Monday, October 6, 2014

Conversational Theology Contra Quiverfull

The story I'm commenting on can be found here:

I want to begin by saying I have nothing but sympathy for this woman. If she told me her story in real life, I'd spend no time engaging in theological discussion with her, I'd simply tell her how bad the whole thing is and be present with her. If she wanted to curse Jesus I'd be fine with it. "A despairing man should have the love of his friends, even if he forsake the fear of God" (Job 6:14). The proper response to abuse like this, which is all too common in religion and in the Christian church in particular, is love and repentance.

But the story has been put out on a public forum and so constitutes a position statement. It has been made a part of 'the dialogue' and so I want to address the issues contained within. It is just too rich to not be used as grist for the theological mill. But understand I take this action by abstracting from the person writing. I have nothing but love for her.

[Whenever I talk about my escape from the Quiverfull movement, Christians immediately dismiss my experience by saying, “Your problem was not with Jesus or Christianity. Your problem was that you were following an extreme, legalistic cult. Let me tell you about my personal relationship with Jesus.” It can be extremely frustrating. I was in a close, personal relationship with Jesus for over 25 years. But rather than telling you about the beginning of my relationship with this man, I am going to spare you the long story and skip straight to the break up.]

No one should respond to her situation with this kind of response. God doesn't need defending. However, in abstraction, her statement here is simply question begging. It is completely right to ask whether the God with which she related is the God of Jesus Christ. Consider this statement from Alfred N Whitehead: "Accordingly, what should emerge from religion is individual worth of character. But worth is positive or negative, good or bad. Religion is by no means necessarily good. It may be very evil. The fact of evil, interwoven with the texture of the world, shows that in the nature of things there remains effectiveness for degradation. In your religious experience the God with whom you have made terms may be the God of destruction, the God who leaves in his wake the loss of the greater reality."

Reinhold Niebuhr writes about this extensively in the chapter of BEYOND TRAGEDY entitled "The Ark and The Temple". Satan can pretend to be God. And that is the problem. The entire POINT of the Gospels, as I read them, is to pit a God of vulnerable love against a god of coercive control and to ask which is truly God. Yes, Christians transform Christ into the form of Caesar. That is Satan's most terrible trick.

[We had studied the Bible carefully, and knew so much about “Biblical Family Values,”]
This is the crux of the problem with the woman's overall article, as I read it. It seems to pretend that the Bible has one single, over-arching message about issues, in this case on the issue of 'family values'. But, anyone who has read my book CONVERSATIONAL THEOLOGY or my blog often enough, should know that this is simply not true. For why we should think it is not true, see here:

For an example of an attack on what Christians today are likely to identify as 'family values' (including the ones she lists on her blog), see here:

The simple fact of the matter is the same Bible that 'says' all the things she lists, also has places that contradict exactly what she says. Let's take the issue of mankind's dignity or lack thereof. Here is something from my book CONVERSATIONAL THEOLOGY that sums up both sides of this Biblical argument:

...the beginnings of the conversations around the image are more implied rather than explicit. What you have is disparate reflections with little relationship to one another about the nature of mankind. It is not until the New Testament and the early church that these lines of thought are put in real dialogue with one another and the conversation starts to get going (Paul’s writings).  Some of the issues that are touched upon vaguely in the Old Testament include the question of where in the human psyche we find ourselves most like God: in the rational faculties, or in the passions, or somewhere else (wisdom and learning are virtuous parts of the human soul in the Proverbs, that part of the human condition closest to God, whereas passages like Isaiah 44:25 put a suspicious eye on the learning of the wise). Other undercurrents point to issues concerning whether the image of God is still operative in human beings, or whether we are no longer anything like God at all (Palm 8:3-9 indicates the former is true, where as passages like Jeremiah's lament that the human heart is desperately wicked beyond belief in Jeremiah 17:9, indicate nothing good is left within the human soul). It is important to remember here that what we have at best are suggestions and implications, and whatever else is true; the issue of the "image of God" never sparks a major set of 'conversations' in the Old Testament.

In any event, once Paul comes on the stage, the issue of the imago dei  really starts to take off, continued through the Gospel writers (who, as we will see later, came after Paul) to the Johannine tradition and finally through to early Christian theology. To this day, the imago dei plays a central role in theological discussions, again a testament to it's power and an indication in my view of it's rooting in the Word of God. On some issues Paul seems inconsistent to me. Sometimes he seems to think that the rational faculties are the seat of the Image of God. For instance Romans 7:7-25 indicates that the struggle in the human soul is a struggle of the mind against the body, implying that the mind is the seat of human virtue. At other points, Paul decries the power of the mind to have any Divine power (Corinthians 1:18-2:5). And other places the image seems to be some abstract issue of metaphysics (2 Corinthians 4:1-4). On other issues Paul's comments are far clearer. Paul believes the image of God was lost to man after Adam's Fall, but is restored by Christ in some way (2 Corinthians 4, Romans 6, Romans 8:1-17, and probably 1/3 of every Pauline passage contains this idea explicitly or implicitly). St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and Martin Luther were all heavily concerned with the role of the Image. The first two thought the Image was found within the reason, Luther thought it was located within the passions or was a matter of some metaphysical force, Aquinas thought the image was still highly evident in mankind, Augustine and Luther both thought it was heavily muted or nearly completely lost.

 The writer here picks out one particular passage from scripture and makes that the Biblical position, ignoring the entire breadth of the Biblical record. Scripture, when studied as a complete unit, reveals itself to be a conversation around the issue of human nature. She quotes Jeremiah, I'd quote Psalm 8. That is just one example, I could take every passage she cites and find many more that contradict just about all of them.

The point of all this is, that for all her claims of escape from fundamentalism, she still seems trapped by the greatest intellectual weapon fundamentalism uses: all or nothing thinking. The key to a free mind is right thinking. That is why I love logic, and philosophy, so much. It frees you up to think straight. One of the most common fallacies when it comes to religion, and this in my experience applies equally to scientism and fundamentalism, is all or nothing thinking. But that is a fallacy of bifurcation, plain and simple. There is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Nor is there any reason to pigeonhole a collection of texts that spans 1500+ years by pointing out select passages.

The Bible contains a text that tells us to honor our father and mother. It also contains a text telling us to hate the same. The Bible contains a text that tells Jews to discriminate against Moabite women. It also contains an entire Book telling us not to do that. The Bible has a text that says women shouldn't speak in Church. It has another text praising a female deacon. The question is HOW DO WE APPROACH THE TEXT. I suggest to you that a conversational approach, grounded in the human experience of God (nowhere better explored than in the books MYSTERY WITHOUT MAGIC by Russell Pregeant and A RUMOR OF ANGELS by Peter Berger, books everyone needs to read), gives us the ability to use the Bible as a route to encountering God, and yes I think that encountered is centered around Jesus Christ, without shackling ourselves to bad ideas, bad theology, and bad moral teachings.

Consider this from my unpublished book on the Holy Spirit:

 Feminist theology's main goal has been to champion the cause of women in a world where women too often and for too long have suffered from abuse and oppression. It has rightly identified religion in general, and Biblical religion in particular, as partly culpable for this evil, and has sought to act as a corrective. Jesus' fight against specific oppression inspires the feminist theologian's protest against paternalism in much the same way it served to inspire the struggle oppressed races, countries, and classes through liberation theology. In some ways feminist theology is a branch of that same movement. However, feminist theologians tend to focus much more on Biblical theology, because the Bible itself struggles with the role of women in society. Much of the Bible is mysognistic. In the Old Testament, women are identified as the main cause of man's betrayal of God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:4-6, 3:16), they are treated as property and given lower rights than men in marriage (Genesis 34, Deuteronomy 24, Hosea 3:2), and the Wisdom writings are constantly warning against the evils that women bring upon men, but little about the evil men can bring upon women. God is almost universally identified as male, and there is at least the implication in this identification that somehow the male experience of life is closer to the Divine than the female experience of life. Over and against this tendency to exalt maleness are a few individual protests, voices that proclaim the importance of women for God, and their value alongside their male counterparts. The stories of Deborah and Judith run counter to the subordinate roles women are seemingly assigned by God in much of the Old Testament (Judges 4-5, look up), and their place as God's soldiers and messengers decry the idea that somehow women don't have an equal share of the Divine within them. Even the story of Eve's creation tends to run counter to the subordinate position women are said to have in most of the Old Testament. In the first Genesis Creation Story, God makes male AND female in His image. In the Second Genesis Creation Story, contrary to popular translation, God does not make Eve out of Adam's "rib". The word traditionally translated "rib" actually means something like "side". What happens is that after God tires of trying to make mankind a suitable animal companion (Genesis 2:18-25), He gets frustrated and splits Adam in two, resulting in a male and female human dynamic.
            But the biggest 'feministic' protest against misogynistic tendencies in the Old Testament is the Book of Ruth. The book is focused almost entirely on the relationship between two women who are left to struggle with a world where they have little rights, trying through their love for each other to find a way out of utter despair. The most striking imagery in the book can be found in chapter 4 verse 15, which claims that Ruth is of more value to Naomi, her mother-in-law, than seven sons. This seems to me to be a clear commentary on the prevailing male-centric voice of the Bible.
            The New Testament has a lot more to commend itself when it comes to women's rights. Women play a big role in Jesus' life, and Paul often speaks highly of women leaders in the early church, like the deaconess Phoebe, and female Apostle Junia (Romans 16:1, 16:7). Paul's own view that ultimately through Christ all are given equal access to God, also tends to de-emphasize gender distinctions. There are other places where Paul seems to reinforce the subordinate role of women, however. A big example is 1 Corinthians 14:34. Some people have suggested that this particular passage seems out of place when put in context, and was probably edited in later. The cadence and subject matter of just don't match up with what surrounds it. When I read the passage I definitely get the feeling that this is the case. I'm inclined to think that the passage is a later redaction. The subordination of women just doesn't match up with Paul's overall vision, one where we all become one with Christ through the Holy Spirit. Gender distinctions may make sense 'in the world', but not inside the Church. Other passages found in Timothy and elsewhere that seem to express similar sentiments to the 1 Corinthians passage are widely believed to be written pseudonymous long after Paul's death. That doesn't change the fact that they are part of the canon, and that the New Testament also has a strong misogynistic tradition.
            None of the women-friendly passages amounts to much when put against the general thrust of scripture. This 'conversation over the role of women' is downright depressing. The very fact that women's equal status under God was EVER questioned at all would be disgusting enough. The fact that the predominate voice in the conversation screams of the lower value of women is abhorrent. Feminist theologians have done us a service by helping us focus on those lesser voices of protest against this prevailing view, and their criticism of that prevailing view is equally important.

The simple fact of the matter is that the OVERARCHING theme of the New Testament is the transvaluation of human values. The making of the lowest the greatest, and the weakest the strongest. The raising up of those who are oppressed or 'not in control' as the leader's in God's Kingdom are the strongest reasons to reject the kind of system that this woman was subjected to. Values have to be grounded out in something OUTSIDE of the human mind or social structure or they ultimately end up being self-refuting. That God moves the world in the direction of raising up the vulnerable and the weak says something important about vulnerability and about coercive power. That such a departure from the way humans normally work didn't take hold easily or simply come to us all at once isn't surprising. Against and alongside the overarching view of New Testament transvaluation is the same old human obsession with power. It is there, and it is easily exploited.

But the vision of Revelation 5, or of the solitary man on the cross, these are the"great religious conceptions which haunt the imaginations of civilized mankind" (Whitehead). The problem is that Jesus and Paul both thought that the final culmination of this new value system, the final turning upside down of the world's fortunes, was going to take place very soon. The expected the End of Days in their own lifetimes. When this didn't materialize, the church was stuck trying to figure out how to take their end-times ethical systems and adapt them to an ongoing world. (For more on this see here:

It was very EASY to take those power relationship images that still persisted in the Bible and make them THE persisting ethical stance over against the greater thrust that I for one see in the New Testament. The hard part is to do the other thing. The hard part is to make the power of vulnerability and the persuasive force of love your guiding light. That is why the same Paul who began by proclaiming all are One in Christ, wound up acquiescing to cultural norms of his day, and why his followers pushed this even further.

But I digress (which is my right on my blog), the real point here, is that this woman was hurt by life, and by Christianity. And we should all be mindful of her words. But the ultimate damage done to her, by my lights, was that a wall was erected between her and the truth. A wall that will not easily come down. And one we can only make worse by trying. 

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