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

Don’t fear the fruitcakes: a response to Barry Goldman

A happy New Year to all. Please join me in saying “twenty-ten” and not “two-thousand and ten”.

An annoying op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times: The Fact of the Matter. Or Not. Arbitrator Barry Goldman worries that we are “becoming a nation of fruitcakes”. The alarmingly under-informed Goldman frets:

A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life concludes: “Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.”

What is striking about the Pew study is not the prevalence of superstition and hocus-pocus, alarming as that is. It is the feeling that we are free to choose from a broad, cafeteria-style menu of superstitious hocus-pocus. Charles Blow in the New York Times called it the construction of “Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities.”

Christians, for example, do not believe in reincarnation. At least not according to theology classes in the seminaries. But the population likes the idea. And people like the idea of being Christians too. So they just choose to believe in both.

Plenty of Christians have believed in reincarnation over the centuries; a belief in the transmigration of souls from body to body wasn’t officially condemned by the church until the sixth-century A.D. Though the majority of early church fathers rejected reincarnation, some early Christians (like the Gnostic Valentinus) did teach the doctrine. As late as the sixteenth century, astrology was regularly practiced by the popes; a great many scholars consider the Magi (the wise men who come to the infant Jesus) to have been astrologers. The point is that what is taught in the theology classes Goldman evidently hasn’t taken has been refined and developed and changed over centuries, through church councils and confessions of faith written and rewritten again and again.

Faith, as any historian of religion, evolves. When earnest young evangelicals start “house churches” because they imagine that they can somehow go back to the way that Christianity was practiced 18 centuries ago, they fail to see that the very texts they will use in worship and the presuppositions they will bring to their interpretation of those texts are inescapably modern. Many churches have come to permit divorce, ordain women, and celebrate same-sex unions — innovations in the sense that they have not always been traditional practices, but to a growing number of theologians, not inconsistent with either biblical doctrine or the Holy Spirit that animates our understanding of God’s will for our lives. Astrology and reincarnation are certainly not consistent with the more recent traditions of the Church — but on many fronts, those traditions are doing what they have always done, which is change.

Goldman is worried that we are moving towards a world where an increasing number of people think irrationally, ignoring evidence if it interferes wth their own assumptions about the world. This is hardly a new concern, and to the extent that it reflects the failure of our schools to teach critical thinking, I share his anxiety. But as Robert Bellah pointed out so brilliantly a quarter-century ago in his Habits of the Heart, this American tendency to fuse together various traditions in new (and highly individualistic) ways is as old as our republic, if not older. Transcendentalism, which is now seen as both thoroughly American and exceedingly reputable in all but the most troglodytic circles, was condemned and mocked a century and a half ago in far harsher language than that Goldman employs. Emerson, Thoreau and his group mixed everyone from Swedenborg to Kant to Hindu Vedic philosophers — a scandalous mishmash at the time, but now a dignified and celebrated part of our national intellectual inheritage. Would Goldman call Ralph Waldo Emerson a fruitcake? Perhaps.

The loss of loyalty to established churches is not cause for regret, I think. In America, so many of our traditional denominations had their roots in ethnic exceptionalism: the Lutherans were German and Scandinavian, the Presbyterians were Scots, the Catholics Irish or Polish or Italian or Hispanic, the Greek Orthodox were, well, mostly Greek. Just as we’ve happily intermarried and mingled traditions gloriously, so that Christmas trees and menorahs shine in the same households, we’ve also found less and less need to stay within the narrow confines of the institutional affiliations which were comforting to our ancestors. And so we dabble and fuse and explore, taking a bit of this and a bit of that, doing what the church has always done. What could be more “fruitcake” than to give and receive said fruitcake on what is supposed to be the birthday of Christ, but is really the birthday of a pagan sun god? What could be more ‘fruitcake” than to celebrate His resurrection from the dead with rabbits and eggs, on a day named after a pagan Goddess?

One of my favorite bible passages is one of the most perplexing to those who believe that the traditional canons of Scripture are the final word:

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you” (John 16: 12-14)

When progressive Christians say “God is still speaking new things”, we rely often on this magnificent passage. And though on Pentecost the Spirit came to many at once, in later times the Spirit often seems to come to folks when they are alone. I don’t fear a world where Christians get their “charts done”. I may have a doctorate in religious history, but I fear more a world where folks with academic and divinity degrees deny that orthodoxy itself is always evolving, as the Spirit continues to tell us what we once could not bear to hear.

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Lot’s daughters, and ours: on sexualization, feminism, and the absence of agency

For the first time in three years, I’m teaching my humanities course on “The Dysfunctional Family and the Western Tradition.” (More about that course here.) We use the work of John Bradshaw as a tool with which to interpret four great masterpieces: the book of Genesis; Euripides’ “Medea”, Ibsen’s “Doll’s House”, and Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I’ve been teaching the course periodically for over a decade, and it’s one of my favorite classes to offer.

Yesterday, we talked about Genesis 19; the famous story of the destruction of Sodom — and of Lot and his daughters. Since the last time I taught the course, I’ve read Robert Polhemus’ dazzling (if occasionally exasperating) Lot’s Daughters: Sex, Redemption, and Women’s Quest for Authority. Polhemus’ book covers not only the story of how the incestuous relationship between these young women and their father has been interpreted within the Abrahamic traditions for millenia, but he touches on some of the ways in which non-incestuous older men/younger women relationships in popular lore mirror the Lot story. (The book is already dated, focusing as it does near the end heavily on the Hillary-Bill-Monica triangle that was so fascinating in the late ’90s; the biblical parallels are there, but to my students who were barely into elementary school at the time, the story doesn’t resonate.) In any case, I recommend Lot’s Daughters with enthusiasm.

The outline of the story ought to be familiar: Lot, Abraham’s relative, offers hospitality to two angels who come to his hometown of Sodom. A crowd of locals besieges Lot’s house, demanding the opportunity to rape the (male) angels. Lot tries to calm the crowd by offering his two virgin daughters instead, but the crowd isn’t interested; Lot ends up being pulled back inside the house. The city is soon destroyed by God, with only Lot and his family permitted to escape; Lot’s wife (the women, of course, are unnamed) makes the fatal mistake of looking back at her burning hometown — and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters end up taking refuge in a cave, where the girls decide to get their father drunk and have sex with him so that he can father their children. The eldest daughter conceives a son who will be the first of the Moabites, the people from whom the great figure Ruth comes. Since Ruth is an ancestor of David, and David an ancestor of Jesus, Christ himself is (if we accept Matthew’s lineage) a descendent of a line begun in father-daughter incest.

We all have a question, reading this story: why do the daughters do it? From a feminist standpoint, it’s a perverse twisting of the reality of incestuous abuse; the literature on the subject reveals that parent-child incest is, in reality, always initiated by the former. The victims are turned into the victimizers, and the male authority figure is absolved (through his drunkenness) of responsibility. Read literally, it’s infuriating in its familiarity; heck, it even fits in as an early example of the “myth of male weakness” against which we’ve so often railed on this blog. Lot gets to pass on his line, and he gets to do so with young, nubile women rather than with his barren wife. (Salt, strewn in fields, destroys fertility — you don’t need to be a graduate student in English to figure out that turning a pillar of salt is a metaphor for the undesirability and absent fecundity of ageing women.) Lot gets to start this blessed line –one that will include Ruth, David, and Jesus — through a sexual act for which he was not responsible. In Genesis 9, Noah curses his son Ham for catching his father drunk and naked and exposing the secret; ten chapters later, Lot remains silent when his daughters get him drunk and naked. (Polhemus has a fascinating section in which he details the ways in which centuries of Christian and Jewish theologians devised ways to absolve Lot of what ought to have been a profound sin).

But here’s the angle Polhemus doesn’t touch on, and one we did explore yesterday in class. The first we learn of Lot’s daughters is when their father offers them up to be raped by a mob. Lot wants to use the sexuality of his own children as a bargaining chip in order to protect the men who are his guests. Read in modern terms, Lot is doing what older men (sometimes fathers, often not) continue to do to adolescent girls: reduce their worth down to one thing. Their value lies solely in their desirability, in their imagined purity, in their youthful fuckability. Scripture doesn’t tell us what the girls thought when they heard their father offer them up to the crowd, but it’s not hard to see the impact on their lives. From a feminist and a family systems standpoint, we can’t understand why the girls seduce their father until we understand the impact of his earlier betrayal upon them.. Continue reading

A note on cornerstones and the heresy of marriage worship

Note: I wrote this post before Governor Sanford of South Carolina, another staunch social conservative, admitted his affair today. The field for 2012 to run against Obama is being winnowed fast as those who wish to deny marriage equality for all are quick to break their own pledges of fidelity. One is trying, oh how one is trying, to avoid schadenfreude.

Summer school is upon us, we’re planning a move from Pasadena to West Los Angeles, and dear little baby is back to waking up several times during the night. I certainly spend more time lecturing than sleeping, and as a result, whatever dim wit I normally have with which to blog has grown even, well, dimmer. I’m not complaining, of course; this is the exhaustion that comes from happy duty, not grim obligation. But still, when I sit down at the computer all I seem to want to do (when I’m done returning legions of emails) is read the news.

The comments below yesterday’s post in response to Kathryn Lopez got sidetracked into a discussion of “cornerstones.” A bit more explanation of the image is needed. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the reference to cornerstones goes back to Psalm 118, verse 22: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. In the Jewish or Old Testament context, the rejected stone is a reference to King David himself; for Kabbalists, it’s a reference to the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of the divine. Continue reading

On liberals, conservatives, and the dangers of disgust

I’m a big Nicholas Kristof fan, and very much enjoyed his piece in this morning’s grey lady: Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal . Kristof writes about the phenomenon of disgust, its evolutionary role in protecting us from harm, and its usefulness as a predictor of political views. An excerpt:

…conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.

I’m not a neurologist or an evolutionary biologist (though my contempt for the usefulness of the latter profession as having much to contribute to the study of contemporary gender roles knows almost no bounds). I’m intrigued by the notion that disgust manifests differently in folks who lean right as opposed to those who lean left. And it occurs to me that one of the things that is essential to my own liberalism is a sense that disgust is, more often than not, a moral failing to be overcome rather than a righteous response to the genuinely contemptible. Continue reading

“Kindly Remembrance”: of faith, ancestors, and debts to the past; a long post in response to Daisy B.

After a week away, I’m back — just in time for midterms here at Pasadena City College. Our official spring break is next week, which I believe gives us the last in all of America. Some colleges are only days from finals, and we’re only halfway through.

Much about which to be blogged, but let me start with a couple of pieces from Daisy, who now blogs at Dear Diaspora. Daisy blogs as a young Jewish lesbian feminist, and many of her best posts at her old blog (and her comments around the ‘sphere) have been in defense of communitarian values. (See our exchange, as it were, around this post.)

As we eased into Passover, Daisy put up a pair of posts about what questions we who call ourselves people of faith ought to be asking. I’m in particular struck by her second post, in which she asks three questions:

What are the effects of practicing my traditions?
What are my obligations to my ancestors?
What are my obligations to my descendants?

Daisy sounds a bit like Edmund Burke here, suggesting that society is composed of three groups: the living, the dead, and those who are to be born. These are the sorts of questions traditionally asked not only by the religiously inclined, but also by those whose temperament is fundamentally conservative. Yet they’re worth reflecting on, particularly perhaps from a feminist standpoint. (Daisy asks another question about what Christians see as their “central question”, and I’ll try and get to that in another post.)

To summarize, the relationship between Western feminism and this Burkean sense of obligation to ancestors and unborn descendants is a complicated one. At the risk of over-generalizing, the feminist tradition in this country, at least, tends to be suspicious of appeals to grand obligations. It is women, more often than not, who have had to do the grunt work of living up to those obligations. It is women who tend to be the primary providers of care to the “living ancestors” (one’s grandparents or older in-laws.) It is women who carry in their bodies the “yet to be born”; historically, the labor of delivery is not the first nor the last “labor” of which women will assume a disproportionate share. So it’s no accident that the feminist message has so often been “You are more than the expectations of your parents and ancestors” and “You are more than a husband and a wife.” To be flip, sometimes feminist advice dovetails almost perfectly with the title of Sandra Tsing Loh’s famous commencement address at CalTech: “Dare to Disappoint your Parents.”

But many feminists, particularly those outside the white middle-class American tradition, have suggested that this almost contemptuous attitude towards tradition risks throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. With the understanding that yes, almost every cultural tradition has a less than flawless record on women’s rights, some feminists have long called for ways to reconcile the “ways of the ancestors” and the sense of obligation to community with a deep-seated belief in women’s radical equality with men. Feminism needs to be about more than individual choice and empowerment; it needs to find a way to center women’s voices and needs in ancient stories which still have value. And perhaps a way can be found to honor ancestors, to honor parents, and to still proclaim an uncompromising and uncompromised egalitarian vision. Continue reading

Babies, family planning, environmental stewardship and the needs of the preborn: the real roots of the culture war

Regular readers know that I tend to discourage my conservative commenters from derailing threads by questioning the very suppositions on which this blog is based. This is a feminist blog, for example, and one which seeks to explore various things from a feminist perspective. This is not a place to question whether the feminist lens is an appropriate one through which to see the world; similarly, a Calvinist blog which seeks to offer a Calvinist perspective on current events is not the place to question the essential tenets of Calvinism. This is why I read quite a few very conservative blogs, but rarely — if ever — comment there. I’m interested in what is said, but since I reject the fundamental premises on which their worldview is based, I don’t think I have much to offer to the conversation. It would be like insisting on speaking Finnish to a group which prefers to dialogue in Thai.

That said, reading all these blogs, I’m increasingly convinced that the core of the split between social conservatives and progressives in this country revolves around not abortion or gay marriage, but a more fundamental disagreement: population. Religious conservatives have become increasingly vocal about their desire to see larger and larger families; indeed, their arguments against abortion and gay marriage seem less couched these days in an assumption that these are intrinsic evils, and more in the language of concern that these practices pose a threat to the large families which the right venerates above all else. Hostility to feminism is surely a sine qua non of contemporary social conservatism, but reading what the pundits on the other side have to say, it seems more and more obvious that their hatred of feminism is rooted in the recognition that increased sovereignty for women over their own bodies is inextricably linked with the reasonable desire to not have, in Amanda Marcotte’s happy phrase, their “vaginas turn into clown cars.”

Feminists and environmentalists have formed common cause over the vital issue of family planning. Those who believe that the world’s resources are already over-taxed by humans whose behavior is frequently parasitic have allies in those who believe that women can and should be encouraged to find fulfillment in pursuits other than motherhood. The longer women wait to marry or reproduce, the less likely they are to have large families; the more opportunities we can create for women to pursue happiness outside the home, the greater the likelihood they will delay marriage and childbirth. The intersection of sound environmental policy and the campaign to give women the precious right of personal autonomy is a fortuitous one indeed! And almost to a man and woman, social conservatives despise this alliance, one which is changing family structures across the western world — and increasing the possibility for greater happiness for the earth and its creatures.

Here, replete with grammatical error on top of grammatical error, is a piece by David Goldman in First Things: What Should Conservatives do about Obamanomics? It takes the “we must have big families” argument to a new level, by suggesting that the collapse of the real estate bubble is due — wait for it, can you guess? — to, yes, birth control:

The first thing that conservatives have to tell Americans is: “You are poorer because you failed to bring up enough children. The decline of the traditional family is undermining the American economy.”

Right. Apparently, that’s why the countries with the highest birth rates, like Sierra Leone and Chad are so rich, and countries with among the lowest, like Sweden and Switzerland, are so desperately poor?

This isn’t the place to point out the risible foundations of the “we must have more babies or the world will collapse” argument. Plenty of economists have pointed out that the “growth” model can be replaced by a healthy “sustainability” model. The transition may be wrenching, but far less so than the apocalyptic impact on our planet of ever-growing voracious human appetites.

What I’m wondering — to get to the point of this post — is why religious conservatives are so eager to have large families? I get the economic argument (we need more future workers to maintain retired ones), but the churches were urging their flocks to “be fruitful and multiply” long before anyone thought up modern pension schemes, or modern feminism. Beyond the instinct to reproduce and survive, what are the theological roots of this obsession with making babies?

I know my Mormon friends believe, or so they tell me, that there are countless billions of “pre-born souls” wandering around up in the ether, each longing to be born. Thus, having a large family is an act not of irresponsibility but of self-sacrifice: parents give up their freedom in exchange for the satisfaction of helping as many of these pre-born souls as possible become incarnate. (My LDS friends, please tell me if I’ve misrepresented the idea.) Some of my friends in the Kabbalah Centre believe that in the Beginning, God created a “vessel” which then shattered into trillions of tiny sparks. Each of these sparks is a sentient soul, and each longs to be born into human flesh for the sake of reassembling the broken vessel and completing what in Hebrew is called tikkun olam, the repair of the world. Thus for Mormons and Kabbalists, family size limitation is selfish on an eschatalogical level — it delays the final redemption and robs the “pre-born” (the term sends chills down my spine) of their shot at participating in the glories of incarnation. Continue reading

Love, calling, guardianship: the faith of a new father

I will eventually get back to blogging about subjects other than my new daughter, but surely I can be forgiven for being somewhat single-minded these days.

A friend of mine wrote me a note a few days ago, asking how becoming a Dad at long last had impacted my faith. She gently pointed out that I haven’t been blogging much about spiritual issues recently, and thought that this might be my opportunity to turn to that subject once again.

When I saw my baby born nine days ago, I think (I can’t be sure) that my first words were “Oh my God.” Those of you who are parents surely know what I’m talking about (those who actually gave birth know far more). It is an extraordinarily primal moment — blood and sweat and all sorts of other fluids, the grasping hands of caregivers, the gasps of a woman in pain and joy, and, after a few heartstopping seconds, the cry of new life. There is no hyperbole in saying that that instant two Mondays ago was the most wonderful experience of my nearly forty-two years in this incarnation. I felt God with me and with my wife and new child; I sensed the “great cloud of witnesses” looking on. I cried, of course, tears of joy — and tears of thanksgiving for the safety of my wife and child.

I’ve been saying “Thank you” to God every day, several times a day, this week. I’ve also been asking, constantly, for His help and guidance as I do this new thing called fatherhood. I’m smart enough to know that I can’t possibly do it perfectly, but am sufficiently filled with love and zeal that I want to do every imaginable thing that I can for my wife and daughter.

But at times, of course, I’ve battled a lot of fear, and have called out to God in my anxiety. I have the usual fears that first-time parents have: “Is that a normal poop?” “Why does her breathing change so suddenly?” But I have other fears as well which I am turning over to Christ. I call myself a “born again” (albeit one with universalist theology and liberal politics) because I know what it is like to be transformed and changed by faith. But the memory of who it was I used to be — the drug addict, the borderline, the narcissistic manipulator, the self-injurer, the womanizer, the utterly self-absorbed — has haunted me a bit these past few days. What if that Hugo comes back? What more can I do to ensure that my daughter never knows first-hand those aspects of her father, and only encounters them through fragments of old stories and the myriad scars she will find on my body? I’ve been talkin’ to God about this every day. I trust His grace, because I’ve felt it. I trust, too, that I will be given the strength to persevere (one way of translating the “p” in TULIP, for you crazy Calvinists) until the end and past the end. Continue reading

Exclusivity, not rarity: further thoughts on the “number” and the richness bequeathed by a “past”

In July 2005, I wrote a long post entitled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the Right to a Private History”. I wrote about dealing with one’s own — and one’s partner’s — sexual past in a relationship, and the importance of not allowing one’s consciousness to obsess on what one’s current lover has or hasn’t done. I took an especially strong tack against the habit, common among the insecure and the young (particularly, but not exclusively males) of nagging to be told “the number” of previous partners. I wrote:

On the subject of one’s sexual past, I’ve become a great believer that no one should ever ask or answer the question “So, how many people have you slept with?” (Let me clarify: I don’t mean one shouldn’t tell one’s good friends, just not one’s partner.) Answering a request to reveal one’s number rarely turns out well, especially for women. For more conservative (and insecure) men, any number higher than “zero” will be too high; whether it’s five or fifty or five hundred, she may pay a high price for answering truthfully! To be fair, some women are also going to be unnerved by what they may regard as an “inappropriately high” number. The only rational response to such a query from a current or prospective partner is a gentle, loving “Tell me why you really want to know, and tell me what you’re going to do with this information once you have it.

I stand by those words today. I wrote in 2005 from the perspective of a man about to be married to his fourth wife, a man with a colorful history and a penchant for frankness who has (nota bene) never come close to disclosing his number on this blog, a site on which he discloses so much else. And I honestly have no idea where my wife’s number stands. And I thought again about that post, and about this topic, because of a comment Antigone made below Monday’s post on kissing:

There is nothing that I’ve done with my husband that I haven’t done with someone else. I don’t have anything that is “For One Person Only”; and yet, I don’t feel like my intimacy with him is lacking in any way.

I think we cross-over too many ideals from property, including rarity makes something more valuable.

That resonated with me yesterday, and got me thinking about the distinction between “rarity” and “exclusivity”. Like most feminists, I’m disgusted by the way in which the abstinence movement employs images of chewed gum or wilted roses to describe a woman with sexual experience. I’m infuriated by the tactic — employed by my fellow Christians who ought to know their New Testament better — of “slut-shaming” by suggesting that a girl or a woman (much less often a man) who has had pre-marital sex has lost her value. We are not cars; we don’t depreciate when driven off the lot. But these tactics work to create anxiety and shame in many young (and not-so-young) people. And these tactics are based on, as Antigone suggests, the misuse of the property model, a model that suggests that the less often something has been handled or used, the more “rarely” it has been seen or touched, the more valuable it is. We no longer treat women as legal property of their husbands, but we do employ property-based thinking when it comes to sex. Continue reading

Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

Father Richard John Neuhaus died this morning at the age of 72, following a long battle with complications from cancer.

Neuhaus was the founder, editor, and publisher of First Things, the flagship journal for Catholic neo-conservatism, and the only right-of-center magazine to which I have ever regularly subscribed. Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Rome and was ordained as a priest, was an extraordinary writer. It was the quality of his prose that drew me to him many years ago, when my friend Steve gave me a copy of the wonderful Death on a Friday Afternoon. Steve was — and is — a strong evangelical conservative with latent Catholic tendencies, and he hoped to bring me “over to the dark side” by playing on my fondness for first-rate writing. “Death on a Friday Afternoon” is a book I have returned to again and again in recent Lents, and though I am too progressive in my politics to have much taste for most atonement theories, Neuhaus’ case for the efficaciousness of Christ’s suffering on the cross is as good as any I’ve read. (And I’ve read a lot on atonement theory, having worked on the subject for a year or two in graduate school.)

Neuhaus was a vigorous defender of the idea that faith was vital to how we participated in the struggle for the common good, a point he made in his earlier and very influential The Naked Public Square. His greatest wrath was reserved for those who tried to excise religious motivations from political discussions. He ridiculed the idea that any serious believer (be he or she Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or what-have-you) could so compartmentalize his or her life so that politics and faith had no influence upon each other. Our faith, Neuhaus reminded his readers again and again, shapes our world view — and we participate in public life based upon that world view. Respect and tolerance had their place (and Neuhaus proved it by having friends across the ideological and theological spectrum, including, famously, the radical Methodist Stanley Hauerwas), but respect and tolerance did not preclude the obligation to bring one’s own most deeply held convictions into the political sphere. Father Neuhaus was an influence on many important conservative Catholic voices, and was, without question, the priest closest to the upper echelons of the Bush Administration. George W. Bush called him simply “Father Richard”.

Neuhaus, partnering with Chuck Colson of Watergate fame, was a linchpin of the movement known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. A former Protestant, Neuhaus retained deep and abiding affection and respect for those churches not in communion with Rome. A keen culture warrior, Neuhaus was eager to overcome decades of distrust and hostility between conservative Catholics and right-wing Protestants. Some of his motive was political: American conservatism needed unity rather than division in the struggle against liberalism. Some of his motive was theological: like most serious Christians, the divisions in the body of Christ wounded and saddened him. ECT, as it is known, has been an important project, and has brought in moderates and progressives as well as traditionalists. In recent years, Neuhaus took an interest in Catholic-Mormon dialogue, and published several pieces in First Things sympathetic to the LDS movement. Continue reading