Monday, 25 July 2016

Difference in Christian Thought 2: Order and Chaos

This is the second in a series of blogposts reflecting on my current research on how difference has been understood in Christian history. In this post, I’m thinking about the human need for order and fear of chaos, as powerful driving forces as we seek to understand and make sense of difference.

Consider the well-known creation story in Genesis 1. Here, God’s act of creation is portrayed first in terms of creating a series of distinctions. In the beginning, there is ‘a formless void’ (Gen 1:1). God’s activity first separates light from dark, then sky from what lies below, then land from sea. This creates a series of diverse habitats, and the next stage of God’s creative activity is to call forth from those habitats a wide variety of life appropriate for each – first vegetation, and then living creatures to populate the sea, sky and earth respectively. The teeming variety of such creatures is deftly evoked: ‘every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind….cattle and creeping things, and wild animals of the earth of every kind’ (Gen 1:21,24).

In this creation account, difference is presented first as being about bringing order out of chaos by acts of separation and arrangement. Secondly, it is presented as generative. Once order has been established by the separation of different elements, these can become fruitful (note that this is not, at this stage, about sexual difference but about diversity of habitat). And thirdly, diversity – in all its creeping, squawking, splashing abundance – is presented as a fundamental feature of God’s intention in creation, an indicator of God-given abundance. These three dimensions of difference – order, fruitfulness and diversity - will recur again and again as we look at how difference has been understood theologically. 

Early Iron Age grave in South India
There seems to be a deep human craving for order which transcends most cultural, political or religious divides. Psychologists have repeatedly shown that much of our sense of beauty is driven by an appreciation for symmetry –the more symmetrical a face is, the more beautiful it is rated by test subjects. Chaos seems to be a deep primal fear, and the earliest human societies are often marked (or diagnosed) by features of arrangement – of structures, mark-making, deceased bodies, and so on. 

Some sociologists of religion even theorise that religion itself arose out of this deep human instinct to seek order to keep chaos at bay. One could just as easily argue, of course, that humankind being made in the image of a God who brings order out of chaos would naturally seek to do the same. The point is that whether looked at from a religious or purely secular standpoint, the human desire to seek order appears to have been the earliest response to the existence of difference.

It seems to me, as I’m doing this work on the history of how theology has thought about difference, that most of what I’m seeing consists of elaborations and different systematisations all aiming to fulfil this basic human desire – to arrange chaos, so that it emerges into an order which is found to be, at all levels, life-giving. Furthermore, it is disagreements about what is most fruitful, generative and life-giving that lie at the root of most of the disagreements which have ensued about difference and diversity. This applies not just to our sexual arguments in the church (which so often circle around not simply questions of procreation, but also and even more fundamentally a desire for ordered relationships, which will create a stable society, and so allow human life to flourish). It also can be seen much more widely in society, where arguments and debates about cultural diversity so often turn on a deeply felt desire or need for social stability and communities of belonging that we feel comfortable and safe in. We want order, not chaos.

Our deep human fear of chaos is foundational to arguments about difference, and is why such arguments are so deeply felt – we feel viscerally that these arguments matter, because they are all that lies between us and our primal fears of chaos. 

This is also, I suggest, why such arguments can seem petty, trivial and even pathetic to those who see the ‘thin blue line’ between chaos and order in a completely different place. Because all such arguments are fundamentally about arrangement they very easily be characterised as ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic’, or re-arranging the books on the shelves by colour or height rather than by subject. Arrangements of things almost inevitably feel trivial to those whose preoccupation is with arranging something else! It is worth briefly considering different hobbies, and how absorbing and
important they seem to their adherents – from stamp collecting, model railways, football, knitting, dog breeding and showing…… their rules seem arcane and trivial to those outside, but are very important to those inside.

And this is where societal blindness comes into play – it is very difficult indeed for a society which just assumes a particular arrangement of things is a given to see that as just one set of possible arrangements. This is one of the key insights of liberation/black/feminist thought – the need to problematize assumptions and see ‘common sense’ as a particular societally bound way of thinking. So, to those for whom the line between order and chaos lies in getting religion right, stamp collecting is a ridiculously trivial example whilst heresy is literally a matter of life and death. Whereas to those who see the line between order and chaos in politics and policing, for example, religion can seem a dangerous triviality.

One of the themes I’m going to keep coming back to as I explore different models of difference is to think about how that model defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’ difference. It is a very notable feature of that creation account of Genesis 1, that God repeatedly affirmins the goodness of what has been ordered, separated and created in all its diversity. ‘And God saw that it was good’ runs as a repeated refrain through the whole of the first chapter of the Bible. The first mention of anything not good comes in 2:9, with the mention of the tree ‘of the knowledge of good and evil’ – around which, of course, the action of the next chapter centres. Moral judgements and morally good and bad behaviour do exist in this milieu, but they are secondary and subsequent to the basic goodness of what has been created in and of itself. 

It is also important to note that the divine activity of arrangement or separation, creating difference, in Genesis 1 is not about dualism. It is not the case that one of each pairing is good and bad, as so often in our way of speaking in pairs or in ‘binaries’. It emphatically is not the case that, for example, the light is good and the darkness bad, or the sea bad and the land good, as is so commonly the case in later discourse and metaphor. In Genesis, the arrangement itself, and all that has been arranged, is good.

The typical explanation in Christian theology for the basic question ‘why a Good God would make a world in which there is so much pain and suffering and hardship’, is that everything God made was originally good, but that the option of bad enters the world with the Fall. The created order is good, but human choices can be bad – and as a result of bad human choices, the created order is to some extent turned against humanity and becomes a place of toil, pain and hardship. Things have become disordered as a result of human disobedience, runs the argument. 

However, this strand of theological thought does not simply map onto a theory of difference. In theory, perhaps, the idea would be that differences that bring order are good, differences that bring disorder, bad. But the concept of the Fall problematizes that, because disorder is in some sense seen as part of the new natural order, God’s dispensation, and it may be disordered to seek to bring order! This idea can be seen, for example, in the Victorian debates over pain relief in childbirth, where some religious authorities argued that seeking to remove pain in childbirth was against God’s will since God mandates such pains in Genesis 3:16. It can also be seen, I gather, in some right-wing American arguments against international peacekeeping.

I’m aiming to discuss various different paradigms for difference that have existed over the course of Christian history. The discussion of one after another shouldn’t be taken to mean that one supercedes or replaces another, nor that one stops when another starts. In the history of thought, it is generally the case that as one model or paradigm rises to prominence, others continue in the background. It is not even the case that most people move from one to the other and a few conservative or backward souls cling stubbornly to the previous model – ‘flat earthers’ – rather, most people are not fully aware of the incongruities or incompatibilities between different models, and often will assent to a new one whilst still having elements of older patterns of thinking very much underlying their beliefs and practices – their ‘gut feelings’ or idea of ‘common sense’.

Order is not so much a theory in itself, I suggest, (unlike the specifically hierarchical theory of an ordered universe which I have already outlined here), but is a fundamental human desire which underlies all of our theories, and gives so much visceral strength to them and to our response to them being threatened.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Sex in the Anglican Communion 2

In my last blog post, I set out the ways in which the early Lambeth conferences talked about sex. But there is another side to this: the emphasis that the Anglican Church, as a missionary church in the nineteenth century, put on regulating sex and family life as an essential part of its 'civilising' mission.

This, I realised as I read the sermons, reports and resolutions of the early Lambeth conferences, is still having a serious impact on our conversations today. Here I pair some of what I learned last week in synod with some of what I have learned this week in the library:

At Synod:

In the synod Shared Conversations last week, as some others have already noted, there was a particular contribution that shocked me, and I think shocked everyone I spoke to. A panellist representing the views of the African churches made two statements which caused sharp intakes of breath around the room - even from some of our most conservative members. The first was a (I hope) clumsily expressed statement that although speaker wasn't advocating for FGM, we should understand that the point of it had been to regulate women's sexual activity. The second was a clear statement that the belief of the African Anglican churches was that women had been created for men to slake their desires on.

I hope - and in conversations afterwards was somewhat reassured - that these views had been perhaps expressed with less nuance than they might have been. However, I was shocked at the unambiguous clarity with which these statements were made, and by the assumption that we should sympathise with them and modify our behaviour to accommodate them.

Furthermore, there was an odd dynamic in that contribution whereby the main argument presented against the Church of England changing its views was that we had given the African church those views in the first place, and so we could not now change our minds. It would seem logical that if the only or main reason for these churches holding these views was that they had been ours historically (an imperialist view point that I don't think anyone in the West would dare to make), then they could indeed be changed if our minds changed.

Another contributor made a point which was almost as controversial, and which was received with considerable derision in the conversations I experienced afterwards. This second speaker argued eloquently and with great personal conviction for celibacy for those who experience same-sex attraction, and the argument was broadly, I felt, sensibly expressed and sympathetically made. However, this speaker lost considerable credibility with me when to these arguments was added the idea that same sex relationships were the root cause of poverty, the breakdown of the family, and deprivation on inner city estates.

In the Library:

I have been musing on the points made by these two speakers because as I have read the reports of the early Lambeth conferences such arguments are very prominent. I was rather shocked to discover just how central such ideas were to the faith that the Church of England was evangelising the world with in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

So, first: yes, it is entirely true to say that the Church of England exported these attitudes. And it wasn't just that we exported them accidentally. The faith that the Church of England mission to the world spread was, so the Lambeth conference of 1888 proudly proclaimed, explicitly far more about civilising people by spreading what was considered to be a Christian way of life as it was about doctrine and religious practice per se. (Warning if you read on: this was expressed in terms which most people would, I hope, consider highly offensive, hypocritical, or at the very least patronising, today!)

Here, for example, is the Archbishop of York preaching at Westminster Abbey to the Lambeth conference of 1888:

'Higher ideas of the basis of society, of the marriage union, of family life, of self-restraint, of truthfulness, not only lift the individual but form the people. A recognised commercial morality, an even administration of justice, a conscience in dealing with subject races, public action on principles not merely selfish, the devotion of lives to benevolent causes, are things found under Christian governments and scarce looked for elsewhere. Independent witnesses avow these to be the direct results of Christian faith, and the growth of national character through these, far more than numbers of adherents, or prevalence of observation, assures us that the Church is still the nurse of nations.'

He goes on....

'[God] has placed the Anglo Saxon race at the forefront of the nations. They are carrying civilisation to the ends of the earth. They are bringing liberty to the oppressed, elevating the downtrodden, and are giving to all these divers tongues and kindreds their customs, traditions, and laws.'

It should be pointed out that successive Lambeth conferences made a point of stating that they rejected race discrimination, and they consistently supported the independence of the various national churches. Nevertheless, it is clear that they had a very strong view that the  English/Christian way of life - a somewhat romanticised version of it, to say the least - was what first brought civilisation where there was none before (they saw the case of India and the Oriental cultures as somewhat different) and would develop 'child' nations to maturity and independence.

Secondly, it is no accident that marriage and family life head the list of civilising influences that the Archbishop lists. Successive statements by the conferences make it explicit that marriage and stable family life were indeed seen as the bedrock of stable societies and nations. The contributor to the Shared Conversations who suggested that anything that challenged marriage was destroying stability and creating poverty could have been quoting one of these nineteenth century reports verbatim. Then, as now, rapid urbanisation, job insecurity, mass movement of people away from stable family units and the existence of stark inequalities were recognised as huge social problems, and the conferences continually plead for marriage to be upheld as the most effective bulwark against social chaos.

For example, the 1888 report on Purity - and I'm pretty sure that by impurity they mean any sexual activity except that in marriage, but most particularly promiscuity and the widespread use of prostitutes - argues that, though they are nervous about talking about the subject, they need to speak out because:

'sins of impurity] are not only a grave public scandal, but are also festering beneath the surface, and eating into the life of multitudes in all classes and in all lands'.

Sexual sin is seen as catastrophic, not simply or even primarily for individuals, but for national life, and this is described in apocalyptic terms:

'wherever marriage is dishonoured and the sins of the flesh are lightly regarded, the home-life will be destroyed, and the nation itself will, sooner or later, decay and perish'.

It is striking that no arguments are given in support of this view - it is presented as self-evidently the case. This is particularly notable in the context of two other reports presented that year, on  Temperance and Socialism. These demonstrate that the bishops were by no means naive about the complexities of poverty and the issues facing society. Furthermore, the Socialism report not only goes careful through various arguments, but also makes a clear distinction between what is obviously the gospel imperative, and what is pragmatically possible in the current context. Funny how money has always seemed much harder to criticise than sex.

So - where does this take us?

First, it is certainly true that we - the Church of England - exported to Africa the conservative attitudes that some of us now find so problematic. We did so very deliberately, convinced that such attitudes were a key component of a civilised society, and convinced that what was currently in existence was not a civilisation worthy of the name. Personally I find that a cause for repentance rather than an argument for their continuation.

Secondly, the idea that marriage is the bedrock of society  - and that sexual promiscuity is an urgent and catastrophic threat to the fabric of existence - is certainly not new. (And in fact you can find people saying this at all times and in all places. The morals of a younger generation have always horrified their parents). However, whilst the social problems being diagnosed are very real, then as now, I think the cause and cure have been misdiagnosed. It is not the decline of marriage per se that is/was the problem, but the chaos caused by the rapid industrialisation - and now, of course, the collapse of industries - rapid urbanisation, labour exploitation, poverty, the decline of neighbourly communities, the estrangement of production from relationships and so on - all the things which, even then, the report on so-called socialism identified. To put all this on the shoulders of sexual promiscuity - let alone on same-sex relationships - is a clear act of scapegoating. To tell people that all would be well if they would just work harder at marriage is a sticking plaster for nettles that are too hard to grasp (to mix my metaphors with gay abandon!).

Thirdly, and finally - I think I begin to understand why for some people, any suggestion of change to marriage law or sexual morality is felt to be so threatening. One of the things that took me by surprise at Synod was just how high emotions ran amongst conservatives. I had expected the conversations to be emotionally charged for gay people, but I learned how threateningly personal this issue is felt to be for conservatives. I understand more now - though I still disagree with the proposition - why for some people - particularly in the African churches - this is felt to be a deeply doctrinal issue. That's our fault. We, the Church of England, told the African churches, repeatedly, that sexual morality was a key part of the faith when we first evangelised them. I do find is frustrating and bizarre that we can be accused of cultural imperialism for wanting to change something when it is clung to on the basis that we first taught it, but I can also understand more deeply how, when something was received as an inextricable part of a new faith, that is a deeply threatening thing to begin to try to unravel.

Some light relief:

And finally, on Renewal and Reform and Clergy MBAs.... I can't resist ending on the note that the 1888 Report on Socialism recommends that clergy should be required to have 'some knowledge of economic science'!

Sex in the Anglican Communion 1

Last week I was at the General Synod shared conversations, feeling a bit like a Martian who has just landed as we discussed discussing sex whilst hardly ever mentioning the s-word!

I found it striking how little we actually talked about sex. We didn't discuss the negative aspects of it - that it can be addictive, compulsive, abusive, and we didn't discuss the positive aspects - that sense of beauty, nobility, creativity beyond mere procreation. Instead we discussed 'the problem' of same sex relationships in an oddly detached and passionless way.

This week I am at Gladstone's Library, and I have been reading the reports and resolutions of early Lambeth conferences. My main interest has been in what they say about difference and diversity (that's another post!) but incidentally I've been able to follow through the development of what they say about sex, that perennial source of unease in Anglican life and thinking.

In the very early days, rather like at our Conversations, the assembled bishops could hardly bring themselves to talk about it. The word they chose instead was 'Purity' (and this links with my main interest in ways in which we think about difference - purity, impurity and defilement is clearly a big theme). In 1888, discussions of 'purity' were held, and a report commended to the Church at large. But it is never actually specified what purity means as the bishops show a typically Victorian horror of the subject:

'we are not blind to the danger of dealing publicly with the subject of impurity. We dread the effect, especially upon the young, of any increased familiarity with the details of sin'.

Ten years later, they commend again the same report, and in the Encyclical Letter of the conference make slightly less coded reference to the subject, and the subject of associated diseases and unease about barrier methods to prevent them are raised:

'We know the deadly nature of the sin of impurity, the hold it has on those who have once yielded, and the fearful strength of the temptation. The need for calling attention to this is greatly increased at present by the frightful diseases which everywhere attend it. We recognise the duty of checking the spread of such diseases, but we recognise also the terrible possibility that the means used for this purpose may lower the moral standard, and so, in the end, foster the evil in the very effort to uproot it'.

Agonies about contraception continue in the reports of the following councils, but what I was particularly struck by was the fact that, in 1920, it was made very clear that our current terms of debate (sex in marriage = good, sex outside of marriage = bad) were explicitly rejected. In 1920 the conference made a point of complaining about

'the teaching, which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself'.

Sex is not, they say, good in itself even in marriage. This is not simply about emphasising the importance of procreation but also

'the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control'.

Sex in marriage was emphatically not, in the eyes of the 1920 conference, a good thing in itself.

I wonder what changed in the intervening decade? By 1930, the language and stance of the conference was radically different. Contraception was still decried as not really a good idea at all (though permissive noises 'where there is a morally sound reason' for the exception were made). But the radical difference is in the way sex is spoken of.

In 1930, suddenly the conference

'declares that the functions of sex as a God-given factor in human life are essentially noble and creative'.

And even - in stark contrast to the 1888 report terrified to even mention the subject lest they corrupt the young - advocates for good sex education:

'before the child's emotional reaction to sex is awakened, definite information should be given in an atmosphere of simplicity and beauty'.

We could do, I think, with bringing the sometimes orgasmic, sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful, sometimes disappointing, always messy reality of sex into our discussions, if they are to have any substance to them. If even the bishops of the Lambeth conference could 'go there' in the last century, we should be grown up enough to do so now.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Greenbelt Quilting Bee

I'm delighted to be running a Quilting Bee at this year's Greenbelt!

To find out more, and to see how you can get involved, please visit this post on my quilting blog.

The link on the Greenbelt programme is here.

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...