Thursday 7 July 2016

Difference, Diversity, Deviance and Hierarchy

This weekend the Church of England's General Synod (of which I am a member) will lock itself away into several small rooms to discuss human sexuality and how we deal with our differences over this issue.

As a historian, I have been interested for many years in how the Christian churches have thought about and dealt with difference. I'm currently doing some sabbatical research on the history of how difference has been handled theologically.

The existence of difference (and consequent inequalities) has always been something that people have noticed and tried to explain (perhaps explain away) theologically. Difference itself is clearly part of the nature of creation - it is naturally observed that, for example, our children are very different from one another, or that different people have different tastes. It is easily observed that there is wide diversity in nature - diversity of plants, animals and so on. It is also naturally observed that whilst some differences are good (we all enjoy diversity in a view, or different things to eat when we can get them), others are life-threatening (such as the difference between a poisonous and non-poisonous mushroom).

Over history, people have tried on for size various different 'paradigms' or models to understand difference, and to decide what is good or bad difference. The language that we use tends to imply how we have categorised differences. In modern English 'difference' is fairly neutral, or is used positively of what we consider to be normative but interesting, the opposite of  'common', while 'diversity' is non-normative but good and 'deviance' is non-normative and bad. We could conjugate these:

I am different; You bring a welcome diversity; He is deviant.

Once you have a model for understanding difference, it then gets used to decide what is 'good' difference and what is 'bad' difference.These have very often been drawn from the experience of civil society at that time - feudalism, the family, and so on.

The prime example of this comes from the medieval period, when feudalism was the basic model of society. That is, everything (in theory at least) belonged to the monarch and was parcelled out from him down a hierarchy of lords, barons, freemen and serfs. Following this model, creation itself was envisaged as being essentially hierarchical - with God at the top, followed by complex hierarchies of angels in heaven, then the human hierarchy, and finally birds, animals, minerals and rocks. The most complex examples of this 'Great Chain of Being' established hierarchies for which birds came above other birds, which rocks were more 'noble', and so on. Even the Trinity was at times portrayed as hierarchical, with the Father at the very top, the Son next (just as would be the case in a human royal family), and the Spirit third.

Of course, the inevitable happened, and this idea of a divine hierarchy was then used to justify the existence of earthly hierarchies - they were, 'as any fule no', divinely ordained since that was 'just the way the world is'.

This hierarchical understanding of difference has proved very persistent (see for example some conservative evangelical writings even today, which attempt to locate gender relationships within the context of an essentially hierarchical reading of the Trinity). Patriarchy is a variant of this model, too, in which 'natural' family relationships are seen as both a model for understanding God, and are then read back onto human society as normative. (As an aside, this is why I very much dislike the version of the creed which speaks of  'God the Father, from whom every family takes its name' - this is a very clear example of this circular thinking).

A hierarchical understanding of difference has been considered to be normative for Christian theology for much of Christian history. The practical impact of this is that 'good' differences have been seen as those which fit the hierarchy, while 'bad' differences are those which are out of place or which defy categorisation.

Test this theory on gender relations: in the hierarchy, men are above women. So women challenging this model or taking authority are criticised, as we would expect, as being 'unnatural' or against Godly order. Similarly, I suspect it likely that one fundamental unease with same-sex relationships is that they challenge this same 'natural' order of things in which a man pairs up with, and dominates, a woman. (I suspect that is why one of the prurient questions that I can remember being often asked of homosexual men in previous years was the telling 'but which one goes on top?').

So I think that a considerable amount of the angst involved in our current conversations about same-sex relationships is not precisely about those relationships themselves, nor even about 'how we interpret the Bible', but about whether we subscribe to this hierarchical worldview - and whether Christianity can be disentangled from it. Really, although people keep saying we have moved on from 'the women issue' to 'the gay issue', we're still discussing the same question: is Christianity irredeemably patriarchal?

More, on other models for difference, in another post...


  1. "In modern English 'difference' is fairly neutral, or is used positively of what we consider to be normative but interesting, the opposite of 'common', while 'diversity' is non-normative but good and 'deviance' is non-normative and bad. We could conjugate these:

    I am different; You bring a welcome diversity; He is deviant."

    I'm not sure the word "deviant" is really fit for purpose here (it's dated as moral condemnation, and really suggests more of a statistical usage)

    If we're keep the alliteration, may I suggest

    "I am different; You bring a welcome diversity; s/he is deleterious [Just a $10 word for "bad"]", w/ fourth extreme on the conjugation, "s/he is disgusting" (whish is beyond mere bad-ness).

    In regards to "deleterious", people find ways to hide their prejudices. Everyone wants to claim they believe in Our Common Humanity..."but those people bring property values down!" Deleterious. Bad.

    But for those who offend our sense of purity (sometimes literally our sense of smell, or our sense of bodily integrity---imagining something going in an orifice we only use for going out!), there's no need to couch the prejudice: we may openly express our disgust. "Ick!"

    Difference, Diversity, Deleterious(ness), Disgusting.

  2. Interesting Miranda, next bit please :) Interesting comment also from 'JCF' above... Thank you

  3. A Christianity that is 'disentangled' from hierachy would be a Christianity that has lost most of its meaning.

    Much of Jesus teachings were about encoraging us to reach down the heirachy to lift others up.

    Christianity is about hierachy. Lets accept that and move on.