing what we can to make it more likely that we will win rather than lose that battle.

This made me think of a post I had recently read by Frank Schaeffer as part of his series of “12 commandments of happy parenting”:

Never give a child your divided attention once you’re playing with them, unless it’s an emergency. That doesn’t mean you should give them your attention all the time. Far from it.

Playing alone is good. But don’t be rude when you are being a hands-on parent.

Watching a young mother or father texting friends while his or her child is trying to talk to them is just plain cringe making. It’s teaching a lack of empathy and respect.

It’s also teaching all the wrong priorities about what is important in life. Don’t be surprised if you tune your child out and later your child tunes you out.

I see this all the time. I’m also guilty of it. Though I don’t have a smartphone and I generally avoid text messaging, it can be a challenge to give my kids my undivided attention. Not always, mind you–there are times when I’m fully and effortlessly engaged in some game we’re playing, or reading a book with my daughter, or making my son laugh through various facial contortions. But often–too often–my mind and attention are (at least partially) somewhere else. Maybe I’m thinking about work or worrying about something that needs done around the house. Or maybe I’d rather be reading a book or surfing the Internet.

It may also be, as some have suggested, that our multi-media, information-saturated lives (for some values of “our” anyway) are actually changing the way our minds work, diminishing our ability to maintain focused attention on one thing at a time. If so, that’s an even deeper problem.

Regardless, it does seem that Sacasas is right that giving someone our attention requires an act of will or a kind of discipline. Maybe this is partly why so many spiritual traditions have cultivated practices that require people to focus their attention. I’m thinking especially of various forms of meditation and contemplative prayer. What these practices seem to have in common is an effort to focus on a reality beyond the self–to the extent that the ego recedes into the background.

And one of the “fruits” of such practice is–ideally at least–that we become the kind of people who can more easily set aside our own desires and be attentive to others and their needs. We can certainly invoke here the example of Jesus, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to make each person he encountered feel the full force of his loving attention. To love others–including especially our children–as Jesus loves us would seem to require, at a minimum, learning to give them our attention.

“Sexual complementarity”–important but not essential

The main “philosophical” argument against same-sex marriage/marriage equality seems to be that it denies that “sexual complementarity” is at the core of what marriage is.

Some versions of this argument take what I think is an implausible view of the metaphysical status of what they call the “conjugal union” of a man and woman, but that aside, I’m prepared to agree that there is a strong connection between marriage, sexual difference, and procreation. That is, a large part of the reason why marriage exists in the first place is because when men and women have sex, they sometimes produce babies. And society has an interest in ensuring that children enter the world and are raised in a relatively stable context. So in that sense, SSM opponents are right that there is a strong link between sexual difference, procreation, and the purpose of marriage.

So, let’s concede that the coupling of a man and a woman, with offspring to follow, is the “typical” instance of a marriage. I’m even willing to call it the “central” instance if you like. What doesn’t follow from this fact is that marriage can’t be extended “by analogy,” so to speak, to cover other instances that resemble but also differ from this typical one. And of course this is already the case. Couples who can’t or don’t choose to have kids are just as married as couples who do–and no one blinks at this. This doesn’t mean that “man-woman-kid(s)” isn’t still the characteristic form marriage tends to take; it just recognizes that not everyone’s circumstances are the same and that marriage performs functions that are important even without the presence of children. (My wife and I were just as married during the decade prior to having children as we are now.)

Similarly, then, with SSM. It represents another analogical extension of marriage to cover people who depart in some respects from the typical form. People who want the monogamy, fidelity, and permanence of marriage, but whose chosen partner is a member of the same sex, can comfortably fit under the broad umbrella of marriage. This doesn’t require us to deny that there is an important link between marriage and procreation, but rather to recognize that marriage serves multiple ends–not all of which will necessarily be realized in every relationship.

Anti-SSM activists, such as those profiled in today’s New York Times, argue that if we stop enforcing the “norm” of sexual complementarity, we will also undermine the norms of fidelity, monogamy, and permanence. Adam Serwer pointed out that this is an odd argument since these are the values that movement for marriage equality is trying to uphold. But it also strikes me as a kind of category mistake. Heterosexuals aren’t going to stop being attracted to members of the opposite sex because gay people can get married. This isn’t a “norm” that needs to be enforced.* It’s a reality that needs to be recognized and accommodated. But then so is homosexuality. The question is whether marriage is big enough to include both straight and gay couples who want to make lives together–lives that will in many, if not most, cases include the raising of children. I think it is.

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*I think it’s worth noting that there’s a case to be made that same-sex marriage could actually strengthen “opposite-sex” marriage, though not necessarily in ways that would make traditionalists happy. Consider this from theologian/biblical scholar L. William Countryman: “Spouses in heterosexual marriages will have much to learn . . . from partners in stable, long-term homosexual relationships. They have long experienced the difficulties of maintaining enduring relationships in a society which is even less supportive of them than of heterosexual couples; and they have had to do it without socially prescribed divisions of roles and labor. . . . On a deeper level, the re-understanding of womanliness and manliness in our changed circumstances will make headway only if the conversation leading toward it includes both heterosexuals and homosexuals” (Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex, p. 260).