Culture

A case of secular piety? Current anti-racism demonstrations as a religious phenomenon

Writing with not a little insight, commentators have observed a deeply intriguing dimension to the protests currently convulsing the United States: percolating beneath the callow progressivism lies a kind of spiritual fervour, which animates a great swathe of the demonstrators. It’s not simply the case that some people have been driven by prior religious convictions to respond to the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police; rather, it’s that much of the outpouring of grief, activism, and even violence triggered by the death of George Floyd is itself quasi-religious in character.

Popular opinion holds that the United States is a bastion of piety within the community of Western nations; although European states long ago settled into an easy secularism, the pulse of vital religion still seems to beat strongly on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s true that the U.S. remains an outlier in this regard, although things are far more complicated than common narratives suggest. Moreover, statistical evidence suggests that the country may be on the same trajectory as the Old World. But while America might be following the Continent down a post-Christian path – busily divesting itself of its religious inheritance – this hardly entails the erasure of all ‘spiritual’ sentiment. On the contrary: that impulse persists, even if at times it’s channeled differently.

From a certain perspective, this is unsurprising. The propensity of humans to devote themselves to comprehensive worldviews is nearly universal. We are a meaning-making species, prone to developing grand existential schemes as a way of buttressing our lives and integrating the sheer welter of events that daily confront us. More fundamentally, it represents an attempt to reconcile oneself with one’s own mortality and finitude.

The largely ineradicable character of the religious instinct means that it persists, even upon the apparently disenchanted landscapes of modern secular culture. Like nature, society abhors a vacuum. And with the demise of organised religion, other claimants have rushed in to fill the void.

Writers such as Tara Isabella Burton have documented the mushrooming of new movements and fashions, which in many ways ape the external features of traditional religious beliefs or practices. Politics is, of course, one such vehicle, supplying the meaning, values, solidarity, identity – even the pretence towards a type of salvation – that were once the preserve of organized religion. Ideological frameworks, whether past or present, offer a pre-packaged means of explaining the world and its ills, claiming to satisfy one’s craving for something beyond the individual and the material. In societies starved of conventional sources of spirituality, those systems – and the mass gatherings they may generate – offer something of a secularised substitute.

And so, we return to the present eruption. The activist zeal that has roiled America and elsewhere may express a yearning, however inchoate, for a kind of transcendence that has survived efforts to extirpate traditional religion from Western societies. True, not everyone involved in the recent protests is driven by such existential concerns; so diffuse and widespread a social movement will attract a conglomerate of participants. But for some, politics as a procedural, incremental, collective enterprise has given way to a deluge of righteous fervour, more akin to various expressions of religious fanaticism that have broken out periodically throughout history.

Witness some of the key moments that have emerged over the past couple of months. The toppling of statues has dominated news cycles, but it also provides a particularly clear window into the types of attitude that have colonised the minds of some activists. The philosopher John Gray has rightly termed these acts of iconoclastic destruction: ‘rituals of purification’, aimed at cleansing society-at-large, and consolidating the protagonists’ moral and spiritual virtue. It is a well-trodden path, one taken by a variety of groups spurred on by a profusion of religious zeal. As but one example, Gray cites the outburst of Anabaptist millenarianism in the wake of the Reformation: the obliteration of artistic and iconic works was part of a wider movement to (violently) wrench the present, and indeed the future, out of the ossified grip of a moribund past.*

Certainly, such actions intersect with more mundane grievances. But this is politics in a cosmic key, focused upon an ‘eschatological horizon’ that promises to trigger a wholesale break with the present course of history. As psychologist and ethicist Aaron Kheriaty has recently written, the iconoclasm on display manifests an effort to create the conditions for ‘an entirely new and historically unprecedented social order’ – the secular analogue to traditional religious longings for the divine kingdom, whose advent would sweep away the moral detritus of both historical and current political systems.

The destruction of secular iconography in towns and cities across the U.S. bears witness to this utopian desire for redemption – an emancipation from the past, which is seen as unbearably corrupt. In fact, it’s an attempt to realize that desire using the tools of political vandalism, which have been harnessed to overturn the sacred symbols of the old order. That the eschatological object of such longings remains opaque and ill-defined doesn’t diminish their potency.

What of other scenes now embedding themselves in popular imagination? Watching thousands of people ‘take the knee’ (as if in prayer) or chant creeds in unison, one is struck by the spiritual quality of such actions. These aren’t merely protests; they, too, are near-sacred rituals, with all the liturgical trappings of a religious service. Although such gatherings occur in ostensibly secular spaces, they are festooned with sacral imagery (including a cloud of slain martyrs), sculpting and guiding participants at a deeply existential level.

Much of this bears more than a passing resemblance to Emil Durkheim’s concept of collective effervescence, which holds that the gathering of individuals in mass settings for a common purpose can engender a spiritual-like experience. With the right cocktail of social context, shared concerns and corporate energy, participants may be drawn out of themselves into a higher realm of intense, collective excitement. The resulting emotional ‘electricity’ is profoundly generative, creating a profusion of almost sacred meaning that transcends any one person. To observe the brewing protest marches, then, is to witness Durkheimian theory attain shape and body and life.

The protests constitute a key manifestation of the broader creed of anti-racism, which supplies them with whatever intellectual ballast they exhibit. Chief among the ideology’s claims is the totalising concept of structural or systemic racism. It’s true that sometimes-unjust racial disparities are products of broader institutional mechanisms; both progressive and conservative voices have argued as much. But when a concept like structural racism is deployed axiomatically to explain every instance of racial disparity, no matter how minor or contrived, then we have drifted away from sober discourse, and instead migrated into the realm of an all-encompassing metaphysic – a fundamental theory – resembling the dogmatic architecture associated with popular religion.

Casting white supremacy and its crowning achievement, the institution of slavery, as America’s ‘original sin’ functions in a similar manner. For certain advocates, white people bear within their own bodies the near-ineradicable marks of their ancestors’ primal fall – not that of the fabled Adam and Eve, but of the early whites who established and maintained the sordid trade in human flesh. The seeds of racism are said to lie in every white person, even those who explicitly repudiate any notion of racial superiority as a moral cancer. As the black academic John McWhorter has observed, activists have propounded the notion that white Americans are tarred with the legacy of their supposed privilege, from which absolution may be sought only through ceaseless rounds of contrition and repentance.

It’s easy to see how such views complement the utopian – and indeed, destructive – tendencies many protestors have revealed. If society is so riddled with injustice, then reforms, no matter how grand or ambitious, are likely to fail. Deconstruction is the only viable solution. Unwittingly, however, many anti-racist and black rights advocates help themselves to the same cultural patrimony they seek to dissolve. This should come as no surprise: despite assiduous efforts to liberate themselves from history, protestors are, like everyone else, ensconced within it. Try as they might, they cannot avoid completely the overtures of the past.

Activists from Portland to Atlanta have unconsciously imbibed elements of America’s residual Christian legacy, earnestly recycling them within a post-Christian environment. Talk of white people being tarnished by the evils of their ancestors clearly transposes the biblical story of Man’s fall into a secular context. Similarly, the obvious eschatological overtones of the movement appropriate the cosmic and redemptive dimensions essential to the Christian religion.

But even in those convergences, differences remain, with the current movements mimicking some of the worst excesses of populist or millenarian religion (filled out with a noxious blend of warmed-over Marxism and modern identity politics). Universal sinfulness, for example, has been replaced by the accursedness of one particular ethnic group, in a strange inversion of the curse of Ham. Whereas Christianity affirms the claim that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), modern anti-racists, on both the street and in the academy, have radically circumscribed the doctrine, applying it in a selective, highly racialized manner. Ignoring Solzhenitsyn’s warning that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, they have adopted a moral dualism that is fundamentally Manichean in attitude. Absent, too, are notions of forgiveness or charity, which Christianity, at its best, has greatly cherished. Merciless treatment is meted out to anyone who dissents from the protestors’ overarching values, or who isn’t sufficiently seized by the conviction that American society is incorrigibly racist. In their stead lies a purifying fanaticism, aimed at purging every view that fails to reflect the movement’s exacting standards.

And while the current demonstrations manifest a certain Christianised eschatology, protestors eschew the mainstream Christian belief that redemption is something that can only be secured extrinsically, as a result of God’s inbreaking kingdom. Instead, they cast themselves as the specially anointed agents of emancipation, leading the charge towards a claimed racial eschaton. A person doesn’t need to be a Christian to see the dangers inherent in such utopian schemes; a basic grasp of history is sufficient. The idea that flawed individuals can possibly wrought sweeping, epochal progress within the decrepit structures of history has been shown repeatedly to issue in the same injustices against which the vanguard claims to be fighting.

This witches’ brew offers up a potent series of dangers, especially in an anxious, highly fractious society. As Andrew Sullivan has noted, the quasi-religious character of both the protestors and their intellectual benefactors has already seen the substantial cessation of transparent debate around the issue of race, and the growth of an often-vicious intolerance. Thus, does the lifeblood of a healthy political community evaporate. When a political program is transcendentalized in the way this one has been – with only one perspective being imbued with near-cosmic urgency – attempts to explore a complex issue from the point of view of one’s opponents are repudiated as a dance with heresy. It is to debase oneself by engaging those who are regarded, not as fellow citizens with whom one disagrees, but as existential foes whose mere existence may retard the liberationist project.

Activists will be untroubled by this, salved as they are by the righteous demands of their cause. And yet, they are creating the conditions for precisely the kind of coarse, pitiless society they profess to oppose. Witnessing many of the protest marches, or hearing the self-appointed priests of the anti-racist creed, is to glimpse a dark future. It’s a future in which charity towards the other is condemned, violence is valorised as a crucial instrument of progress, and the crushing of all dissent is lauded as a sign of ideological virtue. In short, it’s a future stripped of everything that ordinary, decent folk seek in fashioning a life for themselves and their loved ones. The urban acolytes dominating our news feeds tout their penetrating insight into the ills plaguing society. But by their actions they reveal the bitter harvest of so much chiliastic idealism.

* Of course, the statues themselves could be seen as symbolic incarnations of a rival secular religion, connected to the major narratives generating and shaping American (or at least southern American) identity. However, that’s for another post.

Devaluing our humanity: university ‘reforms’ and government myopia

A short piece, critically examining the Australian Government’s plan to reform the higher education sector.

It’s telling that the government’s proposal to radically overhaul university fee structures has been disparaged by figures from across the political map. The Greens have denounced it as elitist policy-making, aimed at making higher education inaccessible to ordinary people. Some columnists observe that the government’s cocktail of aggressive market principles and command-style social engineering is incongruous, to say the least. Others have argued that the proposed measures are counter-productive, and will likely produce short-term effects that are diametrically opposed to the Coalition’s ambitions. Even the right-leaning Institute for Public Affairs has weighed in, lamenting the inadequacy of the government’s efforts to reform the sector. When a policy is subject to such widespread criticism, one is tempted to conclude that it’s irredeemably flawed.

A large share of the controversy has been focused on the announcement that the government plans to dramatically increase the cost of a humanities degree, sending a negative price signal to prospective students. In so doing, the Coalition has exposed its approach to education as leadenly — unimaginatively — technocratic. In attitude, it reflects what Pope John Paul II once labelled ‘economism’: the reduction of (in this case) higher learning to a merely instrumental good, subject to the blunt, transitory logic of contemporary market forces. On this view, knowledge is confined to that which is immediately practical, while universities are transformed into institutional conveyor belts — churning out graduates who’ve been technically equipped for a narrow range of favoured professions.

Of course, trying to predict which industries will enjoy success in future economic environments is a fool’s errand. But there are other reasons for scepticism. Weakening the place of the humanities within the university system is an attempt, however unwitting, to undermine some of the basic principles underlying the idea of tertiary education. Writing in The Guardian a few days ago, writer Ben Eltham aptly quoted the nineteenth-century cardinal, John Henry Newman, who argued that university should stimulate the entire spectrum of one’s mental faculties — aspiring towards ‘universal knowledge’ and a broad ‘cultivation of the mind’. Even allowing for the pernicious influence of identity politics upon university campuses, the humanities remain one of the purest exemplars of that intellectual mission.

At their best, the humanities inculcate a love of knowledge and thought for their own sakes. They nurture the ennobling conviction that an educated mind is of intrinsic — and not simply instrumental or economic — value. In so doing, the humanities tap into the unique capabilities and gifts with which human beings have been imbued. One key strand of the Western philosophical tradition (starting with Aristotle) posits that humans are, by nature, ‘rational animals’, distinguished from other organisms by their capacity for reason. That definition enjoys a venerable place within Catholic philosophy, having been propounded by luminaries such as Boethius and Thomas Aquinas.

The humanities bear witness to that tradition. Philosophy, history, literary criticism — such fields of enquiry are prized, not so much because they can be applied in simple, technocratic fashion, but because they foster and refine what has long been deemed the sine qua non of human beings.

Dan Tehan, education minister and one of the chief architects of the planned reforms, added a biographical codicil to his announcement: that studying an arts degree almost cost him a job earlier in life. The implication here is that the humanities aren’t sufficiently ‘practical’ to aid a person.

It’s difficult to know what to do with Tehan’s personal anecdote, or the wider point he tried to make. Like his colleagues, he evinced a narrow, thoroughly desiccated view of wealth and value. But if it’s practicality one wants, immersion in the humanities has been associated with a stronger propensity for critical and analytical thought, habits of mind that enable someone to engage empathetically with others, and intellectual suppleness — skills likely to be highly sought after in today’s globally connected economy.

Consider the discipline of history. Students of the past are trained to enter into worlds that are sometimes vastly different from their own; the mental apparatus one must develop in order to do that produces, in historian Samuel Berner’s words, ‘a heightened sense of complexity’, allowing a person to hold in reserve a bevy of competing truth claims and narratives. Moreover, philosophers have shown how the conceptual precision and logical rigour of philosophical enquiry can aid in the development of scientific research, leading to remarkable breakthroughs that might otherwise have remained elusive. It’s this kind of intellectual cross-pollination — something the science writer, Matt Ridley, has described as ‘ideas having sex’ — that has created unheralded levels of prosperity in the West. And since the Coalition is seeking to burnish Australia’s scientific credentials, investment in such qualities seems wise. It’s much harder to achieve, however, if the very departments incubating those skills have been drained of both funds and willing pupils.

Coalition ministers are rightly concerned by Australia’s economic future and capacity for wealth-creation. But their planned university reforms will risk impoverishing the country in other ways. The humanities preserve some of the deepest principles of Western culture and learning; for a government that supposedly cherishes that inheritance, it’s making some baffling policy choices.

Al Mohler and the Perils of Naive Biblicism

Author’s note: although this blog post is critical of some of Dr. Mohler’s statements (and the assumptions underlying them), I am grateful for his presence as a public Christian leader. Indeed, his efforts to maintain theological orthodoxy in the face of increasing cultural hostility, and to publicly witness to that orthodoxy, are both brave and deeply encouraging.  

Introduction

Dr. Al Mohler, “the reigning intellectual” of American evangelicalism, is a figure often wreathed in controversy. Of course, this is partly a consequence of being a leading conservative churchman in a country busily divesting itself of its Christian heritage. Proclaiming the exclusivity of Christ is bound to scandalize others, particularly when so many people are wedded to modern tropes concerning tolerance and diversity. But the venerable President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary occasionally exceeds the gospel’s intrinsic offence with a statement that is rather questionable, even within the sub-culture of conservative evangelicalism. Recent headlines, in which Dr. Mohler has been roundly criticised for past comments concerning the Bible and slavery, are illustrative.

Controversy arises

Why the commotion? Last month, religion reporter Jonathan Merritt wrote that a TV transcript had been unearthed, featuring a relatively young Dr. Mohler talking with two other guests on Larry King Live in 1998. While the discussion was originally concerned with what Scripture says about wives submitting to their husbands, it turned to the question of slaves and masters. Resting on Ephesians 6:5, Dr. Mohler claimed that although the Bible does not endorse slavery, it does enjoin slaves to remain obedient to their masters. When pressed on the matter, he reiterated his position, arguing that “if you’re a slave, there’s a way to behave”. Even as King tried to tease out the logical implications of what Dr. Mohler had said by raising the issue of runaway slaves in pre-civil war America, he appeared unmoved – arguing there “really” was no “loophole” to the command that slaves submit to their overlords. Dr. Mohler finished by implicitly contrasting this allegedly biblical view with what “popular culture” might say about owning human chattel. A stunned King quickly cut to a commercial break.

We should note, of course, that Dr. Mohler recently repudiated those earlier comments, condemning them as “stupid”. And one mustn’t forget that they were uttered over two decades ago, amidst the cut-and-thrust of live debate. But there seems to be little to account for his apparent interpretive shift; no principled reason why he now rejects his earlier understanding of the relevant texts. Moreover, while Dr. Mohler has written eloquently about the need for a sophisticated theological hermeneutic, a simplistic, literalist reading of Scripture is not, for him, an isolated incident. He has, for example, spent a good deal of energy arguing that Genesis straightforwardly teaches a young earth (presumably by adding up the genealogies in Chapters 5 and 11), and that the book’s first chapter speaks plainly of “days” as 24-hour units of time. In contrast with Dr. Mohler’s performance on Larry King Live, those efforts have come in the form, not of hurried, impromptu rejoinders, but of scripted remarks that reflect a mature, considered position.

There are multiple issues at play here. But I want to focus on what Dr. Mohler’s handling of Scripture reveals about some of the assumptions embedded in his approach to divine revelation. Both his slavery comments on Larry King Live and his premeditated statements on the age of the earth reflect several crucial interpretive and hermeneutical defects.

The problem of naïve biblicism

The crux of the problem is this. Dr. Mohler’s apparent view of Scripture too often verges on what one might call a naïve biblicism. It’s been described as the illusion of a “pure” understanding of biblical truth, shorn of all presuppositions and historical considerations. A naïvely biblicist approach to the text of Scripture tends towards the conviction – often unstated – that the Bible is a uniformly timeless document, communicating self-evident propositions with pristine clarity. The reader, armed with little more than good faith and common sense, is easily able to understand and appropriate those truths.

This basic view generates a cluster of interlocking practices, all of which can be harmful to good readings of Scripture: a belief that biblical statements do not require interpretation, but can be read off the page in unmediated fashion; a failure to properly grapple with the historic Christian tradition, and what it might say on questions of exegesis and theological method; and the assumption that the Bible’s prescriptions can be applied straightforwardly to modern contexts, quite apart from the issue of hermeneutical or cultural “gaps”. As some of Dr. Mohler’s public remarks seem to imply, he is at times guilty of succumbing to all these deficiencies. Sadly, he is not alone: his views are shared by a great swathe of people within (American) conservative evangelicalism.

Dr. Mohler’s comments suggest that the only prerequisite for the good faith reader is direct engagement with the relevant texts; understanding that exceeds the semantic or the syntactical is, on this view, largely unnecessary. Hence, Paul was handing down clear and exceptionless oracles about the relationship between slaves and masters. Hence, Genesis 1 is divided into seven solar days, each one of 24 hours’ duration.

This is Dr. Mohler’s first error. He neglects the need for anything more than a “thin” notion of interpretation, at least in these instances. But “thick” interpretation – that is, genuine, substantial elucidation of a text – is often necessary for two, mutually reinforcing reasons. Firstly, we must reckon with the fact that the text emerged out of a particular thought world, a particular socio-cultural matrix, which is very different from our own. What is foreign requires de-mystifying, and what may seem obvious can require nuancing. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright perceptively observes that all Scripture is “culturally conditioned” from beginning to end – having been produced, not only in, but in many respects by, a particular time and place. Even a simple reference to “day” may conceal an entire cosmology – a mental universe – that is radically different from our own (something Old Testament scholar John Walton has done much to emphasise). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is so opaque that it cannot be understood. I certainly don’t recommend one abandons the Reformation commitment to the broad clarity of Scripture. But deep cultural and intellectucal shifts over the past 2,000 years provide prima facie evidence that apparently simple biblical references may mask a good deal of ambiguity. Moreover, when both apostolic and denominational tradition suggest that Holy Writ might not always offer a clear window into the mind of the biblical author, we do well to exercise caution.

Any would-be exegete must contend with the fact that comprehending biblical texts requires both internal interpretation (i.e., understanding the internal logic of the passage, and its function within the narrative flow of the book), and external interpretation (recognizing the historical “situatedness” of the passage, its relationship to other biblical texts, etc.).

An analysis of Ephesians 6:5 makes this clear. Several points commend themselves. Far from embodying timeless, universal truth, Paul’s command to slaves in the congregation at Ephesus was intimately tied to his broader aims in the letter. He was not rendering judgment upon the institution writ large, but upon concrete situations as they arose in the church. Moreover, Timothy Gombis has persuasively argued that in Ephesians, Paul sought to articulate the lineaments of a “new humanity” – an alternative arrangement within the politeia of God, which counterposed the harsh, often capricious social order in which the early Christians found themselves. He addresses slaves directly (and before masters), thereby “granting them a place of dignity and honour”. His admonition to masters (v.9) is grounded in the fact that the same Lord presides over both parties. With a few swift strokes, Paul relativises the position of sovereignty a slaveholder might otherwise have adopted. Finally, the remarkable demand that masters treat their human holdings well (cf. Col 4:1) would have contrasted sharply with prevailing cultural wisdom (Aristotle, for one, characterised the master-slave relationship as one of tyranny).

Much of this corresponds to what biblical scholar William Webb has dubbed the “redemptive movement” of Scripture: an ethical dynamic established by the biblical texts, advancing God’s redemptive project (sometimes incrementally) in the face of countervailing forces. Indeed, the apostle’s indirect challenges to slavery’s harsh excesses in Ephesians and Colossians are exceeded by his letter to Philemon, where he speaks of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, as a fellow “brother” (Phil 16). As N.T. Wright suggests, the note of radical equality resident in the term “brother” “set a time-bomb” beside the entire system. And while one looks in vain for explicit condemnation of slavery in Paul’s letters, it cannot be stressed too often that the early Christians were a persecuted minority, bereft of the kind of power needed to challenge head-on a “ubiquitous institution” (so William Klein). The upshot of all this is that to read a passage like Ephesians 6:5ff as if it were offering abstract commands of an exceptionless character is to miss the point entirely. It also substitutes a mechanical, isolative reading for one that is more sensitive to the text’s literary contours and historical milieu.

Secondly, all of us are ensconced within a certain way of understanding reality. That understanding inevitably acts as a lens through which we observe a text. No one approaching a biblical passage does so unencumbered; we all bring to it certain presuppositions, biases, and so forth. Some have been formed by the ambient culture (and are frequently imbibed unconsciously). Others involve the conditioning of a specific theological or denominational tradition. Thus, a Baptist and a Presbyterian can read the New Testament and derive very different ecclesiological models from it – the one opting for a style of congregationalism, the other for a governing body of elders. To say this is not to counsel interpretive despair: it is still possible to arrive at a robust understanding of scriptural truth, despite the ongoing influence of contemporary context. But the point is that having been catechized into certain patterns of thinking by the secular and religious worlds we inhabit, we may well be predisposed towards certain readings of the Bible – some of which will compel us to patiently engage in exegetical negotiation with the text.

Dr. Mohler has implicitly tried to circumvent these realities by invoking the “plain sense” of Scripture or “common sense” readings of a passage. I’ll say more about so-called “common sense” below. But for now, it’s worth noting that Dr. Mohler’s appeal simply re-locates the problem: what constitutes “common sense” in the first place is likely to vary depending on one’s historical location. Public consensus on all manner of questions inevitably changes. This is as true of scriptural interpretation as it is of slaveholding, or the earth’s relationship to the sun. An ordinary person living in the 21st century will approach these issues in a manner very different from that of a resident of the 1300s – or, for that matter, from someone living in first-century Palestine. Contrary to what Dr. Mohler may think, the unadorned individual, apprehending the message of the text apart from the mediation of cultural frameworks, is largely non-existent.

Put another way, Dr. Mohler’s claims embody an entirely ahistorical view of Scripture – as if it were a product of pure transcendence, unmoored from time, history, and culture. How else does one explain his publicly articulated positions on the contentious subjects under review? They evince little conscious recognition of the historical and contextual distinctives of either Genesis 1 or Paul’s admonitions regarding slavery. Tacitly treating the texts in free-floating fashion, Dr. Mohler has only succeeded in isolating them from the originating environments from which they emerged.

‘Solo’ Scriptura and the devaluing of tradition

This brings me to Dr. Mohler’s second major error. The current of ahistoricism running through some of his approaches to biblical interpretation also underlies his depreciation of tradition and its role in exegesis. This, too, is a consequence of biblicist naivety. As more than one theologian has argued, Christians – and the church at large – cannot avoid dependence on the growing body of critical reflection upon Scripture. Conducting an ongoing dialogue with past voices is an important part of deep biblical knowledge – relativizing one’s own perspective on the text, and exposing the historical contingency of so many “plain” readings. Attentively listening to those voices invariably shapes one’s views; at times, the exercise may even overturn previously untroubled interpretations of a passage. As N.T. Wright notes, if we fail to remember that exegetes of every period have left their “mark on subsequent readings of Scripture”, we will simply fail to realize “why we ‘naturally’ read the text” in the way that we do.

For Dr. Mohler, it seems that simply being in possession of a supposedly “timeless” Bible is enough; evolving historical interpretations of biblical passages are eschewed, or at least muted. Some may wish to call this sola scriptura, or the primacy of Scripture, in a misguided attempt to stave off the influence of tradition upon one’s reading of Scripture. But it’s a departure from the Reformation cry. At times, Dr. Mohler seems to drift towards what might be characterised as ‘solo’ scriptura: Scripture alone and isolated, detached from both its own socio-cultural matrix and the streams of subsequent interpretation that have come down to us through the ages. Of course, Dr. Mohler himself is a child of the Reformation, having been self-consciously shaped by the Reformers and what they achieved. But on certain questions, he reveals a limited horizon, failing to recognize the role tradition inevitably plays, even on putatively unmediated readings of Scripture.

Dr. Mohler’s apparent position is father to several problems, not least of which is a superficial engagement with historical interpretations. Witness his comments regarding Genesis 1. He has claimed that prior to Darwin, biblical interpreters were largely unanimous in their understanding of the oft-repeated reference to “day” (vv. 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). To be sure, he appeals generically to the history of exegesis on this question, but it’s one that appears to be heavily conditioned by the limits of his own biblicism. The reality is far more complex and ambiguous. Robert Letham, for one, has provided ample evidence from a variety of commentators – all of whom lived before the emergence of Darwin’s theory, or the development of modern geological dating – to show that there was hardly a consensus regarding the “days” of Genesis 1. While Reformation luminaries such as Martin Luther adopted a largely literal approach, others like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas sought different ways of understanding the text. Commenting on the evident variety of exegetical options, Letham concluded that “claims that a literal reading of Genesis 1 is obvious fall down when the history of interpretation is taken into account” (emphasis original).

Is it “common sense” or Common Sense?

Irony abounds at this point. Although Dr. Mohler seems to appeal to the idea of “mere” readings of Scripture, his position actually represents the incursion of certain philosophical traditions into the American evangelical psyche. Chief among them is what has come to be known as Scottish Common-Sense Realism (CSR). A reaction against Humean scepticism, it rests upon the belief that one’s perceptual apparatus provides direct awareness of objects as they really are. Church historian Mark Noll has traced the influence of CSR throughout conservative evangelicalism in the United States. A “cluster of convictions” associated with CSR, he has argued, “furnished broader habits of mind” and consolidated certain intellectual conventions, especially as evangelical thought evolved in nineteenth-century America. Conservative evangelicals past and present have appropriated CSR’s epistemological naivety regarding perception of the external world, tacitly applying it to an understanding of Scripture and its teachings. The consequence has been an equally naïve understanding of the individual reader’s capacity to apprehend the meaning of biblical texts.

CSR predisposed many nineteenth-century conservative evangelicals to study the Bible in a strictly inductive manner, on the analogy of a scientist studying nature. Hence, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge could liken the Bible to a “great store-house of facts” that one just needed to apprehend and arrange. The biblical scholar or exegete was like a botanist, simply observing the scriptural “ecosystem” before him. CSR has persisted, and its legacy may be discerned in current readings of Scripture within large sections of conservative evangelicalism. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, wherein the author advocates just such an approach, is perhaps the most well-known example of that legacy. As Noll writes of such readings:

“The most immediate result of this approach to theological construction was to eclipse systematic study of Scripture that relied self-consciously on the insights of theological tradition, or that sought to understand the fullness of the historical circumstances surrounding the actual writing of Scripture(emphasis mine).

In his apparent approach to biblical interpretation, the status of the individual reader, and even the role of theological tradition, Dr. Mohler is, in many ways, an epistemological heir to CSR. His exposition of the “days” of Genesis 1 as a straightforward reference to 24-hour periods of time is a case-in-point: he reads the chapter as it stands, without interrogating the cultural conditioning reflected in either the text or his interpretation of it. Dr. Mohler’s capacity to perceive the semantic content of the passage is, in good “Common Sense” fashion, sufficient for accurate apprehension. As much as he may wish to lay claim to a direct encounter with the supposedly plain meaning of Scripture, his interpretive decisions have seemingly been shaped by extra-biblical patterns of thought.

A window into a wider malaise

I haven’t time to examine Dr. Mohler’s neglect of the hermeneutical “gap” between our era and that of the biblical authors. Others have made sage observations in this direction, questioning his apparent assumption that some biblical strictures can be applied in the modern world without any need for cultural or historical “translation”. In any case, this isn’t simply about the President of SBTS and his interpretive failings. The simplistic readings into which Dr. Mohler has occasionally fallen reflect a wider malaise within conservative evangelicalism. That malaise is characterised by a flat, mechanical approach to scriptural exegesis, a strictly prescriptive appropriation of biblical texts, and ignorance (often wilful) of the church’s grand interpretive tradition. In its crudest forms, this stance issues in a “concordance” method to the study of scriptural truth (something that Dr. Mohler has, in fact, criticised); as the term suggests, it simply requires the unconditioned reader to collect all biblical passages bearing on a particular subject in order to discover what the Bible, construed as a straightforwardly unified document, has to say about it. Deep methodological flaws notwithstanding, the approach remains endemic to the conservative evangelical world.

As Dr. Mohler’s unfortunate comments on slavery demonstrate, an attitude of naïve biblicism may also yield implausible – as well as morally dubious – conclusions. Not only does this fall afoul of Augustine’s caution against provoking ridicule from unbelievers; it also saddles believers with a series of positions that may collapse under the weight of their own absurdities. Yes, Christian leaders are called to be faithful to the Word of God. However, zeal wedded to impoverished models of biblical truth is injurious to the credibility of the church’s witness. In an aggressively post-Christian society, such harm may prove fatal.

A Questionable Testimony: Giles Fraser, the Bible, and the Nuclear Family (Part Two)

This is the second piece in a two-part series, critically examining Giles Fraser’s recent essay on religious conservatives, sex, and the family. For Part One, see here

Introduction

For some time now, Giles Fraser has played the role of passionate sponsor for the full inclusion of LGBTI people within the Church of England. Whilst his unflagging advocacy provokes a certain admiration, it also leaves him prone to making rash, gratuitous statements – particularly when they concern his opponents. Previously, I examined Fraser’s attempts to celebrate the emergence and rise of “forged” family groupings by trivializing the concept of the modern nuclear family. Fraser’s claims were as fallacious as they were bold: issuing pronouncements regarding the supposed novelty and unimportance of this particular family type, despite there being almost no evidence to support such confident assertions (and a wealth of data to contradict them).

Being a man of the cloth, Fraser also tried to freight his argument with the imprimatur of Holy Writ, insisting on biblical ambivalence regarding the biological, two-parent family. He went so far as to claim that Jesus himself was vehemently opposed to the idea as (at best) a poor facsimile of the divinely-centred ideal, preferring a kind of “fictive kinship” grounded in shared allegiance to God. Having scrutinised the first half of his recent essay and found it wanting, I now turn to the essay’s second, “theological” stage. Unfortunately, it fares no better – suggesting that Fraser’s grasp of biblical interpretation is just as uncertain as his engagement with social science and history.

Fraser, the New Testament, and the nuclear family

We may begin by scrutinising Fraser’s major theological claim – namely, that Jesus and the New Testament authors were hostile to the idea of the nuclear family. To be sure, there are certain things he gets right. He observes that “membership of this new family [i.e., the family Jesus inaugurated] is not premised on biological kinship but on baptism” – that is, upon confessional faith in Christ as Lord. This is true, so far as it goes: Jesus repeatedly relativised the notion of the “natural” family through his teachings and actions (e.g., Luke 9:59-60). With his epoch-shifting ministry, he created a new kinship group around his own person. Membership within that family was not a token of genealogy or biological inheritance, but was secured through obedience to the Father. The chief expression of this obedience was, of course, devotion to Christ himself.

Matthew 12:46-50, which Fraser cites, captures this sentiment admirably. Jesus’ response to his own family’s entreaties points allusively to the fact that he intended to construct a familial community whose members shared a common commitment to performing the will of God. Other passages in the Gospels, such as Luke 8:59-60, also reveal a man convinced that wholehearted devotion to both him and his mission – exceeding the demands even of one’s biological family – was an individual’s principal obligation. So stringent was this requirement that Jesus employed a familiar form of Hebraic hyperbole to describe the “hatred” one should feel towards one’s family if authentic discipleship within the company of God was to become a reality (Luke 14:26).

At first glance, it would seem that Fraser’s argument is sound. But to relativise something is not to denigrate it, and relegating one’s biological family to a position of secondary importance hardly provides warrant for the dubious conclusions he reaches. Nor does the New Testament always present its readers with a simple binary choice between natural and spiritual families, as if the two were inherently antithetical.

Despite subordinating the natural family within the hierarchy of kingdom priorities, Jesus and his followers nevertheless held in high esteem several key ingredients composing modern “nuclear” kinship types. Take the notion of enduring heterosexual marriage, seen as the bedrock and mainspring of stable, biological families. Far from trivializing the marital bond between a man and a woman, the gospels regard a person’s ongoing fidelity to the “one-flesh” union with their spouse as an important manifestation of Christian discipleship. So clear is this teaching that Richard Hays confidently concluded: “permanent, monogamous marriage is [according to the NT] the norm; Christians are called upon to see their marriages as expressions of discipleship and to renounce divorce…”

A high view of marriage can be gleaned from Jesus’ own comments on the topic. Although the synoptics report Christ’s words with slight variations, they are united in recounting his near-absolute foreclosure on divorce, as well as his grounds for doing so (e.g., Mark 10:1-12). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus root his view of lifelong, covenantal marriage in the creation mandate: man and woman were created for each other (Gen 2:23-24), “yoked together in a union so permanent and inviolable that only God has the right to dissolve it” (so Gerald Hawthorne). The depth of this bond was such that husband and wife were seen, not as two discrete parties to a contractual agreement, but as a new, composite entity (Mark 10:8).

Jesus endorsed and re-affirmed this ideal in his confrontation with his opponents; indeed, rooting marriage in God’s founding vision for creation only served to underscore its sacral importance. His appeal to Genesis 1-2 and its evocative “one-flesh” image reveals a belief in the permanency, complementarity, and monogamous character of marriage. It also needs to be stressed that by pointing to those texts, Jesus implicitly affirmed one of the central purposes of marriage, namely, the generation of children. God’s creation of man and woman for each other is viewed as a crucial manifestation of their status as his image-bearers. And as those fashioned in his likeness, they, too, possess the capacity for creation – seen chiefly in their ability to generate new life. Pace Fraser, this is all a far cry from being an “enemy” of the nuclear or natural family. Moreover, one of the more common precursors to the new family types he tends to laud – i.e., the dissolution of an existing marriage – is prohibited as a violation, not simply of the marital bond, but of one’s pledge to follow Christ.

What the evangelists chose to include of Jesus’ teachings in their own works is, of course, indicative of their own theological and ethical concerns. For all the ambivalence they evince regarding natural families within the new covenant community, they seem to adhere to positions that many modern advocates of the nuclear family would warmly endorse. Whilst Mark’s critical depiction of Jesus’ family (3:31-34) is consistent with his sketch of discipleship as a journey requiring sacrifice of even the most intimate associations, he is far from anti-family. As New Testament scholar Stephen Barton has shown, Mark, like the other evangelists, upholds the creational ideal concerning marriage, whilst also affirming the Old Testament commandment that children honour their parents (7:9-13) – indication that the ongoing integrity of the biological family was of signal importance to both Jesus himself and the Second Evangelist.

Context matters. The note of scepticism that runs through parts of the New Testament is often directed at what the family had become symbolically within the belief structure of a major strand of Judaism at the time. N.T. Wright observes that the nation (and within that, the family unit) “stood alongside other symbols, sustaining the entire Jewish worldview”. Within the fractious, besieged environment of first-century Judaism, family, food laws, and Sabbath-keeping acquired near-talismanic significance; at least for some sects, the overriding aim was to police the boundaries of the community as stringently as possible, in order to guard against the dilution of its ethno-religious identity. The early Christians didn’t object to the biological family per se, as something inherently “bad” to be discarded, but to the idolatrous importance with which some had imbued it. Whilst Jesus never saw the natural family as ultimate, we have reason to think he viewed it as good and necessary.

What about the Old Testament?

It goes without saying that much of what the New Testament teaches in regards to marriage and the family is, like so much else, deeply rooted in the soil of the Old Testament. That much is obvious from the brief survey of Jesus’ attitude towards divorce and his appeal to Genesis 1-2. But rather than engage with the formative influence of such texts, Fraser seems to prefer the rather facile claim that the Old Testament offers a muddied view of matrimony and the family. Thus, his confidence that the Hebrew Bible is quite “relaxed” about many of its heroes having multiple wives. Whether a series of discrete vignettes about different individuals amounts to a unified attitude is questionable. A much surer case can be made that multiple marriages are, broadly speaking, viewed as a perilous departure from what the Creator instituted at the beginning (Gen 2:24) – one that arises from, and indeed precipitates, moral decline.

It is no coincidence that Lamech, whose sinful arrogance outweighed that of his murderous ancestor, Cain, is also the first recorded person in the Old Testament to marry more than one woman (Gen 4:19-23); as Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton suggests, the association of these two elements – moral cruelty and polygamy – is rather telling. And what of Solomon, to whom Fraser himself refers? One can only conclude that 1 Kings 11:1-13 has been excised from his Bible, for it is there that the biblical narrator forges a fairly clear connection between the king’s voracious appetite for wedded bliss and his eventual apostasy. True, part of the problem lay in the fact that Solomon married women from the surrounding nations (as opposed to Israelite women), but the association with such a prodigious “collection” of wives and spiritual corruption is surely implicit in the text: if one’s priorities are carved up with the addition of a single spouse (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-35), imagine how diluted devotion to one’s Sovereign might be with 700 of them. The upshot of all this is that the Hebrew Bible is, to say the least, far more cautious about polygamy than Fraser assumes. Grudging concession to the mores of the day? Probably. “Perfectly relaxed”? Probably not.

It’s true that the concept of family has changed significantly since the documents of the Old Testament were produced. Levirate marriage, patriarchalism, concubinage, and clan structures: practices such as these, which were simply part of the warp and woof of Israelite culture, have vanished; they are boundary markers between different historical eras, and thus different understandings of family formation. Even so, certain crucial features persist, which genetically links past and present iterations of the family. OT scholar Joel Drinkard has written of the foundational role Genesis 1:27-28 and 2:24 can play in developing an Old Testament conception of family. According to Drinkard, some of the attributes composing contemporary nuclear families – including biological-sexual differentiation, or the establishment of distinct family units (“leaves his father and mother…”) – find strong analogues in those texts. He wisely concludes that despite the many stages of evolution the family has undergone since the era of ancient Israel, “much remains remarkably unchanged over that same span”.

Leaping over logical gaps: an unreliable evangelist for “modern” families

Fraser doesn’t merely use scriptural teachings to argue against the nuclear family; he also seeks to press them into service to argue for modern or bespoke family types, including same-sex kinship arrangements. This is another significant leap in logic. There is no essential connection between a covenant “family” grounded in common faith and one framed by same-sex eroticism; their claimed equality as biblically-viable kinship structures is little more than an instance of free association. We may agree with Fraser that acts of solidarity and mutual care within the gay community during the early-AIDS crisis were expressions of noble human impulses. Who would want to say otherwise? But it’s difficult to take seriously his subsequent conclusion that those relationships and kinship structures are more firmly rooted in Scripture than the natural family – especially when one considers what many of its key passages actually say about family formation, marriage, and sexual relationships.

If anything, the biblical evidence points in the other direction. The Jesus who de-centred the biological family in favour of an eschatological community unmoored from genealogy is also the Jesus whose radicalisation of marriage and divorce would make even many modern conservatives blush. That he did so on the basis of Genesis 1 and 2 would seem to automatically rule out the very relationships Fraser celebrates. The Paul who counselled virgins to remain unmarried, thereby cutting across accepted cultural norms (1 Cor 7:8), is also the Paul who condemned homosexual relationships, not merely as an offence against traditional sensibilities, but as an affront to the cosmic order God has instituted (Rom 1:24-27).

These are only the most explicit corollaries to what is implicit elsewhere in the Bible. Yes, Fraser attempts to link Scripture’s proscriptions against homosexuality with a lack of patriotism, but they remain unconvincing. Even if one accepts this as a rationale for the Old Testament’s sanctions (for to engage in sexual acts that deny the possibility of children is to frustrate the survival of the nation), it makes no sense of Pauline prohibitions against same-sex erotic activity – precisely because the Apostle wasn’t writing to ethnic communities that relied for their persistence on procreation. Fraser, it seems, has simply tried to smuggle in his favoured versions of family formation with the entirely unobjectionable claim that the New Testament recognizes certain forms of extended or fictive kinship structure.

Some concluding thoughts

In no way does my critique invalidate the general notion of “forged” family groups. Many of them remain legitimate – indeed, honourable – manifestations of gospel-leavened kinship arrangements. One of the New Testament’s controlling narratives has God graciously adopting those whom he has called, thus grafting them into the covenant community (Rom 8:15-17, 23; 11:17). Or what about John 19:26-27, and the crucified Messiah’s pronouncement of a new kinship arrangement between Mary and the one whom he loved? A more poignant example of “blended” family formation would, I submit, be difficult to find.

Galvanized by the moral power of this vision, many traditionalist believers have resisted the urgings of modern culture to atomise or isolate family units. At their best, some have even sought to imitate God’s boundless generosity via their own acts of adoption. Meanwhile, the malign suggestion that religious conservatives are predisposed to idolize the nuclear family fares quite badly: traditionalist Christians who daily imbibe the wisdom of Scripture are more likely to warn against the family’s potential to usurp God’s position as the ultimate object of one’s allegiance. This hardly resembles the kind of fetishizing insularity Fraser attributes to those whom he opposes, and reveals a greater depth of insight than charges of “blindness” would suggest.

A final word. One of the themes of Fraser’s essay seemingly implies that the views he criticises have more to do with (right-wing) political calculus than with genuine attempts to grasp reality. Although there is some truth to this, his effort to deconstruct religiously conservative claims en masse as ideologically-driven power plays yields meagre results. The biblical data indicates that however much political machinations may have adulterated these claims, they’re not ultimately grounded in conservative revanchism. Nor are they driven in the main by wistful nostalgia for a bygone era. Rather, they are rooted in something far deeper – namely, an (imperfect) effort to “live rightly in the world” according to principles embedded in the created order and revealed in Holy Writ. Fraser’s dismissals notwithstanding, religiously conservative views concerning sex, marriage, and the family embody patterns of thinking whose origins lie at the very core of that sacred testimony.

Christian Reflections on the Coronavirus: A Rebuke to Modern Illusions

Introduction

Like so many people over the past few months, I have been somewhat unnerved by the Coronavirus outbreak. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a phenomenon whose reach has been truly global, even as its effects are felt in the most intimate corners of daily existence. A lingering atmosphere of confusion brims with tales of the virus, abetted by rumour and exaggeration. Signs of its presence have been everywhere: in nations trying to wall themselves off to halt the spread of infection; in the pangs of hesitation one feels over the simplest of social interactions; or in the eerily empty streets of once bustling city centres. An unceasing stream of media reports have revealed the apparent power of the contagion to warp social reality – threatening to unravel those dense webs of habit and custom within which a safe, predictable life is made possible. That COVID-19 is a silent, spectral force only seems to add to the prevailing mood of unease.

Shattering human illusions

One thing that has struck me about this crisis is the way it has dramatically laid bare many of the illusions that beguile human beings, especially those of us who have been conditioned and shaped by the modern world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our distorted relationship with nature.

Enslaving nature

Human beings have long sought to dominate the natural world, convinced that it would placidly submit to the hand of man. It’s a conceit to which people in the West are particularly vulnerable, something that has been true since at least the time of the Enlightenment and its immediate precursors. Whether one traces this turn to the early scientific work of Francis Bacon – who sought to expand the bounds of humanity’s imperial enslavement of nature – the Cartesian separation of the mental from the physical, or even the emerging mechanistic picture of creation (for machines can usually be manipulated at will), the Enlightenment has led inexorably to the conviction that human mastery over the natural realm is both possible and desirable.

The development of science was a key part of this attempt to exercise sovereignty. It was believed that through scientific discovery and technological progress, human beings would succeed in wresting nature’s secrets from her, enabling them to predict, channel, and control her course. Beneath this enterprise lay a thoroughly instrumental conception of nature, which held that the natural environment was valuable only insofar as it could be exploited by humanity in its relentless pursuit of advancement; as theologian Michael Northcott has eloquently observed, nature was seen merely as “malleable matter available for reconstitution in the service of human wants”. Any notion that it was a force of independent or intrinsic worth, to which human beings would sometimes have to defer, gradually receded.

Belief in the inevitability of technological progress and its unrivalled ability to tame nature has, of course, seeped into Western consciousness during the succeeding centuries. The expectation that human beings will ultimately succeed in pacifying ever-larger tracts of the natural environment is now an article of secular faith. Similarly, the idea that sufficient application of technical acumen to a particular problem will solve it is now a cherished part of the modern canon.

It is certainly true that scientific advancements have had remarkable success in allowing people to enjoy respite from nature’s onslaught. Nor can it be denied that harnessing natural forces has brought immeasurable gains to vast numbers of people. A mixture of stunned amazement and humble gratitude is often the most appropriate – indeed, the only – response. Of course, one may ask whether this alone justifies the Panglossian predictions made for human capacity. Just as relevant is the fact that as such progress emerged and took root, it inevitably changed the relationship between human beings and their environments. Humans consequently began to view themselves, not as integrated members of the natural order, but as something above and apart from it.

Trying to break out of nature’s orbit

To talk of human transcendence over nature is to highlight a second key presumption inherent in modernity. Its connection with human attempts to domesticate the natural order is one of mutual reinforcement: allegedly sitting above the system of nature in an ontologically exterior realm, humanity came to see itself as free to shape that system at will; meanwhile, the undeniable success of such efforts simply legitimised the expansion of human empire, reinforcing the exalted position they had arrogated for themselves. It is not inaccurate to say that the accomplishments of science both bred and buttressed a metaphysical and ethical position concerning the relationship between human beings and their environment. Whatever the logical defects of that move, it, too, is part of the philosophical foundation of the modern West.

Descartes’ views on the connection between the mental and the physical may help explain these shifts. The Cartesian divorce between the intellectual and material dimensions of human beings had its external analogue in the separation between humanity – the only earthly beings possessed of rationality, the sine qua non of the mental – and nature-at-large. As science writer Alex Blum has observed, Descartes’ metaphysical commitments unwittingly structured modern science so as to conceive of human being existing “outside” nature. The French philosopher himself talked of humans becoming “masters and possessors of nature”, a phrase which also reflects the highly instrumentalist character he attributed to it. Combined with the objectifying gaze of emerging scientific discourse, the transcendence of the human person over nature was now churning within the bowels of Western culture. With the establishment of this hierarchy, human beings – now metaphysically unshackled from the natural world – could act as its overlords, manipulating their environment “to suit [their] own ambitions”.

Coronavirus and the unseating of modern dogmas

The rapid emergence of COVID-19 over the past three months is a rebuke to such hubris. It is also a stern reminder that for all the confidence we place in human ingenuity, nature cannot finally be tamed. Whatever local forms of control human beings exert over their environments, they remain contingent or provisional – and, more to the point, far more vulnerable to collapse than we would care to admit. Many people in the global South are inured to nature’s caprice, of course; to the devastation it has wrought, whether through a decades-long drought or a deadly Ebola outbreak. It is citizens residing in the developed world – those who often enjoy the luxury of being able to avoid nature’s encroachments – who are now experiencing life in the shadow of something that continues to elude the most assiduous efforts to control it. That vulnerability, long concealed by a seemingly unending conveyor belt of technological marvels, is now being unmasked.

All the economic might and technical sophistication of the modern West has, in many places, failed to stave off the spread of the virus. In fact, it’s precisely those symbols of Western-inspired progress – international travel and trade, ageing societies, industrialisation, and high-density urban environments – that have amplified the threat, contributing to the spread and lethality of COVID-19. Far from conquering the natural world, people are now quite literally retreating in the face of nature’s advance: leaving their cities bereft and empty, and ensconcing themselves in their homes to evade the contagion’s grasp. And even where it has been successfully suppressed, victory has only been secured at the cost of economic ruin.

Yes, human beings have successfully shaped aspects of the natural world. Such will no doubt continue after the present crisis subsides. But the virus has jolted us into recognizing an obvious truth: that nature’s teeming complexity persistently outstrips our ability to fully comprehend – and therefore fully control – its many secrets.

The world of economic networks provides a useful analogy. Philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote about the late F.A. Hayek, arguing that the Anglo-Austrian economist believed that the “deep reason” socialism could not work in practice is that human planners simply cannot hold within their mental grip the “vast aggregate” of human needs and wants composing an economic system. Imagine, then, attempting to firmly grasp (much less dominate) the entire scheme of nature, including its near-limitless ensemble of organisms and ecological cycles. The natural world is a great, roiling cauldron, its various ingredients clashing – sometimes violently – in ways so diverse that they defy human calculation. Moreover, as anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has written (in relation to modern Amazonian farmers), our environments, far from being docile or compliant, frequently exhibit a “robust, defiant vitality” in the face of human efforts to conquer them. COVID-19 is only the latest manifestation of that defiance. What can this mean but that total sovereignty over the natural world will forever remain a vaporous dream – a “chasing after the wind” (to borrow from Ecclesiastes)?

This basic lack of control applies even to that part of nature we know best: our own bodies. Whilst there have been far deadlier pandemics in human history, the Coronavirus is probably the largest mass health event of the late-modern age – an era of rapidly ageing populations, advanced medicine, and the miracle-like defiance of death’s ravages. Although the world’s immiserated past and present have known that life is a delicate gift, modern folk are “culturally insulated…from the notion of death…”. The relentless, exhausting ubiquity of the present outbreak, uprooting and frustrating every dimension of the ordinary, or tearing at communities in highly developed nations, has forced us into a reckoning with our own mortality – the necessary sequel to our finitude and creatureliness. Human illusions have once again been exposed by the pathogen, particularly where they have taken root in cultures that simply expect inexorable progress. Rather than bending nature to the force of our collective will, we are invariably its subjects.

In similar fashion, the contagion shatters the belief that humanity occupies a position of transcendence over nature. That much should be apparent from what I have said about the virus and the human body, with our native fragility exposed in the most intimate fashion. COVID-19 forces us to recognize the sobering fact that human beings, for all their unique capabilities, remain denizens of the natural order. We are not so thoroughly different that we can claim some kind of ontological autonomy; the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the created world remain permeable. Whatever else it is, humanity is ineradicably physical, having been formed by the same material compounds that compose the environments we inhabit and the resources we consume. Not only do we depend on propitious circumstances within nature for our survival; we are also shaped by the natural world to a remarkable degree, even at the level of deep genetic change (as the field of epigenetics is rapidly discovering). Our corporeality means that we are conditioned by the natural world – whether for good or for ill – for we cannot exist as fully enfleshed human beings apart from that framework. As theologian Christopher Benson has rightly pointed out, our embodied state means that we cannot be completely “sealed off”, as it were, from the external world. We cannot avoid the truth that we are integrated members of precisely the same ecological system that produced COVID-19. All of us are bound to a system that not only sustains us, but also leaves us vulnerable to its predations.

Seeking guidance from a more ancient source

The pathogen has surely succeeded in undermining modern pretensions. But might it not also clear ground for new attitudes to take root – attitudes that are more consistent with reality as one finds it?

The Christian Scriptures and the wisdom they have inspired lay out the rudiments of an alternative approach to the natural world. For one thing, the Bible provides clear witness to nature’s untameable power. Whether one envisions the present natural world as an Augustinian corruption from a paradisal state, or as an unfinished project still wrestling with discordant elements, the fact remains that it is replete with titanic forces that frequently issue in destruction. Even a brief glance, say, at the psalms reveals word after poetic word concerning creation’s ferocity. The sea, for example, was often used as a particularly arresting image for the looming chaos that threatened God’s people (e.g., Pss 29:3-10; 69:14-15; 77:16; 104:6-9). Such was its raw, inscrutable, untamed power that it functioned as the perfect embodiment for cosmic evil. Only Yahweh himself, Israel’s covenant God, was able to tame those unruly forces, shutting up the sea and subduing the mythical beasts of Leviathan and Behemoth (Ps 104:7-9; Job 41). These elements resonated as well as they did because people intuitively understood that the natural world is a fearsome, independent power, often exceeding – and even overwhelming – humanity’s capacity to control it.

The book of Job, with its extended meditation on suffering, offers particular insights in this regard. By the end of his confrontation with God, Job himself arrives at a fresh understanding of the limits of his own vision. He recognizes anew his small and restricted place within the grand production of nature: a world that exhibits both comforting regularities and the rude shock of unexpected destruction (Job 42:3b). His sober conclusion comes after the divine speeches, in which the Creator humbles the protagonist with a battery of rhetorical questions about the nature of creation (Job 38-40). Such questions serve to underscore the relative powerlessness of human beings in the face of creation’s apparently unbounded character. The unavoidable implication is, of course, that only the sovereign Creator is capable of bringing to heel the natural world.

The appearance of COVID-19 should provoke us towards a similar change: a re-orientation of our relationship to the natural world, which reflects the sobriety of scriptural tradition. To be sure, the ancients were at the mercy of natural forces in a way that isn’t quite true for many of us today. But with the virus having undercut the modern aspiration of control over nature and her ways, the time is ripe for re-acquaintance with the biblical picture of a dynamic, sometimes unbridled creation – at once fit for human habitation and a place of lurking, unseen risk. Reflecting on the Joban experience, physicist (and practising Christian) Tim Reddish has observed that Scripture often conceives of the boundary between chaos and order in the natural world as an “unpredictable”, porous one: chaos has of course been assigned its place by a sovereign God, who corrals and even uses it. But chaos has not been eradicated.

Seen through the lens of a biblical theology of creation, the Coronavirus provides an object lesson in humility before the sometimes-dangerous freedom of nature, especially for modern people accustomed to its apparent domestication. Re-appropriating a biblical view of the natural world as something that continues to exhibit such independence may also lay the psychological and spiritual groundwork for a new preparedness, a new resilience, in the face ecological calamity. Those who can humbly acknowledge the enduring reality of an untamed creation – consistent with the truth of our own finitude and limitations – will be better equipped to withstand the maelstrom, even when it threatens to thoroughly strip everything away. This isn’t to counsel fatalism or passivity in the midst of disaster; human beings ought to do what they can to mitigate nature’s destructive power, and alleviate suffering wherever they find it. But if clinging to the narrative of complete human sovereignty over nature can lead to existential crisis when it revolts, perhaps the opposite attitude will – paradoxically – anchor us during such travails. In fact, the equanimity won through adoption of a biblical perspective undergirds precisely the kind of existential and moral strength needed if a person is to extend herself in love to others during times of disaster.

Scripture also challenges the idea that humanity somehow sits outside the natural order, bestriding it as an overlord. Of course, this claim is bound to raise some eyebrows: ever since Lynn White, Jr. argued in 1967 that the Judeo-Christian view of the natural world was at the root of the present ecological crisis, many people have assumed as much without question. It’s true that the Bible’s foundational creation stories posit both humanity’s uniqueness and its role over the rest of creation, acting as God’s steward and vice-regent to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Psalm 8). At least two points, however, must be borne in mind. First, the early chapters of Genesis envision, not the despoliation of nature as a result of human arrogance, but the natural world being harnessed and shaped so that it might flourish all the more. Second, we must also contend with the fact that to tend the earth is, according to Scripture, part of what it means to be made in God’s image (cf. Gen 2:15). Loving husbandry of the natural world is a reflection of God’s own creative character. Christians, moreover, remain convinced that this key vocation is refracted through the person of Jesus, who provides for us the supreme expression of the imago dei. His own life offers the true model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world, for it reveals the posture of humble service – not ruthless exploitation – lying at the heart of authentic humanity (e.g., John 13:1-17).

In any case, whilst Scripture envisions human beings as acting on God’s behalf to bring order to that which he has fashioned, it is under no illusions concerning the place his image-bearers occupy within the natural order. Man may have the breath of life flowing through him, but he is also of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). We straddle the ontological “border” between the material and immaterial, but that does not change the fact that we are composed of the same physical “stuff” as the rest of creation. Indeed, humans share a certain kinship with the natural world, given our common “earthiness”. Scripture resolutely recognizes this: it acknowledges that humans remain denizens of creation, participating fully in an ecological order that sustains them (cf. Ps 103:14). As the legendary OT scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, Genesis 2:7 conceives of “the human person [as] fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an ‘earth-creature’, subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality”. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on the same text, “the essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body” (emphasis mine).

The book of Genesis sees humanity as a member of nature’s ensemble of creatures, sharing in the same qualities as non-human animals – and, of course, the same vulnerabilities to disease and death. In fact, it depicts the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation in almost covenantal terms, with a tight causal nexus existing between God’s image-bearers and the natural world. Humanity cannot escape the vagaries of that world, at least not entirely, and certainly not on this side of redemption. Theologian Terence Fretheim suggests that the cosmos is “communal” in nature; “its basic relatedness” means that “every creature will be touched by the movement of every other”. And in this present, discordant reality, those interactions include the lethal effects of a global pandemic, as a microscopic pathogen spreads decay and disorder simply by acting according to its nature. COVID-19, for all the misery it has wrought, has also exposed something important about our relationship with nature. Christian tradition brings that relationship into sharper focus – encouraging renewed respect for the natural boundaries that have been placed around us, as well as our own obligations as participating members of the natural world’s web of life.

Concluding thoughts

Several writers and commentators have termed the Coronavirus “apocalyptic”. In deploying this term, they do not mean to suggest that the end of world is at hand, or that we are soon destined for a cosmic conflagration. Rather, it has been used in its original sense, to refer to an “unveiling” or “revelation”. And so the contagion has proved, exposing many uncomfortable realities that lay just beneath the surface, and overturning previously settled narratives. The ones I have surveyed here are perhaps some of the most deeply-rooted in the modern psyche, having the benefit of centuries to consolidate themselves within Western culture. Nevertheless, a catastrophe like COVID-19, with its capacity to leave people reeling existentially, is enough to call them into question. But the dislocation many have experienced may ultimately bring some good in its wake – auguring a transformed, more wholesome, relationship between humanity and the rest of the nature, and encouraging a far more proportionate understanding of the place human beings occupy within the “robust…vitality” of the ecological system.

Moreover, the Christian tradition offers the resources needed to sustain a more humble, self-effacing engagement with the rest of the natural world, which even now acts as a check on the (illusory) idea of borderless human power. Indeed, that tradition happily acknowledges the persistent fact of humanity’s limitations – its conditioned existence, in other words – living in a pre-established order that does not always bend easily to our whims.

Christians, of course, are compelled to go further. The advent of COVID-19 may also stimulate a re-appropriation of the great fact underlying our true place within the natural world: the reality of divine sovereignty over creation. This has the effect of underscoring our own dependency as beings constituted by finite matter, who only exist as a consequence of God’s gracious sustenance. Far from being the unconditioned masters of nature, we rely, not simply on the panoply of the created order, but upon the One who sustains it. As the Apostle declared, “in him [i.e., God] we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). From a Christian perspective, the pathogen’s advent is a challenge to re-affirm, not the unrestrained attempts of human beings to exploit a passively-waiting environment, but the boundless God’s ruling hand over something that pulsates with his life and power. By deflating the modern ego, COVID-19 has, perhaps, created space for a return to a theologically-centred view of the natural world, in which human beings abide by the natural limits set for them.

Such a journey is both humbling and comforting. It is humbling for two, complementary reasons: first, it requires humans to accept their places within (and not above) a finely-balanced ecological network; but, second, it summons people to de-centre themselves, to abandon the anthropocentric proclivities of the modern age, and to focus on the Creator instead. But in that re-orientation lie the seeds of true comfort, for it encourages trust in Him whose providential control persists, even during the tumult of a global pandemic. Whether one turns to Genesis 1 to read of the Creator assigning places to the sun and the moon (which were worshiped as deities by many ancients), or Psalm 104, which extols God’s dominion over the things he has made, Scripture is unswaying in its declaration of his kingship. Whereas the story of human sovereignty over nature now lies in tatters, Christianity offers an alternative account: of the wise, loving, and ultimately redemptive power exhibited by the One who alone can rightfully claim this world for himself.

Get that Man a Mirror: Giles Fraser, Conservatism, and Sex (Part One)

The first installment of a two-part critique of Giles Fraser’s article on religious conservatives and sex

Giles Fraser is the type of liberal about whom the conservative commentator, Rod Dreher, has written from time to time: the Anglican priest and writer frequently chides traditionalists for their alleged fixation upon sex, all while providing ample evidence that his own mind has been thoroughly colonised by a modern version of erotic intimacy.

A recent article by Fraser, which appeared on the Unherd website, is a case-in-point. He upbraids “sex-obsessed conservatives” in a piece that once again sees him earnestly trying to push the barrow of homosexuality through the hallowed corridors of the Church of England. Fraser accuses said conservatives of several basic errors, borne (apparently) of their ideological fetishes: a superficial grasp of biblical teaching when it comes to familial ideals; a fixation on apparently recent and peculiar forms of family life; and a stultified historical imagination. The problem is that these charges, like boomerangs, come back to strike the very hand that cast them.

Let me summarise the thrust of Fraser’s argument in a little more detail, before going on to examine the first part of his article. Using David Brooks’ recent essay on the demise of the nuclear family as his launching pad, Fraser insists that (American) religious conservatives have been entirely wrong to “fetishize” that particular family structure. He uses the formative influence of the Moral Majority and Reaganite conservatism in the 1970s and ’80s to claim that traditionalists are in thrall to this supposedly pathological obsession, before mounting a full-scale broadside against the very notion that Scripture upholds the biological, two-parent family as something to which people should aspire. Jesus, we are confidently informed, was an implacable “enemy” of the nuclear family, his opposition stirred and reinforced by a more generous, expansive conception of intimate affiliation as rooted in a common faith in God. Fraser uses his analysis of contemporary culture war tropes and ancient biblical narrative to lay the groundwork for a new vision of “fictive kinship” – which of course includes the many hues and iterations comprising modern “rainbow” families.

Fraser’s historical blunders

The first stage of Fraser’s argument is riddled with deficiencies both multiple and substantial. Take some of his historical claims, many of which are of doubtful accuracy. In one of his opening gambits, Fraser cites the Moral Majority – founded by the fiery evangelical, Jerry Falwell, in 1979 – as evidence of the apparent preoccupation religious conservatives have with sex. It’s certainly true that the coalition devoted much of its energy to combat what it saw as aberrant forms of sexuality, as well as the permissive society that endorsed them. Fraser is also right to criticise the Moral Majority for its slipshod conflation of biblical injunctions and right-wing populism, which climaxed in the unstable marriage between the movement’s fundamentalist version of Christianity and an ascendant Reaganism.

But where Fraser goes wrong is in the significance he attributes to the Moral Majority as an exemplar of conservative hand-wringing over matters relating to sex. The movement, we should recall, was established some 40 years ago; after about a decade of aggressive political activism, its influence began to wane and its internal structures started to splinter. By 1989 – two years before the end of the Cold War – it had ceased to function as a significant religio-political phenomenon. Nothing like the Moral Majority pervades American political life now, and the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric it habitually used to describe the country’s declining moral standards simply doesn’t exist on the scale it once did.

The most generous thing one can say about Fraser’s attempt to summon the spectre of the Moral Majority (he points to no one else) is that it’s an ahistorical view of politicised religion in the United States. The movement has little substantive connection with the concerns of many religious traditionalists today; meanwhile, the coarse, offensive style it represents is commonly repudiated, even by those who occupy roughly the same territory on the religious and political map. Where orthodox members of the major faiths do find themselves talking about sex in the public square, it’s frequently a response to the relentless, protean force of progressive libertinism. If citing a long-defunct political movement is the best Fraser can do to substantiate his charge, then one may fairly ask whether tales of conservative “fixations” reflect instead the fecund imagination of a certain type of liberal advocate.

A similar problem afflicts Fraser’s claim that so-called “reactionaries” have long fetishized the nuclear family – a “very particular” notion of family formation, which in his mind is little more than a post-war “blip” on the historical map.

To be fair, Fraser’s claim is a common one: the notion that the nuclear family is a relatively recent “invention” is invoked so often that it has attained the status of unassailable fact. For all its superficial plausibility, however, the argument is largely innocent of historical truth. Even a brief glance at the late Brigitte Berger’s The Family in the Modern Age should swiftly disabuse a person of the idea that the nuclear family is some kind of sociological aberration. It’s worth quoting her at length:

“This band of scholars [i.e., the clutch of European historians whom Berger mentioned in the previous paragraph] can document with a fair degree of certainty that the nuclear family…was instrumental in the modernization process. In being able to trace the existence of the [nuclear] family as far back as the thirteenth century, they succeeded [in] ‘nullify[ing]’ the widespread assumption that [it] is a product of industrialisation. To the contrary, their studies unmistakably indicate that this type of family unleashed the very social forces conducive to the formation of modern economic and political institutions” (emphasis mine).

Commentary on studies like this one demonstrate that the nuclear family has actually been the predominant way of arranging intimate life since the European Middle Ages – flourishing long before the industrial revolution, the second world war, or any other dubious historical markers to which commentators appeal to marginalise it as a novel “departure from a much older tradition”. According to scholarly study, the nuclear family has not only endured for many centuries; it has also been instrumental for both the socialisation of individuals and the evolution of Western culture. Although Fraser criticises conservatives for their lack of “historical imagination”, his own inability to see beyond the easy assumptions of modern pop-sociology is readily apparent.

Trivializing the nuclear family

Historical ignorance masquerading as superior learning is juxtaposed with Fraser’s attempt to trivialise the whole concept of the nuclear family. A lurking subtext throughout his essay, its unreality is patently obvious: where Fraser seems to think of the nuclear family as a dispensable artefact of late-modern Western culture, the evidence garnered by social science consistently suggests otherwise.

Even if we allow that movements like the Moral Majority politicised family life – transforming the nuclear family into something of a Cold War-era talisman – it remains undeniable that this particular mode of kinship structure has been a boon to both individuals and societies. The experience of children, considered on a broad-scale trends analysis, makes this quite clear. Historical analysis of the sort I have alluded to is buttressed by contemporary sociological evidence concerning the overriding benefit of intact, biological, two-parent families for the social, emotional, and intellectual development of the young. In fact, a genetic link can be drawn between patterns of “concerned cultivation” prevailing within the nuclear family today and practices of nurture and attentiveness that evolved in its earlier iterations.

Kay Hymowitz, for example, has cogently argued that of all family forms, the nascent nuclear family was better placed for the raising of children during the economic and social upheavals of the late-medieval and early-modern periods. Unlike extended kinship groups, nuclear families were often headed by couples who had married later, which normally meant that they had less children. The offspring that were born to such couples therefore benefited from a larger share of attention their parents could lavish upon them. And whereas extended families sometimes functioned as fairly loose coalitions – leading, for instance, to the expectation that older children would take care of younger siblings – children in nuclear families were drawn into tightly integrated “households already steeped in an ethos of hard work, future-mindedness, and ingenuity”. These skills were necessary for a changing economic landscape, and the intimate context within which such modelling occurred allowed such children to flourish.

Recent studies of biological, bonded, two-parent families extend and develop these insights. Sociologists have found, for example, that children raised within a nuclear family structure excel on a number of key developmental indicators, outperforming those peers who have been raised in a variety of other family types. And it’s not just the children born within the relatively secure structure of the nuclear family who benefit, either; society-at-large is enriched, given that this particular family form often acts as the seed-bed for the cultivation of productive, well-rounded citizens.

Lest one thinks that conservative activists are the only ones touting the advantages of the nuclear family, some liberals also recognize its inestimable value. Back in 1999, for example, the late theologian and ethicist Don Browning – no traditionalist he – wrote powerfully of the ongoing importance of the nuclear family, even in the face of progressive attempts to ridicule or abandon it. Browning went on to document the dissolution of biological, two-parent family structures – and in particular, the increasingly common trend of paternal absence – as well as the individual and societal catastrophe that has followed in its wake.

Fraser would doubtlessly lament many of the ills that plague modern society. Even so, he ignores the massive body of evidence tracing several of these pathologies back to the nuclear family’s demise. By reducing its significance, Fraser implicitly denigrates an institution that has long survived as the primary incubator for stable, well-adjusted, and socially conscious individuals. Meanwhile, the modern fictive kinship arrangements Fraser extols are frequently (though not always) the result of the breakdown in more traditional family forms – the collapse of which leads inevitably to the very chaos, pain, instability, and neglect he would rightly decry. In his rush to applaud these so-called “forged” families, he seemingly remains unaware of those studies which suggest that for all their attractions, such groupings lag behind their nuclear counterpart when it comes to the key ingredients of (e.g.) child-nurturing; on the other hand, their rise is often associated with the wider unravelling of social bonds. Substituting glib dismissals for honest engagement simply shields the reader from these widely recognized realities.

Conclusion

Fraser is perfectly justified in critiquing nakedly politicised expressions of religion, whatever their source. But in so doing, he ought to remember that not everything cherished by his opponents should be criticised as an irrational fetish, or lampooned as an ideological heirloom. Swiftly accepting the premise that the nuclear family has been disastrous for many, Fraser has exposed his own anti-conservative animus. If ever he is able to shed this constraint, he would see that the institution has in fact been fundamental to the thriving of countless individuals across the centuries.

King Hit: What Criticism of a Celebrated Author Reveals about the “Diversity” Mindset

It seems that another celebrity has incurred the amplified wrath of the online mob. Last month, author Stephen King was subjected to the indignity of seeing an otherwise unremarkable tweet warped beyond all recognition by the self-appointed guardians of permissible opinion. He made the mistake, you see, of admitting that when he voted for potential Oscar nominees earlier this year, he did not take into account the demands of “diversity” (whatever that means). King had the temerity to base his decisions on the rather quaint notion that a purported work of cinematic art should be chosen for its quality or artistic merit — the underlying reason, in others words, that film festivals and awards nights are held in the first place.

Naturally, a murmuring throng began to swell on Twitter; online warriors for truth and justice excoriated King en masse for his intellectual misdeed. In what amounts to a form of verballing verging on fabrication, writer and critic Roxanne Gay wrote:

“As a fan, this is painful to read from you. It implies that diversity and quality cannot be synonymous. They are not separate things. Quality is everywhere but most industries only believe in quality from one demographic. And now, here you are”.

Director Ava Duvernay followed suit with a more pungent take on the famed author’s opinion, taking aim his allegedly “backward” and “ignorant” comments.

In their rush toward purgation, King’s critics have quite simply failed to grasp his basic point. He was not saying that diversity and quality “cannot be synonymous”. Nor was he objecting to the telling of stories that revolve around the experiences of minority or marginalised groups. But what King was suggesting was that artistic merit does not lie primarily in the fact of its production by a member of a minority; the identity group to which one belongs (whether racial, gender, and so on) is not, by itself, sufficient to guarantee the calibre of one’s artistic work. As the celebrated author seemingly acknowledged, trying to use “diversity” as a criterion by which to judge the artistic value of a particular work may actually stymie one’s attempt to identify true aesthetic prowess.

Although diverse representation may at times coincide with art that moves, ennobles, and enriches, it need not be the case. Creative excellence simply transcends the categories of identity; no artist, for example, can presume to manifest aesthetic virtue merely because of ethnic provenance. Writer Justin Lee helpfully observed that King was “shooting for impartiality, as any judge should”. And impartiality obliges the judge to divest herself of all considerations that do not bear directly on the matter to hand. Minority artists are neither marginalised nor privileged within this scheme, their work being considered in the same way that the art of majority members of the guild should expect. Is this always successfully achieved? Of course not — any more than liberal democratic principles are perfectly exemplified by the countries that claim them as their heritage. But the ideal is no less honourable for all that.

The seeming inability of King’s umbrage-takers to appreciate his point may be partly attributed to the blinding power of that protean scourge, identity politics. Over the past few decades, identity politics has come to supplant older, creedal modes of broad-based solidarity with sharper — and narrower — forms of tribal identification. Members of such “tribes” ground their identities in certain intrinsic or internal features — racial, gender, sexual, or whatever — elevating them to a position of existential priority. This way of casting identity creates an exclusivist kind of group cohesion, distancing tribes from one another and robbing them of meaningful opportunities to cultivate mutual understanding.

Identity politics, moreover, leads inevitably to the erection of value structures and moral hierarchies, which rest, not on virtuous living, nor on the curation of individual character, but on group membership. As the late Sir Roger Scruton noted, identity politics operates with a “reverse hierarchy of privilege”, in which the supposed markers of victimhood and minority status are valorised, imbued with a kind of beatifying power. Francis Fukuyama wrote similarly in a recent essay on the issue. He perceptively argued that modern justice movements, having undergone their own evolution over the past 50 years, no longer issue calls for equal rights; they now demand special redress or recognition for historically marginalised groups, as well as public celebration of their intrinsic differences and uniquely-held experiences. The assiduous effort to import considerations of “diversity” into a disparate variety of fields is but one manifestation of this relatively recent phenomenon.

The consequences of artificial “diversity” criteria for the arts — whether formally imposed or informally accepted — are likely to be corrosive. Creatives like Stephen King are therefore right to be leery of such attitudes. Indeed, arguing for the salience of “diversity” (of whatever type) threatens to introduce a perverse metric into the artistic project, compromising the standards of creative excellence to which artists are normally committed. Marvel, the comic books giant, found this out the hard way. Flush with a freshly-realized commitment to the new creed, Marvel executives transformed many of its superheroes in the light of progressive identity politics. Iron Man, The Hulk, Wolverine: all were thoroughly re-imagined by a stable of new writers who were hired, not primarily for their skills or experience, but for the fact that they shared the bespoke identities of the characters they’d transformed. It wasn’t long before the company witnessed a sharp decline in both quality and sales.

Under a regime governed by identity politics, an artist’s work would no longer be evaluated on the grounds of intrinsic worth or value, but on the entirely irrelevant basis of minority representation; census boxes, not aesthetic quality, would determine its place among the celebrated few. Approbation would be driven in large measure by membership of a favoured group: one artist may be ignored because he happens to belong, say, to the “wrong” ethnic or racial category, whilst another might enjoy elevation for precisely the opposite reason. If this seems far-fetched, then consider how a similar logic has started to influence institutions like American schools and universities, with predictable consequences for (in this case) academic standards.

The temptation for an enterprising artist to lean on her lineage rather than her talents may prove too great, particularly when the lure of public adulation or financial reward is strong (the Jussie Smollett fiasco, for all its differences, is a particularly egregious example of an artist attempting to harness membership within historically marginalised groups in order to advance his career). Again, this has nothing to do with whether one set of people is possessed of greater artistic skill: the distribution of artistic gifts is whimsical and undiscriminating, heedless of colour or sex. Moreover, one doesn’t have to look very far to find examples of white artists producing mediocre work, or creatives from minority backgrounds displaying artistry of the most sublime character. But the point at issue has everything to do with alien concerns corrupting the artistic process.

The cult of “diversity” bodes ill for certain classes of artist. However, its diffusion throughout the arts also threatens to corrupt the status of the critic. Under normal circumstances, there exists a natural connection between the objects of criticism and the critic’s considered judgment. That connection is a rational one, in so far as the critic grounds her estimation of creative excellence in the aesthetic qualities she herself perceives in a particular work. But evaluating a piece of art on the grounds of its creator’s advertised identity can only be described as rationally deficient: the critic’s views aren’t driven by the affective and intellectual power of the work of art she observes, reads, or listens to; they are shaped instead by the wholly unrelated — and in many instances, destructive — obligation to ensure equity of representation.

A desiccated role, then, is likely to await the unfortunate critic who wishes to retain her integrity, compelling her to embrace the hypocrisy of the unwilling propagandist. No longer propelled by her finely-tuned aesthetic perception, she would act at the behest of external forces, executing the demands of a larger socio-political project that has only a glancing relationship with art itself. This is no longer academic: it’s a depressing fact of modern cultural life that many art critics not only fail to resist the degeneration of their vocation, but are now exercised by the fact that some awards seasons reflect insufficient deference to the new regime.

Underlying these troubling developments is perhaps the most pernicious effect of ideological diversity requirements — namely, the perversion of what art is, and the role it plays within a healthy, vibrant society. The shrill denunciations of many of King’s critics reveal two, related features in this regard. Both of them stifle the higher aspirations of the artistic enterprise: the instrumentalization of art as part of a wider, progressive programme of minority advancement; and its fragmentation along a series of heavily-policed identity borders.

Art has traditionally represented the realization of one’s inward creative vision through aesthetically skillful manipulation of the material world. Such works have been produced with the goal of speaking to, even challenging, those who have observed them — overturning conventional wisdom, or exposing people to new truths clothed in the garb of artistic beauty. It was, and in many respects still is, a potent form of communication. But “diversity” activists see things differently. To the extent that they value art, it seems to be due in large measure to the discipline’s potential as a vehicle for ideological progress or political transformation. Their energy is then drawn from the conviction that designated “tribes” require advancement or elevation, and that this can be achieved through cultural recognition the arts bestow.

The intersection between art and politics has a long and distinguished history, to be sure. No one denies that great art can (and should) inaugurate seismic changes within society, nor that political contexts inform or shape an artist’s work. However, there is a world of difference between genuinely good art effecting socio-political change (precisely because of its intrinsic power), and the artistic enterprise being hijacked by an alien political agenda that seeks to prescribe the criteria for recognition from the outset — all before a daub of paint has been placed on the canvas, or a word has been selected for the page.

Where politics can provoke artists to create something luminous and arresting, it does so by acting as a kind of tragic muse: stimulating one’s yearning for truth and justice (often through suffering), which in turn acts as the creative furnace within which great art is forged. “Diversity”, on the other hand, does not fundamentally aspire towards the things for which art has traditionally served as a vessel: truth, beauty, and the kind of transcendence with which anyone, regardless of background, may theoretically resonate. These are, as Andrew Bushnell has eloquently observed, “among art’s oldest and noblest impulses”. It’s true that diverse representation may at times dovetail with fine art, and minds governed by such considerations may produce works of great beauty. But cognate with the core principles of identity politics, the overriding goal here is tribal advantage.

On this view, art isn’t intended to speak to others across the divide of (e.g.) race, culture, or class. Instead, it’s meant to help certain, historically marginalised groups accumulate power against those whom they see as perpetuating oppression. The fruits of an artist’s labour are no longer valued for their own sake, or for the inherent power they contain to move individuals and transform societies; rather, they are reduced to mere tools in the identity advocate’s attempt to re-distribute social and economic privilege.

This bleeds into the fragmentation of art along deep identity fault-lines. “Universal legibility” is no longer a key or desirable goal; consistent with conflict narratives embedded in the marrow of identity politics, notions of “diversity” may be taken as an expression of in-group solidarity, leavened by an adversarial outlook. The idea that an artistic piece might have the capacity to transcend varying contexts or life experiences is anathema, for it “erases the essential differences between individuals” who have been shaped existentially by membership within a certain tribe. Just look at the adjoining furore around what is termed “cultural appropriation” in art (particularly fiction writing), where some have argued that an author from, say, one racial group is morally precluded from giving voice to the experiences of another group through her writing.

The kind of mind that is scandalized by such appropriation is also scandalized by a successful author suggesting that matters of “diversity” shouldn’t count when evaluating the merits of a work of art. Both are iterations of the same identitarian attitude, which remains hostile to the liberal universality to which art — even art that is controversial or subversive — has so often aspired. When one is convinced that social life fundamentally consists of contests between tribes of varying degrees of privilege, then one’s work is far less likely to exhibit the “noble impulses” to which Bushnell referred. Instead of treating art as a universal medium, capable of speaking to all manner of people, activists who obsess over structural power imbalances conceive of artistic endeavours in narrow, sectional terms. Thus, a film by and for, say, African-Americans is transformed into a “racialized” product, in that it trades universal legibility for an insular — indeed, separatist — aim. One is left with a deeply balkanized conception of art, which not only fails to overcome the things that divide people, but reinforces them in an act of collective solipsism.

For all the opprobrium he received, Stephen King was nevertheless right to be sceptical of the effects of “diversity” upon artistic expression and criticism. Of course, it is all too easy to dismiss these concerns as an exaggeration of what might appear to be a niche agenda, propagated by a small band of progressive elites. That would be a mistake, however: hand-wringing over equity of representation in the arts is an often-inchoate expression of some of the key elements of modern-day identity politics, which has succeeded in making its presence felt in a myriad of domains. The boundless zeal of the new identitarian has continued to expand, even into fields where one might have deemed it irrelevant or antithetical. When Western societies are already riven by a litany of economic, social, and racial cleavages, one wonders whether it is wise to nurture an ideology (however benignly) that values separatism over integration, and unbridgeable difference over shared humanity.

Rugby Stars, Religious Schools, and the Charge of Hypocrisy

I wasn’t going to write about the Israel Folau saga: given that oceans of ink have already been spilled on the topic, I wondered what else I might be able to contribute. Surely everything that could be said has been said?

Well, not quite. There are some commentators who think that criticising Rugby Australia’s decision to sack Folau bars a person from also supporting a faith-based school’s right to employ staff on the basis of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof). For Peter Van Onselen, this is an egregious case of religiously-tinged hypocrisy. For David Marr, holding both views simultaneously not only manifests cognitive dissonance; it also reveals the inherent arrogance of conservative religion. So far as I can tell, no one has tried to rebut these assertions.

***

To be sure, the alleged equation between Israel Folau’s firing and the hiring policies of religious schools – issues that have intensified the confused debate concerning religious liberty in Australia – is superficially compelling. RA’s CEO, Raelene Castle, insisted recently that the sporting body was well within its rights to sack Folau, since he had violated some of its key values. She implied that by posting his now-infamous tweet, the former rugby star had fallen afoul of RA’s commitment to “inclusion”. Castle also added that it was “important” the code “defend [its] values”, which presumably meant firing one of the Wallabies’ most important players.

In what appears to be a similar principle at work, the leaders of religious schools and their supporters argue that a faith-based institution ought to be able to employ and dismiss staff according to its grounding principles. To condemn the former whilst applauding the latter might indeed seem duplicitous – a form of religious privilege masquerading as high ideals, which critics like Marr regularly flay.

To reach such a conclusion, however, would be hasty. For whatever similarities hold between the two cases, they are outweighed by key differences. Though not as apparent, those differences are far more consequential.

***

There are several crucial issues concerning the two cases in question: differences in the respective values at play, the nature of the institutions articulating those values, and the subsequent demands placed upon employees. The principles inhering within a faith-based school are essential to its institutional identity – marking it out as a distinct religio-educational entity, and leading naturally to an understanding of staff duties that includes adherence to those principles. As I shall suggest below, the absence of any real parallel in a sporting body like RA means that cries of hypocrisy simply do not apply. This requires a degree of stage-setting, so bear with me.

Consider the relationship between a religious school and one of its teachers. In addition to undertaking discipline-specific responsibilities (teaching maths, for example), the employee is in most cases expected to uphold that institution’s foundational values. As I have written before, the raison d’etre of a faith-based school is the transmission of those values to students. Not only are students educated in the various subjects one commonly associates with school; they are also enjoined to engage in a broader process of intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation, set within the religious matrix that informs the school’s ethos. This is part of the institution’s core aim of propagating a particular vision of reality. Staff members are not only expected to conform to that vision; where appropriate, they are to reinforce it (gracefully and winsomely, of course) with students. Such expectations are neither arbitrary nor tangential. Rather, they naturally flow from, and are rooted in, the school’s overriding mission and identity.

None of this is unique to faith-based schools: all bodies predicated upon the articulation of a certain set of beliefs – philosophical, political, or religious – require members to reflect and promote that institutional identity. This is grounded in the recognition that such beliefs are constitutive of the body’s distinctiveness – something without which it would simply fail to exist as it is. To borrow an example from a previous post, it would be quite odd if the Australian Greens remained sanguine about an employee who thought that anthropogenic global warming was a hoax, and was unflagging in his support for fossil fuels. This is for the obvious reason that the Greens’ entire purpose is constituted by a “deep-green” environmentalist philosophy at odds with so-called climate “denialism”. Indeed, to retain such an individual would be self-defeating in the context of the Greens’ overall aims. We can therefore say that there exists a rational connection between the values of an institution of this kind, and the subsequent demands made upon individual employees.

***

For orthodox Christian schools, staff requirements are likely to include adherence to a conservative view of sex and sexuality. It’s important to elaborate this point, for proscriptions against certain types of sexual conduct aren’t simply a set of arbitrary rules, which can be discarded at will. They are integral to the wider body of Christian beliefs – beliefs which claim to say something crucial about reality – and cannot be easily amputated.

According to most Christians (including most Christian educators), beliefs concerning sexual and gender expression are rooted in what orthodox believers take to be the authoritative word of Scripture, behind which stands an understanding of God’s designs for the flourishing of his creation. Indeed, there is good reason to think that woven into the fabric of biblical revelation is an understanding of sexual relations as grounded in gendered/biological complementarity. Sexual distinctiveness is central to the originating vision for human beings, as set forth at the very beginning of the Bible’s master narrative (Gen 1:27-28; 2:20b-25). That harmony-in-difference is consistent with the integration of created polarities – land and sea, night and day (Gen 1:1-25) – while its most obvious sequel, procreation, reflects the native creativity of the God in whose image humans are made.

The NT clearly reinforces this vision. Jesus cited the creation mandate in a debate with some Pharisees over the legitimacy of divorce (Matt 19:5; cf. Gen 2:24). For him, marriage is a one-flesh union between male and female specifically, which should be sundered only under the most extreme conditions. To defer to the authority of such a passage is to implicitly affirm what it says about the gendered nature of sexual congress. Finally, we shouldn’t forget that Paul selected same-sex erotic relationships to illustrate humanity’s debasement in Romans 1 (vv.26-27). This wasn’t because sexual intimacy between, say, two men was seen as more egregious than other types of wrongdoing. Rather, homosexual conduct provided for the apostle a clear and ready manifestation of the thoroughgoing corruption of human beings, and the universal misdirection of their divinely-ordained telos. Behind his denunciation lay the belief that same-sex eroticism signalled humanity’s collective failure to live within the sacred structures of reality, as portrayed in (amongst other places) Genesis 1-2.

All this is to say that how one expresses oneself sexually is hardly peripheral within the ambit of classical Christianity. Given the cosmic implications involved – i.e., the boundaries of the created moral order, and its role in framing human behaviour – these convictions are of central importance. Indeed, they are indelibly tied to the nature of scriptural revelation and its purchase on theological, ontological, and ethical truth. As the Roman historian, Kyle Harper, has observed:

“Sexual morality [for early, as for most modern, Christians] was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God”.

Upholding certain standards of sexual conduct reflects their significance as key constituents of the very worldview animating an orthodox religious school. Likewise the obligation that every staff member observes such standards, stemming as it does from the school’s overriding mission.

Let me summarise what I have been arguing for thus far. Conservative Christian schools (or Jewish, or Muslim) can be said to be characterised by two defining features: the inherent requirements pertaining to staff responsibilities, enjoining them to embody and articulate a certain set of religio-ethical values (including those pertaining to sexuality); and behind this, the constitutive nature of the values they espouse.

***

Contrast this with RA and its stated commitment to a culture of “inclusion”. Whatever one says about the concept, it is implausible to claim that: a) “inclusion” is a constitutive part of RA’s mission or identity; and b) that there exists a clear, rational relationship between a rugby player’s role and conformity to that particular value. RA was established for the express purpose of administering the game of rugby union in Australia. As a body charged with governing a professional sporting code, RA’s founding had little to do with the promotion of a certain set of ethical values. Excise all reference to “inclusion” from RA’s communications and official statements, and its fundamental aims remain largely unaffected. Moreover, the concept itself is one of near-limitless elasticity, the meaning of which is deeply unstable; trying to divine the function of so vague an idea within the institutional architecture of RA is fraught with difficulty. It simply isn’t an inherent component of a sport’s core business in the way that certain views of (e.g.) sexual conduct are for the identity and purpose of orthodox religious schools. At best, “inclusion” is a non-essential (though non-conflicting) adjunct to an institution created long before the concept’s emergence within late-modern culture.

Similarly, while the specific purpose of a faith-based school rationally grounds an employee’s obligation to act as a conduit for her employer’s tradition, the requirements of an Australian rugby union player like Israel Folau are largely limited to competent execution of his on-field responsibilities – not deference to an ill-defined concept only tangentially related to his normal professional duties. While he may have been required to refrain from behaviour deemed manifestly disreputable (e.g., criminal acts), his chief role was to play his chosen sport to as high a standard as possible. Folau’s function within the enterprise of Australian rugby union was therefore qualitatively different from that played by an educator in, say, a Christian high school – precisely because the two institutions are qualitatively different in nature, constitution, and goals.

***

The upshot of all this is that glib denunciations, such as those slung by the likes of David Marr and Peter Van Onselen, simply ignore the crucial distinctions I have tried to outline. The charge of hypocrisy – whatever its rhetorical power – is of no substantive use, being little more than a category error. What I have raised here means that one can, without a whit of hypocrisy or privilege, hold simultaneously the views in question. If critics weren’t so willing to allow their anti-conservative animus to trump logical acumen, they’d be able to recognize this.

Religious Schools and LGBTI Rights: a Delicate Balance

Note: a slightly different version of this article recently appeared in Engage.mailthe monthly online newsletter administered by the Evangelical Alliance’s Ethos think-tank. 

Introduction

The rancorous debate concerning religious freedom and the rights of the LGBTI community has produced several troubling side-effects, not least of which has been a tug-of-war over language. Take the word “discrimination”, which is now contested linguistic and conceptual territory. While all sides acknowledge that invidious discrimination can occur in the public sphere, many LGBTI activists are convinced that to make distinctions on the basis of sexual expression or gender identity – even those grounded in a wider system of religious beliefs – constitutes action that is, by its very nature, unfair.

I have been reminded of this repeatedly over the past year or so, as a series of disputes concerning LGBTI students and teachers in religious schools continues to smoulder. On one side stand religious liberty advocates, who argue that a faith-based school should be permitted to hire or dismiss staff according to its guiding system of values. On the other side are LGBTI activists and their allies, all of whom are equally convinced that such practices are intrinsically unjust and stall the liberationist enterprise. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of those fighting for what they view as the fundamental rights of gays, lesbians, transgender people and so forth. Moreover, on the question of LGBTI students in faith-based schools, I’d suggest we’re largely in agreement. Even in the case of teachers, the issue is not, for example, sexual orientation per se, but competing lifestyles and value systems. But having said all that, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there exist many activists who cynically weaponise the language of discrimination to subjugate their ideological opponents.

Demands that anti-discrimination laws be broadly applied to religious schools – institutions that have traditionally enjoyed exemptions from this legal architecture – have grown more strident. Brandishing placards and shouting their slogans, advocates decry religious schools choosing not to employ LGBTI teachers as an illegitimate expression of religious freedom. For them, all further discussion is foreclosed. Advocates passionately insist that, if a teacher’s primary role is to educate students according her specialty, then other attributes (e.g., homosexuality and any resultant conduct) should be seen as immaterial to the inherent requirements of the position. Any attempt to deny employment on such grounds is a manifest example of invidious discrimination and religious bigotry. This fervent activism is buttressed by the more sober reflections of advocates for reform in the legal profession, who attempt to argue upon jurisprudential grounds that faith-based schools should enjoy only the narrowest of exemptions in this domain.

The marriage of white-hot ardour and cool rationality forms a potent mix. And to be fair, the debate is not helped by current legal uses of the word ‘discrimination’ and its scope. Mischievous though some activists may be, their position is inadvertently reinforced by the way religious exemptions to such laws are currently articulated. As at least one commentator has observed, saying that religious institutions ought to sit outside the bounds of relevant anti-discrimination legislation invites the idea that the religious have been grudgingly given a reprieve from what is otherwise deemed to be objectionable conduct. This likely gives succour to some people calling for such exemptions to be repealed. But even if one concedes that the framing of current legislation is inadequate, it’s still true that, in prosecuting their case, many LGBTI advocates – whether sincere or cynical – who denounce religious schools appear to elide the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate instances of discrimination.

The purpose of faith-based schools

The real question, then, is not whether religious freedom entails freedom of discrimination per se, but what kinds of discrimination are appropriate or fair. Should a faith-based school be permitted to distinguish between staff on the basis of particular types of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof)? Or does such permission implicitly endorse decisions that are manifestly cruel and bigoted?

It is here that an account of what religious schools are, and what they seek to achieve, is germane. For a religious school to hire teachers according to their adherence to the school’s guiding ethos is, I would argue, neither unfair nor invidious. Rather, it represents the natural sequel to the foundational principles supplying the institution with its raison d’etre in the first place. Such practices are critical if a religious educational institution is to maintain its specific identity. It is difficult to see how one could disagree with the proposition, considered generically, that a faith-based school should be given some autonomy to employ staff that will, in both confession and conduct, uphold the institution’s governing philosophy.

On this view, pedagogy is about far more than the transmission of discretely-packaged information to students. Religious educational institutions exist in part to convey such information within the context of a religiously-grounded worldview, and to engage students in a process of moral formation according to the tenets of the traditions they represent. Obviously, such a project will not always succeed: many students leave such schools unchanged, or may even repudiate the institution’s teachings entirely. But this oft-repeated reality has nothing to do with the principle at issue. For those schools that have been self-consciously established to communicate the ethos of a particular religion (apart from the task of instructing students in the various subjects common to all schools), it would seem self-defeating not to try and employ educators who can successfully embody them.

In the case of, say, conservative Christian institutions, this will likely mean upholding certain standards concerning sexuality and sexual identity. Faith-based schools seeking to imbue the life of their community with the values of their grounding tradition will normally do so through the conduits of teachers’ lives (among other means). Thus, if their goal is to uphold the particulars of their religious worldview, and doing so is partly achieved through the modelling behaviour of staff, then whether or not a person’s life reflects those values is deeply relevant. None of this is unique to faith-based schools, either. A moment’s thought will reveal that institutions of all types make certain demands on prospective members and stakeholders as way of maintaining their identity. Take political parties, for example. Would it be illegitimate for, say, the Liberal Party to continue formal association with a member who suddenly began espousing Marxist ideology? Similarly, would the Greens be wrong to expel someone – or refuse to hire them in the first place – if that individual were a so-called climate ‘denier’ and an enthusiast for fossil fuels? If these are legitimate forms of discrimination (owing to the character of certain beliefs and behavioural traits), what makes religious institutions any different?

Just how important is the issue of sexuality, really?

So far, so good. However, while some LGBTI advocates accept certain forms of differentiation, they are likely to maintain that one’s sexuality should be largely immune to discriminatory action. The Human Rights Law Commission offered an example of this distinction, seen in their submission to the relevant senate inquiry last year. Lying behind the claim seems to be the notion that sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t relevant to education at a faith-based school in the way, say, that creedal differences are, for they allegedly lack the defining importance of belief in Christ’s divinity or Muhammed’s supreme prophethood. But this assumes precisely what is at issue. To contend or imply that a person’s sexual mores are immaterial to their job as an educator in a religious context presumes without warrant that such conduct lies outside a given religion’s central doctrines – a minor piece of adiaphora, as it were.

I can’t speak for Jews, Muslims and other religionists who may bristle at the thought of faith-based schools being compelled to hire people whose lives fail to embody their traditions. But orthodox Christianity would regard such a view as deeply unsatisfactory. Even if the expression of one’s sexuality does not sit at the heart of the Christian faith – a privileged locale reserved for such distinguishing claims as God’s triune nature, or the atoning sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ – it is far from trivial. After all, the book of Genesis has God create man and woman, who are called to bind themselves to each other in a union of sexual complements (Genesis 1:26-28). That this passage lies at the very head of the biblical narrative, prior to the catastrophic irruption of sin within creation, implies that it is a special part of the Creator’s originating vision for those bearing his likeness. Indeed, the creative endowments of human beings – seen most uniquely in the intrinsic capacity to generate new life – crucially reflect God’s far superior creativity. A glance at the New Testament reinforces the significance of this design. Its pages reveal both a renewed endorsement of that vision, as proclaimed by Jesus himself (Matthew 19:4-6), and a denunciation of same-sex erotic relationships as a particularly clear manifestation of humanity’s disordered nature and conduct (Romans 1:26-27).

Obviously, these points would need to be fleshed out in greater detail, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with their underlying assumptions. However, on a Christian analysis, sexuality and sexual expression are indelibly tied to our status as God’s image-bearers and the divinely sanctioned order we are meant to inhabit. For those reasons, questions of sex take on heightened significance, concerning as they do the degree to which one’s life reflects that order. Indeed, an orthodox Christian view of sex recognises it as a key manifestation of a particular anthropology (i.e., what humans are) and a particular cosmology (i.e., the created framework within which humans must conduct their lives). Gendered complementarity in human sexual relationships is, in other words, something that has been woven into the fabric of creation by God. As the Eastern Orthodox writer and cultural commentator, Rod Dreher, notes in his book, The Benedict Option, to live contrary to the divine will in this regard doesn’t simply break a set of ancient taboos. Rather, it constitutes one’s failure ‘to live in accord with the structure of [created] reality itself’.

All this is to say that, in the context of a Christian educational institution, the sexual relationships of its teachers cannot be dismissed as of little importance. Nor can it be condemned as a rationalisation of the basest kind of bigotry. We do well to return to my earlier, general comments concerning the goals of such schools. Efforts to permeate their corporate lives with the religious principles on which they were founded must logically include the ethical and behavioural demands that flow from them; anything else simply drives an artificial wedge between the cognitive and practical dimensions of the faith. And given that one of the key means of transmitting this ethos to students is via their embodiment in staff, adherence to the standards of orthodox Christianity is hardly irrelevant. Quite the opposite, in fact: conformity to a Christian ethic is inseparable from maintenance of a religious school’s peculiar identity, such that the inherent requirements of teaching roles extend beyond mere pedagogy and discipline-specific knowledge, and into the domain of Christian praxis.

The imposition of state-sanctioned beliefs: an intolerable outcome

To be sure, we have lately witnessed the splintering of the Western church on the issue of sexuality. Consensus on this question is rapidly eroding. But even if there exists internal dispute over the importance of sexual conduct to Christian faith, there is no compelling reason why the state should arrogate to itself the task of determining the proper contours of a particular religion. Writing his dissenting opinion in Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw Community Health Service some years ago, Redlich JA trenchantly noted that the Victorian Supreme Court was not properly trained to assess whether opposition to homosexuality was a key doctrine of the faith-based group concerned (p.13):

Neither human rights law nor the terms of the exemption required a secular tribunal to attempt to assess theological propriety. The tribunal was neither equipped nor required to evaluate the applicants’ moral calculus.

Secular state officials are manifestly ill-equipped to judge theological and doctrinal matters. Moreover, they lack the requisite ‘insider’ knowledge to be able to weigh the relative importance of creedal claims. But heeding calls to end exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation would lead to precisely this kind of judicial oversight. Anyone who values the institutional separation of church and state (where ‘church’ is defined somewhat more broadly) should be alarmed by this proposal. Such advocacy, if successful, means inhibiting a religious entity from articulating and embodying its governing ethos. In other words, it entails the encroachment of government institutions upon sacred territory traditionally regarded as verboten, that is, fundamentally impermissible. I don’t know how else to describe this but as an assault on religious liberty and a subversion of our modern pluralistic culture. If, as a society, we’re willing to permit religious educational institutions to make employment decisions based on their grounding principles, then this surely includes some latitude in regard to which principles are to be used as a framework to guide those decisions. The alternative simply invites interference by external authorities in what ought to be the free expression of a religious worldview.

Tackling another illegitimate distinction

The argument I have tried to delineate also has a deflationary effect on another distinction some advocates attempt to make – namely, between positions in a religious school that are connected with ritual observance or doctrinal teaching, and those that aren’t. This could be called a form of meta-discrimination, with only one type of role being susceptible to a process of discriminatory action. Again, the HRLC provides a ready example of this cast of mind (p.18): it recommends rescinding exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act in most instances, whilst permitting ongoing differentiation/discrimination when it comes to conventional ‘religious’ roles. Behind these respective suggestions lies the apparent assumption that there exists a fundamental difference between positions involving pastoral care, religious observance and the like, and those that don’t (pp.16-17).

Unfortunately, the suggestion introduces an artificial disjunction into the understanding of religion generally, and faith-based schools specifically. For serious adherents of any religion, manifestations of spirituality are not confined to particular acts of ritual or devotion. Such activity, while central, is only one component in the complex web of faith. For Christians, say, one’s allegiance to Christ is not simply a case of verbal confession or cognitive belief. Nor is it exhausted by overt expressions of religious observance. Rather, it is meant to be worked out in the mosaic of everyday life, shaping the believer’s approach to everything from work and friendships to time and political participation. And, as I have already indicated, a religious school seeks to inculcate just this comprehensive understanding of faith – a task that is, once again, partly achieved through the embodiment of that faith in school staff. Their comprehensive approach to education means that positions within such institutions cannot be distinguished so simplistically.

It’s true, of course, that some roles might be more directly identified with the architecture of the school’s governing religion. Chaplaincy comes to mind as one obvious example. But it does not follow from this that other staff members may not be called upon to exhibit the virtues of the faith, provide (informal) pastoral care to students, offer general vocational advice within the context of Christian faithfulness, answer a student’s awkward questions, or attempt to situate various domains of knowledge within a Christian worldview. What I have argued concerning faith-based schools and their constitutive goals indicates that any attempt to starkly divide ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ roles is forced to rely on a false dichotomy – one recognised by most serious adherents as unfaithful to a holistic, integrated expression of religion.

Conclusion

Earlier, I noted that the language of discrimination is often used in cynical fashion by some LGBTI activists. Notwithstanding the presence of genuine, good-faith differences between advocates on either side of the issue, brandishing the word “discrimination” has the (often intended) effect of de-legitimising the views of religious liberty advocates before they have been properly aired. But this isn’t the only unwelcome consequence. LGBTI activists also succeed in corrupting portions of our language by using words like “discrimination” so cavelierly. History has repetedly shown that when words become the handmaidens of nakedly political projects, the prospects for open, rational discourse — discourse committed to the pursuit of truth — rapidly recede. That is something no one should want, even those who are prepared to conscript language for their own ends.

Where do we go from here? The victory of the Coalition during Australia’s recent Federal election seems to have had a retarding effect on the activist tide. Indeed, several analyses have already appeared, partly attributing the Australian Labor Party’s loss to the party’s alienation of large swathes of religious people. This may force the party to re-assess its attitude to matters of religious liberty and to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the issues involved – rejecting barely-concealed disdain (see 7:11-7:50 in this Q & A segment) for people of conservative faith, and recognising the electoral value in taking them seriously. I hope this is the case, and that such concerns will now receive bi-partisan support. If Australia is to maintain its status as an authentically pluralist society – in which mutually irreconcilable views and practices nonetheless exist in relative harmony – then I think a robust re-commitment to such freedoms is the most sensible path forward.

Asia Bibi and the British State: A Story of Courage and Cowardice

Certain events have the power to pierce the veil of banalities comprising modern culture. For some, it will be the revelation of gross corporate malfeasance. For others, it might be the death of yet another woman at the hands of an abusive partner. For me, the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman recently acquitted of blasphemy in that country, has deflected every other news item vying for my attention. Perhaps it’s because of the manifest, even searing, injustice of Asia’s plight. Or perhaps it’s due to the fact that the story presents itself as one of those rare instances where moral virtue and the purest savagery are so starkly apportioned – an archetypal struggle, in other words, between the forces of good and evil. What’s more, having been irrevocably shaped by the deeper principles at work in Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church – i.e., that we who are in Christ are not disparate individuals, but members of one, united body (1 Cor 12:1, 27) – I am drawn to accounts detailing the persecution of fellow Christians. Whatever the reasons, the case of Asia Bibi (not to mention her husband and five children) has clung to my mind, refusing to let go.

***

Although the facts of this case have become increasingly well-known, a brief recapitulation is not altogether inappropriate. In 2009, Asia – then living in a small village called Katanwala – became embroiled in a dispute with some neighbours over a drink of water. They refused to accept the communal cup Asia had used, citing concerns that she, a non-Muslim, had “defiled” it. In what appears to be a vestigial practice under the pre-partition caste system, Asia’s neighbours argued that they should have been given priority. The dispute escalated as others joined the fray; Asia’s daughter went to fetch her father, but by the time they returned, Asia had been hauled away. Within days, a charge of blasphemy had been issued against her. Asia was convicted by a Pakistani court the following year, and spent the next eight years on death row. During her protracted ordeal, former minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, and Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, were assassinated in separate incidents after they spoke out against the country’s blasphemy laws. One Muslim cleric even offered R500,000 – a sizeable sum of money in Pakistan – to anyone who would kill Asia.

Despite the unremitting attempts by fanatics to enact their murderous ideology, Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently overturned the earlier ruling, citing a paucity of evidence that could substantiate a charge of blasphemy. In a moment of judicial sanity, then, both the original conviction and its accompanying penalty were effectively quashed (albeit on procedural, not principled, grounds). Whatever relief Asia may have felt, however, was fleeting; the verdict sparked waves of unrest, as angry protesters rejected the court’s decision and called vehemently for Asia’s death. This was enough for her lawyer to flee the country. Meanwhile, it appears that Asia and her family have gone into hiding, although it remains to be seen how long they can live without being exposed. The government of Pakistan, headed by former cricketer and lothario, Imran Khan, has struck a deal with one of the country’s main extremist pressure groups, consenting to a review of the court’s decision. Asia and her family are not permitted to leave the country, which has hampered efforts to find them sanctuary. It is no exaggeration to say that their lives are in grave and mortal danger. The desperation is almost palpable: even if the verdict of October 31st is upheld, there is every chance that these beleaguered Christians will fall victim to the barbarous throng now agitating for Asia’s murder. One need only catch a glimpse of such protestors, whether on television or in a newspaper, to realize that they are animated by a near-satanic enthusiasm for wanton violence.

Christian and other non-government advocacy groups have been doing what they can to provide aid and succour to the Bibi family. Needless to say, this has included attempts to arrange safe passage to a Western country that will provide them with permanent refuge. At the time of writing, however, their efforts have yielded very little; reports suggest that the family continues to dwell in a kind of legal twilight, where one’s existence takes on a vaporous, spectral quality. They have now slipped into a rather dangerous liminal zone, with the recent judicial verdict under renewed scrutiny, and an uncertain future confronting them. All the while, Asia, her husband, and their five children have bravely cleaved to the faith they have long confessed, suffering reproach because of their Lord. Their apparent refusal to renounce the name of Christ, even in the face of such undimmed hatred, should shame Western believers who all-too-easily settle for the spurious comforts with which modern culture beguiles and habituates. They are true disciples, having been hardened – purified – by a trial from which most of us would instinctively recoil. Asia and her family continue to persevere in the midst of such opposition, having imbibed the New Testament’s exhortation that believers fix their eyes on Jesus, who himself endured the shame of persecution in obedience to God (Heb 12:2-3).

The case of Asia Bibi hasn’t simply captured the attention of Christians, though. It has also resonated deeply with the non-religious, possessing as it does many of the features that naturally energise activists on all points of the political spectrum. Asia’s plight will excite those on the Left, who tend to sympathize with the asylum seeker and the often-tortuous ordeal he or she is forced to undergo. As for members of the Right, the case reinforces their general propensity towards reverence of Christianity (even if they do not subscribe to its tenets), and scepticism of Islam. It also neatly encapsulates the fundamental significance with which right-leaning observers tend to invest notions of individual liberty in thought and belief. At any rate, Asia’s ongoing trial – via the rancour of the mob, if not the courts – has had a unifying effect: all are agreed that she presents as a clear a case as one would want in a worthy, deserving claim for refuge. As conservative commentator, Douglas Murray, correctly notes, if ever there was a person who warranted asylum, then Asia Bibi certainly does. Only sheer, obstinate perversity could obscure this plain fact.

***

Unfortunately, sheer, obstinate perversity is exactly what at least one government has been practising in relation to Asia Bibi. Assessing the merits of her case, the UK government rather quickly decided that it would not grant her sanctuary. The reason? Asia apparently constituted a security risk. Such a conclusion seems unlikely, to say the least: how could a lone woman from a despised religious minority – one, moreover, whose founder preached and lived out an ethic of non-violence – constitute a threat to the security and integrity of the United Kingdom? Now that’s not entirely fair, and I hope one can detect the sardonic edge in what I have written. The UK government knows full-well that Asia Bibi isn’t a security risk per se. What worries officials, however, is the threat of civil disturbance from parts of the country’s Pakistani Muslim population if it were to offer Asia and her family asylum. It’s not that Asia herself is threatening to harm British citizens, or damage British government property; nor is she the bearer of an ideology designed to incite or promote violence. She merely happens to hold beliefs that some within the UK Muslim community deemed so abhorrent, they were apparently willing to engage in violent* demonstrations against her entry. In response, the government of the UK has thoroughly perverted the term “security concerns”, denuding it of all conventional meaning. It has then essentially applied that phrase – deployed now as a “weasel” term to avoid the demands of basic humanitarianism – to the innocent victim of the vilest kind of mass persecution. Meanwhile, the British co-religionists of those who are still braying for Asia’s death are all but ignored, so fearful are officials of offending their sensibilities. The shameful consequence is that a member of a persecuted minority group is being penalised for the unyielding intolerance of others.

This can only be described as an instance of supreme moral cowardice. One also can’t avoid the feeling that it marks yet another stage in the slow, sad dissolution of Western self-confidence. Acting in a thoroughly supine manner, the UK has effectively succumbed to Islamic extremists living within its own borders, allowing them to exercise an extortionary power over their decision-making processes. The government’s original error was in failing to administer a discriminating, finely-tuned immigration programme in the first place. Even a cursory glance at subsequent events clearly suggests that officials admitted many people whose commitment to the generative values of the West – values like religious tolerance, pluralism, the rights of women or minorities, and so on – was tenuous at best. But having committed the sin of imprudence, UK officials have now compounded it with the sin of moral weakness. Of course, they might well claim that in refusing asylum to Asia Bibi and her family, they have adopted a cautious, prudential approach to a delicate situation. They might also argue that denying sanctuary to an individual – even one who remains perched on the precipice of death – is justified, if that means avoiding the kind of rancorous civil discord that might occur as a consequence. One could be forgiven for thinking that the citation of security/prudential concerns now is somewhat too late; quite obviously, such concerns weren’t operative when UK government officials welcomed into the country thousands of adherents to a particularly virulent strain of Islamic supremacism. Moreover, there comes a point when caution or reserve becomes capitulation – one that the government of the United Kingdom has not only reached, but well and truly crossed.

A second, deeper question presents itself. One might ask precisely what, beyond basic civil order, the government thinks it’s preserving. After all, if a Western state allows any part of its governance to be determined by forces inimical to its own values and norms, then it has already ceded the moral high-ground. For the government of the United Kingdom to refuse entry to Asia Bibi and her family on the basis of what some members of the Pakistani Muslim community might do in response represents a hollowing out of Western norms. The UK government has singularly failed to defend those virtues that have made Britain (along with just about every Western country that exists) such a vibrant, open, and intellectually liberating place – one, moreover, that remains eminently attractive to migrants from all parts of the globe. In surrendering to the moral blackmail of Islamic extremists and their fellow-travellers, government officials have abandoned their fundamental mandate to maintain, not merely the physical boundaries that constitute the United Kingdom, but the unseen lineaments marking out a civilized society. True, they do not bear this burden alone; all British citizens are theoretically charged with the responsibility of enacting and transmitting that heritage. And it should be remembered that the fruits of Western culture aren’t ultimately rooted in the state. But as they control the levers of power – and with it, the entire panoply of laws and regulations that help safeguard that which has already been achieved – government officials can play a special role in either the maintenance or the dismantling of that culture. With this latest move, the UK government has signalled its unwillingness to defend the principles that birthed and nurtured it. Indeed, it has allowed fanaticism to supplant openness, and the dictates of religious bigotry to suppress a spirit of hospitality. If the government of the United Kingdom is so demoralized that it refuses to grant asylum to a single Christian woman – yielding instead to those whose antipathy towards Western values appears boundless – what, then, does it have left? What is it trying to defend, if not those principles and the particular way of life that stems from them? All told, its actions are as self-defeating as they are craven.

***

In the title of this essay, I referred to courage and cowardice. By now, it’s probably obvious that I was referring to Asia Bibi and the UK government, respectively. It almost seems platitudinous to say that Asia has demonstrated immense courage: first, by retaining her faith whilst on death row for eight years; and second, by continuing to confess that same faith, even when confronted with massed rallies calling for her execution. She embarrasses every Christian (including this one) who struggles to eke out a few, gospel-tinged words in conversation, when the only consequences they have to worry about are quizzical looks or polite rejection. But Asia also embarrasses governments like that of the United Kingdom. Those who denied her appeals for asylum have exposed the hollowness of their stated convictions. Yes, it’s true that this grim state of affairs has many fathers: an unfiltered migration system, say, or the growing “Islamification” of certain sections of British society.** None of that can, or should, be ignored. However, primary responsibility still lies with the country’s political elites, one which they have swiftly abdicated. With their protective services, expensive suits and anodyne words, such officials have proven incapable of emulating the kind of fortitude a poor, illiterate Christian woman has repeatedly summoned for the past eight years. The political class has, once again, abjectly failed to embody the values on which it purports to stand. Is it any wonder, then, that across the Western world its members are rapidly losing the trust of those they represent?

I do not want to end things on such a condemnatory note, however. Let us remember that at the heart of this drama lies a Christian and her family, all of whom are suffering for their faith. They urgently need our prayers, our advocacy, and our support. If this essay does nothing else but encourage even one person to act on behalf of Asia Bibi, then my ultimate goal will have been achieved.

*If anyone believes I am making an unwarranted assumption by labelling the predicted demonstrations as “violent”, just remember that the UK government has been so concerned about their occurrence they’ve refused to provide refuge to Asia Bibi and her family. I doubt that anyone seriously expected them to resemble the marches from Selma to Montgomery.

**This is not — I repeat, not — to say that all Muslims present a problem to a stable and peaceful society. Most are law-abiding citizens, interested primarily in forging a more prosperous life for themselves and their families. Furthermore, a number of prominent British Muslim leaders have called on their government to grant asylum to Asia Bibi. This is laudable and needs to be noted. Nevertheless, there appears to exist within the Islamic tradition intellectual and theological resources that foster, legitimise or otherwise sanction violent or intolerant practices. This, combined with the UK’s rather lax immigration system, seems to have led to a raft of issues — of which the present refusal to provide Asia and her family with refuge is just one.

UPDATE: Spiked editor, Brendan O’Neill, has an interesting column on the whole saga. As he and others have pointed out, it appears that it was Theresa May, acting on the advice of officials, who blocked Asia Bibi’s asylum application. O’Neill makes the obvious (though necessary) point that it truly is a scandal: not only did May abandon a persecuted woman to an uncertain fate, she also abandoned core principles underlying Western culture. O’Neill also observes — correctly, in my view — that even if admitting Asia into the country was likely to incite rioting (a sad eventuality that raises urgent questions regarding the composition of the UK’s immigration programme), this was no reason to block her application. After all, acting on principle sometimes entails risk (something I should have emphasised more clearly). If the government of the UK hasn’t actually forsaken its principles, then it’s giving a very good impression of having done just that.