Thursday, 14 April 2011

Yes, I exaggerated a bit

My last post was a mixture of genuine viewpoints and exaggeration, as I hope was obvious. Yet I was seeking to make a few points I do find critical. Genuine injustice is tragic and even an outrage. There are certainly plentiful examples of the genuine article without clouding the issues, or spurring others to a rage that blinds one to the truth rather than expressing it, without exaggerating what is offensive.

I haven't been drinking perfume (I'm not even financially able to have an occasional gin at the moment). :) I know the moralists who would speak of 'elitist' attitudes towards 'non-human animals' were focussed on ecology, and not equating my cat's use of reason and will with our own. Yet I wanted to underline concerns I have in that area. I am very 'green,' very concerned for stewardship of the earth - yet I refuse to 'take a guilt trip' for eating animal products. If a drug or operation which can save human lives needed to be tested on a dog, this will not be anything I'd oppose.

Many flaws in Western theology of which I've previously written have a connection to disliking the physical, so I'm not going to repeat myself. I think we all have moments when we can come close to feeling as if we are 'pure mammal'! With the continuing, ever-increasing strain of recession, I occasionally find myself feeling like a hungry cat with my survival threatened - ready to get out my claws at any danger. Nonetheless, with my being very centred on the Incarnation, creation, our deification and the like, I believe that an excessive pre-occupation with the 'non human animals' can blind us to the awe and gratitude we should have for our own unique dignity amongst creatures. Nor can we excuse ourselves from our wrongs because of our animal nature. I may feel like a threatened cat at times - but the normal life for that species would be a sad situation for a human!

I've often said that one problem (in all fields, but here I specifically am referring to theology) which can be highly confusing is that terms which have a specific meaning in the theological context differ greatly from the vernacular usage. In common usage, if one refers to 'envy,' it can seem positive - perhaps 'you' accomplished a goal to which I aspire as well. It has a striking difference from 'envy' in moral theology - where the same term would mean 'you have what I want, and I hate you for it.' Anger, in the vernacular, can have varied shades of meaning, and certainly being upset, outraged, and so forth may be understandable, justifiable, or, at times, a spur to positive action. This, too, is quite a difference from 'an inordinate desire for revenge.'Being truly vengeful can spur blindness to the truth, contempt, hatred, and violence.

I'm sorry to say that I am no stranger to sexism - not only in the abstract but in the many forms in which I was its target. I doubt too many people would ask a man with advanced degrees questions such as, "You don't type?! Then what could you do - be a waitress?" Male department heads probably are not excluded in ways that I experienced, and vendors or representatives who meet with them may not be thinking 'how do I get past this glorified clerk to the man who really makes the decisions?' I've actually had vendors phone me, to say a letter I signed should be replaced by one from a male, because, otherwise, those in authority would think 'this was just sent by some secretary.' My own family members, who knew I could go through diplomae like a deck of cards and had been in management for years, tended to assume I had an entry-level clerical job!

Seeking to remedy such viewpoints (and I doubt I'll live to see this - many of the vendors who were first to assume they needed to 'get past me' surprisingly were younger than I am) can be thwarted by excess. Assuming women cannot be 'real' managers is insulting - saying that Meryl Streep is a great actress is a compliment.

There are other, far more insidious, traps into which one may fall (and I'm not exempting myself, since I am sorry to recall excesses to which I was very prone at one time.) I'll borrow my previous example, related to liturgy, as a simple illustration. Modifying the text of the creed may be helpful in clarifying meaning. (In my university days, hardly ancient history, 'his' was a correct form when the person to whom one referred could be of either sex - and 'man' meant 'humanity' in certain contexts. Perhaps the very young would not be aware of this.) However, were I seeking to spur others to outrage, hoping it would promote a feminist goal, and said that, when I heard "for us men and for our salvation...," it meant that salvation was extended only to males, this isn't true - never was true - and I know this.

I definitely have never seen women as inferior, and always was troubled by their being treated as such. (I could speak of many other areas that trouble me, but I am speaking of this one in particular merely for the sake of simplicity, since I don't want to write two reams.) Yet I remember, all too well, when articulate and very charismatic women - who were too intelligent and educated to not be either selective or distorted in references they used to spur action - seemed more to be seeking to inflame other women than to dealing with (painful) truth. Much that came of this was tragic. Women who'd been outstanding in service could be convinced that they'd been in a shameful position - the big, bad males treated you as a slave. People who'd worked side by side, and well, could be led to contempt for one another because the associate suddenly is a male who had to be part of the oppression. There were other cases where women could not admit to problems other women in authority may have caused for them - everything had to be blamed on the males, and how can one resolve internal conflicts if the source cannot be admitted?

We also need to be cautious that, when we are conscious of, and troubled about, such matters as the sexism I've experienced all too frequently (and this compounded by the assumption that anyone in the charity sector is incompetent), we don't become 'victims' in our own minds. This can lead us to seeing offence when it does not exist, or, perhaps more dangerously, blinding us to our own weaknesses - we are the victim, we are blameless. Rage and envy (in the theological sense I previously referenced) can give us tunnel vision and distortion. We can begin not merely to disagree with another's viewpoint, but to assume it is rationalising misogyny, when that may not be the case. We can justify wrong-doing on our own part, if we become so focussed on our own oppression that we (unwittingly) assume we can do no wrong, or justify our rage based on (possibly very inaccurate) ideas about underlying motives on the part of the other.

My prayer today is for truth and love - as only God can give!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Insulting people's intelligence

It constantly amazes me that books I have studied in recent years, articles by noted authors, sermons by the learned, and so forth often are so aimed at not offending anyone, or at proving how 'inclusive' we all are, have an air of condescension which the least tutored mind could sense, even if those at universities do not. Perhaps the best example for this week is from a text intended for university students pursuing Christian ethics. It cautioned against 'elitism,' in exploring moral theology in a fashion which assumes humans are superior to non-human animals. (I can assure you this is not a satire.)

I still mourn my beloved cat, Mirielle, who was the most affectionate example of her species I have known in a life-time as a cat-lover. Nonetheless, I would hardly have considered her to be capable of practising the virtue of charity, nor did I see her breaking my teapot as an injustice to be remedied by a lecture on respecting the property of others. (This whilst conceding that she was fully aware that she owned me, and was by no means 'property.') The Franciscan in me sees that Mirielle was glorifying her Creator by fully being what she was - a cat! To consider her to be capable of sin or virtue would be absurd - her hearing my theology and philosophy lectures was purely the result of my having no human about who was interested. Should one deny the dignity of one's human nature lest one possibly offend a feline (or other 'non human animal')? Mirielle possibly had dreams of smoked salmon just as often as would I - and indeed would help herself without offering me some first were my back turned, which seems an incredible breach of good manners, yet she would not have been offended at not being thought a human. (Being a highly intelligent cat who observed the foibles of humanity daily, I doubt Mirielle would have considered this a promotion. She'd seen the frustrated theologian preach too many times to want to copy the potential for envy.) Or should those learned in the field treat of points of moral theology treating us as if we were no different from cats?

Another gem came from a book about Julian of Norwich. Julian presents a warm, tender image of God as a mother, who comforts the clumsy little child (that's all of us - and for always) when he stumbles ( we do, daily.) The author saw Julian as presenting a model for mothers which women might be troubled by being unable to attain. (This matches a complaint in a book about the Virgin Mary's being seen, in many art works, as kneeling before her baby Son, therefore illustrating the inferiority of women.) Allow me to indulge my regret that I never attained my goal of being a university professor, and a brief almost-sin of envy that these authors generally have done so. Both the mother to which Julian refers, and the Son before whom 'subservient' Mary kneels, happen to be God! Julian was not writing a handbook for parenting, nor could the specific circumstances of Mary's motherhood be considered typical. (Next we'll be hearing, from the overly literal, that the image of the stumbling infant violates children's rights or is insulting to the disabled.)

My regulars (assuming I have any) are aware of how I loathe the excessive 'political correctness,' which I do not see as a commitment to social justice or eliminating genuine oppression (both extremely important matters in my book), but as often verging on the ridiculous, and insulting the people one supposedly is assisting. I still cannot see where referring to someone as a 'great actress' is insulting because it implies she is a woman (which she happens to be), or why the libraries' departments of Oriental studies suddenly are seen as using an offensive word. The same author who thought Julian was writing a parenting manual saw her description of seeing demonic figures (the sort of dark, grotesque forms standard in medieval art) as racist - though such creatures not only are figurative, as I'm sure a child of 8 would understand, but are not human beings in any case.

I sometimes make the joke that my family were titled - many worked in the grocery business, and one moved up to the butcher department, where his title was Meat Head. (That title is not my creation - it's real, though there is a little dramatic licence here, because my family actually were not butchers.) Working class kids never saw anything other than honour in their father's professions (unless, as was not the case for most of us, there would be a reason.) I very much dislike the current trend towards changing the name of jobs to meet some nonsensical standard of political correctness. It implies that there was something shameful in a person's honourable work - so much so that the name of that occupation can never be mentioned.

What does this serve? As one glaring example, secretaries now often have ridiculous titles, as if their profession was a disgrace in itself (I suppose because it was held mostly by women), so much so that the word cannot be spoken. For those who think this aids a feminist cause (and as one who has high regard for those in that profession anyway), it actually created more sexism! Speaking as one who spent ages as a manager, those who, on meeting me, immediately wanted to meet the real 'decision maker,' just assumed that, being female, I must be a secretary with a ridiculous title.

I loved a comment I heard when two young men with Down Syndrome were teasing each other: "You're not stupid - you're just retarded!" There is a wisdom in that which many of us with double their IQ scores (...not mentioning anyone in particular, of course...) have yet to attain. All of us have limitations - and recognising these is painful but the only way that we can be who we are, and use such talents as we do possess. I wonder if some of the careful crafting of euphemisms for disabilities stem from not wanting to admit to our own. Thousands of people have to live with not being able to walk - how can they move on (I understand one was President of the United States) without resigning themselves and valuing what they are? I've seen, for example, learned writings which see admitting that someone is blind or deaf is insulting (how a person's worth is eliminated by being unable to see or hear is beyond me), or that this denies their sexuality. (Not being too knowledgeable on that topic, I utterly fail to see the connection. Two blind men I know, one a lawyer/politician, the other a CFO, coincidentally both fathered five children - I'll ask one of them next time they see me.) Then again, I'm weary of the need for offence that caused outrage amongst the deaf when an operation that could allow for some ability in hearing was developed - since this breakthrough meant deaf people need to be fixed...

I suppose the very dedicated, educated, well-intentioned Religious and clergy whom I knew in my younger days were trying so hard to show that they were cool that they didn't realise how nonsensical their reasoning (if indeed it deserves that distinction) became. Middle-class women, whose mothers had never so much as washed a dish, would insult intelligent people, of a lower class or different race, but modifying worship texts into street slang. (I believe everyone, whatever his language, speaks dialect. The insult is in assuming one understands nothing else, or that the poor are stupid.) One RE teacher whom I knew would never use the term 'soul,' and indeed told her pupils "you have no soul! you are a spiritual being!," having been aware of a catechism illustration where souls (and how they are affected by sin) were compared to milk bottles. Granted - there are some theological errors in the presentation - but, having known many people who taught primary, I would recommend recalling that the particular catechism was for children aged 6 or 7. Ask any teacher how visual representations can be helpful to kids that age. The implication that one never matures beyond that point is utterly insulting. (Those whose images of God and such never grow either are of a child-like innocence I'd never spoil or doing it on purpose because self-knowledge would be part of the alternative!)

I'm really weary of the creative editing of the liturgy which I have seen - and I am not referring to the brilliant work of liturgical scholars, even when it led to results they'd not anticipated. The Trinity cannot be mentioned - too sexist. Penitential rites must be excised, lest someone feel guilty or think he is a sinner. (How one can remove the distractions to love of God and neighbour without such awareness is beyond me. "Guilt" can be quite valuable, and those who have none are sociopaths. I may as well think pain is entirely negative, and regret that, when I slipped with the carving knife, I ended up with a small cut rather than being spared any pain and chopping my finger off.) The glorious, "Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open..from whom no secrets are hid," is taboo, lest anyone feel creeped out at the idea that God knows their secrets. (I'm not getting into those who think worship is 'selfish' or keeps one from 'doing,' or who sees 'sacramentalising' as opposed to evangelising. The absurdity of the former would have been recognised many centuries before Christ walked the earth, and the worship of the Christian community has held us together for 2,000 years, despite all the nonsense we've pulled all along.)

I am not denying that there can be individuals who have reasons why certain images trouble them. However, if someone abused by her father associates God as Father with such torture (and, tragic though this is, I doubt it is a default position), wouldn't the scriptures, emphasis on the Creator and Redeemer, words of the liturgy without tossing the Trinity out the door, play a role in leading one to see that God is transcendent - beyond our senses?

Don't think I'm going to spare the extremes of 'inclusive language.' My ghostly brethren, thou knowest that language doth evolve. Yet, from extensive experience, I have noticed that the very women who shriek that "good will towards men" means salvation, unity with God, is limited to males are usually too learned and intelligent to truly think that is the case. Spare me the passages from great theologians, where "his" or "mankind" is followed by (sic.) There indeed may be valid reasons to modify a text - if so, there must be great care that the meaning remains clear rather than becoming all the more obscure. But everyone who attended three years of school (I don't mean university) has read works that weren't produced in the last ten years - and every child of 12 (who is English-speaking) has had at least a passing acquaintance with the beautiful English of the Renaissance. To imply that hearing 'Lord' in reference to Christ, or the term 'man' when it is used in the sense of humanity, would lead to an idea that salvation is the exclusive property of the male is an insult to the intelligence of every woman in the congregation.

I'll close with reference to a 'scholarly' work which insisted that the RC Church had centuries of thinking women had no chance of getting to heaven. Considering the enormous number of devotions to female saints (one in particular who had the unique privilege of being a tabernacle), I'd say 'get me another gin' had I not already wondered if the author already had one too many.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Darkness comes in various flavours

Two unrelated areas in recent weeks prompted me to explore this theme. In a discussion of theological works, it occurred to me that it's easy to forget that many classics either present philosophical arguments or were derived from what originally were letters of direction. As I've treated elsewhere, philosophical arguments (such as Augustine's emphasis on omnipotence), brilliant though they may be, can lead to pastoral disasters. (Headlines on any day of the week will tell us there is indeed much to fear in this world, regardless of that God either 'wills or permits' these.) As for words of direction (the earliest example in the English language being Walter Hilton's "Ladder of Perfection"), it is essential to remember that the writer was responding to particular questions, situations, and the like on the part of individuals known to him. A sentence which was superbly suited to the original recipient of the letter can seem utterly callous out of context.

I'm going to spare my readers a massive treatment of 'chapter and verse' this once, but, in both cases, and the more because the greatest theologians often were great saints, there is yet another point of confusion. In a nutshell, the great saints often believed (and the other writers pretended) that (1) the only thing one feared was lack of union with God (especially for eternity), (2) that only grave sin was a spiritual problem, (3) that everyone who was troubled was concerned about a sin, and (4) that such statements as that about there being nothing to fear (since God always gives us the grace not to die in final impenitence) would make sense to those not utterly focussed on eternal union with the divine. (Even those who feared demonic possession could be assured the demon could not touch their will.)

Certainly, much suffering in this world is the consequence of sin (whether one's own or that of others), but equally much is not - and those who are troubled in ways other than those of conscience did not need the burden of fearing they'd sinned - or that there was some sin involved in not embracing "God's will."

On another note, I am a book reviewer, and receive books on various topics (my basket currently holds one on Bob Dylan, another a 1950s romance which sounds like a James Cagney film, another about the Third Reich), one of the latest (link below) being about someone who spent 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity. I was sorry to see that this congregation, at least according to the author's account, placed huge emphasis on suffering (including the self-inflicted), and atonement for sins. (Presumably, given seven days, one could create the cosmos as well... but I digress.) I'm aware that Mother Teresa had a long life, and that some of the practises (generally considered outmoded and negative now) described (such as using the discipline, wearing chains, forbidding physical contact of any kind) would have been common in many religious communities even 50 years ago. I know well that many saintly sorts are best not to imitate, and that her excessive emphasis on poverty and suffering could be equalled by Francis of Assisi. That did not keep me from a sense of sorrow that one who so encouraged love, and who became an icon for service of the poor, led others to such negativity.

I do recall, nonetheless, that Francis' own extreme ways of penance (which, towards the end of a lifespan about half that of Mother Teresa's, he himself admitted were excessive) were not imposed on his friars. I found it tragic that, in the 20th century, there would be such morbid practises as inflicting corporal punishment on one's self (unhealthy in itself, and hardly lending towards the strength one must need for the work of the MC), much less wearing a chemise to bathe and being cautioned against properly cleaning one's genital area. There remained an excessive emphasis on 'example' rather than self-knowledge, and on being models of fidelity to a point where one might take stands on issues without having the background to properly present or defend the positions. I can admire picking up the destitute from the streets - but not Mother Teresa's having deformed feet, not from a congenital defect, illness or injury, but because of remaining silent and suffering when, as a Loreto Sister, she received shoes which were much too small.

I am not one to applaud imprudence in the name of an example of fidelity. One example noted in this book involved a priest-teacher at Regina Mundi in Rome. Moral theologians indeed deal with highly controversial matters, and details can be confusing in an elementary class, yet (to use the example which became a source of trouble) this priest spoke of such current topics as how twin embryos can develop from a fertilized ovum - or how one of the twins can disappear - and that this can present debate on whether a human soul is present from conception. I am no authority on moral theology, but I can understand how one seeking to defend the position that we are human from the instant of conception may need to address objections and questions such as these in a presentation. Rather than consulting him or the administration, apparently the MC managed to get the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith involved.

I'm refraining from a lengthy treatment only because I have written a good deal about this in the past, but the idea of punishment, of having to 'atone' (by which I do not mean amendment!), and of asceticism as appeasing God rather than as removing distractions is the curse of the western Church. It leads me to ponder how 'darkness' in the spiritual life can come in varied forms. Most of us cannot understand, for example, the Dark Night of John of the Cross, but my sense is of one utterly caught up in a desire for union with God, who concurrently knew God is unknowable. There is darkness that is no charism - perhaps as a result of illness, exhaustion, sometimes clinical depression. I could see that it could be deadly (or crippling at least) if one gives all 'darkness' status as a special grace, and couples this with a sense of suffering to atone for sin.

Darkness in the sense of doubt, as I've seen in the writings of saints, can wear so many hats that only those with discernment can assist in sorting these! It can mean coming to maturity and discarding notions of the divine, for example. Mother Teresa would write, in 1959, "I have no faith -I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart - & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me - I am afraid to uncover them - because of the blasphemy." (Punctuation as in the original - apparently she shared my idiosyncrasy of using lots of dashes.)

Mary Johnson, author of the book I was reviewing, raises a question which also came to my mind: "I suspected.. that Mother's refusal to uncover those questions may have caused her darkness to linger." It strikes me that seeing her doubts as blasphemy, and this coupled with a tendency towards and training in penitential acts to atone for sin, may have made her increase this darkness.

God of God, Light of Light... Light of the World... It would take one with far better judgement than I possess to tell anyone what flavour of darkness they face, but I believe the 'default' position is that the dark is a difficulty to face, not a gift of God. I dare-say that seeing darkness as a blessing would close any avenue for letting it decrease. Jesus of Nazareth took on our humanity fully (and in this we are glorified.) He was faithful to his radical, prophetic vocation, and accepted the natural consequences (not punishment from an angry God!) when human failings led to his being a convicted criminal - but it wasn't his hand that caused the flagellation. It can strengthen us to recall his calling out in agony on the cross, indeed, but let us place more stress on the Incarnation in its fullness - resurrection, ascension, looking ahead to glory, and our deification in the process.