An Annoying Irony

Person-who-does-at-least-have-the-decency-to-be-frank-rather-than-clandistinely-spiteful:

“You told me you couldn’t do X, but you just did Y.  I can’t see how that makes sense.  People who can’t do X didn’t ought to be able to do Y either.  I’m not going to adjust for you or assist you any more, because it’s obvious you’re just a horrible person pretending to have a problem.”

Person-with-unconventional-physical-limitations (a.k.a. a disability):

“So, instead of rejoicing that my difficulties are less than you thought they were, and that you didn’t have to make the adjustments you seem so much to resent on that occasion, you accuse me of pretending because my physical limitations differ from your assumptions about how they ought to work?

“Let’s look at this logically, if rather over-simplistically.  It isn’t possible for someone to do what they aren’t able to do.  It is possible for someone to not do what they are able to do.  The only way in which I can make my condition look as if it fits incorrect assumptions of how it ought to be is to not do things which are perfectly possible.

“Therefore, what you are saying constitutes a social requirement to malinger.  If I do not pretend, I will be accused of pretending!”

 

Cherry Foster

2=2, Square Triangles, and the Real Presence

A brain-squeaking romp through some questions of chaos and omnipotence

Chaos_carolinense dr.Tsukii Yuuji Wikipedia commons copyright to attribution
Chaos carolinense, the giant amoeba. Photo credit: Dr. Tsukii Yuuji; source: Wikimedia Commons

2=2

It is apparently possible to prove this fact in a rigorous mathematical way, though I remain bemused by what rendered this necessary.

Chaos is presumably the state in which 2 does not equal 2.

(I leave it to whom it amuses to determine whether, if that is taken too literally, it contradicts the principle of ex nihilo).

Which inevitably brings up the question of whether or not God can make triangles square.

I assume that the definition of a square triangle is an entity on the Euclidian plane that has some of the fixed mathematical properties of a triangle, and some of those of a square. For example, four sides and internal angles that add up to 180 instead of 360.

If chaos is the state in which 2 does not equal 2, perhaps it follows that God cannot make triangles square on the grounds that it would be chaos, and it is contrary to God’s nature to create chaos?

However, it would be equally possible to argue that square triangles under the proposed definition would normally be a different form of “order”.

Chaotic square triangles are not really possible because there has to be something about them which allows them to be recognised as both triangular and square. They are insufficiently unintelligible to be chaos.

Which brings one to the question of whether or not God can create a boulder he can’t lift.

For a start, if God is pure act, a question that enquires of his potentialities is problematic.  We do predicate the language of potentiality of God a lot, as being creatures of time, we can’t really say anything without doing so.  But it is presumably somewhat metaphorical: it is hardly surprising if the metaphor breaks down in some places.

Also, if one understands God’s omnipotence in terms of there being no constraint that can be laid on him outside His own nature, the question is rather thrown back to whether or not the boulder question is a chaotic paradox or a paradox created by our lack of understanding, with the odds on the latter.  Does the question create a paradox regarding the possibility of omnipotence, or does the question require, in talking of God “lifting” a boulder, that this omnipotence is already denied?  To “lift” implies a being with constraints which can’t be automatically assumed to apply to God.

Or one could just argue that He has in fact done it, as in the Incarnation, He does accept some of the limitations of our nature. If the Creator God is rendered powerless in the manger and on the cross, then He has created boulders he can’t lift. (However, the “if” is key. I have no idea how one would go about speculating on the subject – it’s rather out of my province.  And note the fact that whatever is done with the tenses in that statement is problematic!).

On a different but related subject, I do believe in the Real Presence. People have a habit of asking me if I take it literally.

It depends what is meant by “literally”. If you mean “according to the normal workings of the physical world” then no, I don’t take it literally. I don’t think I am engaging in a cannibalistic revel! But if you mean “do I think the Communion actually is, really and truly, the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ?” then the answer is yes, I do take it literally. This is made more confusing because what I, as a Christian, think is going on ontologically in the normal rules of this world is very different from what a conventional atheist would think is going on.  It is God that fundamentally defines what it is “to be”, not the laws of the material creation, which are a contingent result of His “decision” to create.

Normally I distinguish the two types of “literally” by saying “mystically” of the Real Presence. But as what I mean by this is approximately, “according to the ontology of the inbreaking of the world to come,” it is perhaps not much help as a clarification under most circumstances!  The mystical, far from being merely symbolic, is as actual as – or more actual than – the literal.

(Part of the reason it is difficult to communicate Christianity in an accessible way is the extent to which the underlying assumptions are different from those of our culture. We are usually trying to communicate concepts for which our wider culture has neither language nor map).

It could also be pointed out that even the ordinary operation of the material creation has turned out not to fit into our ideas of “common sense”. Evolution and quarks (both of which I think to be true) are hardly less fantastic than the Real Presence in everyday terms.

The mystery of all three, and indeed of everything else, is, perhaps, not how God “could”, but why God “wanted” to.

Yes. It is indeed a fearful and wonderful thing that 2=2.

 

Cherry Foster

Choose love – true love that is deeper than involuntary inclination

Why I don’t think that the current catchphrase “you can’t choose who you fall in love with” is an argument for same-sex marriage or the morality of sexual acts between people of the same sex.

Disclaimers: I am not saying in what follows that to have homosexual inclinations is a choice. I am conscious of – and deeply troubled by – the inconsistency within my church institution, in sanctioning things that are against the New Testament standard of chastity for people who are heterosexual, while being strict (in theory at least) about them in people who are homosexual. Granted, I want consistency restored in the direction of restoring New Testament standards of chastity for heterosexuals at the institutional level, but I do recognise the real grievance and the real inequality in upholding these standards for one group of people and throwing them out for another.

I am not not NOT saying that sexual activity between two consenting adults, no matter how unethical I’d argue it is, is evil on the level of rape, particularly of the rape of the most vulnerable and the most entitled to protection and respect – i.e. children. And I do not, in any context, argue that something should be illegal merely because it is unethical. Moreover, I appreciate the historical need certain groups of people had to disassociate themselves vigorously from those who were trying to argue not for the legality of non-violent sexual acts between consenting adults in private, but for the removal of necessary and legitimate protections from children, and the cultural inconsistency I’m pointing out may partly result from that.

Now I shall proceed regarding what this post is actually about!

 

The current catchword for the liberal agenda on homosexuality seems to be, “choose love”. “You can’t help who you fall in love with, how you feel about sex, therefore, same-sex marriage and sexual acts between people of the same sex etc. must be good and right between people who are that way inclined”.

What I wish to argue is that this “therefore” is not actually correct. (That is, that the premise is true but that the conclusion does not follow).

It is a fundamental – and I believe quite correct – insistence of the agenda that uses the “choose love” type catchword, that people are not responsible for their romantic or sexual inclination: therefore, that this should not be subject to moral judgement, and I feel they tend to imply that it must follow that this means it must be good and right to indulge that inclination.

But one cannot then consistently say, as I feel our society tends to: “homosexuals and heterosexuals merely develop differently; this is completely involuntary,” and “paedophiles are inherently disgusting”, as if people with that sexuality are making the moral choice to have that inclination.

That is, if we assume that the development of a sexuality is not voluntary, and should always be respected and acknowledged as part of the person, we have to assume that this is so for everyone, including those whom we currently still condemn merely for being what they are, and who, it is a reasonable guess to say, are probably made to find it more difficult to be virtuous by the social disgust for their natural inclination (given that this seems to be what it has been like for people who are homosexual in the recent past). Acceptance of their experience and support in acting rightly towards children would be a far better response from society than condemning people because they are tempted to misuse children.

I don’t need to argue the case that it is evil to actually use children sexually – that is now mutually accepted on every side of this debate – however much some people on either side have failed to live it, or have wrongly condoned those failing to live it. (Our guilt as Christians is greater because we ought to be upholding a higher standard).

However, the fact of paedophilia, and the fact that it is agreed in the case of people who are paedophiles, that they must be celibate, means that it can never follow merely from the fact of a romantic or sexual inclination that it is right to act upon it. We cannot define doing what we are inclined to do as “love”, regardless of other considerations. Of course, this is not an argument for the whole of traditional Christian chastity ethics, but it is one of the main reasons why I feel that the “choose love” argument is not merely inconclusive, but actually false. It isn’t an argument for the things it purports to be an argument for. I find it deeply frustrating to be continuously bombarded with it as though it obviously ought to change my mind!

However, while I don’t think “you can’t help who you fall in love with” offers any moral conclusion about what it is right to do sexually or romantically, it does dictate certain things about the right pastoral approach. That is, we should not be saying to our young people “trust God and he will make you straight” – that does not seem to be true – but “trust God and he will help you find chastity and true flourishing – as he does all those of us who experience these things differently from you”. And this should be what is said to a teenager who is developing paedophilia as much as it is to anyone else. In fact, I get the impression that a lot of people who are heterosexual, particularly those from certain places and certain church cultures, have also been taught to regard their involuntary sexual desires as wrong in themselves. It is important to make sure it is understood that sins of thought in this matter are what we deliberately do (like consciously indulging a fantasy of being in bed with the last attractive person we met in the street), not what we involuntarily think or feel (such as a picture of that person undressed coming randomly and disconcertingly into our heads).

 

As a philosopher and a Christian I would of course say to people who are homosexual, as to all others, “choose love”. But the set of actions which I think constitute choosing love are not those of the liberal agenda. What I would say in this context is: “choose love. Be physically celibate*. Choose the love which goes deeper than involuntary feeling, and respects the fact that the bodies of two people of the same sex are neither adapted nor designed for sexual activity with each other.”

The body in Christianity is part of the person, a good part of the person, and its biological and personal nature should be thoroughly and completely respected in the context of any sexual act. I am always frustrated, actually, by the similar argument in the context of Ellis Peters’ work, where Brother Cadfael justifies his (heterosexual) affairs with statements along the lines of “it would be an insult to repent of loving a woman like Mariam”**. It is not of loving her that you are bidden repent, but of the fact that you did not treat her with the fullness of love, to either not receive her body, or to commit your whole person utterly to her in marriage until the death of one of you***.

I am not, in saying that true love is deeper than involuntary emotion opposing “true love” and “involuntary emotion” in any black/white way. True love often encompasses involuntary emotion, or is built thereon. Despite the fact that I don’t believe marriage is about “two people in love”, I wouldn’t recommend a man and a woman marry without affection of that type, as the level of spiritual maturity it would take in this culture and in these circumstances to come to “true love” within a marriage without building its practical side partly on “in love” and on long term friendship, seems to me to be astronomical. But true love, love that really seeks the good of the other, can also sometimes mean overcoming our involuntary preferences, as when a mother or father lets their infant child attempt to climb up the climbing frame without assistance for the first time, despite the fact that they’d rather keep them completely safe and not let them acquire the probable bruises!

To those who would say to me frustratedly “you just don’t understand”, I know that this is quite true. I am heterosexual, and I am, more fundamentally, not you. The only way I can understand your experience of these things is by trying to hear what you are saying about it. And that is very necessary for moral enabling and practical support. We do need to build Church communities that support and encourage people in living the demands of the Gospel, rather than ones that lay heavy burdens on people and will not move to lift them themselves.

However, it does not seem to me that “you don’t understand the experience” is an argument for a change of principle. This is partly because the arguments I am making as to what it is right to do or not do are based on the dignity and nature of the body as part of the human person. I think that to argue that we can change the dignity and nature of the body by what we think or experience is to argue that the body is a possession of the mind, rather than equally a part of the person, and I think that to be incorrect. Mental and emotional experience matter, but they aren’t things that can logically overturn principles based on the nature of the body, because these principles are based on things which in this context necessarily take precedence over mental and emotional experience if the body is also to be truly regarded with honour. (This argument potentially works in an atheist/secular context, in that it does not rely directly on theology, though the emphasis I put on the human body as part of the person is undoubtedly shaped by the Christian tradition).

Primarily, though, within Christianity, the principle is based on the idea that God loves us, and he therefore gives difficult commands only because it is truly better for us, not because he is out to get us. There is no way it is consistent with the scriptural narrative to say “because I find this difficult, because it will lead to suffering, because it isn’t what I want, it can’t be God’s will”. Gethsemane alone would rule that out. On the other hand, there is also no way that we should be indifferent to human suffering or struggling. If one part of the body suffers, all others suffer with them. It is important that the approach within the church be pastoral, not in the sense of changing the principles, but in the sense of acknowledging the real extent and nature of people’s challenges in living the Gospel.

Ultimately, I would argue that this whole issue of how one behaves sexually and romantically, for anyone regardless of their sexual/romantic inclination, is not about choosing love or not choosing love, but about coming to understand what it truly means to love.

 

 

* I oppose same-sex marriage because it would be illogical in the context of what I think marriage is, but I have no strong opinion either way on romantic but physically celibate relationships between two people of the same sex.

** I have not the book at present, so while I believe the attribution correct, this may not be a precise quote. The argument I am making does not rely on its source.

***See also 1 Corinthians 6:18, and the following verses.

 

People are welcome to comment. However, I suggest reading at least the disclaimers at the beginning again first (make sure you understand more or less what I’m really saying – or ask if I haven’t been clear), assume the goodwill of anyone who disagrees with you, and use arguments (“I think X because…”) rather than trying to shout others down.

“Had to” – a linguistic conundrum?

I would suggest that it is worth being cautious about using language that suggests we don’t have a choice when we do

“We had to have an abortion because the baby had Sirenomelia”

“We had to get the train because the last bus had gone”

“We had to give a bribe because otherwise the customs people would have delayed us until our flight had gone”

I don’t see much problem with getting the train instead of the bus. But in every case it seems to me that we mean “we thought it was the sensible/right choice” rather than the “we had no choice” which the words imply, and I think that is cause for concern.

The first case is the one which drew my attention to this problem of language in the first place. I am pro-life in every situation – i.e. I don’t believe it is ever justified to try to end the life of an unborn, for a wide variety of different reasons, the simplest being that under no other circumstances does our normal understanding of human rights allow any attribute other than that of being a living human being to have an impact on someone’s moral status*. But I would distinguish between pro-choice and pro-abortion, the latter being more sinister as it tends to start reducing the positive freedom of the parents, as well as not considering the child.

Pro-choice suggests that the mother should make a more or less arbitrary decision, should act according to her preference whatever that is (I don’t agree with that type of practical reasoning, but it does follow logically from liberal anthropology). There would, in this case, be two cultural maps of how to act in all different types of circumstances, one of which involves having an abortion, and the other of which involves not doing so. “Had to” conveys a pro-abortion norm, because it is not acknowledging the possibility of the other way of acting. Choice is being eroded in this case by a way of thinking and speaking that suggests that choice does not really exist in a particular type of circumstance. “We thought it was the best thing to do,” however much I disagree, is at least a correct description of the decision.

“We had to get the train because the last bus had gone”. While in many ways inaccurate – in fact, you might be able to sit in a doorway all night, you might be able to find a hotel, you might be able to spend the night walking to the next town from which you could get a bus in the morning, this one doesn’t strike me as a particular problem. Getting the train from where you are is the logical option in the ordinary course of day-to-day necessity. This was more my control case than anything else. There isn’t, as far as I can see, any sort of moral issue inherently at stake in taking the train rather than the bus – no question of needing to think about the legitimacy of the action.

I had a long argument with various people about my third example, about “having to give a bribe”, which comes from one of my family doing work in a part of Africa, and people insisting that he “had to” give a bribe because that was how the country worked. I have in this case, no clear answer to the question of whether or not the action is moral or not. I can see why people would feel as foreigners that they shouldn’t challenge a system of that sort in a country where it was a long term tradition. I can also see the problems involved in not refusing. I feel, however, that citing “had to” and continuing “because of this consequence” is problematic.  In such circumstances there is always the choice to suffer the consequence, though it may not be the right thing to do in any particular case. Consider an escalation: “we had to murder three children because otherwise the customs people would have delayed us until our booked flight had gone.” I both think and hope that most people would refuse. Again, as with my first example, I think it is important not to erode the sense of “this is the right decision” with language that implies “I was deprived of the freedom to make a decision”.

So, I would suggest that we could do with being careful about the ways in which we use “have to”. Using it to refer to the need to change every day plans due to some unexpected happening is inaccurate, but probably unimportant. However, using it when some more serious choice is involved does matter, for in eroding our sense of choice, it makes it harder for us to see the thing in question as a real choice, choose rightly, and accept responsibility.

 

Cherry Foster

 

*What’s usually opposed to this “my body, my rights” does not seem to me to be any counter-argument because the child also has a physical body from the moment of conception.

Also, I don’t feel I should disapprove of abortion, however obliquely, without mentioning sources of support for people in the sort of situation where they can’t see another way forward, or who may need human assistance post-abortion. I’m not in a position to vouch for the practical quality of the help offered by any of the following, except that I met one of the Gospel of Life sisters (third link) at a conference and was favourably impressed.

https://standupgirl.com/girl-help/crisis-support/

https://lifecharity.org.uk/

https://gospeloflifesisters.wordpress.com/pregnant-we-can-help-you/

https://cardinalwinningprolifeinitiative.wordpress.com/about-us/howwecanhelp/

https://radiantlight.org.uk/crisis-pregnancy-support-etc/

The fourth link is also academically interesting from the point of view of what I’m saying about our understanding of “choice” in the case of abortion.

In Both Kinds?

Aspects of a sacrament that are not required for validity can still be important.

IMG_0006
Petal-art for Corpus et Sanguis Christi beside an outdoor altar.

Suppose a priest in a High Anglican or Roman Catholic* Church turned up one hot Sunday morning in the summer in a swimming costume and started to celebrate High Mass.

To the protests of the laity, and probably diocese, suppose this priest was to respond “it doesn’t matter, the Sacrament is still valid.”

I doubt most people would feel this was a good and sufficient argument…

 

Yet exactly that argument is used to justify the denial of Communion in both kinds, either on an everyday basis, or in regarding it as something without significant value, which it is not worth bothering with when inconvenient. I am entirely with those that feel vestments and ceremony are part of the proper celebration of the Eucharist under normal conditions. I don’t think priests should celebrate the Eucharist wearing swimming costumes, or indeed, wearing ordinary clothes, without some very good reason for it.

However, vestments are part of the tradition the church has developed for the appropriate presentation and dignity of the Eucharist, while the reception of the bread and the cup are part of the original institution: it is reasonable to argue that traditions such as vestments should be considered much less important**, than reception in both kinds. And this does not currently seem to be the case.

This may be one of the issues in which someone who has studied Christian philosophy naturally has a rather different perspective from those who come to it from theology. Validity is important, but it is properly a baseline and not a ceiling from the logical point of view. Validity is a minimum. It isn’t a be-all and end-all of what we are doing – and, as I’m pointing out with the “priest-in-swimming-costume” example, we don’t use the same argument of “not necessary for validity” as a reason not to do any other element of what we normally do. For only the priest to receive the cup – or to celebrate not dressed – in a labour camp in Siberia is all very well. But what is permissible in truly exceptional circumstances doesn’t usually serve as a good guide for everyday practice. The Sacraments are not mechanical rites, to be reduced to their minimum essential elements for fairly minor reasons, but rather things to be celebrated and received with as much fullness as possible, as part of what God has given us.

I would emphasise that I do not judge anyone’s individual spirituality, or relationship with God in the Sacrament, or personal medical needs. To receive in one kind through individual choice is different from the corporate decision to offer Communion only in one kind.

However, I would suggest that those of us to whom reception in both kinds matters devotionally and spiritually, should celebrate valuing the reception of the Chalice, rather than being ashamed of caring about it. The Cup is Christ’s gift to us too, and it is good to value his gifts, according to his way of choosing to work with us.

It does at least not logically follow that because something is not necessary for the validity of a Sacrament it is not significant and important.

Cherry Foster

 

*I am not a Roman Catholic, but I think there is enough shared ground here to have a sensible academic argument on the issue!

** I.e. laid aside with a far lower threshold of reasons to do differently. (For those familiar with the language: what I am saying is that I think it would make more sense to be prepared to lay aside vestments for just cause, but to require a serious reason not to offer Communion in both kinds, than the other way around).

N.B. Lest there be any confusion, I am among the Anglicans who fully endorse the Real Presence, but reject literal Transubstantiation (or any other attempt to reduce the Real Presence to a precise human theory) as trying to reduce the mystery to a bit of human thinking, though I happily regard most of the theories as useful but limited imagery to help us enter into the mystery.