Some thoughts on my christianity

 

Why I believe

I don’t know when I decided to be Christian, to be a Christian. But I know I decided.

Perhaps it was after I had completed my Master’s degree. Lost, doubting both my own integrity and my place in the world, working a job that paid the bills and left me sadder each day, I set off to Europe for the second time – more to get away than to see something new. The best version of me would take this time to adventure, to learn a new language. Perhaps I would indulge my curiosity by going to Tunisia, study Arabic and build on my newly developed interests in Islam and the Middle East. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, my courage and my logistical fortitude failed me. I had been in similar situations enough to anticipate the loneliness of arriving in an unfamiliar country, finding an apartment, and heading to a language school each day. And so I wound up, guided by Providence no doubt and my mother’s advice, at the Christian monastic community of Taize. For a week or two, I thought, and then I’ll travel and practice my French. But I remained for seven weeks, spending one in silence. For the first time in my adult life, I learned to pray. I began a conversation with God, and for the first time in several years, started to feel comfortable with the uncertainty in how my life would turn out.

Then again, perhaps it was earlier. Maybe I decided to be a Christian at the moment when I publicly declared it, just as one would expect, at my confirmation service in the suburban United Church my family attended. I think I was about fourteen, grade nine, and I remember wrestling with the question of what I could, in good conscience, say. I began by acknowledging my doubt, by distancing myself from a literal or rigid interpretation of Christianity. And then declared my belief and affirmation of Jesus Christ, his concern for the poor and the oppressed, his universal love and his generosity of spirit. These are the principles, I said, that I embrace. If that means being Christian, then I am one.

But I think most importantly, most profoundly, it was during the intellectual tumult of university. The most intense period of my intellectual life was my freshman year, reading and discussing the great ideas of the Western tradition. I arrived, by the end of the year, at something of a crisis. I was convinced that the great traditions of old did not hold much water. The ethical systems of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas all, in their own ways, relied on beliefs that I could not affirm. Even worse, I came to suspect that the basic moral teachings underlying them – Love thy neighbour and so on – were themselves a kind of pleasing fiction.

I tried nihilism. I tried believing that there was no meaning or significance in human actions. That my life was composed of a series of random amoral episodes, to which I retrospectively assigned meaning. I wrestled with the notion that judgements like “this is good” or “she is kind” are no more than self-serving attempts to make myself feel better about an arbrirary existence. That it was a sign of my inauthenticity that I was unwilling to encounter the world as it actually was. That it was a symptom of weakness that I had to dress things up with moralizing labels. It signified a problem with my constitution; a pain in my gut, as Nietzsche might say.

It sounds extreme, perhaps. Self indulgent and implausible. And no doubt it was, but I have always been a pastor’s son. I learned from my father that the central drama of a human life is the struggle to bring one’s behaviour in line with one’s principles. To find some kind of harmony between the cosmic order of the world – good and evil on the grand scale – and the quotidian choices that give our lives texture and substance. To give up on such harmony now, simply because I no longer believed in a cosmic order with which to harmonize, struck me as the peak of cowardice. No that’s probably not right. I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know what life was for, I couldn’t figure out how to use my days, if not by puzzling over the relationship between the great truths of the world and the small truths of my life. That intellectual curiosity was a compulsion, not a choice. A problem in my gut.

Eventually, I came to see my inability to live according to the Nietchean principles that I nominally espoused as a problem, not for my life, but for my principles. No matter what I said, my behaviour always revealed that I thought it mattered to be kind to others. In the quiet of my own mind, I could never quite give up on the belief that my mother loves me. I could say that her love was a convenient fiction of my own mind, a retrospective imagining that I used, in my weakness, to stave back the horror of life’s meaninglessness. But I could never quite believe it.

So much the worse, then, for nihilism.

But a lot changes in that reversal. No longer is the task, first, to figure out the right principles – what Good and Bad are, what God wants from us – and second, figure out how to live my life according to those principles. Instead, I had to start with the principles that are revealed to me in my own actual behaviour. I had to scrutinize myself, and on the basis of that scrutiny, figure out the world.

I am, as most of us are, a product of my childhood. In my case, that means I was raised in a liberal Christian home, in Southern Ontario, at the turn of the twenty-first century. My home life was structured, in ways I did not appreciate until much later, by the collision of a few broad social trends in the bodies of my Mom and my Dad. My mother was a professional, a lawyer. Unlike my grandmothers, who worked until they had children, or my great-grandmothers, who gave up their independent incomes on their wedding days, my mother worked – part time and then full time, through most of my childhood. Feminism joined hands with the intensification of late capitalism to ensure that the bourgeois life my grandparents had worked their way in to was only available to us as a two-income household.

This was particularly true given the precipitous decline in the social prestige – and the inflation-adjusted income – of the professional clergy. Both of my grandfathers had given themselves to the United Church of Canada during its golden age of post-war expansion. Their personal sense of a sacred calling brought them into a world of small towns and growing suburbs thirsty for the leadership and fellowship they had to offer.

By the early 80s, when my father received from his mother a life-altering letter, it was clear that the Church had come to occupy quite a different place. My grandmother shared with David what she had thought for some time, but had been reluctant to say. That he would make an excellent minister. But when my father answered his Call, he knew it was a call to minister to a secular and secularizing world, one in which psychologists, scientists, lawyers and doctors had replaced the clergy as figures of broad social trust.

What this meant, for him, was that he could not do the job the way that my grandfathers and great-grandfather had. His role was not to bring the wisdom of Christianity and the fellowship of the Church to a community that sought it. The bit-by-bit fashioning of Canada into a Christian nation was neither plausible nor desirable.

His role, rather, was to live a Christian life in a nation transformed. And this meant that he always had an intensely personal, even private, relationship to his faith. Never an evangelist, Christianity for my Dad has at its core his duties as a father and a husband. He made peace with, or embraced, the feminism of the nineties by exploring dimensions of masculinity that had gone broadly untapped by previous generations. He compromised on scriptural literalism by remaining consistently open to gay and lesbian equality, understanding this to be the Spirit rather than the Letter of God’s Law. The fragmenting of the institutional church over this issue should perhaps be read as a prelude to his efforts, several decades later, to form a new kind of spiritual community through the staging of several plays which explore transgender and queer experiences of life and faith.

My dad has spent his entire career as the public face of a dying institution. He is not nostalgic about this; the Church is an institution like any other, flawed and all-too-human. But it is perhaps not a coincidence that the faith in which I was raised was always a questioning faith. The issue was always integrity, never righteousness. As a child I had an allergy to evangelical expressions of God’s love, to Christian rock and speaking in tongues. Too loud. Too hypocritical. It was hard for me to see, in the cacophony of the Holy Spirit, the quiet, patient love that I understood to be the essence of God’s Revelation.

Children cannot recognize the tradeoffs and compromises of their own parents lives. Neither do they have the experience to see the social forces that have presented these choices to them. But as I found myself casting about, around my twentieth birthday, for a way out of the ethical dead-end I had reasoned my way in to, I came to think that maybe my moral intuitions and inherited beliefs, unexamined and unphilosophic though they may be, contained within them a rich enough wisdom to be worthy of my allegiance.

 

 

 

 

What I believe

I begin from the conviction that the world exceeds our grasp. That there is more than we can know; that mystery is a permanent feature of the human experience.

This is obvious. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism tell us this. Physics tells us. The Sun Dance tells us. Yoga tells us. The Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean waves tell us. The World is Thin, as Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald once told me. Or as the late great Leonard Cohen put it, “There is a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in”. Only ideologues deny it.

Ideologues want to take my faith away from me by shrinking it. What about the Virgin Birth, they say. If you are a Christian, do you believe that?

To me the Virgin Birth means this: that the divine is with us. The God came down, like light through the cracks.

It has been my experience that there are two basic ways we can relate to things in this world. Sometimes I look on someone I love and I know them, the experience of immanence. Sometimes I do not know them at all, I am transfixed by their otherness. The experience of transcendence. These two forms of loving are critical forms of these experiences, but they are not the only ones.

Immanence. The world presents itself to me in a way that I feel I can understand. This is a miracle, if only we would pay attention to it. That light travels a certain speed, that we can calculate the probability of rolling a six, and understand what someone means when they speak to us.

Transcendence. The world reminds us how far it is beyond our grasp. The light of a star, the infinitesimally unlikely event, the incomprehension of those we know best.

Christianity names the first experience “God the Son”. The divine in human form; Truth, here among us, Word made Flesh. Christianity names the second experience “God the Father”. Up there, out there, the Truth that is never here, and yet is always present. Transcendence and immanence; mystery and intimacy. The point of the Virgin birth is that these are two experiences of the same God. That Christ the man and God the Father are cosmically joined. In the basic doctrine of the trinity, the central doctrine of the Christian faith, there is also the Holy Spirit, that which connects the two. That which gives us each, as individuals, our own little piece of the divine.

The truth of this truth does not rest, for me, on the question of whether or not Mary and Joseph had intercourse. I reject the petty literalism that would deny my faith by shrinking it. I do not mean what you mean when you say miracles. But yes, I believe in miracles.

Let me say a bit more, come at it another way.

If this cocktail of a feminist, progressive, private, and heterodox Christianity, aligned with but critical of the dominant trends of Canadian life, is my inherited default, then the challenge for me is how to live in to that tradition. I’ve been deeply influenced, in recent years, by my brother-in-law’s paraphrase of Ghandi. Ghandi explains that conversion represents a misunderstanding of the relationship between the individual and the tradition; traditions are not the sort of thing that we get to choose, opting in to and out of. Rather, traditions make us. We are formed by our inheritance, and if we find ourselves unhappy with it, it is our responsibility to refashion it into something better.

Liturgically, I’m a traditionalist. I’ve read my Aquinas and Augustine; I like ritual, repetition, and theological seriousness. My allergy to Christian rock continues in a general suspicion of ‘modern’ or trendy modes of worship. When I seek the divine, I seek quiet.

Doctrinally, I embrace change. This is not because I reject authority or hierarchy. It is not because I think we know more about how to live today than we did before. I reject the notion that the last few hundred years have been constant enlightenment, from homophobia to gay marriage, from racism to multiculturalism, from Christianity to secular modernity. I know that racism is modern, and that pluralism is ancient.

I embrace change because God changes. The world is thin; the divine presence is always showing through. What I seek, in worship and in ethical life, is simply to be attuned to the presence. Whether it be in the words of anti-racist crusaders, loving mothers, or a songbird. For that reason I reject a narrow Christianity, a Christianity that has as its core the drawing of sharp lines between people. Such a Christianity serves primarily to blind us to the depth and breadth of God’s mystery. It is no true Church.

And yet for it to be a Christianity at all, it cannot be infinitely broad. Just as one does not get to ‘choose’ one’s traditions, one also does not get to invent one’s own Christianity. That’s not Christianity, that’s Daniel-ism.

But neither does one have to accept the dominant, trendy, or stereotypical version of one’s faith. The Good News that my education has brought me is that Christianity is not a set of static dogma. It is a long tradition of diverse and brilliant communities of people, taking a shared set of texts, ideas, and practices as their starting point for this great journey of living. Those communities have gone a lot of different ways; they’ve been Orthodox and Coptic and feminist and queer. They’ve all erred, they’ve all struggled. But they’ve also, in their way, participated in God’s revelation.

My Church, the United Church, was founded on the principle of Ecumenism. It’s always been light on doctrine, but if it has one, that’s it. To me, Ecumenism means inclusivity of both Christian and non-Christian experiences of the divine. It means being open to God where God finds me; where I find God.

And where God has found me, it turns out, is in 2018, as a PhD student with a tenuous connection but a strong lineage in the dying United Church of Canada. For me, that means that I don’t get to just walk away from the paradox of the Virgin Birth. I don’t get to deny the Resurrection in an effort to seem reasonable. Christianity never claimed to be reasonable, or easy, or popular. The least that I owe is not to abandon it on that account.

Maybe there is a way to make a meaningful life in this world other than trying to be the best version of what you already are. Maybe some can do more than take what they are given and make it grow. But if there is a way, I don’t know it. I am what I am; that’s what God gave me; that’s what I’ve got.

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Is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Pessimism “Neoliberal”?

On Tuesday, December 19, Ta-Nehisi Coates quit twitter. A couple days earlier, Harvard Divinity Professor Cornell West published a sharp take-down of Coates in the Guardian, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”. In typical trolling fashion, the piece was endorsed by Richard Spencer.

There is lots to say about the substance of the disagreement between Coates and West. In the view of New Yorker writer Jelani Cobbs, the accusation that Coates is neoliberal is both outrageous and malicious, part of a broad range of attacks on Coates by Black intellectuals who resent the attention and accolades accruing to a HBC dropout. But West builds his argument with facts that are well known, and not easily dismissed. West draws on Coates’ own words to point out that Coates has become the most prominent black voice among the White elite of American society. This is not simply a guilt-by-association, but a natural consequence of Coates’ neglecting Capitalist profiteering in favour of White Supremacy as the primary driver of American life (and thus the primary source of injustice). This Duboisian emphasis on the colour line crowds out, for Coates, the intersectional nature of oppression in America, and so he fails to build hetero-patriarchy systematically into his analysis, and does not explore the ways race, gender, and sexuality work together to create a regime of control, a social structure which reinforces existing power by unevenly distributing violence. But worst of all, for West, Coates falls into a kind of knowing pessimism; by rendering White Supremacy both decisive and immovable, Coates paints a portrait of America which is doomed by its history.

West does not present these arguments carefully or sympathetically, and as such their persuasiveness is uneven. On the failure to centre capitalism, we have one the central pivots around which the modern left has struggled. Is racism a tool of capitalist exploitation, or does it have a life all its own? But we also have echoes of the 2016 Democratic Primary, when Coates voiced criticism of Bernie Sanders for his failure to address race issues early in his campaign. West was and remains a prominent supporter of Bernie.

As is demonstrated in his sharp critiques of George Packer’s coverage of the Trump campaign, Coates is carefully attuned to the ways that a focus on economic injustice elides issues of race, in ways that reinforce racial injustice. West is right to think that his attention to this problem leads Coates to be suspicious of the broad coalition-of-the-exploited politics that has been the lifeblood of social democratic left. As he explains in We Were Eight Years in Power, this rhetoric misses the possibility that working-class whites will (correctly) identify their interests not with their fellow-worker but their fellow-whites. It misses the fact that White Supremacy created the first mass-Aristocracy, building a society in which even the most destitute White man could rest assured of his rare and unearned social privilege. This, Coates suggests, is the true meaning of “Whites Only,” and he takes Trumps victory as proof that it is this set of interests which motivates the majority of white Americans – as it ever was.

The fact of the Trump presidency, with its intense culture warfare and its nostalgic “Make America Great Again” makes it difficult to disagree with Coates on this. And yet is it equally difficult to disagree with the proposition that things are more complicated, that everything cannot be explained by a single variable. (This is the substance of Packer’s rebuttal to Coates). In this sense the strongest charge against Coates is his failure to centre the most vulnerable – to build intersectionality into his analysis in a systematic way.

But it seems to me that what really motivates these prominent straight men to critique Coates is not the failure of his intersectional analysis but the central question of hope. West’s core charge against Coates is that he paints a world in which White Supremacy cannot be overcome, and that this has a de-mobilizing rather than an empowering effect. He ignores “black fightback”. He does not rally to the cause; instead he wants to be a writer, a truth teller.

The exploration of what it means to be a writer, a black writer – and eventually, a famous black writer – has always been a central thread of Coates thought, one which he has courageously put on display. There are two structuring threads of We Were Eight Year in Power. One is his gradual disillusionment with Hope and Change and his growing awareness of White Supremacy, traceable from his celebration of Michelle Obama in “American Girl” through his fascination with the Civil War to “Fear of a Black President”.

The other is a story of a Coates, a writer making it big. In his notes from each year, Coates documents his financial situation. What began with a heart-warming agreement for his father to subsidize an independent blog becomes, by Obama’s second term, real financial stability. By 2015, Coates was talking to Neil Drummond about how his wealth had transformed their friendship for This American Life.

These two threads are related. They are connected by the central question which Coates has posed for the last few years: why do white people like my writing? The shift in Coates analysis is pegged, in part, to his growing sense of his own responsibility. In WWEYIP, he tries to explain his rise to prominence, by exploring the proposition that the Obama presidency “created a market” for a certain kind of voice. With the election of a Black President, White America suddenly felt compelled to pay attention, in a way it never had before, to Black art and writing and scholarship.

But he is also grappling with the ethical implications of this meteoric rise. Implicit in Coates self-examination and in West’s excoriation is the charge that, if White people like what you are writing, then you are doing something wrong. West makes it explicit; if they like you, it is because you are not challenging them.

This charge hinges on the claim that Coates provides no way out; that he describes White Supremacy in such a totalizing way that White wring their hands and share Atlantic articles on Facebook over four-dollar lattes in gentrifying neighbourhoods: “what can you do?”.

Such a claim is bizarre in at least one sense: Coates’ most important essay is a direct answer to this question. It gave us a way out. Reparations.

We might respond, with Bernie, that Reparations are never going to happen. That such a demand is politically unreasonable. Perhaps so. But should the most influential Black writer in America therefore pretend that justice requires anything less? Should Coates tell the Atlantic audience that a social democratic coalition is the answer to the Colour Line?

The point is not only that we should aim high – although we should. The point is that no version of justice worthy of the name requires anything less. When Ezra Klein asked him directly what he thought justice would involve, Coates replied, wealth equality. When the average household wealth of black families is equal to that of white families, we can begin the conversation about whether the legacy of Slavery has been overcome.

For a Black activist to evaluate themselves by this bar might well be demoralizing. Certainly, it would motivate a retreat from the shadow-boxing of partisan politics. And that’s probably for the worse. Getting a pro-BLM mayor elected is not going to solve the wealth gap. But it is nevertheless vitally important.

So it is essential that there be writers and intellectuals who speak to these activists. Who conjure coalitions. Who exhort us to live the change that we want to see, to build anti-racist, feminist, queer communities. To bring heaven to earth by living now in the society we want for the future.

And these conjured worlds must be supported by an analysis that is grounded in the reality of that struggle. In its pragmatics, on the one hand, and its intersectional utopianism, on the other. All of us, or none of us.

It is essential, in other words, that there be a Cornell West.

But shouldn’t there also be Ta-Nehisi Coates?

Is there a place for holding White folks to the fire? For articulating clearly and persistently the depth and horror of White Supremacy. For interpreting current events in light of this structuring insight. For holding every measure of progress to the standard of Justice, and finding it wanting.

I take this to be Coates’ own answer to the question that his fame has posed. This accounts for strident, at times polemical tone of “The First White President,” which caused so many on the left to turn on him. This is how a man of Coates’ convictions remains honest when he finds himself White America’s racial conscience.

The question that the West-Coates dispute poses, it seems to me, is whether we can accept, in this age of integrated and social media, such a division of labour? Can there be one argument for White Liberals, and another for activists?

But of course, the answer to this question will crucially hinge on the answer to another. What are White People going to do about it? When Coates presents his accounting of the deep and persisting horror of our own society, do we cry, what about the working class? Do we breathe a sigh of relief when we see that Cornell West agrees that the real problem is Goldman Sachs, and say, no way Congress will approve reparations anyway? Or do we allow ourselves to be honestly confronted by the depth of the challenge that White Supremacy poses to all of our consciences? And let that be our starting point.

ISIS’s Marketing Campaign

In response to yesterday’s post on violence, a friend sent me this excellent, challenging piece on the marketing savvy of ISIS. It does a great job of bringing out the perverse way that ISIS has been able to enter the West’s popular imagination. Marshall Sella cites one fact that I found especially remarkable: polls show that Americans were more aware of the beheading of James Foley than of any news event in the last five years – including, for example, Assad’s use of chemical weapons. No wonder we are going to war – the tail wags the dog.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s an especially resonant passage.

“ISIS, though, has reached marketing maturity. The militants’ media portfolio — its slickly designed magazine Dabiq, the grim John Cantlie Show, all of it — represents their message in full. On one side of it, there’s the recruiting effort, beseeching life’s losers in the East and the West to come and be welcomed, to be a part of something. On the other side, the message to those who will not join the cause is: We are going to destroy you, but first, utterly defile you. ISIS has now threatened not only to “See you in New York,” but also to fly its square banner over the White House.

Their icons, unlike the one-off images of Al Qaeda, have the ability to continue and expand, with an eye to distribution worldwide and one hundred percent of the back end. The creation of corrupt icons, the 2014 sort of icons, and the mass production of them — that’s fairly near the modern definition of branding. That’s the horror of it. (Well, the real horror is in, you know, all the killing.) Terrorists have co-opted methods of the comparatively innocent world of consumerism in order to pitch barbarism.”

Violence in a Complex World

Violence clouds our minds; it makes our vision murky. Our hearts race, our muscles flex, and we get ready to do something. Depending on how close we are to it, we are either fascinated or horrified. Often both. All of this is normal; it’s an important survival instinct, harnessed these days mostly to sell movies. But despite the extraordinarily nonviolent bubble that middle-class Westerners generally live in, violence remains at the core of our politics. At bottom, political debates are about the application, or non-application, of violence. And for reasons biological and social, we are generally terrible at thinking about these issues.

Three especially graphic examples of violence have been dominating the headlines over the last few months: ISIS beheading a journalist; a cop shooting a teenager; and the kidnap and murder of three Israelis. Each incidence has provoked an angry, knee-jerk response, which has in turn triggered a cycle of escalation. . And so from the potent seed of dramatic violence we get three even more violent, politically charged situations: Ferguson, Gaza, and Western intervention in Iraq and Syria.

What all of this means is that telling a story about these violent incidents has been a major preoccupation for writers, politicians, policymakers and activists. The appropriate response follows from accurately diagnosing the problem. Was Michael Brown a criminal, or yet another victim of a racist system? Is Israel defending itself, or acting recklessly outside the bounds of justice and international law? The fate of thousands turns on the dominant interpretation of some crucial act of murder.

We use incidents like this as ways in to much larger, pre-existing political debates. This makes sense: they are immediately, viscerally, relevant. They demand a response, and we’re prepared to spend a little bit of time considering what sort of response that should be. But they are also, for much the same reason, imprecise ciphers – Rorschach blots on which we can project our own meanings as we see fit. There is too much meaning in the digitally broadcasted execution of an American journalist by a group of self-styled jihadists. Take a minute to appreciate all the possible angles here; just the act of killing is already too much for my mind to handle. What does it mean to end a life? Is this a noble ending? How is it with James Foley’s soul?

This already fraught, emotionally charged event is then further situated within cascading layers of meaning. We come with readymade narratives. Michael Brown was a good kid killed by a broken system; he was a bad kid, killed by a public servant who has sworn to protect society from the sort of threat he represents. Zoom out a bit, and he was a kid—who cares if he was good or bad? The point is that he was black, and, in America today, that is enough to get you killed. Zoom out again, and Brown is yet another example of entrenched racist systems and the militarization of America’s police. Zoom out again, and the whole story is an example of the way the media fixates on race, when really what we should be focusing on is the tragedy of this particular incident, this unhappy story of a police officer who felt threatened, reacted badly and killed an innocent man.

I want to dwell on this last move for a minute, because it articulates an impulse that I think we all feel. At each point in the layering of meaning, there are those who will stop you and say, “This is where I get off,” or, “I can appreciate that there are nuances to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but when you start talking about Oriental thinking in medieval Christendom leading up to the crusades, I just don’t see the relevance. Real people are really dying. Let’s not get too abstract here.”

We live in a society that produces literally endless commentary-on-commentary. Things have a way of getting pretty abstract pretty quickly. And figuring out how to zoom in and zoom out is perhaps the biggest challenge in trying to think coherently about pressing political issues. Pull out too far, and you lose a sense of the actual people and events. Stay in too close, and you miss the broader implications.

There is a strain of the contemporary Left that has argued themselves into irrelevance by insisting that what is primary, what is really fundamental here, is discourse analysis. Figure out how narratives of black men have been constructed, and then we can start talking about Ferguson. Actually, we better start by unpacking the cultural baggage of our concept of “narrative”. That’s where the politics really takes place.

Now, I tend to think these people have a point, which we can see if we zoom in just a little bit. No one seriously maintains that Michael Brown’s blackness and the fact that he was shot are simply coincidence. Reasonable people acknowledge that, to some extent, there is a script for how a white police officer interacts with a young black man. There are certain roles that both parties more or less expect. Like the script that governs my interactions with professors or cashiers, this script is learned by observation and training, and although it’s not immutable, breaking out of it can be jarring. So when we say that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t stand on its own, but is an example of larger forces at work, there is obviously something to it.

But there is also something to the frustration with discourse analysis and meta-narratives. It’s dehumanizing. It makes people into epiphenomena; it makes a real death into a symptom of an unreal, intangible system. It manifestly fails to engage at the level of fear and anger and emotion that actually shape these events. It can be politically demobilizing, elitist and painfully insensitive.

On the other hand, calls to “get real” and respond to violence in a concrete, tangible way have their own set of problems. The Israeli government and the American law-and-order crowd both appeal to “real danger,” “in the moment” to sidestep questions about the broader forces that shape those moments and create that danger. At the end of the day, Israeli homes are being bombed; at the end of day, the American-backed, Israeli military is forcibly perpetuating a Christian-backed occupation of Muslim lands. Both of those points are equally true, as are the appeals to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that we could make if we wanted to continue the conversation. My point is that “at the end of the day”—nothing. Getting real doesn’t get us far.

The discourses that we use to diagnosis the problems are also the structures that create them. Our peculiar predicament, in this age of infinite commentary and information overload, is that we have the capacity to be articulate about the structural features of our lives in ways that we never have before. Our social science can take us deep into issues that in previous generations would have been ascribed to forces of nature or gods (like poverty, gender, or cultural difference). But this very articulacy can actually have negative effects. It can be paralyzing and demobilizing, or falsely empowering. By driving our gaze relentlessly away from the specific, the concrete, the literally violent, our capacity to understand our society undermines our ability to engage with it. We live in a world where every action can be graphed by big data, but none of them matter much. Our longing for “authenticity” is an attempt to cut through this, but like “get real” appeals to violence, ‘authenticity’ creates as many questions as it answers.

The challenge is to come up with a politics and/or an ethics that, on the one hand, leverages our deep knowledge to respond to the real complexity of our world, while on the other hand remains faithful to the specific predicaments in which we actually find ourselves and can hope to do something about. We need virtues that scale up and down; that can shape individual behaviors but are informed by systematic analysis.

I’ll conclude by saying that the good news, it seems to me, is that many of the traditional virtues are up to this task, if they are properly interpreted. Courage, Moderation, Wisdom, these all sound good. That’s because the challenge of aligning individual action with social goods isn’t a new one, even if the particular challenges that come from an awareness of our participation in unjust structures is.  I’ll try to develop this thought further in another post – it’s on my mind a lot, as I’m working on a PhD grant proposal that argues that the Christian virtue of Humility is an especially relevant one to our present condition.

Have we taken friendship too far?

Imagine a time before friendship. Imagine being a human being in a world where friendship didn’t play a major role. I think that time probably existed. Not that there was no friendship at all, of course; the bond between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is at the heart of the oldest story we have from ancient Mesopotamia. That friendship was a rare and beautiful thing; it was the exception, whereas today, it’s just the water we swim in. Other sorts of relationships, especially familial and tribal relationships, have become much less important, and friendships have rushed in to fill the gap.

In the last hundred years or so sociologists have noted the emergence of two new “stages of life”. The “teenagers” and “young-adults” have emerged between childhood and (parental) adulthood. Peer relationships define both. And so it seems to me that modernity has not only invented two new “life-stages,” it’s also placed friendships much more centrally in our lives. Our technology reflects this. Social media tools are particularly well-suited to facilitating friendship; I often marvel at how easily I have remained in contact with high school or university friends, while my father grew apart from his friends as soon as he left the city.

That friendship has become so ubiquitous and so central to our lives is a pretty remarkable thing. For Aristotle and for Plato, friendship was the highest form of human relation. As Aristotle explained with typical eloquence, “without friends, no one would choose to live.” But highest does not mean most important. Just as Aristotle distinguished between “mere life” and the “good life,” so he distinguished friendship from those relationships, like parent-child, which are necessary to ensure our survival. These relationships are necessarily unequal, in Aristotle’s mind, because they always involve power imbalances, where stronger parents tend to the needs of more vulnerable children, or stronger masters guide the actions of weaker slave. Unlike these relationships of the workplace or the household (both of which are suggested by the Greek term oikos, where we get ‘economy’), friendship is characterized by genuine equality. And this equality frees friends to go beyond mere survival by together seeking the good life.

This two thousand year old vision of friendship, as equals jointly pursuing their highest vision of a good live, remains a powerful to this day. As economic progress freed first teenagers and then young adults from the labours of house-holding and reproduction, it’s no surprise that we started spending more and more time on our friends. Today, many of us have several hundred (!) “friends” on Facebook. Friend obviously means something different here than it did for Aristotle. But not that different, I think. Equals jointly pursuing the good life still describes the goal, if not the substance, of most of these relationships. Even romantic relationships have come to more and more closely resemble friendships; “[my partner] is my best friend,” says the bride or groom.

This transformation is no coincidence. The most remarkable things about the triumph of friendship is the way in which other relationships have been remade to be more like friendship. For Aristotle, friendship was rare; it was almost necessarily limited to male heads of households, since only they had the level of freedom required to pursue the finer things in life. In our modern world of economic abundance and leisure, by contrast, virtually every relationship is between independent, equal individuals. Or at least, we would like it to be.

Certainly, this is a major aspect of feminism. I think it’s fair to say feminists want marriage to be characterized by relations of friendship rather than dependency. Creating the conditions for that – by for example ensuring the economic independence and equality of women – has mobilized a great deal of feminist activism.

The modern world also insists on seeing economic relationships as equal partnerships between independent individuals. This stands in sharp contrast with the economic relations between a lord and his peasant, for instance. The capitalist, contractual understanding of economic relations insists that both sides are equal – as signatories to a contract. It leaves no room for the understood inequality that underpin feudal notions of reciprocity.

Our insistence on equality in all things means that we have a really hard time making sense of obvious inequalities when they confront us. The discomfort most of us feel around panhandlers, for example, reflects our sense that our deeply rooted notions of equality are somehow not being upheld. So too does the awkwardness some of us feel when talking to children, as does the lasting stigma around people with mental or physical handicaps.

Our inarticulacy in the face of these everyday situations is significant, I think. I don’t think its unreasonable to say that, at this point in our historical development, relationships between equals are so much the ideological norm that we have a hard time imagining other sorts of relationships. Or more specifically, we have a hard time imagining what a virtuous relationship between non-equals would look like.

The pre-modern world had ways of talking about these things. You could talk about duty, about fulfilling your station, about knowing your place. There was an idea of complementarity, that justice lies not in respecting the other’s autonomy but in somehow fitting together. There was a recognition that people depended on one another – that the noble depended on the farmer to eat, and the farmer depended on the monk to ensure his salvation. But dependency is precisely what friendships are not about. And so in the modern era, duty and complementarity are buzzwords for reactionary social movements. But they reflect a genuinely different, and not necessarily useless, way of thinking about how human beings relate to other human beings.

Ancient or especially mediaeval justifications of complementary, co-dependent relationships typically regard the individual as a part of some greater whole. Like limbs on a body or gears in a machine, individuals do their part to ensure some outcome which exceeds their individual contribution. This way of talking denies the adequacy of any individual’s project; it says that your life and only be made sense of within a broader context. No, working the land all day is not the most humanly satisfying endeavor, a lord might explain to his peasant, but it is nevertheless essential to the functioning of this community. It is in recognized dependence, rather than in independence, that these lives and these roles find their meaning. The community is not a joint project, freely pursued by consenting individuals, any more than the body is a joint project freely pursued by the toes and the liver. The whole comes first; and the individuals who compose it are not themselves whole, and cannot be understood as such.

Although it is certainly foreign to our way of thinking and living, we can learn something from this way of thinking about things. As a society, we are not very good at figuring out how to relate to those who are manifestly not our equals. On a small scale, this manifests in our discomfort and moral uncertainty around panhandlers. On a grand scale, we talk about things like the “white savior complex”. The feminist and queer communities talk about things like “problematic allies” – who are problematic precisely because they occupy a very different social position that those with whom they are “allying”. When assumptions of equality and autonomy break down, we have a really hard time figuring out what the heck we are supposed to do.

As a bearer of a great deal of privilege myself, this is a problem of which I am acutely aware. My positioning in the social hierarchy means that my relationships are distorted in certain ways. In meetings and in classrooms, people listen to me without interrupting – even if I interrupt them. I am given the benefit of the doubt by cops or authority figures – even if I don’t deserve it. Crossing those gaps to have authentic relationships with the people on the other side is a genuine problem – one that is not solved by declaring that all men are created equal (nor would it be resolved by declaring that all persons are created equal). But from Aristotle, and the tradition of thinking that followed him, I take two ideas that I find useful.

The first is that we are participating in a shared project, and that project is very big and very important even though all individual contributions are very small and unimportant. Virtue cannot be found in tipping the scales, in doing that one great thing which was yours. Virtue lies in making a contribution; playing a part.

The second is the notion of friendship as something rare and precious, requiring many conditions to be met. This requires acknowledging that many of our relationships are not friendships, Facebook status notwithstanding. But this does not make us less open; just the opposite. It forces us to acknowledge that real openness, the kind of mutual respect and shared living that characterizes true friendship, takes real work. It encourages us to cultivate these relationships, confident (if we trust Aristotle) that this is the essence of the good life.

We especially need to be reminded that friendship takes work when we are attempting to be with those who are different from us. Solidarity is a beautiful and politically indispensable thing, but it’s got nothing on friendship. Solidarity requires the acknowledgement of an abstract equality; friendship requires living that equality.

I’m not saying that Aristotle is the answer. By talking about the ideal of equality in terms of universal friendship, I’m trying to resist a common conservative narrative. That narrative sees the problems with a modern, liberal idea of “universal equality,” which it views as shallow, inadequate, and unrealistic, and so harkens back to older ideals. But friendship is not an empty or abstract notion the way “universal equality” can be, and the triumph of friendship is probably the single best thing of the modern world. Without it, who would choose to live (here, now)? It is the realization, not the undoing, of the ideals of Aristotle, of Plato, of Christ. Our economics have changed, and we are not bound by the physical and biological necessities that Aristotle used to justify the master-slave, husband-wife relations. Of course these should be transformed into relationship of friendship.

But recognizing the moral force behind this transformation does not eliminate its weaknesses.

When Aristotle names friendship as the highest form of human relation, he makes it obvious that this is something to be striven for, not something to be assumed. He retains a moral vocabulary for characterizing good relations with our unequals. One does not have to endorse these ethics to see the utility of that, especially as we become increasingly aware of the deep structural inequalities, which shape us all. Not all relationships are friendships, and there’s a real danger that this triumph has been too complete, and that we’ve lost the ability to really think about other kinds of relationships, to subject them to moral scrutiny in a coherent way.

The Transcendent (Religious?) Aspects of Feminist Discourse

I’ve been reluctant to write directly about feminism, because I am not expert, it is politically charged and subject to fierce internet debate, and I don’t think that what the world needs right now is another white man offering his two cents about feminism. However, I’ve decided to go ahead anyway. I don’t think I can proceed in my characterization of the modern-world-as-I-see it without directly commenting on the most present ideological force in my immediate social world: feminism and social justice discourse. (I lump the two together because I observe deep overlaps between them; I’m really talking about those writers and thinkers who are concerned with “structural injustice,” a great many of whom call themselves feminists).

I don’t want to comment on feminism simply, but rather to bring it in to dialogue with some of the themes I have been developing in this blog: the extension of the category of religion, and the abstraction of modern society. In this post, I will focus on the former. I want to make explicit some thoughts that lie in the background of a couple of previous posts (especially this one), by focusing in particular on the issue of rape culture. The question I am interested I pursuing is, what is the significance of talking about human and sexual relationships in terms of something like “rape culture”?

I understand rape culture to be, quite simply, the culture or the aspects of a culture that facilitate or normalize sexual violence. At its most obvious, this include things like a journalistic culture that sympathizes with perpetrators of sexual assault and silences victims, and a popular culture that treats women as sexual objects. Most of what activists are interested in changing has to do with these sorts of, to my mind uncontroversial and urgent, problems. Where they encounter opposition, it is often for the reasons I outline in a previous post: outright bigotry, a lack of empathy, or an ideological opposition/blindness to the idea of structural inequality in general.
But there is also a much deeper and more interesting side of discussions of rape culture, which so far belongs especially to internal discussions within the feminist and social justice community. This is where people try to come to terms with the potentially radical implications that follow from seriously scrutinizing the connections between sex, gender, violence, and power. I will give just a couple examples, which were chosen not because they are excellent but because they are indicative, and came readily to mind. This article is by a man who is interested in overcoming his own mental habit of sexualizing women he meets. This article is interested in exploring the lines of consent and non consent within established romantic and sexual relationships.

These articles highlight the profound and not necessarily obvious ways that rape culture reaches in to and shapes even our thoughts and intimate relations. Our private fantasies display the residue, or perhaps the seed, of more explicit forms of objectification. Our relationships of trust and consent nevertheless involve power imbalances, deafness, privilege, and indeed violence. In final analysis, these articles confront us with some fundamental tensions of the human condition: how can we base our relationships on equality, when power, inequality, and subtle violence is endemic and perhaps even inescapable? How can I respond to the other, even (especially) my intimate others, in a way that is just?

In one sense, these articles belong to the very same tradition that is so vocal about not sympathizing with “good boys who just made a mistake”. But they belong to a different side of that tradition, which is more inward and more idealistic. They represent attempts, not to reform societal structures to make them more just, but to transform individual lives to make them more righteous. They have understood that the fact of structural injustice means that your very self, in profound ways, has been formed by an unjust system. To be just, then, requires a transformation of self.

To overcome rape culture, one must begin by adopting an attitude of constant vigilance towards ones own thoughts and behaviour. One must attend to the gender, sexual, and power dynamics of one’s relationships, and have the courage to hold them up to the light and ask, is this right? One must be humble in acknowledging the experiences of others often differ widely from one’s own, and one must be prepared to respond to new information with openness, kindness, and humility. All of this constitutes little more than a beginning, a few first steps on the long march towards true justice.

What I am trying to bring out, in this description, is the sense of justice as a transcendent ideal which lies behind these feminist projects. By transcendent, I mean that it is high, extremely demanding, perhaps even unattainable, and applicable to virtually all aspects of our lives. By ideal, I mean that it is never less worth pursuing, and that is can serve as a useful guide in our everyday lives. As a friend helpfully put it using a different metaphor, gender justice is an asymptotic limit, to be approached but never reached.

So feminism is not only project of social reform. It is also a dynamic quest for a transcendent ideal. We can see the dynamism of that search in the many debates and discussions that take place online and in the academy. Endowed with a transcendent ideal, a rich and dynamic community, and a radical project of social reform, I don’t think it is a stretch to characterize this movement as a religion. What is key for me in applying this label is that a religion provides a framework in which an individual can make sense their life. It seems to me unquestionable that contemporary feminism/social justice-ism does this. If I, for example, were to devote my life simply to eliminating the effects of rape culture on my own psyche, and sharing that journey with others, this would be a full life. As rich, and indeed closely comparable to, a life devoted to living according to the Gospel of Love, or one which sought to live without desire and so achieve Nirvana.

There are also, of course, differences between these forms of feminism and traditional “religions.” But these differences are remarkably hard to pin down. One might point to the fact the feminism has its roots in social reform; but in important senses so do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, etc. The distinction between political, social, and religious reform was not clear at the time the Hebrew bible was compiled, for example, and a central argument of this essay is that it is not so clear in our time either. Another possible difference is that there does not exist an explicitly transcendent mode of existence in feminism. But we need to be pretty careful about how we define terms like transcendent before we start applying them to Buddhism or Confucianism or even Christianity. Caricatures won’t do. My own theological and philosophical training has generally convinced me that metaphysical doctrines have their roots in ethical and social concerns, or at least cannot be disentangled from them. In the end, I’m not actually sure if or how I would distinguish between these two different sorts of “comprehensive doctrines”. So I will leave you, my reader, with that question.

Living in a broken world: How Original Sin helps me make sense of structural injustice

In my previous post, I tried to draw attention to some of the difficulties that come from recognizing ourselves to be part of a massive and deeply broken system. I suggested that one common, knee-jerk response to this condition is to simply deny that our system is broken, or that we as individuals are in any way implicated in that fact. This response appears all over the internet in the form of people denying the existence of patriarchy, ignoring historical and contemporary colonialism, or getting defensive when presented with evidence for structural racism. Rather than being simply a shirking of responsibility, I argued, these reactions reflect  an honest response based on a particular understanding of ethics. In short, an ethical view that emphasizes the individual’s personal responsibility for their own actions does not leave a lot of room to accept and make sense of moral condemnation on the basis of large, systematic forces of oppression.

In this post, I want to explore what I see as a possible response to this ethical dilemma that I think underpins a lot of conservative-liberal disagreement. That is the notion of Original Sin.

Original Sin gets a phenomenally bad rap these days. At one level, this is a reflection of the prominence of sexual ethics in much discussion and interpretation of theological issues, which results in the idea of original-sin-as-our-depraved-sexual-nature getting pushed front and center. I’ll just say right now that I don’t find that interpretation of original sin especially interesting or compelling, biblically or theologically – although I don’t deny that the Bible and Christian theology generally tends to take a dim view of human sexuality.

I think Original Sin is about something much broader. It’s about the spiritual and ethical flaws of human beings, not their sexual appetites. It’s about precisely this fact, which social critics and activists keeps hammering home: that we live in a broken world, and we are implicated in its brokenness.

The simple fact of the matter is that I benefit from the suffering of others. By living the way that I do, I cause other people harm. I do not intend to harm them; I intend only to live my life. Nevertheless, environmental, social, and economic ills are perpetuated. Sweatshops are kept open, forests destroyed, and stereotypes are upheld. This is one of the senses in which I interpret Romans 7:15 “…What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”.

It seems to me that this mismatch between intention and action confronts virtually every person living in North America who has taken the time to think about it – although it is perhaps more acutely true for well-educated white guys like myself. And an ethics rooted in individual choice and responsibility just doesn’t go that far in resolving the dilemma. Indeed, the opposite seems very often to be true. Our individualized, personalized ethics offer two major ways to respond to this sort of global injustice. The first is a retreat – away from politics and into the realm of the personal. I strive to be good to my family, good to my friends, good to my neighbour. This does nothing to ameliorate the harm that we do by perpetuating entrenched systems of oppression; instead, it allows us to feel righteous in our perpetuation of broad social harm.

The second response is to take up personal responsibility for political problems. This is clearly admirable, but it is also emotionally devastating and hubristic. I did not make the world this way; I don’t know how to fix it. Forgetting that has led, historically, to a good deal of revolutionary violence, missionary conversions, and structural adjustment programs. But it has never yet solved the fundamental problems.

My point is not that either of these responses are bad; my most important role models all embody one or both of these responses, and that’s what makes me admire them. To be a good friend and neighbour, to be an activist for a just cause, these are the highest of human callings. My point is that, because they lay such a deep emphasis on the individual’s personal responsibility and accountability, they fail to provide an adequate lens through which to view the problem of living in a structurally unjust world. They are inadequate because the notion of responsibility they embody is inadequate; I am not ‘responsible’ for patriarchy. It’s not my fault that others suffer to make my t-shirts and grow my grapefruits. But at the same time, I am implicated in that fact. By focusing on individual responsibility, both of these perspectives deprive us of a vocabulary that can make sense of these ethically counterintuitive situation.

So that’s where I think Original Sin comes in. The story of the Garden of Eden tells us that human beings have been fucking things up since literally forever; that this is a built-in, permanent condition of human existence. We are inheritors of unworthiness. Our own failings, as we let people down, say nasty things and think nasty thoughts, are unsurprising reflections of the fact that to be human is to err. We inherited injustice and by our natures we perpetuate it. That is a basic fact of our fallen condition.

As any responsible reading of the Bible will show, this does not excuse us from struggling against injustice. But it does make nonsense of the notion of fixing the world, by merely human means. It gives us a useful way to respond to the fact of failure, the inevitability of failure.

Original Sin, like the idea of structural injustice itself, presents us with a sense of guilt for actions beyond our control. More than the sexual gloss, I think it’s this that explains its deep unpopularity in modern times. Modern progressivism since the Enlightenment has emphasized the individual’s ability to shape – and improve – his or her world. But an honest encounter with the realities of structural injustice shows us the limits of this kind of thinking.

In the context of Christian theology, our basic fallenness is only the starting point, of course. The essential counterpart to the notion of Sin in the notion of Grace; although we are not worthy of redemption, we have nevertheless been redeemed. This allows Christians to avoid falling into hopelessness, or simply give up trying because “the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing”.

But I don’t want to get in to that here, because if I’m being perfectly honest I don’t really know what to think about Grace or how it relates to my life (if you’ve got thoughts on that, let me know). The point I want to make in this blog post is that understanding our moral predicament as the predicament of a fundamentally fallen being is a useful corrective to two unhelpful tendencies in contemporary political discourse. The tendency to limit ethical responsibility to the deliberate acts of an individual, on the one hand, and the tendency to condemn on the basis of macrocosmic tendencies and seek to improve the whole ‘system’ on the other.