Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Opposite of Sex

Bill McKibben:

In fact, there may be several competing creeds. For many Christians, deciphering a few passages of the Bible to figure out the schedule for the End Times has become a central task. You can log on to for a taste of how some of these believers view the world - at this writing the Rapture Index had declined three points to 152 because, despite an increase in the number of U.S. pagans, "Wal-Mart is falling behind in its plan to bar code all products with radio tags." Other End-Timers are more interested in forcing the issue - they're convinced that the way to coax the Lord back to earth is to "Christianize" our nation and then the world. Consider House Majority Leader Tom De-Lay. At church one day he listened as the pastor, urging his flock to support the administration, declared that "the war between America and Iraq is the gateway to the Apocalypse." DeLay rose to speak, not only to the congregation but to 225 Christian TV and radio stations. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "what has been spoken here tonight is the truth of God.
The question of what goes in a mission statement, of "how do we define ourselves," is ultimately a question of language. Creeds were the "mission statements" of the earlier church, and my complaint with "mission statements" is more the meaning behind them now, the shifting intent that means once again to include and exclude, simultaneously. I can say the Nicene Creed now without feeling I am excluding Unitarians, say; but the history of these things is always treacherous.

Three examples of conflict over language. The first from the "Left Behind" series:
Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knewws, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgivable brightness of the glory of Christ.
Now, I have to say, even though I've read descriptions like this before of the Christian eschaton, I still consider it a kind of violence porn, something meant to be titillating, to appeal to a baser nature or drive, and not a description merely, or an explanation of some truth of the human condition. This is purely violence as stimulant, an indication that Christianity has not moved much beyond the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire it started under.

Wittgenstein touches on the point I want to make here, though, albeit not from quite so drastic or dramatic a hypothetical. This is my second example.:

An Austrian general said to someone: "I shall think of you after my death, if that should be possible." We can imagine one group who would find this ludicrous, another who wouldn't.
Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgment, and I don't, does this mean that I believe the opposite to him, just that there won't be such a thing? I would say: "not at all, or not always.
Suppose I say that the body will rot, and another says "No. Particles will rejoin in a thousand years, and there will be a Resurrection of you."
If someone said: "Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?" I'd say: No." "Do you contradict this man?" I'd say: "No."*

It is fairly clear, I think, that Mr LeHaye would say Mr. Wittgenstein does, indeed, contradict him.

The third example is from my own experience. I attended a weekend retreat many years ago now, where the topic was to be genetics and the response of the church. This was in response to the cloning of Dolly, the sheep, long before the current controversy over stem cells. The conference was called by influential lay leaders in the local church, scientitists who wanted the General Synod of the UCC to take a position on the issue (the resolution we produced at the end of the weekend went to General Synod, where it promptly disappeared; a matter of church politics). The attendees were divided between lay people and clergy, and throughout the weekend I kept urging, in small groups, the inclusion of language that referenced God as Creator; not an anti-science position, but a positive Christian position, or so I thought. However, on the last day, as we settled on the final wording of the resolution, I spoke up on the point for the final time, and urged again that we mention God more prominently, as this was a church document, not a scientific one, and as we spoke to add to the public conversation our particular ecclesiastical and Christian voice.

There was an embarassed silence from the clergy, and then a lay person spoke up and lambasted me for my suggestion. He was, he said, sick of the church beating up on science and scientists, and he would have no part of that. And that was the end of it.

What I took from that was the importance of language, the "several competing creeds" that McKibben talks about. Creeds are not only religious or doctrinal documents, they are the ideas we hold most dear, and what was said in that room was the God had a place in this conversation, but should be kept distinctly in it. Science rules the day, and theologians should recognize that God is merely an ancillary, an adjunct, to technology; an alternative explanation, perhaps, as to where electricity comes from or why water is wet, but not to be confused with the primacy and supremacy of empiricism and "rational thought." A lot of weight for one comment, eh? But it was a telling moment: even people in the pews imagine religion is nothing more than a series of myths, and myths are nothing more than a series of childish explanations for the functions of the material world which, after all, is the only "world" that "really" exists, so any non-empirical explanations for it, or even any metaphysical discussions about the universe, are simply nonsesne, and not finally to be tolerated. God is in a box now, thanks to human reason (no longer a gift of the Creator, but solely a consequence of evolution), and it is foolishness to pretend otherwise.

Which brings us back to the foolishness of Timothy LaHaye, and is pornographic violence. Just as I seemed to do violence to that man's world view at the retreat, Mr. LaHaye seems to desire violence against those whose world-view does not encompass even the God of his beliefs.

The curious thing about pornography (to wander further afield but come back to my point), the never-quite-mentioned thing, because we are, after all, a society, a culture, of rugged individualists (the kind who get left out of the family reunion, like John Wayne at the end of "The Searchers"), is that pornography is all about the "individual." This is what feminist critiques of pornography as "objectifying" and turning women into "sex objects" was rooted in, or at least trying to get at. Pornography is the ultimate selfishness: the "other" exists only to satisfy my needs, to give me a private stimulation I crave. You may watch it in a movie theater or at home with friends in the living room, but the message is the same: "This Porn's for You!" And it is all about your satisfaction, and nothing else.

And it provides the spiritual equivalent of a candy cane: intense pleasure for a moment, and absolutely no "nutritional" value. It leaves you, on other words, as empty as when you first arrived, and no better off. Porn is not limited to sex, either; as this example shows, this reveling in the bloody and horrific slaughter of the "unsaved" faced with the "unforgivable brightness of the glory of Christ."

This can be unpacked on so many levels. The Hebrew Scriptures make it clear that the revealing of the glory of God is deadly to mortals, but usually it's just frightening. When Moses comes down from Sinai, where he receives the law from God, his face glows with the reflected glory of God, and this scares the people. Moses has to wear a veil for a while, just to hide the glow, or "glory," his face reflects. This is not isolated. When the people hear the theophany of God on the mountain, the thunder and lightning of God's presence as God speaks to Moses, they hide in their tents, and later tell Moses to have God just speak to him, and he to them. God scares them, they say.

God still scares us, but now some of us want to ratchet up the fear level, and revel in the results as our "righteous" God slays the unbeliever. "See there," believers get to say: "We told you we were right!" It's not only a hideous sight, it's a hideous thought. It's a hideous theology.

But why would Mr. LeHaye say that Herr Wittgenstein was contradicting him? Because Mr. LeHaye doesn't believe in "language games"? Perhaps; but there is more to it than that. Mr. LaHaye, actually, and that layperson, and, I suspect, many a layperson (and indirectly, the clergy beholden to them for their continued employment, especially in a congregationally based polity), actually want their "God" in a box, one of their own devising, where "He" will not interfere with their lives or their fantasies. And if they cannot claim to contradict Wittgenstein, then how can they claim that their beliefs are real? How can God be God, if they are not in control of how "God" is understood, and if "God" is not in service to their desires?

Which gets us back to creeds; and mission statements.

*Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins Glorious Appearing (Wheaton, Ill., Tyndale House, 2004). p. 226, quoted in John Dicker, The United States of Wal-Mart (New York, Penguin 2005), p. 142.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology & Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett, (Berkeley, University of California Press), p. 53.

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