One thing I’d really like to look at more is theology and sexuality. More evangelicals are becoming gay and lesbian affirming, at least in the sense that everything is all good within the bounds of a mutual, monogamous relationship, i.e., marriage. Now I’ve only read what’s come across my path here, not having done a lot of research on this specifically, but I am aware of the position(s) that “marriage equality” doesn’t mean a whole lot for equality or justice really at all. It’s gradualist in the sense that it allows those previously excluded from certain privileges to attain them in some sense, but it’s not radical because it doesn’t go past the basic framework that is already offered. It wants into marriage rather than reimagining relationships, sex, love, etc from the ground up, creating new alternatives. Moreover, same sex marriage focuses on including lesbians and gays into a historically heteronormative system, but it becomes more problematic when considering bisexuals, pansexuals, transgender persons… If that’s ambiguous it’s because I’m trying to generalise a whole lot of vaguely recollected reads which also each probably frame the issues differently.

Anyway, this is just one factor that has got me thinking about some questions to pursue around theology and sexuality, specifically marriage. Some other factors include the high numbers of evangelicals especially who have had pre-marital sex (yes this includes oral and manual), in relation to this evangelical purity culture, pornography, people getting married later, increased divorce rates, and an increasing amount of people (mostly outside the church as far as I know) exploring alternatives to monogamous relationships, such as various approaches to polyamory. I want to pose the question, what does this mean for our theology of marriage? I can think of three main approaches:

(A) A “traditionalist” approach which seeks to maintain traditional evangelical/Christian understandings of marriage (whatever they are!) while acknowledging the difficulties people have maintaining this as a reality, like in pre-marital sex and getting divorced, and supporting them accordingly, another kind of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin-approach. With any approach there will be ongoing failures and exceptions which cannot be accounted for. However, these need to be addressed through understanding tradition as dynamic, creating new tradition, and remembering as good Protestants that our source is not first tradition but the person of Christ.

(B) This leads into a “retrieval” approach which would seek to draw on the sources of Scripture and tradition, engaging with both critiques of marriage from within and outside of the church, to attempt to restate what marriage has been and what it might be today. For example, I’ve been thinking a bit about Paul’s frequent use of porneia, usually translated as “sexual immorality” in the New Testament. While I’m sure that because Paul didn’t understand sexuality, gender, etc in the same way that we do he would have provided some very different answers to ours, it also needs to be asked what connection early Christians such as Paul saw between life in Christ and the Spirit and their sexual decisions and how this should relate to contemporary Christian practice. Nonetheless, this approach has not yet heeded what it might look like to imagine and affirm new relationships and sexualities outside of the concept of marriage altogether.

(C) The final would be a “liberation” approach which understands Christ as coming to liberate creation for a completely new order which is new creation. So, Jesus, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30; cf. 1 Cor 7:25-31). This also concerns undertaking theology not from the perspective of those who benefit from marriage (or benefit from promoting and defending it) but from those who are in different senses excluded from marriage, so LGBTQI persons, and in a different again yet still important sense the never-married-but-lived-as-in-a-relationship-which-in-many-ways-was-marital, the widowed, the divorced, the forever alone/never-got-married-but-wanted-to. Obviously such an approach would both need to engage critically with the married (though I’d like to think many who are happily married would provide some kind of support for this approach) but also acknowledge in what senses marriage has and continues to be a source of love, growth, support, healing, strength, etc, for so many people.

I began writing this post as I had until recently thought only in terms of B, though suddenly I found my self considering the value of C. This is all provisional and a sketch. Others will have given this more time and thus more thought and probably considered a lot more things than I have in this post.

If I were an Aristotelian, girl,
you would be my telos.
And if I were a Neo-Platonist,
you would be the One.

If I were a rationalist,
you would be my ergo and I
would be your subject.
If I were an idealist, well,
you’re already phenomenal.

If I were a Marxist,
you would be my utopia.
Life’s dialectic; let’s
work it out.

If I were an existentialist, girl,
you would be my nausea, my sickness
unto death. My negation would be willed
by you and I would despair you, affirm you, and die

And if I were a feminist, well,
clearly that’s necessary.

Yet I am but a poor Gentile idolater and we
are dust.

possibility alights on day break sunshine
tomorrow is the limit of her pinions wings
everything is future promise summer eternal
yellow golden never-ending endlessnesses

but yet the teeth machine of history stone past
grasps at for to must get has got her nape and tarsus
concrete overcast darkness necessity nothing
nothing nothing nothing

ruffle beat struggle conscious conscious
the light of grey is a pale one
“to live” has a broad semantic domain
it extends to the obsolete

memory scorns hope takes creates its own
scorns denies that which never came to be
and mourns breaks sings its own new beautiful nothing

William Blake's Job

William Blake’s Job

As the oft-repeated verse goes, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Romans 12:1). So also the oft-repeated accompanying comment: Worship is holistic. Singing in church has little value if it something less than an expression of the individual and church’s wider commitment to God. When the whole life is directed towards him, even the mundaneness of taking a shower is taken into this position of worship. Nothing is excluded from this living sacrifice, except sin, that which is opposed to God and his plan of redemption. This is not to say that sin prevents it, however. As the Spirit worked in Jesus so the Spirit works in us. We can offer our lives as worship while we await for sin and death to be finally overcome.

What place does doubt play in this very short sketch of the Christian life? Is it sin that will be done away with when the world is brought into new creation? Or is it, somehow, an expression of the life directed towards God? A surface reading of the New Testament suggests the former:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways.

(James 1:5-8).

Doubt could be understood as hesitating to approach God and ask him for something or, having asked God, hesitating to believe that the prayer will be answered. For James, doubt in this sense would probably not be a form of worship! This makes sense when seen in the context of new creation: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Why would the Spirit bring us to doubt if we will one day be free from all doubt?

However, the question becomes more complicated when understood in the context of the wider biblical picture. At the end of 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes surveying the absurdities and evils of life the Teacher can conclude, “Perfectly pointless… everything is pointless” (12:8). Add to that the second voice in the postscript. Not only, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (v.13) but, surprisingly, “The Teacher searched for pleasing words, and he wrote truthful words honestly” (v.10). Apparently the Teacher who decried the absurdities and evils was not misguided! The narrator who opens and closes Ecclesiastes reassures us that Teacher’s doubts are not only compatible with the life of worship but actually worth reflecting on.

This is true also of the Psalms:

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.

(Psalm 44:9-12).

This is not the one-off, sinful musings of a person who has set their self against God. It is holy writ, taken up by the people of God and sanctified as the language of prayer and worship. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth, let alone your God?

An interesting case is Job, whom, as the story goes, God allows Satan to afflict by killing off his children and livestock, and striking him with sores all over his body. Job’s initial responses to the horror include praising God despite the situation — “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (1:21) — and even defending God — “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10). However, in the main body of text we encounter a seemingly different Job: “Does it seem good to you that you oppress me, that you reject the work of your hands and cause the purpose of sinners to shine?” (10:3). God does not just seem distant but positively evil: “You know that I’m not guilty, yet no one delivers me from your power” (10:7). Which of these set of statements is spoken in faith or worship? It is hard to imagine any liturgical context where such language is directed in faith to God above, that is, whatever faith in that context would mean! It should also be remembered that, after much dialogue with the friends who apparently came to comfort him, Job is answered by God himself with the longest uninterrupted divine speech in the Bible. At the conclusion of this speech Job affirms again his faith in God’s power. He is declared righteous in contrast to his friends who “didn’t speak correctly, as my servant Job” (42:8).

In what sense can these examples be considered doubt? Maybe not in James’ sense. At least in the case of the Psalms and Job, such utterances are directed towards God rather than in a place apart from him. They arise from the mouths of those who have faith because, despite the content of their complaints, they do not direct it at a subject other than God. They are not uttered “behind his back,” so to speak. And it may be too simplistic to consider them as wavering. There is an urgency in the examples given which seeks answers from heaven. The supplicants are persistent in seeking God to respond to their situations. Thus by doubt I mean that which arises from either having seen God at work in history or more generally from an expectation that God’s being means that life should prevail over death and yet does not see this at work at present: Biblical doubt concerns the cries directed towards the One who could and should be present but is yet absent.

Marcus Reichert's Crucifixion VII

Marcus Reichert’s Crucifixion VII

This brings us to a New Testament example. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ last words on the cross as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me?” (Mark 15:33). By abandonment here I do not see some split in the Trinity (which is probably impossible and with which the world and God would cease to exist), but the simple continuation of the Old Testament tradition of the suffering righteous, as Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus quotes here, shows. Jesus has been abandoned by his Father insofar as his Father did not deliver him from those who crucified him. His abandonment is in the unanswered prayers offered in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). It is Jesus’ abandonment which brings this form of doubt into the Christian life of worship.

This also allows for doubt to be seen in the context of new creation. Both the passion narrative and Psalm 22 point to Jesus’ deliverance: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here” (Mark 16:6). God did not leave his servant to die but “he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24). Doubt will be done away with. Yet, as long as creation remains the world of sin and death, doubt remains an important part of the Christian life. The end of Jesus and the psalmist’s story does not mean that there was never a middle. We are in the middle, the redemption of which will one day be brought to completion, and as such we cannot be detached from this middle but stand with it and share in its fears, worries, and doubts. In the same chapter we find the call to holistic worship we also find: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Romans 12:15). We need to creatively incorporate doubt and protest into our personal and communal worship.

I end with three of my own doubts that I direct towards the only One who could possibly one day answer them:

  • How can I celebrate the victories and glimpses of redemption that you bring in my life and the lives of others when so many people are left seemingly untouched by grace and love?
  • I can see how you can redeem Jesus’ suffering, who took the cross upon himself willingly and was rewarded with resurrection life. But how can you redeem those who suffer unwillingly?
  • Through the work of the Spirit in the present it is possible to begin to imagine a world without sin and death. In this sense I can see the future of the world being redeemed. But how can this redemption touch every ugly and unspeakable corner of history? You can offer us a better future but how can you offer those who have suffered a better past?

I’m currently researching for a chapter in my thesis on Moltmann’s innovative trinitarian understanding of divine passibility (God, as Trinity, suffers). Kevin Vanhoozer is a contemporary impassibilist whose book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (2010) presents a meaty restatement of the classical theist (and, according to Vanhoozer, necessarily biblical) position on divine impassibility. One of the strengths of the book is Vanhoozer’s attention to words and definitions. He makes sure he defines his terms before using them (here, impassibility and emotion), which is too often left undone in other studies on the subject.

However, I just read Vanhoozer’s discussion of contemporary theory of emotion. He identifies two main theories. The first attributes emotion to bodily functions (“Non-cognitive (physicalist) theories”) and the second to the mind (“Cognitive (mentalist) theories”). Now, my lack of familiarity with the subject here may lead to some embarrassment on my part, but I just don’t get Vanhoozer’s rejection of the first:

“The physicalist view of emotions is not without significant problems, even apart from the issue of God’s corporeality [which camostar will not be addressing either]. First, such theories fail to acknowledge the importance of the influence of one’s beliefs on one’s emotions. It is not simply my seeing a snake that causes me to fear it but my belief that it is poisonous. Second, it is impossible to distinguish between emotions on the basis of physical sensations alone: fear, anger, and love alike may manifest the same physiological symptoms (i.e., rapid breathing). It follows that physical sensations are not themselves what we feel as emotions. Third, it is difficult to appeal to emotions as motives that explain a person’s behaviour if emotions are only bodily sensations. I do not shout at my neighbor because my heart is beating fast but because I am angry about what he did. Finally, while we regularly ascribe moral worth to certain emotions, it is difficult to hold persons praiseworthy or blameworthy for their sweaty armpits” (406-407).

Again, don’t treat me as an authority here, but I don’t see how these can be objections to a physicalist understanding of emotions:

  1. Why does Vanhoozer imply beliefs are non-physical? Obviously they arise in accordance with the environments that individuals develop within but this does not rule out the physicality of either those environments or the “cognitive” constructions that the individual develops. (By environment here neither do I make a distinction between nature and nurture. The environment is the individual and the individual is the environment. The distinction is nominal). Surely whatever beliefs are made up of that we identify as “cognitive,” for example memories, are a result of physical (at least if I’m reading this not as a Christian)* responses to the environment.
  2. Similarly, just because physical sensations are “smaller,” that is, occurring in the “mind” rather than the “body” like rapid breathing, the example Vanhoozer uses, they should not therefore be excluded from being physical sensations. Yes there is overlap between different emotions but to say that we can’t distinguish them physically is (a) to claim that the differences between them are unaccountable for physically, as if in the brain, too, the exact same thing is going on in both love and anger; and (b) comes close to the assumption that emotions are set categories anyway, whereas they developed pre/historically as organisms responded to their environments and, the same thing but accounted for in more recent terms, as human societies developed different socio-cultural contexts in which to be emotional. What if some emotions that used to be distinct are now “physiologically indistinguishable” and vice versa?
  3. Based on these first two objections to objections it should be clear now that shouting at a neighbour in anger can be accounted for in physicalist terms. It is a physical response as much as the heart beating is.
  4. Vanhoozer here shifts the argument. But just because we have socialised predispositions towards particular emotions, we cannot therefore make a theory of emotion conform to our ethics systems.

It looks like I’ve come down rather hard on Vanhoozer. That’s why I’ve titled this post as a question. The objections I have raised seem patent to me but I feel like I’m missing something of the complexity of the argument because of my unfamiliarity with the literature. It has otherwise been a very illuminating read so far!

*While not addressing questions of divine and human agency, my developing “Christian” understanding of physicalism accepts the classical theist “infinite qualitative distinction” (Kierkegaard) between God and the world. Through creation, God gives life to everyone and everything by the Holy Spirit, who in a very limited sense indwells them and guides them. In new creation, believers receive the Holy Spirit “properly,” in the same way Jesus received the Spirit, but for us as a deposit ahead of the resurrection. Included in Jesus’ divine sonship, we can live a life apart from the “physical,” though, in biblical terms, the world of sin and death, and instead live a life towards the new creation that God has brought in Jesus and will bring in Jesus.

The subtlety of hair

The subtlety of hair,
The scratchy scalp,
The seriousness of the forehead,
The brow of the eye.

The audacity of eyebrows, in general,
The sleep in an eye,
The blur of the other one,
Grease is the word down the length of the nose.

Yesterday’s growth just north of the lip,
The good-morning salt in the underbite,
The suitability of the chin for paint preparation,
The perfect neck.

The “here I am” of the shoulders,
The “there you go” of the arms,
The “as luck would have it” of nipples,
The handiness of fingers.

The slap of the puku,
The stop-to-think finger-home of the inny,
The monstrosity of the penis,
The contentment of the ball-bag.

The camaraderie of thighs in the crisis of rising,
The possibility of knees,
The difficulty of shins,
Don’t try to convince me on ankles.

The ground beneath the feet,
The stubs before the toes,
In the body the ambivalent,
In the ambivalent the absurd,
In the absurd God.

This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

In chapter two Aristotle addresses an important objection to the project of metaphysics, that is, there is an infinite series of causes. By implication, metaphysics can never adequately arrive at any kind of first cause. Aristotle begins by noting that matter if traced back through its causes eventually reaches a beginning point, so does change, and so does the goal of things when traced forward. Neither last things nor middle things are causes of a series. Last things do not cause because nothing follows them. Middle things, though they cause last things, are dependent on that which comes before them. Without this primary thing there can be no cause.

Aristotle also considers that not all things are caused in a linear series like this. Some things “bend back” (46) for mutual causality so as air causes water so water causes air. In this process, one thing is destroyed and the other is generated, then again. However, that from which water and/or air originated in the first place cannot be destroyed as it is eternal. Not only backwards, it is also eternal in that all things are done for its sake. If there are infinite causes then there can be no “good” at which all things aim. Neither would mind, which acts for the sake of limited things, exist. The next part is quite technical, but from what I understand Aristotle argues that because an infinity of causes has no beginning and thus also no end then tracing the series is impossible to do with a finite mind. Indeed, an infinite mathematical series cannot be known. But this knowledge is not necessary to cognition. Cognition, which is knowledge of causes, would be impossible if the causes were infinite.

I doubt I’ve done Aristotle the grace of understanding him before writing this post. Nonetheless, from what I do understand, there are some important assumptions here underlying his metaphysical project. Aristotle rejects the idea of any existing infinity: “And it is not possible for any infinite thing to exist; otherwise, infinity would not be infinite” (47). To me this is both poetically and logically valid. A truly infinite infinity must extend beyond existence itself. My confusion is with Aristotle’s invocation of an eternal first cause from which and to which all things go. There is probably some important distinction between eternity and infinity in the Greek of which I’m unaware, but initially I see little difference between an infinite series of causes and an eternal first cause. If this first cause is eternal, the source of all, and thus unlike any other cause we know then how can we be sure that it does not consist in an infinity of other causes, those obviously not open to human cognition!

Another assumption is that the source provides the end. But I wonder if it can be said that if the source produces something other to itself then is not that otherness, even if it is an otherness in the minimal sense, that there is something other than the eternal first cause, already the source of another end? Is it quite possible that this first cause is swallowed up in a teleology completely foreign to itself? It could be said that if this is the first cause then nothing foreign to itself could be its teleology because all that exists comes from it. However, this understanding of cause is very linear and assumes that nothing new can come about. That the caused thing is not the cause itself is the beginning of a last thing that differs from its first thing.


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