ROCKING THE BOAT
AN ATTEMPT AT SOME COUNTER-INTUITIVE THEOLOGY

When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus on the water, we can be certain that he rocked that boat.


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Splitting The Atom

Some time ago at work, a colleague circulated a question from a friend who was in the midst of writing a thesis: what did we think the Church had done to ameliorate the lives of women? Would anyone like to contribute some thoughts?

After a while I took my courage in both hands and replied that I thought the Church had done precious little to ameliorate the lives of women. The really big contribution, it seemed to me, has come from technology; specifically things such as antibiotics (meaning children didn't spend long months at home at death's door from sickness, meaning most babies survived so that there was no need to be continuously getting pregnant); such as washing machines (meaning that huge chunks of time previously spent red-faced and raw-fingered over a steaming washtub were suddenly freed up - and if you can't imagine how awful washday was, just read Emile Zola's riveting description near the start of L'Assommoir) Washday; and of course such as the development of reliable contraception so that they could control their own fertility, plan their families and decide for themselves how much of their time they might wish to spend in the all-encompassing throes of pregnancy, not to mention the years taken up with raising children. Not much contribution from the Church there, I think.

That then set me thinking more widely about the revolutionary effect of technological advance and its implications for theology. Take the idea of an atom, for instance. The word means 'un-splittable', something that cannot be split, arising from the belief of scientists that in discovering atoms they had arrived at the fundamental particles of the universe. Of course, it wasn't true. It wasn't long before new technology had given them tools that enabled them to split the atom and discover that there were still smaller units that went into the make-up of material objects.

And that, it seems to me, is a powerful metaphor for theological reflection. The Church has been slow in splitting its theological atoms. It seems to be hung up on hanging on to so-called eternal truths un-splittable atoms where more adventurous thinkers perceive a much more granular material. What sort of thing am I talking about here?

Well, one example would be sex and reproduction. For long centuries before the invention of reliable contraception, sex and reproduction were seen as un-splittable, two sides of the same coin. Reliable contraception showed that this was not the case. The new technology showed that they can be split apart and treated separately, both as a physical activity and as arenas for moral discourse. Discussing the size of the family you want is an entirely different proposition from discussing your sex life.

Can we take this idea further? I think we can. What about traditional views on the relative status and abilities of men and women? In the days when most women were inescapably tied to the home over long years of pregnancy and child care, I suppose you might be forgiven for arriving at a superficial assumption that that was what they were created for, that that was how the world was made and it was no good aspiring in any broad way to anything different. But now, education, machinery and birth control have decisively split that atom. It is perfectly obvious that women's brains are every bit as good as men's, that there are women with superb powers of leadership (and men with lousy powers of leadership), and that with the help of machinery there is no job they cannot do in fields that in past centuries required the brawn of men. The idea that women are somehow inferior to men in their ability to transmit the sacred is impossible to prove and inherently unlikely. The argument that Christ did not appoint any women as His disciples merely provokes the response that He did not appoint any white men either, nor indeed any non-Jews. Why pick on the gender case rather than the racial case? At one point He specifically says that He is sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel on the face of it a surprisingly racial statement; by contrast He did not say anything that might make us think He was concentrated on men rather than women; indeed, it was to a woman, not a man, that He chose to appear in his first resurrection appearance. I would say that the factors that so pre-occupied the life of women that they were habitually seen as fundamentally different creatures from men have been decisively split out: being home-bound, rearing children and being of the female gender do not irrevocably go together or last a whole lifetime.

One further thought. I would say that we are now beginning to realise that gender and sexuality are also splittable, two quite different things. Of course you can only be one or other of two physical gender types although now and again people are apparently born with indeterminate gender designation. But as for sexuality, this seems to be something dispersed over a wide spectrum between completely non-sexual, completely heterosexual, completely homosexual, and all stations in between.

Take, for example, some of the opening sentences of a recent report presented to the Ugandan President by a team from the Ugandan Ministry of Health (quoted in The Observer of Februrary 23 2014):

There are a spectrum of sexual behaviours. Some people are less fixed in one form of sexuality than others. Thus sexuality is a far more flexible human quality than used to be assumed in the past

What is also becoming clear is that, no matter what your sexuality, you will (other things being equal) have an ability to form lasting loving relationships with someone of like mind.

The current state of the Church's thinking here is that it is acceptable to BE homosexual but not acceptable to DO it. The idea is that being homosexual, while perhaps being a given rather than a chosen lifestyle, is nevertheless a level down from the ideal where the ideal encompasses sexual interaction in the heterosexual style. People not in a relationship where the Church sanctions heterosexual intercourse should therefore refrain from sexual activity altogether.

My question is, is this a viable method of argument? What happens if we apply the same method in some other area? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we take being born deaf and dumb as an analogous arena for discussion: it's nobody's choice and therefore in no way something you can blame the victim for; but it is a departure from the God-given norm. Clearly the God-given norm encompasses speaking with the mouth and hearing with the ears. Therefore, since the ideal method is denied to them, deaf and dumb people should not try to communicate at all. Above all, no sign-language please!

If these two cases are reasonably analogous, it is pretty obvious that the method of argument employed is morally arbitrary and therefore unacceptably discriminatory. The Church's verdict, it seems to me, is unsafe and requires further consideration, much like the argument against artificial contraception in Humanae Vitae (see footnote).

Are there more atoms to be split? Of course there will be, and we must be ready to recognise that God's world is more varied, more intricate and wonderful than we can ever imagine; we must relish the thought that He will in His good time reveal more of that variety and wonder, however challenging it may be to the morals and mores of the time.

The question is, are we ready to step out onto the water and risk rocking the boat?

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© Hugh de Saram 2014; hugh@rockingtheboat.co.uk