cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Okay, returning to the train of thought inspired by Roger Olson's thoughts on universalism (if you haven't been following along, he's not sympathetic), I'm particular interested, for the moment, in these passages:
I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it? If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious. Barth’s universalism (yes, I believe Karl Barth was a universalist and I’ll post a message here about why later) did not arise out of those denials which is why he didn’t like the appellation “universalist.” The term is usually associated with liberal theology. In that case, as part of an overall liberal/modernist theology, I consider it very serious indeed.

[. . .]

When universalism is believed on biblical grounds (as in The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory McDonald–a pseudonym), it is much less serious than when it is believed as part of a liberal theology that denies the wrath of God and the sinfulness of all human beings (except Jesus Christ, of course).

[. . .]

There is egregious error and there is simple error. One kind of universalism (based on denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness) is egregious error. Another kind (based on confusion about God’s love requiring his overriding free will) is simple error.
I'm not a universalist, of course, but I am a modernist or a liberal theologian? I certainly don't think I'm a modernist, at least not by the definition given by D.A. Carson in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we know is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to be true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is antifoundational) and insists that we come to know things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion.
Am I liberal? Well, I'm certainly not illiberal. I've recently stopped identifying as a liberal theologian, deciding to instead to identify as a "post/liberal" theologian (even as I don't yet claim even a simplistic mastery of what that means). From the Wikipedia article on post-liberal theology:
In contrast to liberal individualism in theology, postliberal theology roots rationality not in the certainty of the individual thinking subject (cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am") but in the language and culture of a living tradition of communal life. The postliberals argue that the Christian faith be equated with neither the religious feelings of Romanticism nor the propositions of a Rationalist or fundamentalist approach to religion. Rather, the Christian faith is understood as a culture and a language, in which doctrines are likened to a "depth grammar" for the first-order language and culture (practices, skills, habits) of the church that is historically shaped by the continuous, regulated reading of the scriptural narrative over time. Thus, in addition to a critique of theological liberalism, and an emphasis upon the Bible, there is also a stress upon tradition, and upon the language, culture and intelligibility intrinsic to the Christian community. As a result, postliberal theologies are often oriented around the scriptural narrative as a script to be performed, understand orthodox dogmas (esp. the creeds) as depth-grammars for Christian life, and see such scriptural and traditional grammars as a resource for both Christian self-critique and culture critique.
At the same time, I use the virgule instead of the hyphen (i.e., post/liberal rather than post-liberal) out of an understanding that our post-liberalism needs to be firmly grounded in those aspects which liberal theology gets right. While Olson and I clearly agree that both overly modernistic theology (what I tend to call "liberal historicism" or--worse--"ethical Jesusism") and fundamentalism both rest on the same set of problematic assumptions which need to be removed beyong, reading over past posts by Olsen on liberal theology, modernism, and the Emergent Church movement, however, I get the sense that neither my postmodernism nor my post/liberalism are sufficiently different for his tastes than that which he considers central and problematic to modernism/liberalism (which is probably not the same as I what I see as central and problematic).

That's fair enough; it's silly to get too involved in a debate over labels, and I didn't enter into this expecting to agree with a conservative evangelical Baptist theologian, after all. But I think it's important to locate the exact nature of Olson's critique--which is to say, is there a critique here of the way that liberal theologians might come to universalism which is independent of the overall methodology of (post/)liberal theology as a whole? Is the problem simply that liberals have allowed outside sources of authority (reason and experience) to color the way they interpret the Bible and come to a conclusion different to the one that some might claim one to in a purely exegetical reading (as if such a thing were possible)? Or is there a particular theological error ("denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness)") that liberals might be especially prone to, but which perhaps could be articulated without relying on any specific theological methodology?

If it is the former, then Olson and I are clearly on different side of the issue (no matter how much our final conclusions might seem in agreement) without any meaningful persuasion really possible; our starting premises are simply too incommensurate. I look to reason and authority, in dialectical conversation with scripture and tradition, as legitimate sources of Christian authority, and I don't think an interpretation-free reading of the Bible is possible even in theory (so that the attempt to perform such a reading isn't merely subject to human fallibility, but is profoundly mistaken at its heart).

If the latter however, then it seems there might be some starting-point for dialogue. What does it mean for a liberal theology to deny "God's wrath and human sinfulness"--and is it possible for a liberal theologian, using a liberal theological method, to come to universalist or quasi-universalist conclusions without so denying? Yes, there are liberal theologians who have clearly denied, in a non-controversial way (that is, it's not controversial whether they did the denying), that "sin" is a useful category for 20th and 21st century. I think they're wrong, and if that's all who Olson is critiquing, then I'll join him in his critique without reservations. But they, if anything, seem to be in the majority and, in particular. feminist, queer, and anti-racist theologies are very much aware of the fallen nature of humanity. A Christian theology lacking the concepts of sin and wrath seems to be lacking, in a very profound sense, just on purely practical grounds.

Yet it's not clear to me that Olson intends his critique to be that narrow; indeed, he seems to see the denial of sin and/or wrath as endemic to liberal Christianity. Is there, then,  a way that a liberal theologian can acknowledge that human beings are suceptible to moral evil and that God hates evil and wants to erase it from the world, and still count for Graff as denying the wrathfulness of God? One way would be to view the use of any knowledge of God's nature not derived directly from Scripture using an evangelical hermeneutic in order to come to conclusions about universalism as a de facto denial of God's wrathfulness. Under this understanding, then it'd be a tautology that any liberal theologian who was also a universalist would be, necessarily, denying God's wrath. Again, this doesn't really leave open any avenues for dialogue between the liberal theologian and the evangelical.

A Linkspam

Thursday, 9 June 2011 07:49 am
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
I have a few things I'd like to share, but don't really have enough to say about to justify a post for each on its own, so I'll compile them here:
  • Ross Douthat in the NYT: Dr. Kevorkian’s Victims and Suicide and Abortion. "If we allow that the right to die exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best." Of course, if one believes, as I do--and this has been my consistent position for as long as I can remember--that there exists a universal, positive right to take one's own life (just as I believe there exists a positive right to terminate one's own pregnancy), then the logic seems both obvious and not particularly problematic. Douthat recognizes much of this himself this morning with his blogpost What's Wrong with Suicide?: "The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn’t amount to much if you don’t disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives." I'd argue the right to suicide flows naturally and inevitably from the understandings of autonomy, self-determination, and human dignity which are foundational to liberal democracy (and as such, to progressive Christianity). As such, any religiously-motivated argument against suicide should of course be considered irrelevant to our public policy. But I also don't think the so-called "Christian" argument against suicide is as well-supported as most people seem to assume. Scripture seems to be largely silent on the issue, so far as I can tell. (Then again, I don't claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, so if I'm missing a particularly salient verse or set of verses, feel free to point it/them out to me.)
  • Sarah Posner writes at Religion Dispatches that The Problem with Ayn Rand Isn’t Atheism. I'd say that the problem isn't with atheism or atheists in general--to reject someone's policy insights because they don't believe in God would of course be foolish in the extreme. But at the same time, to treat Rand like a libertarian who just happens to be an a theist as well is to misunderstand both Ayn Rand's psychology and Objectivism as a system down to their respective cores. Just as Rand's hatreds of communism and of the Church shared many distinctive features, so do her rejections of altruism and of theism ultimately stem from the same poisoned well. Richard Beck at Experimental Theology asks a similar question with Can a Christian Be a Follower of Ayn Rand?
  • Dear Reese Witherspoon: All Girls Are ‘Good Girls.’ "If we are dedicated to promoting the collective power of girls and women, we cannot police their sexuality in an attempt to make girls 'good.'" Amen.
  • Mike King, in asking How has evangelism changed in the past two or three decades? puts forth what I think are two useful models of the ecclesiology/evangelism interaction: believe-behave-belong ("If we can just get people to believe the gospel, they will begin behaving properly, and eventually they can belong to our churches") and belong-behave-believe ("Evangelism happens quite naturally when we are entrenched in faith communities that are actively caught up in cooperating with God’s compelling work of restoration").
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Recently, I took a train up to New Brunswick to attend a young adult retreat hosted by the Diocese of New Jersey. There's a lot I could say about the event: I had a blast, came away renewed, and we did a lot of great hashing-out of the notion of original sin during the Ask-a-Priest period (in response to a young woman's question about the RCC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) that ties into thoughts I've been thinking in such a way as to merit a post of its own. (Of course, at this point the topics which merit posts are legion, and the actual posts, not so much.) But for the moment to want to write a bit about a subject which came up during our lunch conversation.

Possibly in response to one young woman's giving up Facebook for Lent, we were discussing all the multitude of ways technology has shaped out lives. When one of our retreat leaders, the Rev. (and always awesome) Gregory Bezilla, asked if we ever thought about how Christianity fit into it all. I replied that I've often wondered just what what the implications are of Facebook (and of Dreamwidth and Livejournal and the cyberspace age in general) on the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body (affirmed in the Apostle's Creed, the creed of the baptismal covenant): if our body is that part of our selves which has extension in physical space, then isn't our Facebook, which can extend that self to a computer in California or Boston where a friend sees one's status update, part of our body? And insofar as it extends us through "virtual" space the way our physical body does through physical space, then doesn't it represent a "virtual body" just as real and as legitimate as is our physical one? Doesn't this blog allow me to express and/or mask what I am thinking in much the same way as my face does?

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger discussed a concept similar to this in his notion of Zuhandanheit ("ready-to-hand") in which a tool, through the experience of the user, is fused with the body. Heidegger argued that in using a tool (like Facebook, or the Dreamwidth blog I'm writing this) it becomes experientially invisible to us, an extension of our selves. The technology disappears completely as we focus on the immediate performance of the tool. (Full disclosure: most of the previous paragraph is recapitulated, often verbatim, from various websites, in particular this slideshow. It's been a couple of years since I picked up my Heidegger, although I do remember my professor, Tom de Zengotita, explaining this particular point.)

As I wrote above, I don't know what the implications of these thoughts are for the resurrection of the body, if it means that we should perhaps imagine the Facebook servers rising from the ashes on the day of the general resurrection. I don't know--but I do think the notion merits serious consideration

Now it is of course possible to think of information and communication technologies as something completely alien and foreign to our bodies and souls, as "the machine" which oppresses us. We can--but I don't think we should; indeed, I think doing so is seriously damaging to our Christian spirituality. We are not called to be alienated from that which God and/or human beings have created; at most, we are called to redeem it when it has fallen into sin.

There is a "strong" sort of transhumanism--where our humanity, and in particular our human bodies, is literally something to be transcended, escaped--which lies in conflict with our values both as feminists and as Trinitarian Christians, both of which should encourage us to celebrate our embodied natures. As feminists, we understand that the denial or devaluing of our embodied nature often represents a devaluing or erasure of femininity, femaleness, and/or womanhood (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article Feminist Perspectives on the Body for a comprehensive overview) by declaring it either irrelevant or inferior. As Trinitarian Christians, the above-referenced doctrine of the resurrection of the body tells us that our physical bodies represent a key component of the whole human person without which we are incomplete, that we are not destined to live out eternity merely as disembodied spirits. And the doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that Jesus glorified our human bodies by becoming one us, a human being, with a physical body which suffered and died on a cross. Indeed, it was the Gnostics of old who heretically denied Jesus's humanity, asserting that the Christ existed as a spirit only and that the death on the cross was an illusion.

In contrast to that sort of transhumanism, I'm thinking of a sort of "weak transhumanism," something more along the terms of Donna Harroway's cyborg feminism--a "Cyborg Christianity," if you will--in which, rather than allowing us to transcend our humanity and escape our human bodies, technology allows us to dissolve the dualism between our selves and our bodies and more fully, rather than less, live out our embodied humanity.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
This is the first of what will presumably be several posts on Kendra  Creasy Dean's Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, which is being read throughout the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey this January through June as part of its One Book program.

I blame Rod Dreher.

Rod Dreher was a blogger at Beliefnet.com, where he consistently provided a voice which was theologically, politically, and culturally conservative. Dreher was the sort of guy I would read in order to stay fluent in the best arguments in favor of those positions with which I disagreed, in service of trying to be someone who was a) generally well-read and b) intellectually honest. I didn't read his blog religiously, but I would stop by sometimes when I was in a particularly strong mood to disagree with someone, and some of the bloggers I prefered reading (Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan in particular) would also link to him from time to time.

Rod Dreher's blog is, I think, the first place (or at least the most memorable place) I heard of "moralistic therapeutic deism" (MTD), the "benign whatever-ism" which Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified as the dominant faith of U.S. teenagers in their book Soul Searching, the end result of the "National Study of Youth and Religion." According to Smith and Denton, MTD has five main tenets:
  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Dreher consistently saw MTD as a pervasive, corrupting influence polluting Christianity. Of course, that is also how he views liberal Christian theology, so there was always a part of me, reading his thoughts on MTD, that figured that anything which Rod Dreher detested so passionately couldn't be all that bad.

Looking back, I realize I foolishly and without realizing it bought into the implicit etiological narrative I was reading out of Dreher's posts that MTD was sort of a natural endpoint of the slippery slope of liberal theology started by Friedrich Schleiermacher, and continuing through Paul Tillich. Dreher says outright that MTD "is what I believe progressive religion generally is" and makes the link more or less explicit in, for example, this critique of "[p]ost-boomer Christians (PBCs) -- which is to say, young adult Christians":
a majority of PBCs -- 56 percent -- lean towards liberal Christianity. Only 38 percent call themselves conservative-leaning. But does that mean that tomorrow's Christianity will be more liberal? By no means: more than half of religious conservatives attend church weekly, while only 14 percent of religious liberals do. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which demographic is more likely to pass on faith to their children. Then again, perhaps they will pass along a kind of faith -- hello, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism -- just not a faith that would be recognizable by any meaningful historical standard.
More or less accepting this framing of MTD by Dreher led me to conclude that while MTD went much further than I would have preferred in discarding traditional Christian orthodoxy (cf. my statements in Theology and Emergence: "We [. . .] don’t talk enough anymore about the Trinity, about the Holy Eucharist, etc. [. . .] As Christians, we need to talk about these things much more, although probably as well as rather than instead of the more sexy culture war issues"), it was still far preferable to fundamentalism and conservative envangelicalism. As Ross Douthat notes in his response to a defense of MTD by Damon Linker, "The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law." (Let me note en passant that Linker is absolutely right in viewing those views on natural law as both philosophically untenable and socially damaging.)

After all, MTD wasn't sexist or homophobic. It didn't encourage to reject the findings of modern (secular) history or science, or to embrace supernaturalism. It didn't oppose the reproductive freedoms of women. It was tolerant of other religions. I found myself sympathetic to the teenagers who, in Almost Christian,
defended Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a worldview they were proud to own, a fair representation of what Jesus intended, if not what he actually said. Tom, a seventeen-year-old lifelong Presbyterian, wondered: "Doesn't the church want us to treat people fairly, be happy, solve our own problems, and get along?" Some considered Moralistic Therapeutic Deism an improvement over what Christianity has come to symbolize in much of the world, as people identify "Christian" with "American." Shawn, a sophomore on the church youth council, exclaimed: "Do I believe that God wants people to be nice and fair to each other? Yeah, I'd stake my life on that!" (27)
Looking at the five tenets of MTD,
  • #1 should be non-controversial to the vast majority of Christians (at least outside the fairly esoteric area of apophatic a/theology).
  • #2 should be as well, as much as the behavior of some Christians might lead one to think otherwise.
  • #3's egoism admittedly falls short of the altruism most Christians (myself included) see as being central to the faith (although it has much in common with those churches which teach a gospel of prosperity).
  • #4 loses the experiential dimension which is at the heart of Christianity's mystic core (as I un/preach in sermons here and here), but also tends to avoid supernaturalism.
  • #5, while simplistic as far as soteriologies go (and clearly bordering on works-salvationism), is also still far preferable to a Calvinism in which people in their total depravity are damned to eternal torment because God capriciously neglects to extend grace to them for what can only seem to be utterly arbitrary reasons, or an Arminianism which understands the acceptance of grace solely in terms of holding a certain set of propositional beliefs as true. Admittedly, it does, in positing a literal and non-mystical heaven, seem to assert some type of realist metaphysics which may not be philosophically tenable.
I entered Almost Christian with this almost knee-jerk reaction of wanting to defend MTD--not as ideal, but as a lesser evil compared to much of American religiosity--against the claims of heterodoxy. However, having finished the first chapter and half of the second, I've found myself pleasantly surprised. Dean primarily locates her critique (so far, at least) of MTD in #3 and #4, exactly where my own critique would rest, arguing not so much for a return to an ungenerous orthodoxy as for a new liberal orthopraxy. (Orthodoxy denotes "right belief"; orthopraxy, "right action.")

Dean takes the title of her book (about which I will no doubt have much more to say, but this post is already overlong) from a quote by John Wesley (she is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, which was founded by Wesley). According to Wesley, the difference between an "almost Christian" and an "altogether Christian" was not belief in the Trinity or the two natures of Christ or the Real Presence or any other dogma, but an action: love (5). The problem with MTD, according to Dean, is "that in fact [it] lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship" (6) and is "so devoid of God's self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit" (12)..

Dean echoes one of my most persistent themes by making this lack of love the result of a pietistic Protestantism which focuses on beliefs rather than experience )

For Dean, then, the problem of MTD is that it is loveless (taking on #3) and that it is non-experential (#4): a critique which is firmly rooted in a position liberal mainline Protestant theology, as befits her UMC affiliation. Liberal theology then, rather than being the cause of MTD, is actually the antidote--but of course, it must be a liberal theology which is effectively articulated and communicated. And this, quite obviously, is not happening.

MTD's failure is that it seeks to deal with conservative theology (both Protestant and Catholic) not by engaging with it but by ignoring it. Its critics are right that that type of approach can result only in a weak, passive faith that is unable to stand up for what it claims to believe in (goodness, fairness, justice, liberation). The solution to the rise of MTD is for the mainline churches to be more boldly prophetic in asserting a liberal orthodoxy, drawing on the insights of Protestants like Schleiermacher and Tilich (and their 21st-century heirs, like emergent Tony Jones or feminist Rebecca S. Chopp) and on Catholics like liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether.

And yes, that involves being aggressive about teaching doctrine: that the relational nature of a Triune God models for us how to live our lives in loving community and how Scripture, Tradition, and Reason speak to us through a perichoretic dialectic of conversation. That the Incarnation informs our understanding of the goodness of the body, including sexuality. That the imago dei tells us that gender is irrelevant in the face of our common reflectiveness of the divine. We need to be much, much better catechists, and we cannot fool ourselves that that catechism does not come with a social and political agenda (centered on the liberation of the oppressed).

And so I find myself forced to do what I dislike the most, agreeing with Rod Dreher, if only on this specific lament:
the mixed blessing of unity )
a final thought )
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
Last week, my parish priest, Father Nathan Ferrell, responded to the Pew Report on The Reversal of the College Marriage Gap:
There is a direct correlation of all of these factors: most non-college educated people live in urban areas (in my urban parish area, only 6% of adults have college degrees), most of these young adults are not married, many of them are having children out of wedlock, and most of them do not attend church or get involved in any civic organizations of any kind.

[. . .]

One can see the trends very clearly if you follow what has happened among the Christian churches in the USA. Until 50 years ago, all of the largest congregations were in urban areas. Today, all of the largest ones are in suburban areas.
I really don't think we can make any automatic connection between conformity to socially conservative mores (pro-marriage, pro-children, as if simply producing more people were a good in and of itself) and the role of Church. There may be a correlation between people who get married before having children and the churched, but there's no straightforward causation in either direction. So there's no reason to automatically assume the absence of a "need to attend church" just because people have had children out of wedlock, anymore than because they are LGBTQ, pro-choice, or believe in evolution.

A couple weeks before Fr. Nathan's blog post, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat responded, in a column and a couple of blog posts, to a similar, albeit socially conservatively-premised, study by the socially conservative National Marriage Project--The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America--looking at the so-called "marriage gap," only in terms of beliefs rather than behavior. Douthat writes:
On some questions (the morality of premarital sex, whether a divorce should become harder to obtain) well-educated and less-educated Americans seem to have converged over the last few decades. [. . . T]he convergence [. . .] is absent on the most hot-button issue of all — abortion. There, the country still divides pretty cleanly along educational lines, with high school dropouts strongly opposed to abortion-on-demand, college graduates tilting in its favor, and high school graduates somewhere in between. And surprisingly, that divide hasn’t really changed since the 1970s, despite the changes on other issues, and the shifting pattern of religious practice.
It seems natural, therefore, that immersion in a culture which opposes the reproductive freedoms of women would result in an the type of increase in children born out wedlock demonstrated by the Pew Report, while immersion in a culture which respects those freedoms would result in a corresponding decrease. Call it the Bristol Palin effect. And since those cultures continue to correspond with education/wealth, so too would the number of children out of wedlock, so that poorer and/or less educated people would be more likely to have children outside of wedlock--and births out of wedlock would correspond to lack of religiosity only insofar as education and religiosity correlate, as recent evidence indicates they now do in U.S.-ian culture. (I think that was the fundamental point Fr. Nathan was trying to make.)

Obviously, one of the primary things the Church needs to do in order to speak to those who do not easily fall into the social conservative's model of how the individual and/or family should be ordered is to abandon the type of legalism which proclaims that model as normative.

However, in the face of the failure of the social conservative model of reproductive futurism, the Church has failed to step into her prophetic role to articulate an alternate vision inclusive to both the married and unmarried (including those unmarried with children), to those called to be parents and to those who are not, to those who are straight, gay, and/or asexual, an understanding of sexual expression firmly rooted in the liberatory (queer!) nature of Jesus Christ. But as long the Church stands for nothing, no one will listen to what she has to say.
cjbanning: (Default)
Getting Off: Pornography and the End of MasculinityGetting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jensen has written a wonderful 1970's-style second-wave feminist tract . . . in 2007. One might think some type of grappling with third-wave feminism (and I have to add my standard disclaimer whenever I use the wave metaphor that feminist theorizing and activism is a constant process that can't really be cut up into discreet waves as if nothing happened in between them) might be called for. Indeed, the back of the book even manages to promise something of the sort (and the same text appears on the Amazon page) when it notes that "Anti-pornography arguments are frequently dismissed as patently 'anti-sex'--and ultimately 'anti-feminist'." As someone who argues the anti-porn-->anti-sex-->anti-woman position, this intrigues me. But I don't think he's really interested in arguing with me, or any other feminist. (The things he doesn't seem to be interested in arguing about are legion, probably.) That's okay; the people who write book copy frequently miss the point. (Just look at the back of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love.) At the end of the day, people on both sides of that discussion can be united at being against bad porn.

But who in his (since I think we're assuming it'd be a he) right mind would be for bad porn? Okay, I'm probably being naive, but I find it hard to believe than any of those people are going to actually bother to read Jensen's book. So what's the point?

Part of the disconnect might be that Jensen and I simply hold different understandings of the relationship between theory and activism, and how (and even if) apologetics should be done. For Jensen, all the side roads of definitions and such are distractions from his main project of showing men the damage of pornography. But my mind doesn't work that way. I could engage in a theoretical debate with another femnist, for example exposing heteronormative assumptions in their work, because I know there's a set of shared assumptions. But to argue against Jensen's quintessential porn user? For me, that would require showing all one's work, not less of it. I know I'm not up to the task. (I've been wanting to make a post in my journal for years at this point on the "anti-sex is anti-woman" thing. There are objections I don't know how to answer.) The most I could possibly do right now (and probably ever) is try to sketch out my worldview with the hope that an interlocutor could at least understand if not adopt it: "this is what I believe, and why I believe it" but not "this is why you should believe this."

But at the end of the day, Jensen's book is only secondarily about porn or the porn industry. First and foremost, it's about masculinity, and I think recognizing that explains why he doesn't address some of the things he doesn't. If the fundamental question he is answering is, "How can a heterosexual man in a patriarchal culture mediate his sexual desires, experiences, and understandings through text and/or images?" then--well, I still don't think he's done a very good job of presenting a coherent vision, but he has at least put forth some do's and don't's, even if they're ones that might seem obvious to someone who is already a feminist, porn-positive or not.

I've seen a lot I like, too. His insistence that what is needed is an abolition of masculinity, and not just redefine it (144-145). (I'm not sure whether he thinks an end of masculinity would usher in an end to maleness, or not.) That men must join women in women-led causes as their primary mode of activism (147). And so forth.

I do think it's possible to step outside one'smaleness without stepping outside their heterosexuality--a project that, yes, I think would end up looking a lot like Jensen's. Indeed, it almost seems to me that any reconstruction of masculinity which starts on Dworkinist premises is going to end up in this trap, which is ironic because of course Dworkin was a lesbian, and her partner (and eventual husband) John Stoltenberg, who is someone I have read and is the main person I'm thinking of here other than Jensen, was a gay man. (And I see that Jensen's not a Kinsey zero either.) I'm not quite sure why I should even feel this should be so. Is it that they are just so deeply seeped in a 1970's second-wave aesthetic? Is it a result of positioning this reconceptualization as a primarily feminist move--which is to say making the moral criterion an essentially gynocentric one? Or is it even that any constructive project is by its nature opposed to the very project of critical, and thus queer, theory?

Now, as noted above, Jensen discusses the move to abolish masculinity versus the move to redefine it, arguing for, as would I, the former. This puts forward a possibility: any attempt to reconstruct masculinity is essentially an attempt to keep it intact, to re-inscribe separate gender roles, and since all sexism is ultimately heterosexist (and vice versa), this is heteronormative. I don't think this is the whole story, though--especially since the premise of my original question assumed the project was being (or at least, could be) heteronormative while still being feminist (which would presumably be to say, not sexist). It does raise the question, though: the two male feminists I know of who think that masculinity is something worthy of being discussed (instead of simply stipulating it as undesirable and then getting on with the feminist projects of radical critique and liberal activism) are both Dworkinists. Is this significant?

Similarly I think it is possible to step outside of one's heterosexuality without examining one's maleness. But these are probably unstable positions, and once one is used to the theoretical move of examining one's privilege, it does get easier with time.

One of the fundamental issues is whether (sexual) desire is, and/or has to be, transitive, with desirers and desireds--whether desire implies objectification--or whether an intransitive form can be hypothesized; if the former, then objectification would need to be in some way reclaimed and revalued, as giving up desire doesn't seem a viable option. I think the question needs to be asked whether specific instances of sexual objectification can be broken off from its support of gendered patterns of oppression. That at least some such instances can be such seems clear--it can be used to satirize, to deconstruct, or expose those patterns, for example. But writ large? Objectification would need to be something that people do to each other--like kiss or make love--but which (like kissing and making love) they don't do all the time, something which can be turned off instead of being embedded in a persistent gaze of one gender towards the other.

The best treatment I really know which is fair to both sides of this debate is Joanna Russ's Pornography and the Doubleness of Sex for Women, as linked in the on-line essay That Classic Combination: Sex and Violence, which I found helpful in its treatment of Russ' essay.

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cjbanning: (Trinity)
AnthemAnthem by Ayn Rand

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Rand's description of a socialist/communist dystopia and the story of a man and a woman who somehow manage to regain their individuality within it nonetheless. Is it fair to Marxism? Probably not, but it's true that the theory's weakest point is the vagueness of its eschatological vision, and so I can well believe that this is what Rand took away as believing the "collectivists" were arguing for.

Politics aside, the problem is that as a writer, the premise doesn't really allow her to shine: her best books, like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are ones where the focus is on characters which, if not quite fully realized and three-dimensional, are at least fun to read about, like Dagny Taggert and Dominique Francon. Watching these characters debate philosophy while running around like Nietzschean ubermenschen and living larger-than-life lives can be entertaining even if one doesn't agree with the position she is pushing, but here there really isn't anything left but the didacticism.

Rand's misogyny and anti-feminism are in full presence here as elsewhere in Rand's work. The story is told from the male's perspective, with the female character being silent throughut the work, denied a voice of her own. While one of the male's most triumphant moments is when he gives himself a name, this is denied to the female; he names her too. Maybe these are the kinds of things Rand herself looked forward to and saw as providing hope that utopia would rise from dystopia, but I don't think most women would find them so.

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cjbanning: (Default)
Of course, it's not precisely accurate to speak as if it "just happens" that the people I'm attracted to also all (or effectively all) happen to be female (to be interpreted as female, to present as female, etc.). My heterosexuality, my feminism, and my misandry are all interrelated in complicated ways, intertwined elements of my fuller psycho-politico-sexual self. I can be attracted to the long hair or short skirt at least as much as the more privileged set of sexual signifiers known as the secondary sex characteristics, signifiers which still simply point to other signifiers with this notion of a transcendental signified, "femaleness" or "femininity" lurking somewhere in the background. And there are signifiers which lie in between, like the slender waist, which seem rooted in the body until we look at how standards of beauty have changed over the ages, and we realized just how much--I'm not claiming all--of my sexual desire is sexually constructed. (It's also raced in complicated ways, but that's a conversation for another day.)

My feminism is strongly influenced by the radical feminism of the 1970s. For many of those thinkers, lesbianism--women desiring women, women loving women--was a political act. Wikipedia quotes one female participant in a 1970s survey: "I see lesbianism as putting all my energies (sexual, political social, etc.) into women. Sex is a form of comfort and to have sex indiscriminately with males is to give them comfort." My heterosexuality is obviously of a much less radical character, but I can't helpt but see it in a similar light: I value women both as bodies and as agents, and the one type of appreciation can't really be divorced from the other. This is an understanding which, in addition to its debt to the aforementioned "second-wave" radical feminists, has been worked out largely in conversations taking place in the predominately-female, heavily queer spaces I inhabit online.

No one--I don't think, or at least I hope not--loves or desires with their bodies alone. We do so as sexual beings, as social beings, as psychological beings, as intellectual beings, as political beings. The flip side of this is that when I swoon over a young woman wearing thick-rimmed glasses--a preference which is clearly not biologically determined--my desire, that reaction of guh, is as visceral and embodied as any other desiring reaction of mine. Body and mind aren't things which can be separated here.

When I demand that the majority of the media I consume pass the Bechdel test, I don't separate the parts of myself which do this because enjoy watching attractive young actresses from the part which thinks there needs to be more representation of women with agency in media. (I suspect, for that matter, that neither does Alison Bechdel, for what it's worth.) It's all of the same piece; call it the consistent garment of "F--k You, She's Awesome."

But this is an awesome of resistance (thus the "F--ck You"); it makes sense only within the context of a patriarchal culture which systematically denies women's agency and thus their awesomeness. The awesomeness of everyone--male, female, intersexed, genderqueer--should be able to be taken for granted and not need to be ostentatiously celebrated, or at least just on the merits using a scale not specifically designed to keep women (and everyone) oppressed.

That is not the world we live in today.

So, yes, I am a heterosexual, and that says something, something profound even, about me and my experience. Some, although by no means all, of that can be generalized to other heterosexuals. But to acknowledge this is similar to acknowledging that I have a certain set of experiences as a white man, as a middle-class man, as a temporarily abled man, or whatever: important, not something to be ignored under the excuse of color-blindness (or *-blindness), but not the point in and of itself. We notice these difference in order to diagnose the problem of systemic injustice, to work towards the day when they no longer matter.

On Being Straight

Monday, 16 August 2010 07:43 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
From Ross Douthat's blog:
The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not. (And I do mean all straight relationships. Because they’ve grown up and fallen in love as heterosexuals, the infertile straight couple will experience their inability to have children very differently than a same-sex couple does.)

I accept the labels "heterosexual" and "straight" because I recognize that the contingent fact about the actual world that the set of people I find attractive exists almost without exception within the larger set of people who in this (sexist, patriarchal) culture identify as, and/or are interpellated as, female, that the most homosexual activity I could imagine myself participating in would be phone sex with David Tennant (although seriously, David, call me now)--these contingent facts about the actual world results in my inhabiting a position of power and privilege which is simply not possible for me to escape.

But I refuse to let those labels identify who or what I am.

It is of course true that the fact that I have, as a straight person, inhabited this position of power and privilege pretty much my entire life (at least since I was say, fourteen, which is when I consciously began being attracted to women), so much so that it takes an act of will not to take it for granted, this has influenced me--if I'm honest about it, has wounded me--is going to leave me with a radically different understanding of myself and the world, with different experiences, than someone who grew up ashamed of their sexuality or wondering if they would need to keep secret a basic truth of their condition in order to preserve their friendships, their family relationships, perhaps even their life.

But I fail to see how Ross Douthat, or anyone else, can celebrate this fact.
The marital ideal that justifies calling gay unions “marriage,” by contrast, is necessarily much thinner, because it’s an ideal that needs to encompass not two but three different kinds of sexual relationships — straight, gay male, and lesbian.
This is just wrong, of course. There's either just one type of marriage--human marriage--or a lot more than three, once we remember the truth of the existence of intersexed and genderqueer persons. But no, we must all be trapped into our little, oppressive cages of male and female.

Genesis presents us with an alternate truth: "So God created human beings in God's own image. In the image of God, God created them; male and female, God created them" (1:27). Gender difference is revealed by Scripture to ultimately be a superficial difference in the face of our common similarity: the imago dei, our inherent dignity which is a reflection of God.

It's probably overly facile to simply say that if the ancient Hebrews had the concepts "intersexed" and "genderqueer" in their vocabularies they would have included them in the oral tradition which became compiled in the Genesis narrative--the ancient Hebrews were, no less than we today, flawed humans subject to sexism and heterosexism and cisgenderism, and there are plenty of places where Holy Scripture reflects that, a fact with which every principled, progressive Christian must wrestle. To imagine the concepts of "intersexed" and "genderqueer" to exist in their vocabularies, meaning what they mean to us today, is to imagine a radically different ancient society. But that doesn't meant that the wisdom of Genesis doesn't present us with a call to recognize that we all, male and female and genderqueer and intersexed, share a basic commonality before the LORD that renders all other differences ultimately meaningless. As St. Paul writes in Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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