Saturday, August 21, 2021

Transgender Disciple

Bernard Lonergan was clear that we learn things when we set out to learn things, in a particular process. This starts with having an experience and then reflecting upon it. Next, we may have an insight into it, into what the experience was (or was about). Thirdly, we might broaden that insight into a concept, such that we suspect that all such insights will be of a certain form.

Notice that at this point we have not yet decided upon anything. Lonergan says that insights are ‘a dime a dozen’, and most of them get discarded either at the concept forming stage or in the next one, where we form a judgment. Judgment has both a good and a bad name, of course. No one blames their faulty judgment for something going wrong. Often we blame our poor memory or lack of attention, but not our judgment. On the other hand, to judge someone else is generally frowned upon. Each to their own, the cry is.

Fortunately, Lonergan means neither of these sorts of judgment. The question which we pose to ourselves by our tentative notion of a concept derived from an insight is ‘is it so?’ To answer this we use the resources we already have to hand. The other insights we have collected and formed into a manifold of concepts we have accepted play a large part. Our memory is part of this and adds a bit more, of similar or comparable things that we already know about. Logic, expectation, experience of how the world works all play a part. And we form a judgement: it is so, or it is not so, or we do not have sufficient information to decide.

Once the judgment has been formed we have an ethical question to answer: what do we do about it? In many cases, the answer is ‘not much’, because most of the insight – concept – judgment complexes we form do not require a great deal of action. If I form the idea of a biscuit in the cupboard, and go and experience the fact that no biscuit is there, I may judge the fact of my biscuit-less-ness to be the case, but it does not take a great deal of ethical thought to decide whether to go and buy another packet or not. Similarly, discovering that 42 is the square root of 1764 hardly needs an ethical decision.

I have been reading Heaven Come Down by Chrissis Chevasutt (2021, DLT), which is subtitled The Story of a Transgender Disciple. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I suspect that part of Chrissie’s problems were rooted in a lack of language to express the feelings of gender dissonance which he felt as a boy and young man. Various difficult circumstances might have compounded the feels and led to a track of self-destructive behaviour, which led him to being down, out and nearly dead in Delhi.

Returning to England he became a follower of Jesus but struggled with church. Partly, this seems to have been to do with the general fractionating tendencies of the conservative Evangelical side of the broader church. On several occasions, Chrissie / Paul and his family (for he married and had two daughters) were casualties of churches splitting, rather than anything to do with his gender identity.

However, there were some occasions when admitting his issues with gender identity led to trouble. In particular, church leaders and other Christians could not cope. One friend listened, said all the right things, and then vanished forever. Another recommended a counselling service which turned out to be conversion therapy. On a couple of occasions, having had to courage to admit gender identity issues, he had Deuteronomy 22:5 quoted at him:

If any man wears a woman’s clothes, or any woman wears a man’s clothes, they are detestable to God.

This is, of course, an open and shut case to the proof-texters in the church. He wants to wear women’s clothes, therefore he is detestable to the Lord. You cannot be a disciple and do that; you cannot follow Jesus and be transgender.

There are a number of issues at stake here, of course, and not all of them can be explored in the space left. But let us return to Lonergan. Firstly, there is the problem of getting the order right. Someone has just disclosed that they struggle with gender identity. You have just had an experience. Is your or my first move to reach for a Bible and club them over the head with a verse from the Old Testament? That seems to be reaching for judgment before really having listened to their experience and forming an insight into the predicament, let alone forming a concept of the notion and subjecting it to reason.

Somewhere I remember reading a quote, which went along the lines of if you declare something to be impossible, the next day you are most likely to run across some damn fool doing it, who did not know it was impossible. If we think that it is impossible to be both transgender and a follower of Jesus, then we have to tackle the fact that there are people in the world who are both. We cannot just dismiss them as being either not one or not the other.

The initial response from responsible Christians must surely be to listen. We need to hear the experience of people who are transgender. Before we rush into judgment, make decisions about whether they can be disciples or not, we need to hear the experiences, not dismiss them or cosh them with the Old Testament. Not asking is not an option either. Chrissie / Paul kept quiet for years and it nearly destroyed him/her. If we take the view that all are made in the image of God, then we have to accept that there are people who are not like us, but who are just as much followers of Jesus. If we cannot or will not, then we perhaps are failing in our discipleship.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

It is much more Important than that..

The title refers to a football manager, who is quoted as saying about the game that ‘it is not just a matter of life or death, it is…’ Well, perhaps football is not quite that important, and certainly, it does seem that the sport is less important these days than the money, which is a pity. But that is not what I want to talk about.

In today’s liberal, secularised democratic western world, religion is is viewed pretty well as a bolt-on option. I can be ‘religious’ so long as I do not disturb anyone else. I can ‘do good’ – run food banks, feed the poor, offer debt counseling, and so on, as long as I do not really proclaim that I do it for any particular reason. Feeding the poor is one thing; asking why they are poor is entirely another and not permitted by the niceties of society.

In previous eras, the distinction between politics and religion was not anywhere near as clear-cut. In the age of the English Civil Wars, of course, religion was politics and vice versa. There is a school of thought that the wars were, in part, caused by Charles I’s religious policies, and this theory hold at least some water. The precise form of religion the country opted for was contested and thought worth fighting and dying for. I read a comment somewhere that the English parts, at least, of the English Civil War were a civil war between different visions of Protestantism. Again, this holds some water; perhaps the visions could be broadly characterised as ‘Arminian’ and ‘Calvinist’. I doubt, however, if those categories really capture either the issues at stake or the outcomes.

What is not in doubt however is the seriousness with which the issues were debated and, literally, fought over. A godly society was the aim, whether that was the Laudian reverence and formality in approaching God and worship, or in the more Puritan preaching of the word. Of course, there were plenty of other currents around. Firstly, and perhaps equally contested, was the presence of Roman Catholics in England, along with threats from the Irish Catholics (which were perceived as threats to England, Protestantism, and the godly cause, even though they were not really so). Secondly, within the more extreme end of Protestantism, there were currents that were more radical, leading to the Quakers, the re-emergence of the Baptists, and the whole gamut of other sects and ideas, such as Diggers, Levellers and Ranters.

Part of the basis behind these emerging camps was the availability of the Bible in English. This, along perhaps with Foxes Book of Martyrs, formed much of the background to a lot of the ferment. Anyone could, and many did, read the Bible and, in the intellectual and social ferment of the times, they come to their own conclusions. Much of the reading was of the Old Testament, of course, and hence there were assorted prophetic acts, such as riding on a donkey in Bristol or pronouncing a curse on the city of Litchfield (why Litchfield was singled out I have no idea).

The point is that in these disputes knowledge of the Biblical text was assumed. In our debates today, religious illiteracy has to be assumed. Even among churchgoers, the distinction between the Old and New Testaments can be vague, and the idea that the Bible contains different sorts of literature is even less present. Even among those who do know their Bibles, there can be as little sensitivity to the historical context of the texts as some of the more radical (and indeed, less radical) Seventeenth-Century theologians and pamphleteers showed. Historical criticism did not start until at least the Eighteenth Century, so it would be a little unfair to expect George Fox of John Lilburne to be able to discuss the nuances of the representation of the Roman Empire in Acts.

It is then impossible to understand the English Civil Wars without some understanding of the role religion played in them. Of course, it was not the only factor. Various causes of the wars have been pointed to: the rise of the gentry, the fall of the gentry, the financial problems of the crown, the spread of warfare (of a partially confessional form) on the Continent, the character of the king and so on. But religion, the arguments within Reformed Christianity, was a key factor.

What is true of the currents of Seventeenth-Century Britain is also true of much of history, of course. An awful lot of history makes little sense to a fully secular, atheistic mind. The way people behaved, their map of the world, and how to operate in it, was heavily influenced by religion, specifically Christianity, until the Twentieth Century. It is thus more or less impossible to understand anything more than just the outlines of history, a bunch of facts, a succession of events. The way people thought about things, such as the Divine Right of Kings or which sports were permissible to play on a Sunday is bound up in the Christian worldview of the society and the individuals which constitute it.

A failure to understand the religious point of view, therefore, points to an impoverished picture of the past. Of course, not everyone in the past was a religious fanatic of the nature of Lilburne (and even Freeborn John eventually became a Quaker), but most people had an idea of their faith (there were few other options, after all) and, if they could read, read the Bible and if they could not (I am not sure of literacy levels) would certainly have heard it read. Further, in a less literate society, what was read to them (or spoken in sermons) would have probably stuck more than it does today.

Is this a cry of despair as to the religious illiteracy of our day? I hope not, but it is an argument that knowledge of the Bible and of the broader spectrum of theological debate and the issues at stake are an important part of our understanding of the past. If we do not have that, then we will never grasp why cathedrals were built, for example, of why British people fought and killed each other three hundred and fifty years ago.  

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...