The “submit” controversy

At the risk of politicising this blog, I’d like to comment on a deeper aspect of the current “marraige vow” controversy being debated within the Anglican Church as well as publically in the Australian newspapers. To me, this debate is really the collision of two worlds — the sacred and the secular — with the not unexpected result that there are incompatibilities between them.

One branch of the Anglican Church wants to change wives “obey” to wives “submit” to their husband in an optional form of the marriage vow.  There are two ways to view this change, one religious and one political. The Anglicans are debating this based on  religious not political grounds; the public at large is debating it based on political not religious grounds. Let me briefly cover each.

Submission of wives to husbands based on religious grounds

The basic religious point, it seems to me, is one of being faithful to one’s beliefs. One side of the Anglican church is being faithful to Paul’s analogy of marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church. By giving couples this option to consciously choose to elevate the seriousness of their vow into a higher level of conformance with the sacred mystery of Christ / Church, that branch of the Anglican Church is pursuing a higher level of religious faithfulness to Paul’s ideal.

The other branch of the Anglican church takes a different view. It attempts to stay faithful to Christ’s call to go into the world and be “yeast”, transforming the world by emulating Christ’s forgiveness. This branch views St Paul’s statements on marriage as being culturally conditioned. Dorothy Lee wrote a thought piece on this on the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne website. Click here to read the full article. Here is the crux of her argument:

“Household codes [like those on marriage] reflect the culture of the ancient world and the context in which the early Church found itself. These codes, originating with Aristotle, demonstrated that, far from being socially and politically dangerous, Christians were good citizens, following the accepted values of the day (even with a Christian twist). The household codes reflect the compromise the church sometimes has to make in order to proclaim the gospel in socially or politically repressive contexts.” This branch of the Anglican Church would say that we aren’t being faithful when we antagonise the people we are trying to serve in the world by stressing an outmoded cultural code.

Here you see the contrast between two religious views; one which draws a sharper line between secular and sacred in order to convert it, and the other which moves toward the secular, to be part of it, transform it and convert it.

Submission of wives to husbands based on political grounds

This might seem a simple question. In our society, it seems completely obvious that wives don’t submit to husbands, nor women to men in general. That is the ideal of western society (but not other global societies). It has been the ideal since the emancipation of women, given strength by the feminist movement.

But, as a general rule, in cases where things seem completely obvious, we ought to look more closely, to discover whether we have lost some nuances or distinctions. [Let me hasten to add that I am not opposed to the general thrust of complete equality for women.]

Here is one point I’d like to make about the nuanced power issue contained in the ideal of complete equality of men and women. As an example, when women take up powerful political positions — CEOs, Prime Ministers and the like — we hope that their feminine side is not totally subsumed by the masculine demands of the role. The crucial strenghts of the feminine side are well-known — seeing issues and context more broadly, more sensitivity and nurturing in their decision-making, more concerned about relationships. Their feminine side ought not be forgotten by the women in such power psoitions. Indeed Thomas Berry in his wonderful book The Great Work sees the feminine influence as being one of the major positive forces that can heal global problems in the 21st century.

So, if we have a nuanced view of feminine power in corporations and government, cannot one also exist in marriage? Whatever words we might use in the marriage vow, don’t we want women to bring their feminine talents to the marriage? I’m sure that makes sense to most married couples. Young people choosing their vows ought not lose the distinction between the different strengths men and women bring to marriage. It is an important part of what they are commiting themselves to.

If the Sydney Anglican Diocese, by its emphasis on having an option to “submit” in the marriage vow has reawakened a discussion of these important things, good on them I say.

 

Remind me — who am I?

“When I look at my tattoo it reminds me I want to be free and independent and open to more experiences. . .As Johnny Depp reportedly said, ‘My body is my journal and my tattoos are my story.'” in a featured article “I ink therefore I am” in Sunday Life, Sydney Morning Herald, May 27, 2012.

I come from a different generation, which didn’t value body-art, but I can understand what this young Gen-Y woman (and Johnny Depp) are saying. It’s hard to be who you want to be. You need to remind yourself and others so you don’t forget and so they’ll ask you about your tattoo and, in a way, hold you accountable.

Two things occur to me. Why is it hard to be “free, independent and open to more experiences” in today’s society? That is exactly what our culture values. Maybe it’s a case of ‘espoused values not values in practice.’ Maybe we don’t really want people to become themselves freely or ‘march to the beat of a different drummer’ as Thoreau said. My sense is that the western system actually values conformity, dependency (on consuming) and enjoying the pre-packaged experiences offered by the media and iPhone apps. If you aren’t doing those, you aren’t helping the GDP grow and “you ain’t nobody man!”

The second thing that occurs to me is what would I tattoo on myself? Maybe not actually display three words inked onto my arm but what is the ‘headline’ for my story, like Johnny Depp said? I know what I’d like it to be — Semper Fidelis: a faithful follower of Jesus Christ — but what is actually there, everyday, for everyone to see?

A. Why Change? — We have lost our ‘saltiness’!

Culture for human beings is like the water that fish swim in. Water is so necessary for life, and so pervasive, that fish don’t realize that there may be another larger world beyond their ocean or fishbowl. Fish depend on water to live. Likewise, we all assume our culture is life giving because it surrounds us. We learn to breathe it and survive in it because, if we don’t do that, we believe that we will die. We all accept the utter necessity of our particular culture for life, without actually thinking much about that assumption. That is what living in a culture means.

But we Christians are told that we are “not of this world,” and must be “counter-cultural.” “Even religion itself can become enslaved unknowingly to the deceptive values of the culture, and hence the constant need of the prophetic tradition of self-critique.”  What does being ‘counter-cultural’ mean, in practical terms? First of all, it means that we ought to live in constant tension with the conventional culture. To do that, we Christians must create and live in an alternative culture that we strongly believe is essential for life. Resolving the conflicts between the common culture and the alternative culture when we make choices determines how we deal with life. If the common culture is very powerful, and the alternative culture is weak, then we Christians will make choices and live pretty much the same as everyone else. If our alternative culture is strong, we Christians will make different choices than others, and live according to Jesus’ reality.

For most Christians, their local church is the only source of an alternative culture.  And when local churches lose their ‘saltiness’— their radical differences from the common culture  —  then churches become weak influences on the way that Christians make choices and live. But since, in America and Australia we Christians live in societies that have largely marginalized churches, the conventional culture is persuading people, even many Christians, that the  Christian culture’s ‘saltiness’  just doesn’t make sense any more. “You are the salt of the earth.” [Matthew 5:13]  The common culture does throw us a bone: It is OK to retain a semblance of church (so you can feel good about yourself that you ‘really’ are a Christian) but it is definitely not OK to be ‘salty’ and to try to live differently and perhaps even change the common culture and the world.

This in a nutshell, is the cultural argument for why local churches must be transformed, to increase their ‘saltiness’ and their ability to grow a strong alternative culture that can help Christians conflict with the common culture and more strongly bring Jesus’ ideals of reality into the world. Charles Taylor saw this in its largest historical context: “God is gradually educating mankind by transforming it from within. . . We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.”  It is up to us, the people in the pews, to see this now and decide to act.

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Escaping the prison of nature, nurture and culture

Psychologists, cultural anthropologists and philosophers now generally agree that there is no such thing as an ‘independent, rational self.’ All of us are products of our genes, our upbringing and the pervasive, continual influence of the culture we live in. We cannot escape what it means to be human. As St. Paul said so well, “I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I want to do.”

But this ‘scientific’ view leaves grace out of the human situation. We are more than mind, desires and emotions. Jesus added to the conventional view of man and said, “Trust in God. Does he not feed the birds of the air? How much more then will he feed you?” if we see ‘feed’ as a metaphor for giving what is necessary for life, then God feeds us with His own life — obviously more than mind, emotions and culture — which we Christians call grace.

So, is our escape from our prison of nurture, nature and culture automatic? No. God also made us free as He is free, to create ourselves and our future unencumbered by grace if we wish. Jesus is right inside our ‘prison cell’ with us, and appeals to us to trust in God. We need to choose to take the first step.

In my experience, this need to choose generally happens when our life in the prison becomes intolerable. We encounter a crisis and learn that nature, nurture and culture doesn’t give us what we need. When we experience this, we stand helplessly by the walls of our cell, until we realize the door is actually open. When we experience that, we arrive at the edge of a new expanded world and a new Self. When we go through the door, we begin to ask, “What happened? What (or who) opened the door?”

The grace to answer that question enables us to begin our personal journey of transformation. My own personal experience was that, when I had exhausted my own personal capacity to live ‘successfully’ and had arrived a point of near-despair, grace came to me and rescued me from my self-created prison. That encounter changed my life.

Living as if . . .

Hindus describe how man lives using a story about four ages of man.

  • Youth simply enjoys life
  • Young adults use their powers to achieve
  • More mature adults seek ways to contribute
  • Then, finally, some people seek  ultimate meaning

What story do we Christians tell about life? I would call it the “living as if” story. Christians live

  • As if everyday reality is much more than what it seems on the surface
  • As if God is present and active in our lives
  • As if love is the most fundamental force in the universe.

The question is, how do we live as if our story is true when the world around us tells a different story? The world tells us to live

  • As if everyday reality is exactly what it appears to be
  • As if God, if He exists at all, is remote and not active in our lives
  • As if energy is the most fundamental force in the universe

It seems to me that the purpose of church is to help Christians live their ‘as if’ story. A good way to measure whether this is happening is to look at the ‘fruits’ of the church. Paul describes these this way: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . . Since we live by the Spirit let us keep in step with the Spirit.” [Galatians 5: 22-25]