Monday, July 28, 2014

Showing your work.

One of the flurry of books published around the time that Gene Robinson was elected bishop in the Episcopal Church was a collection of Methodist essays called Staying the Course. I don't remember that much about it--it was a pretty standard re-hashing of already worn arguments--but one small piece has stuck with me to this day. One author plaintively insisted that reformers who wished to appeal to knowledge found outside of the Bible needed to specify what sources were going to be newly authoritative: the Journal of the American Medical Association? Something else?

At the time, I thought it was just a sad example of missing the point entirely, an attempt to cling to the idea that all the right answers are written down somewhere. Theology was maybe negotiable. Epistemology wasn't. Recently I've been wondering, though, if there isn't actually an important point buried among the mess.

Liberal American Protestants, for the most part, aren't going to point at the Bible and tell you to stop doing something because the Bible says not to. They may tell you that the Bible says to do something, like love your neighbor, and therefore you shouldn't do something else, like use them solely for your own sexual gratification. They may appeal to holiness, but rarely to purity.

So that means there needs to be evidence of harm connected to a prohibited activity in order for the prohibition to be credible. And evidence, as Wikipedia has made a matter of popular cultural knowledge, must have its sources cited. Opponents of egalitarian polyamorous families have not, to my knowledge, bothered to do so.

(It's called a lit review! Your local public library can help you find one, or even to make your own! Of course, then you might encounter the work of sociologist Elizabeth Sheff, who hasn't found evidence that outcomes for kids in poly families are worse than in monogamous ones.)

Which leaves me with an appreciation for that conservative Methodist's frustration. This post has actually taken me twice as long as it usually does,  because I have had to keep walking away from it when my blood pressure gets too high. Engaging conservative arguments is fairly straightforward. There are rules about what counts and what doesn't, and conservatives have to stick to those rules or else admit that that the entire foundation of their worldview and ethical systems is as full of sinkholes as Florida. Not that such admissions are a common occurrence, but there's a certain peace of mind that comes from watching someone reduced to saying "Nuh-UH" or "la la la I can't hear you."

Liberals, though. Liberals! So used to being reasoned and reasonable. So complacent and self-satisfied. They base their opinions on critical thinking and empirical evidence, thus, if they have an opinion about something, it is only natural that the lines of thought and empirical evidence must be out there somewhere. Why go through the bother of actually confirming them? So redundant.

I exaggerate. A bit. Maybe. But for religious communities that don't look to tradition, written revelation or a designated authority to provide definitive answers to uncomfortable questions, it is not only irritating but a failure of religious obligation when the conversations that could lead to answers are anything less than deliberate and comprehensive.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

But it's such a *pretty* map.

In my opinion, there is no American theologian writing today who is more important than Fred Clark, better known to many as the Slacktivist. He has a gift for finding and explaining the simple truths at the heart of questions that people more commonly politely pretend are complicated.

Clark's formation in the heart of evangelical America means he natively understands its culture, psychology and theology. His insistence that he has every right to stand as proudly as ever as an evangelical Baptist, no matter what the gatekeepers say or do, is a welcome counterpoint to the many de-conversion narratives out there, among Christians and former Christians alike. One happy consequence of this stand is that his readers--well, me, at least, but I don't think I'm alone--never get the sense that he is letting himself off the hook when he critiques that faith community.

There is one post by Clark, "Let Us Reason Together," that I return to over and over again, not only in the context of theology, but in every aspect of life where we are required to assemble facts together in an interpretive framework. Politics, science, family dynamics, self-examination, cooking, putting together Ikea furniture, anything. The experience he turns into a metaphor is the difference between a map--an authoritative source--and direct observation:

So there I was, at the end of what was, undeniably, a dead end street, consulting a map that claimed otherwise. It was something of a Groucho moment: "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?" I sided with my own two eyes, thus accepting the principle that reason and experience were essential considerations for evaluating the meaning and application of the text.

(Clark links this epiphany to the basic idea of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I think it's also helpful to link "text" here to the broader understanding, as in semiotics, that text "can exist in any medium and may be verbal, non-verbal, or both." It can even be unconscious, so long as a message is sent and received. But now I'm really digressing.)

I usually say I became a Christian around late 1999, early 2000. It was a fairly classic born-again experience. My heart was strangely warmed, and for once I embraced it, after many years of giving faith in general a serious case of side-eye. Being me, my first reaction was to read all the things. What did other Christians have to say about this being-a-Christian thing?

I soon discovered two main competing "grand narratives" that spoke to my heart. One was the contemporary American evangelical narrative of the fervent individual believer, armed with Scripture and prayer, trusting that God will use these tools to give clear answers to all questions that arise in daily life. The other was the historical Catholic narrative of the Church and its magisterium, stewarding the sacraments and the deposit of faith, offering a safe harbor for all who seek God.

Inconveniently, they were (and are) both wrong. Empirically so, through my own direct observation. The Catholic vision of the Christian life relies crucially on an understanding of natural law that has little relationship to the diversity of behavior found among animals, including humans, in actual nature. (There's a reason that Pius X declared modernism to be full of heresy.) The evangelical vision of the Christian life relies crucially on a willful ignorance of the development of the historical faith and practice of Christians over thousands of years.

It's remarkable, really, how many arguments--not just theological ones, and not just from conservatives--boil down to either "because human nature" or "because we've always done it this way." And how often the ample evidence to the contrary is ignored, rationalized away or flat-out denied.


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Sunday, July 6, 2014

More backwards vindication for poly families from conservatives.

In my last post, I mentioned that N.T. Wright dismissed same-sex marriage by appealing to polyamory: "There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female."

Apparently, this argument may be kind of A Thing. Edward Raby, a Michigan pastor who describes himself as a "Christian Conservative Libertarian," has an essay chastising another conservative for ranting about polyamory as a sexual sin:

If you are going to call something sinful it better be clearly defined that way by the Bible itself.  To lump Polyamory and Polygamy in the same ‘sinful’ pile is not supported Biblically...polygamy is not only never condemned by the Bible it is practiced by some of the Bible’s more glamorized heroes from Abraham and Jacob to David and Solomon.  When Jesus talks about marriage and harkens us back to Adam and Eve it should be pointed out that the issue is divorce, he actually does not dismiss polygamy with his words or say it is wrong. He simply is saying there is a higher way that should be strived for...The list...of sexual sins is only valid if the Bible lists them all as sexual sins – adultery, fornication, homosexuality and bestiality are listed in the Bible...Make a note.  Polyamory is not listed and you need to point out that the reason that parts of this are sinful are the homosexual elements.

Basically, as long as someone has only heterosexual partners and marries all of them, there's no Biblical barrier to having two partners or a dozen, according to Raby. Anyone who argues otherwise is "loaded with emotion, lacking in Biblical understanding and quite frankly self-righteous."

I'm honestly not sure what's going on here. Are there conservatives who have decided the slippery slope argument obviously isn't working, so they'll just push gay couples down to the bottom of the hill, even if it makes mult-adult families look better in the process? Have they decided the culture wars are essentially lost, so they better stop antagonizing us wayward indulgers and reclaim separation of church and state as a tactical defense? Or is this actually representative of a kind of intellectual honesty working its way through, here and there?

Whatever it is, it's a positive development. Not the homophobia part--that's still vile. But it always was. It's not like conservative re-evaluation or resignation with regards to poly families can make homophobia worse.