Monday, September 11, 2017

Wholeness and Holiness




The apostle Paul gave this blessing prayer at the close of his letter to the Thessalonians Christians: 'Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Thess. 5:23).

A distinctive theme of the Biblical view of human nature is that we are composite  beings, who in our integrity as whole persons are embodied souls with spirits. The doctrines of creation and resurrection solidify the unity of our selves as embodied spirits with truly human souls. We will be reclothed in transformed physical bodies in the Resurrection. Our human souls (minds, desires, choices) are real, as is our spiritual nature, our capacity to relate to God and the spiritual realm.

I think that this idea of humans as unified beings, body and mind, would be seen as reasonable by most people. We are reminded often about the inextricable union of our minds and bodies. Our thoughts influence our physical being and physical conditions affect our outlook. 

Now in the Christian view, 'Sin' has disordered our human functioning at many levels. We can be spiritually blind or enslaved. Our choices may be wrong and our minds darkened. Our bodies can be hampered by the cosmic effects of the Fall, and we can use our bodies in disobedient ways, contrary to the Creator's design. Our calling in Christ is to work with God's help to connect ourselves truly to God's Spirit, having our minds renewed so that our choices follow the path of godliness and our bodies truly presented to God as vessels for his service.

It is not easy to keep a true, balanced Biblical view of our humanity. Some can neglect the human, soulish functions out of a disconnected spirituality. Others can make the soul the centre of our selves as the choosing, desiring self. There has been a tendency in some civilisations to view our bodies as secondary aspects of our selves: the body as the cage of the soul. The ancient Gnostics took this path in general, either neglecting the body or treating it as non-moral. The true person is not his or her body.

This ancient view is a heresy of Creation, and it is back with us in our culture in the West through the sexual revolution. Pope John Paul II prophetically taught about this distortion in his great work 'The Theology of the Body'. 

Think about 'sexual immorality'. The Bible consistently warns against moving away from the limits of our created nature in the sexual sphere. Our sexuality as humans is designed for procreation (obviously) and uniting of lives (desirable). Taking the act of sexual intercourse out of the life-uniting context is out of God's natural order. The act of sexual intercourse is by nature a joining of man and woman in a joint biological union. Our bodies are heterosexual. (There are some whose genetic makeup is not clear, but the binary nature of sexual embodiment is the norm.)  The Biblical injunctions against sexual immorality are designed to keep us within the limits of life and proper functioning. The  chaos of the sexual revolution has been considerable.

Behind most of the sexual revolution is the subordination of the sexual body to the desires and choices of the soul. 'Gay marriage' is on our national agenda right now in Australia, and it is promoted as the way of love. People are not concerned with the fact that homosexual acts are out of alignment with the body, because the body is simply the instrument of the person. It is about 'love'. Hence the widespread incomprehension at those who don't agree with gay marriage : they must be against 'love'. If same-sex acts are no longer regarded as 'immoral' (that is, not in accord with our embodied nature), then there can be no basis for not legalising them as 'marriage', except nasty bigotry. 

If sexuality is disconnected from our sexual embodiment, then our gender can also be disconnected from our bodies, hence transgender as a variation. Transgenderism is  to be accepted, because gender is now an internal state of mind regardless of embodied sexual gender. This is the logic of the  Gnostic view of the body already in place regarding homosexuality. On this logic, more 'genders' are coming down the cultural pipeline. The slippery slope is getting more slippery all the time. The same logic of the loving, free, choosing self will inevitably be brought out again to justify polyamory - and probably other variations.

I recognise that we are all broken in different ways. Sometimes our desires work against our sexual form or are at odds with it. The older view was that this was a problem of disordered desires, to be controlled. The older viewpoint did not think that disordered desires (desires not in alignment with the order of embodied nature) should be celebrated,affirmed, let alone recognised as equal to desires that are aligned  with embodiment. But the contemporary view is that the body must give way to the sovereignty of the desiring self. The crucial issue is not sexuality but our view of the human person. Are humans integrated wholes - body, soul, spirit? 

This great experiment with human nature will play itself out. Time will tell what consequences follow. Already the endorsement of sexual immorality as legitimate and good has come at the cost of the unity and integrity of our human nature. If reality is with the Bible and the wisdom of the ages in many cultures, then the human and social costs will be heavy. In the end, reality has a way of asserting itself.

Ralph Bowles





Monday, July 31, 2017

The Logic of Marriage Equality


Hardly a week passes in Australia without a news story or campaigning in the media for same-sex couples to be allowed to get married under Commonwealth law. The pressure is relentless and big businesses have signed up, introducing the rainbow push into advertising. The issue has been stuck politically now because one side of politics has pledged to take it to a public vote and other wants to put it (again) to Parliament. (It has been rejected by Parliament many times). It seems that a clear majority of voters want a say, and I suspect the advocates are fearful that the general public will vote the 'wrong' way - a kind of 'Brexit' outcome. Now there is a new rumbling in the LNP Coalition ranks to break out and have a free parliamentary vote, which they assume, will be in favour. (What if it fails on a free vote? Does anyone doubt that it will be brought back, again and again and again, until resistance is worn down?)
I confess that I find this urgency a bit hard to credit. This idea that marriage should not be limited to heterosexuals is a very new thing and extremely novel; as a concept it is not as old as the invention of the mobile phone. (Until I changed my mobile phone a short while ago, the legalisation of same-sex marriage anywhere wasn't as old as the actual phone in my pocket). Despite the fact that it never occurred to anyone until a few cultural seconds ago,  there is a strident demand for this change as if it were long overdue, and pressingly obvious.
Advocates claim that the change will take nothing away from traditionalists, who will still have their marriages. After all, it is a very small group for this change - 0.38% of the Australian population currently lives in same-sex relationships, and the number will probably not rise greatly since the same-sex attracted are a small percentage. 
If the Marriage Act is changed to remove the gender requirement, there may be some advantages for people who hold to the traditional concept of conjugal marriage. Their view of marriage and sex will become an official minority position, and there are benefits to being able to present a different way, the road less travelled. Same-sex attracted individuals who hold to traditional sexual morality will have a powerful and counter-cultural witness. This is already happening in the church, as the new freedom of talking about this matter has enable them to come out to speak. Their voices will be heard as a fresh note in the din.
The proposed change will inevitably bring challenges for conjugal marriage proponents. The delay in Australia has given us time to see what has happened in other jurisdictions, so there are reasons to be concerned that the traditionalists will find that regulations and attitudes will become coercive in certain ways.  Anti-discrimination tribunals will be strengthened as weapons to silence disagreement. This is already here. But I leave that to one side.

My purpose in this reflection is to draw attention to an issue that seems to be invisible to most in this debate. It is commonly claimed that this is a simple change to law that will not have negative consequences but only positive justice for those shut out from marriage.  To the contrary, there is a huge, philosophical and social change at issue here, which will be put into law, or at least implied. 
G.K. Chesterton said that if you come upon a fence in a field, you shouldn't tear it down until you know why it was put up in the first place. Tearing down this fence around marriage will have big impacts. Some will cheer and welcome them; others (like me) will regret them. I am not talking here about tolerance or affirmation of gay and lesbian relationships but about a bigger implication.
Change the law of marriage to remove the male-female gender complementarity requirement and we put into law a different anthropology, a new view of human nature and personhood.
Let me explain by first posing this question: Are human beings whole, united selves, body and mind (soul)?  I think most would answer affirmatively. I am a person made up of a mind and a body, an embodied self. 
But change the law of marriage as urged and the implied view of personhood now becomes a mind-body dualism. We will express in law the view that a person's identity is found in their minds, not in their bodily reality or embodiment. Marriage becomes a romantic or personal relationship regardless of our sexual embodiment.
Whatever our view about sex, gender or marriage, the indisputable reality is plain: we have bodies that are heterosexual biologically, in form and function. It sounds shocking to state this plain fact. (There are a very small percentage of people whose sex characteristics are not clearly like this, but the norm is the male-female pattern). 
Stay with me on this point. Picture in your mind a naked man and a naked woman, and you will get the idea. Our sexual embodiment is biologically complementary. Men and women are like biological Lego pierces, made to fit together, work together, do something together. Sexual reproduction works as a joint heterosexual project. The sexual function is a physical act that is designed to work with the sexually 'other'. Sexual differentiation is found in every cell in our bodies. This is basic, undeniable and uncontroversial.
Now we all know that some people (again a small percentage) find that their sexual and personal attractions are towards people of their own biological gender. Others too find that their inner mental outlook is at odds with their biology. For these, their sexual desires are not in alignment with their sexual embodiment. Their minds and their bodies are in tension. This is certainly the reality of homosexuality.
What does a person do when the self's inner desires are at odds with one's embodied  nature? The older moral view regarded the desires as being out of step with one's real nature. The new view is that the true person is the desiring, choosing self, and the tension is resolved by the self, using the body accordingly as an instrument of the mind.  In other words: a mind-body dualism in which the mind or soul is the real 'person'. 
Change the law of marriage to accommodate homosexual marriage and you put into law a statement about the relation of the self to their bodies. This will remove the sexual embodiment of our humanity as intrinsic to the union - a momentous philosophical shift.
There is sex as a biological fact of anatomy and chromosomes. There is gender as the social expression of our sexual natures, varying in times and societies. Now there is a new concept of gender as the internal chosen 'identity' which may have no relation to biological maleness or femaleness. This is where many activists are now, even before ‘marriage equality’ becomes law.
I understand Facebook has now got 58 genders. The other day a new born baby in Canada was issued with an ‘Unassigned’ gender identity. There are programs in our schools that are teaching that gender identity is fluid and multiple in range. I am not saying that changing marriage law causes this new idea of human identity as gender. It is because our society has already moved to a mind-body dualism that the demand for marriage 'equality' makes so much sense. Such a gulf in understanding exists here, that the new way of thinking cannot understand the older one, so must attribute it to bigotry.
This change in human identity in sexual matters is now so main-stream that many can't understand how children (or the potential of children) can be key to the definition of marriage.  It strikes me as an odd development that the same-sex marriage push removes the act of sexual intercourse from the definition of marriage - and it is very odd to my mind that people don't find this odd. The progression of the Sexual revolution has ironically devalued the act and meaning of sexual intercourse. It was separated from the context of procreation (life-unions of marriage between a man and a woman who are committed to being parents together). Then sexual intercourse was separated from marriage. Now it is in process of being legally removed from the definition of marriage. The next step, virtually with us, is the removal of sexual biological embodiment from ‘gender’. With same-sex marriage legalised, the unique act of sexual intercourse will be regarded as equivalent to other sex acts. The concept of gender will lose legal connection to biology. Anyone who says otherwise must be a bigot.
I think this different view of the mind-body relation in sexual identity terms is the cause is the misunderstanding of the traditional view.  The ideas that our bodies, particularly our sexual bodies, are intrinsic, given  aspects of our selves and that marriage is a conjugal union of procreative potential and calling, are unintelligible to the person for whom the inner desires alone must rule. This thinking finds the idea that marriage has an essential connection to procreation and embodied biology to be bizarre.
If I am right in my observations, then a simple change of a few words in the Marriage Act will not be the end point of this change. Same-sex marriage will bring with it a strong push to compel others to fall in line and pretend that biology and the unity of persons, body and soul, doesn't matter. 
It will be interesting to see what will happen in Australia with this campaign to change the concept of marriage in law. Whether parliamentarians or voters get to decide the issue, I hope that there will be an informed decision.
Marriage law is perhaps the last remaining place where the given-ness of our whole person, body and soul, is upheld as essential. The law of marriage as it currently stands tracks our biological, sexual identity as men and women who have the potential to bring new humans into existence and provide them with secure and loving care they need. This surely is the kind of institution that our Law should put a protective fence around, and everyone who wants to tear down this fence should pause and realise what will be removed in that case. 
Something very important and obvious has been missed in this debate. The consequences of this shift may turn up later. G.K. Chesterton also observed that "every high civilisation decays by forgetting obvious things".

Monday, April 24, 2017

(Backup) The Roots of the Crisis (cont.)

Dreher treats the momentous changes that unravelled the sacramental universe of the Medieval model. Renaissance and Reformation shifted focus to humanistic areas and shattered authority. The rising political nation states and empires brought new pressures to bear. The Scientific Revolution may have been led by professing Christians but the "grounding lay undeniably in nominalism." Science worked in practical ways and the mathematisation of nature brought a new approach. "The natural world was to be taken no longer as something to be contemplated as in any way an icon of the divine, but rather as something to be understood and manipulated by the will of humankind for its own sake." 
Philosophers continued the fragmentation. Descartes inverted the medieval approach to knowledge, putting the Self as the reference point for knowledge. The Enlightenment was "an attempt . . . to find a common basis outside religion for determining moral truth.". 
 It was a decisive break with the Christian legacy of the West. Deism now became the forming theology. Spiritual and secular are to be separate realms. 
This worked while many people were still Christian or church- goers. Enlightenment morality depended on the virtue of a moral and religious people. There was still "a strong shared idea of the Good and a shared definition of virtue."
The swing of the pendulum came in the romantic movement's exaltation of emotion, freedom and individualism. This was a reaction against rationalism but not a return to faith.
Atheism in the 19 th century was real but kept in check by vigorous revivals and religious fervour. The secular elites pursued a secular revolution that introduced reformist and essentially secular thinking into established institutions. The early 20th century pushed religion further to the edges of life. 
I can't help feeling that the world wide traumas of Wars and economic chaos in the 20th century worked to delay the unravelling of Western values. People held on to traditions in the face of barbarism and suffering. But post war Western society saw further unravelling of the Western tradition. Dreher relies on Philip Rieff's analysis of the advent of Psychological Man in the 60's and Charles Taylor's insights. The triumph of Eros marks our time. Desire expressed as the assertion of individuality is the underlying world view. Thus same-sex marriage is asserted on the basis of love and desire, disconnected with any relation to biological embodiment.  Dreher notes: "The Romantic ideal of the self-created man finds its fulfilment in the newest vanguards of the Sexual Revolution, transgendered people. They refuse to be bound by biology and have behind them an elite movement teaching new generations that gender is whatever the choosing individual wants it to be.  . . Transgenderism is the logical next step, after which will come the deconstruction of any obstructions, in law or custom, to freely chosen polygamous arrangements."  
This new concept of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life (citing a US Supreme Court Justice). 
So the West loosened its grasp on God as Creator and Lord, and now has arrived at a unravelling of human bonds with our bodies. The autonomous Self rules now, a god its own right. There is no ordered creation to which our desires must submit. Dreher: "The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other. . . . We have been loosed, but we do not know how to bind." 

So how does the Christian church, carrier of a very different world-view, respond, even to preserve itself in this corrosive sea that seeps into us? " We who still hold the golden thread lossely in our hands must seize it more tightly and cling to it for future generations, or it will be torn from our grasp." 

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Roots of the Crisis

Rod Dreher turns in chap 2 of The Benedict Option to examine how the unravelling of the West's spiritual and moral consensus came about. " We are living with the consequences of ideas accepted many generations ago, and as a result of those decisions we are losing our religion."
He reminds us that religion provides the system of beliefs and practices that hold a community together. In the West it is Christianity that has provided this whole system, so that moral habits and social structures generated by belief kept going even when the underlying faith was abandoned. But eventually the flowers die on the cut root. The process is accelearating now, and the church is struggling to hold the younger generations because they are formed by this embracing culture that erodes faith. 

Owing a debt to Charles Taylor's analysis, Dreher notes five landmark events over seven centuries that has undermined its foundation faith. There are many forces and developments at work, but his survey is stimulating and in accord with other historians of culture. It is a long road from as a sacramental  experience of life in the Middle Ages to the emptied world of naturalism today. 
Dreher lists 
1. The loss of belief in the integral connection between God and creation (between transcendent and material realities) in the fourteenth century;
2. The collapse of religious unity and authority in the sixteenth century Reformation.
3. The eighteenth century Enlightenment that placed Reason in place of religion and privatised religious fai.
4. The Industrial revolution (1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in 19th and 20th centuries.
5. The sexual revolution from 1960 to present.

It is hard for us to grasp a sacramental view of life and the universe. It was undergirded by metaphysical realism- the principle that all things exist and have a God-given essential nature independent of human thought. All things aware grounded in God. "Realism holds that the essence of a thing is built into its existence by God, and its ultimate meaning is guaranteed by this connection to the transcendent order." (27)  It was the British monk William of Ockham who cut down the mighty tree of metaphysical realism. He ascribed meaning to God's will. Thus was born (again) the idea of nominalism - that objects have no intrinsic meaning, only meaning assigned to them. Ockham defended God's sovereignty at the cost of separating nature from the divine realm in itself; only by revelation could we grasp meaning. 
Dreher observes that this noinalism made the modern world possible. Nature was studied in itself and a new emphasis on empiricism and naturalism was born. War and world-wide plagues disturbed the life of Europe. The defeat of metaphysical realism used in a new dynamic phase.

This analysis is not novel to Rod Dreher, but it does remind me that most of us today are by instinct nominalists. A side-issue is worth considering: whether metaphysical realism was discredited or simply replaced. Still, we are witnessing in current sexual  identity politics, an intense nominalise about the nature of human identity say as gendered. The natural embodied self is not a given, has no transcendent reality; the desiring self within decides what meaning one gives and how the body is used. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Benedict Option


I've started to read Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option after hearing much about it and following his blog. So here is the first nstalment of my reactions.
Dreher's thesis is that the church in the West is facing a cultural rejection of the world-view and anthropology derived from Christianity. This is getting antagonistic and intolerant. The church in USA is weak in its ability to resist the worldliness and has lost the culture war. Allowing for his American context, the situation in Australia is comparable. The push for same sex marriage is a dramatic marker  because it was unthinkable and absurd until very recently but opponents now are labelled bigots etc. A new gender anthropology is being aggressively pushed in Australian schools. So society hasn't been "christian' for a long time, but laws and values have tracked the biblical norms. Now marriage is being radically redefined and laws will enforce it. 
Dreher picks up the example of Benedict who founded a new kind of Christian community to preserve the faith and civilisation in the unravelling days of the Roman Empire. Dreher thinks that Western Christians would be wise to gear themselves for a strategic withdrawal.
Is he exaggerating? I don't think so. We've known for a long time that we are in a post-Christian society. The pressures are more felt now as the pillars of the West are being knocked over. He is concerned about how the church can preserve itself with an onslaught of different values.