Why Complementarians Hate the “Jesus Boyfriend” phenomenon

My Genderal Interest column this week at Jezebel: Jesus Ain’t Your Boyfriend. Excerpt:

In an article on the Christianity Today website this week, Courtney Reissig warns that there’s a growing problem of young women who “equate contentment (in Jesus) with a romantic relationship with him.” With marriage rates rapidly falling, even among evangelical Christians, Reissig suggests that part of the reason is that too many faithful young women see Jesus as “a sweet boyfriend who takes us out on dates, rather than the God-man who paid for our sin on the cross.”

There’s an anti-feminist agenda behind Reissig’s plea to young women to break it off with Jesus. In addition to blogging for the flagship site of American evangelicalism, she writes for the ultra-conservative Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an organization that fights against the dangers of “feminist egalitarianism” and insists on distinct, rigidly complementary roles for each sex. Just like men’s rights activists, organizations like the CBMW complain that feminism has made women too picky, too demanding, too unappreciative of ordinary dudes. To a staunch theological conservative like Reissig, women make the mistake of falling in love with Jesus because feminism has raised women’s standards for a romantic relationship impossibly high.

I wrote about a similar topic a few years ago.

Christian Sexual Satisfaction and the Marriage Debate

In my Genderal Interest column at Jezebel this week, I look at the recent proliferation of explicit evangelical Christian sex guides.  If You Don’t Have Sex With Your Spouse Every Day, Do the Gays Win? examines the ideological underpinnings of this particularly intense focus on erotic satisfaction in heterosexual marriage.  Excerpt:

Books like Real Marriage and Sexperiment aren’t just full of risible advice and tortured metaphors. (Clark-Flory cites this line from the latter book: “God doesn’t want us to experience little sex in the dog bed; he wants us to experience the power and purpose of big sex in the right bed.”) These aren’t even just manuals for how to have an active and fulfilling sex life with the same person until you die. These are battlefield manuals for the culture war. If heterosexual marriage is the cornerstone of civilization, and a hot sex life is (as even plenty of non-religious folks would concede) a key to a happy relationship, then having lots and lots of sizzling Christian married sex isn’t just about making babies or feeling good. It’s about doing your duty in the great struggle against the forces of moral relativism, homosexuality, and Satan.

 

Apples and appetite: on anorexia and western faith

For the first time since Spring 2008, I’m teaching my “Beauty and the Body in the Euro-American Tradition” course. For the past decade or so, I’ve had a fairly predictable schedule. Each semester, I teach at least one section of Western Civ, Modern Europe, and Women in American Society. Those three classes are my “bread and butter”, as it were. I teach a fourth class each semester as well, and rotate among Gay and Lesbian American History, Men and Masculinity in American Society, The Dysfunctional Family in the Western Tradition, and the Beauty and Body course. I sometimes play with or alter the sequence. I’ve taught other courses in my nearly eighteen years here (such as the two-semester sequence of British History) and I’ve got a few other courses I’ve got in mind to develop (A History of Pornography class, and a course on American Religious History.)

Some of my women’s history lectures were recorded and put online last semester by my wonderful student Mon-Shane Chou. At some point, I’d like to get all my lectures up online, both so that my students could review them and interested outsiders could hear them as well. Since I (and the college) make attendance mandatory, I’m not worried about a sudden drop off in the number of folks in my classes as a consequence. In my nearly seven years of blogging, I’ve also written posts that recapitulate some of my lectures, as long-time readers may know.

In yesterday’s Beauty and the Body course, we talked about Christian conceptions of female appetite. In a broad interdisciplinary course like this, it’s hard to spend too much time on any one topic, but I’m introducing them to Western theories of the body and desire as quickly and accessibly as I can. The previous lecture had been on Plato’s mind/body dualism, and the problems that his views pose for us down to the present day. I want my students to see that suspicion of the body and its needs has a history, and that their own struggles for self-acceptance are rooted as much in an ancient tradition as in the effort to conform to a standard set by contemporary culture.

I can’t remember who I was reading in grad school (it might have been Joan Brumberg, or Caroline Walke Bynum) or somebody else when I first realized that the original sin of Adam and Eve revolved around food. Though the serpent tempts Eve with fruit from the tree of knowledge (rather than merely telling her that the apple, or whatever it was, will taste yummy), the means by which she commits the first sin is through eating. Adam eats too, but subsequently. Put plainly, one of the many ways to read the story of what happened in the Garden is that pain and suffering entered the world because a woman couldn’t control what she put in her mouth. That has tremendous implications for women’s relationship with spirituality and food down to the present day.

I’ve written often about the “moral language of food” (the habit of describing being on a diet as “being good” or eating something fattening as being “bad”). We first see this emerging in American vernacular in the 1920s, but of course it’s much, much older than that. The fasting behavior of medieval women that Bynum documents predates, obviously, a modern media culture obsessed with women’s thinness. But the constant throughout history, as I suggest to my students, is that thinness has had a moral dimension.

Thinness is radical self-denial made manifest for all to see. Whether one is virginal or promiscuous, whether one masturbates or lives sadly ignorant of self-pleasure, one’s private sexual behavior rarely leaves enduring marks on the body. Neither sexual virtue or vice shows up the way that extreme dieting or overeating will. (Though the most common consequence of one kind of sex, pregnancy, does leave a mark — but only on women’s bodies.) Food is public in a way that sex isn’t; eating is the most pleasurable thing most of us will ever do in groups. So food has a moral implication that no other source of bodily delight does. Not even sex carries the same, um, heft. Continue reading

Don’t presume the Designer’s intent from the design: a long post on abortion, sexual ethics, and contraception in response to Jonalyn

Jonalyn Grace Fincher offers a long and nuanced (though unquestionably pro-life) Christian perspective on abortion and body sovereignty in this post entitled “Listening to Both Sides.” She links to and quotes from the post I wrote one week after Heloise’s birth: Pregnant women, personhood, and paternal reflections. She had some nice things to say about my piece, but took issue with the central thrust of my argument, which revolved around women’s right not to be forced to endure pain.

I wrote: Giving birth — whether by ceserean section or vaginally — hurts. The recovery hurts. That point is being driven home to me daily as I watch my wife recover. She considers the pain well worth it, well worth it because this baby was longed for and wanted. But we both shudder, more than ever now, at the thought of compelling a woman to go through this process against her will.

Jonalyn responds by noting that the real pain isn’t just in pregnancy and childbirth.

During pregnancy I slept long and well. I easily coordinated elaborate outfits with accessories and make-up. I worked out or spend hours reading and writing without leaking milk. Then I had a baby.

It’s not merely the pregnancy that women must count as a cost, it’s the life after the birth.

I believe more women would refuse an abortion if they could serve nine months and be done with it. It’s not the pain of the nine months; it is the idea of a life to be responsible for, to be guilty about, to wonder as to the painful, happy, fruitful or fruitless future of your offspring.

That’s right, I think. It’s certainly not an argument against the legal right to choose an abortion. My point was not that abortion should be legal solely so that women can avoid the discomfort of continuing a pregnancy, nor that it should be legal only so that a woman can avoid the pain of birthing. Indeed, I support abortion rights for precisely the reasons Jonalyn mentions: “the idea of a life to be responsible for, to be guilty about”, and so forth. Whatever moral arguments can be brought to bear on the issue, I believe the state has a clear interest in not compelling women to take up those particular burdens against their will. And while a birth parent can surrender a newborn for adoption, it is simply an unconscionable overask to insist that every pregnant woman unready for motherhood choose adoption.

Jonalyn’s views on sex are deeply traditional; like so much conservative Christian writing on sexuality these days, they resonate with the vocabulary of John Paul II’s odious “theology of the body”, with the insistence that sex be focused on sacrifice and radical openness to new life. Jonalyn writes:

My concern is that pro-choice advocates remain intent upon driving a wedge between procreation and sex. I don’t think this is appropriately human, nor that God created our bodies and souls to permanently cleave sex away from procreation.

For the religious right (a group of which Jonalyn appears to be a member, albeit a winsome and reflective one) sex that isn’t procreative, or sex with the use of contraception, is a rejection of self-evident natural law, a rejection of both the design and the Designer. I come from an alternative Christian tradition, one that honors what Marvin Ellison calls “erotic justice”, something I wrote about at length in this post. I wrote:

Our sexual desires are indeed powerful. They can easily be misdirected or warped. But they can, by God’s common grace, be used as an instrument for justice. More than that, our bodies can be used to worship the aspects of the divine we find in each other. In the old Anglican marriage ceremony, a husband and wife would pledge their lives to each other, saying “with my body I thee worship.” We are called to worship only that which is of God; blessedly, God is found in each of us. When we have sex that is grounded in justice, grounded in enthusiastic and mutual desire, we are engaged in an act of worship. Not every act of sex in marriage is an act of worship, as most married folks can attest. And sex outside of heterosexual marriage, can be deeply worshipful.

The purpose of lovemaking is not to make babies. Pregnancy is simply an ancillary and occasional consequence of one particular kind of sex. Folks who say that procreation and sex can never be separated are like those who say that the primary function of the tongue is to prevent us from choking on our food. It is true that one function of the tongue is to protect large chunks of dinner from being lodged in our throats. But our tongues are there to taste, and we taste both to discern what is rancid and to delight in what is pleasurable. Our tongues are also necessary for speech. And sexually, tongues can bring delight to others. The tongue has many uses, many purposes, all important, all wonderful. We cannot discern a single purpose behind the Designer’s design. It is hubris — poltiicised and pleasure-hating hubris — to suggest that we can.

I know how we made Heloise. I’m fairly certain I remember the specific night she was conceived. After years together as lovers, after still more years of all kinds of sex with all kinds of other people, my wife and I were ready and open to the possibility of conceiving a child. What we had worked assiduously to prevent was now something that we ardently sought. This wasn’t a contradiction, or a sign of hypocrisy. We were at a new season in our lives, emotionally and spiritually and financially equipped to be parents. Was the sex we had when we were trying to conceive different than the sex we had had when we weren’t? Of course it was. But we weren’t magically transformed into better people because after so many years of being sexually active humans, we were finally having intercourse to procreate.

Pleasure still mattered. The opportunity to worship the divine in each other still mattered. The fact that I wasn’t wearing a condom (always, for umpteen reasons, my favorite form of contraception) didn’t mean that I loved my wife anymore than the times I’d been inside her with one on. Sex made the daughter whom I love with all my heart. But as wonderful as she is, as wonderful as all the little darling babes of the world are, they are not the only reason, should not be the only reason, need not have anything to do with the reason why we bring our hands and mouths and genitals together with those of others.

As a husband, a father,a teacher, and a Christian, I know this as I know few other things.

Jennifer Knapp comes out

What had long been rumored was confirmed this week: Christian recording artist Jennifer Knapp, whose extraordinary talent as a singer and songwriter made her the first religious musician to appear at Lilith Fair, has come out as a lesbian.

Knapp burst on to the Christian Contemporary Music (CCM, as its called) scene in 1998, with her debut album, Kansas. I first heard her music at the end of that year, the same year that I was undergoing my own spiritual rebirth and recovery. Most Christian music bugged me; I’d heard Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant and been left cold or exasperated. But there was something raw and authentic in Knapp’s singing, something that seemed worlds away from the “we’re so happy ’cause we’re saved and God is gonna give us rainbows” praise sound that seemed to dominate the Christian airwaves in the 1990s. The song that grabbed me, and became in many ways the “theme” of my recovery and my return to Christ in those years, was her lovely acoustic “Martyrs and Thieves”:

There are ghosts from my past who’ve owned more of my soul
Than I thought I had given away
They linger in closets and under my bed
And in pictures less proudly displayed
A great fool in my life I have been
Have squandered till pallid and thin
Hung my head in shame and refused to take blame
For the darkness I know I’ve let win

I knew what it was to have surrendered willingly to that darkness; I, an addict and alcoholic, knew what it was to have grown pallid and thin and self-absorbed. And Knapp — of course herself an adult convert — made the wonder at the sheer goodness of God seem palatable and honest rather than forced and saccharine. She witnessed, but never preached — a vital distinction that so many Christian artists miss.

After two superb follow-ups to Kansas, Jennifer Knapp went on a mysterious hiatus in 2003. She stopped touring and recording, and went incommunicado. There were rumors about her sexuality; rumors that she’d lost her faith. She stayed underground for nearly seven years, returning earlier this year with an announcement of a new tour, a new album, and a new willingness to tell the truth about a vital aspect of her identity. Continue reading

Celibacy, denial, and escape: memories of a vocation thwarted

A name I hadn’t thought about in a while came back into the news last week: John Cummins, the retired Bishop of Oakland, California. The story has been widely covered: Cummins, who served as bishop in the 1980s and ’90s, wanted to laicize one particular predatory priest, Stephen Kiesle. In 1985, Cummins wrote several letters to the Vatican office of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would have had what was essentially the final say on defrocking priests for sexual abuse and other grave sins. Ratzinger, who of course is now Pope Benedict XVI, was exceedingly reluctant to grant Bishop Cummins’ request to remove this pedophile from the priesthood, suggesting that the scandal of the laicization might do more damage to the church than Kiesle had done.

I meet Bishop Cummins in early 1988, when I was seriously considering the priesthood. A brand-new convert to Rome, I was a junior at Cal. I had fallen in love with God and the church, and was dividing my worship time between the campus Newman Center (run by the liberal Paulist Fathers) and the Dominicans (whose small seminary was right across the street from my co-op on Ridge Road.) I met with several Dominicans in Berkeley and Oakland, as well as various priests and officials in the Oakland Diocese. Even though I had a girlfriend at the time, and even while I was volunteering as a peer sexuality educator on campus, I began to explore the idea that I had a vocation to serve as a priest. I began the discernment process, though without breaking up with the woman I was seeing or interrupting my progress towards my bachelor’s degrees at Berkeley.

Though I had fallen in love with the Dominicans, it was my Paulist spiritual advisor, Father Al Moser, who helped clarify for me that I was not called to be a priest. I met with Al not long after I had had a brief meeting with Bishop Cummins, a meeting that had left me on fire for the priesthood. (Not because of anything the bishop said; it was more what I what projected onto him when we had a quick little talk after a mass in Oakland.) Father Al said, “Hugo, most young men who make it in the priesthood are answering a call, not running away from something. And I think if you’re honest with yourself, you’re running away from something.” He was right — I wanted the certainties I imagined would come with being a priest. I also imagined, as I know many young men in my position have imagined, that a life of public celibacy would magically make my sexual struggles vanish.

In my late teens and early twenties, the struggle I had around sexuality was not about my orientation. I had had some attraction to men, but recognized that the passions of my heart and my body were primarily, albeit not exclusively, directed towards women. I certainly didn’t struggle with attraction to anyone age-inappropriate. Rather, I was having trouble reconciling my feminism with my own sexual ferocity. I was compulsively promiscuous and dishonest; the gap between my desire to see women as my true equals on the one hand and my desire for novelty, validation, and sexual release seemed impossible to bridge. I imagined that if I took a vow of celibacy, God would grant me the strength and the courage to live up to that vow. And I would be able to love everyone, men and women alike, without objectifying them.

I went back and forth in my college years between different strategies for reconciling my sexuality with my humanity. I worked for the university’s Peer Sexuality Outreach program, leading workshops on safer sex, consent, and relationships. I took women’s studies courses (there was no “gender studies” program in those days), and sought an academic and intellectual understanding of sex. And I converted to Roman Catholicism and explored a vocation, hoping to find a way to take all of that rambunctious sexual energy and redirect it into something purely selfless. I was a not terribly unusual, though rather persuasive, bundle of neurosis and compassion, shame and defiance, narcissism and generosity. Thank heavens Father Al called me out on what I was trying to do, and gently suggested I needed to rethink my strategy for reconciling my sexual impulses with my ideological and theological commitments. Continue reading

Of anthems and Mennonites

I had followed with some interest, but had not had time to post about, the controversy surrounding Goshen College and its historic refusal to play the national anthem before sporting events. Goshen’s own website hosts an archive of news coverage of the anthem flap, as well as its own press releases. A Mennonite institution, Goshen belongs to the historic pacifist tradition of the Anabaptist movement. Mennonites have, like their stricter Amish cousins, refused military service (and been incarcerated for it); they have also refused to pledge allegiance to any flag or any nation. Mennonites have a tradition of simplicity, of passionate service to God and the most vulnerable members of His Kingdom.

Mennonites are often placed in a difficult position in America. Often socially conservative, with their largest population centers in places like Indiana and Pennsylvania, they frequently attract the ire of their intensely patriotic evangelical neighbors. Mennonites often proffer a consistent-life ethic, opposing abortion as well as military intervention; opposing the death penalty and euthanasia as well as jingoistic displays of national pride. Despite their peaceful witness, they don’t fit easily into conventional ideological brackets — they lean right on the sexual issues, far left on peace and justice issues. And Goshen, with its historic refusal to play the anthem and salute the flag, had in recent months come under heavy fire from more traditional right-wingers (including Sean Hannity, the talk show and Fox News host.)

The Times this morning offered a brief glimpse into campus life these days. The Goshen campus now plays an instrumental version of the anthem; the tune is there, but no reference to “rocket’s red glare”. (That would be a bridge too far for any self-respecting Anabaptist.) There’s a quote from Goshen’s president, Jim Brennemann, who helped craft the wordless compromise; Jim speaks of a “whole new peace movement” underway on campus.

Jim was my pastor when I worshipped and served at Pasadena Mennonite Church from 2002-2004. During my two and a half years there, I served on the leadership team and headed up the Prayer Commission. It was never an easy fit for me culturally; I loved the peace witness of the Mennonites but was discomfited by the sexual conservatism of the institution. Eventually, that gap between the church’s commitments and my own views led to my very amicable resignation from leadership. Jim Brennemann was as kind as could be through the whole process, which I’m afraid was a bit painful for some of my fellow congregants. Heading a church that held in tension tradition and modernity, radical peacemaking with traditional morality, is no easy task. Jim did it with grace and humor and consummate skill. And though I am sorry that Goshen is now playing the anthem, I am proud of my old friend and pastor that he is now dealing with greater controversies on a greater stage, employing that same winsome and irenic style.

I have been down many roads on my faith journey. I loved my years with the Mennonites. I honored their simplicity, their pacifism, their commitment to Christ and to radical social justice. I could not live as they lived. But I learned much from them. And among the things to which I still adhere is their practice of standing at quiet attention during national anthems, my hand nowhere near my heart.

It was the Mennonites who taught me that while I may have two passports, I do not belong to her Majesty or to the Republic that broke from her predecessor’s rule. I am, in Stanley Hauerwas’ happy phrase, a “resident alien” wherever I go, regardless of my citizenship, until I return to my truest home.

So I’m sorry that the Mennonites at Goshen, the church’s flagship school, have surrendered one of their most impressive distinctives. Truly, the refusal to join the orgy of patriotism (rendering far more to Caesar than is his due) was one of the best aspects of the Anabaptist witness. That witness is compromised, but not entirely. May it be just another tune that is played before the Goshen Maple Leafs take the field. And may another generation of students refuse to sing the words.

Time to Grow Up: a review of Philip Gulley’s “If the Church were Christian”

I recently received a copy of If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus. Written by Philip Gulley, a former Catholic turned Quaker minister, If the Church were Christian is a brief, highly readable, and impassioned call for a a rethinking of our faith along progressive lines.

We are a society that has grown fond in the past decade of polemical tracts from across the political and theological spectrum. The Christian marketplace groans under the weight of books calling for reform and transformation of one sort or another. Few in the church look at contemporary Christianity and say “Yes, this is exactly what Jesus intended.” But even fewer make a coherent case for what the church ought to look like, and of those, hardly any do so with the grace and the winsomeness of Gulley.

A little over a decade ago, I read John Shelby Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Though as a liberal evangelical, I shared most of Spong’s progressive views on sexual liberation and economic justice, I winced at the former bishop’s tone. Spong hectored and belittled those who clung to more traditional views; he couldn’t resist mocking those for whom the Virgin Birth and the resurrection were precious articles of faith — and fact. Spong did little to win the hearts and minds of traditionalists; rather, despite his good heart and his excellent politics, he became an easy target for them because of his tendency to be so relentlessly intemperate. I’ve been waiting ever since for a progressive manifesto that argued for the same end goal — but did so with a far greater respect for those who continue to hold conservative views. My wait is over. Continue reading

The “Why I am a Christian” post

I’m taking a break from posting about issues relating to sexuality to answer a question I received just yesterday in an email from a young woman named Sally. Sally writes:

I don’t know how ‘appropriate’ it is to ask someone about why they believe in religion over an e-mail, especially to a stranger but I am touched by your honesty and openness as demonstrated by your posts, and am inclined to believe that you will answer my question… So here goes: Why are you..or how are you a Christian?

I’m not asking for you to share a personal moment of epiphany or anything like that but rather…I guess I want you to defend yourself, or defend all people in the world who are religious. That’s not because I think you belong in a position to defend yourself but because I am not religious, and out of my arrogance and ignorance, refuse to believe that anyone with ‘intelligence’ or ‘rationale’ would be religious. I only say that because religion is based on faith, not logic. So how is someone as logical as you, as deeply analytical and sharp as you..committed to a religion?

It’s a fair question, and I’ve been asked it before. I’ve answered it as best I can in various ways in other settings, but haven’t dealt with it on this blog. I’ve made allusions to my faith journey — my initial conversion in college, my brief flirtation with a vocation to the priesthood, the long period in the 1990s when I was estranged from my faith and my return to Christ following my near-death experience in 1998. Certainly, the tumult of my personal life over the past quarter century has made me into the ideal candidate for conversion; there is little doubt in my mind that had I not found a faith that could sustain me, I might not have survived.

But to a non-believer, that’s an explanation of belief as a coping strategy. It is not a “case for Christ”, or a case for anything other than the efficacy of religious feeling as a tool for folks in recovery. Even most atheists recognize that there may be psychological benefits to religion. But what of the beliefs themselves? Sally seems to be asking how I reconcile my progressive politics and my reason with a belief in Christ as my savior and the bible as the inspired (if not entirely inerrant) word of God.

I’ve dealt with how I reconcile a deep passion for Christ with a very liberal sexual ethic — see this series. But what about reconciling my faith with my belief in science? What about reconciling my commitment to pluralism and universalism on the one hand (the notion that there are multiple paths to enlightenment and everlasting joy) with my insistence that for me, that redemption has come solely through Christ? And how do I deal with so many of my fellow Christians whose views on a variety of matters are so radically different from my own?

Both of my parents are — or were — philosophers. Both are atheists. I often tease my mother that “I have no problem rejecting the principle of non-contradiction.” Like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, I have on occasion believed “six impossible things before breakfast.” As a child, I believed that if I kissed my teddy bear three times on the morning of a test, I would do well on that test. I always studied too — I never trusted a talisman to do the job for me. It was never “kiss the bear so you won’t have to study”; it was “kiss the bear, and that will help you to remember everything you studied.” I understood a basic theological principle even as a rather obsessive-compulsive child: success is a collaboration between the individual and the divine. (As a Christian, I see this notion reflected in 1 Corinthians 3:9.) So for me, the rational and the inexplicable, the that-which-can-be-proved and the that-which-can’t could always be reconciled. Perhaps it’s a Gemini thing. (Referring to astrology with any degree of seriousness is evidence of still another belief in something that responsible people consider to be just so much woo-woo.)

I studied scholastic philosophy in graduate school: I read Anselm and Duns Scotus, Ockham and Aquinas. I read their various proofs for the existence of God. I wasn’t moved. I’ve never been concerned with proving God exists. God for me is something I experience in a way that isn’t particularly rational — it’s sub-rational, or extra-rational. It’s more emotional and sensory than it is logical. I believe the stories about Jesus — including the bits about his conception and his resurrection — despite my wariness of the miraculous. I believe the stories because they spoke to me as no other stories have. What seems absurd on an intellectual level makes good sense far deeper in my core.

For me, reason is, to paraphrase Jeffers totally out of context, a clever servant and an insufferable master. It is a tool for functioning in the world; it is one way of comprehending and interpreting reality. Whether or not it is reasonable to believe isn’t the question; whether it is worth believing is. And I do know that the evidence for the good that my faith has wrought in my life is considerable. Count me in the “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” camp, if only because without a belief in an omnibenevolent force, the universe would seem so lonely to me that I would feel incapacitated by existential despair. Religion is a crutch. I happen to need a crutch, and haven’t an iota of shame about admitting that I do. And the “Christian crutch” happens to be the one which has worked best for me.

I take Jesus seriously when He says that he has sheep of other folds whom He must lead. I don’t think it is necessary to be a Christian, or even believe in God, to be either a good person or to achieve whatever reward may await us after death. I’ve known too many cruel Christians and kind atheists (and kind followers of other faiths) to believe for an instant that those of us who call Jesus “Lord” have any particular moral superiority. At the same time, I can’t walk every path — I must walk the one that has made a claim on my heart. And Jesus made a claim on mine, so His is the path I try — imperfectly — to walk.

A note on Mary

There are many reasons posting is infrequent at the moment: I’m working on book proposals, and preparing for a trip to Russia in two weeks time; I’ll be lecturing in Moscow on Orthodox Christianity and Kabbalah. It’s been years since I’ve done any reading on the eastern churches, and as a result, am trying to give myself a solid refresher course as rapidly as possible. And of course, being home much more often (I’m on break from the college until February 22) gives me much more time with Heloise, which is a very special blessing. Our daughter will be one in 13 days.

I did want to add a note to Monday’s post about Jesus and the way in which He embodied both male and female characteristics. I ought to have included a quick note on Mary:

One of the things that bothered me most in my days as a Roman Catholic was the way in which Christ’s tenderness was transferred by the most committed Marians (devotees of Mary) to his mother. Far be it from me as a feminist to denigrate the veneration of a woman most churches call not merely the mother of Jesus but the mother of God! I worry, however, that Marian devotion is a response to the cognitive dissonance that arises when someone uncomfortable with the idea of man-as-nurturer confronts the reality of Jesus’ life. There is nothing wrong with seeing Jesus as a strong and forceful defender of justice; there is something wrong with transferring the very real qualities of gentleness onto his mom. To the extent that devotion to Mary allows her devotees to hide from the plain truth that Jesus, living incarnate as a human male, embodied the entire spectrum of virtues (including those traditionally seen as feminine), then I think that devotion is problematic. It allows folks to dodge one of the most radical aspects of His life and ministry, which was His deliberate blurring of the dominant lines around gender roles and ethnic identity.

More than two decades ago, following my conversion to Rome, I seriously considered a vocation (with the Dominicans). I certainly went through a period of Marian devotion, and I prayed the rosary with a convert’s intensity and enthusiasm. I still have a great deal of respect for the Church — but I am convinced that the veneration of Mary as intercessor allows too many to avoid seeing her son’s capacity for tender mercy.