Epidemic, the Sacraments, and the Resurrection

Where do our priorities as Christians coincide with those of the world in an epidemic, and where should they differ? 

Resurrection_(24) Photo credit Surgun source Wikamedia Commons no copyright
Christ rescuing Adam and Eve (representing all humanity) from Hell. Photo credit: Surgun; source: Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of a serious epidemic, it might be appropriate that Communion should be received by an intincted Host being placed reverently in the recipients’ hand, at mutual arm’s length, through an only just sufficiently open window, with both recipient and minister wearing masks, and the recipient only removing theirs to consume the Body and Blood of Christ after the window has been carefully pushed shut.  Or whatever precautions best fit the disease in question.

However, that is very different from it not being possible to receive at all, other than because it is literally impossible.

In a time of contagious illness, we are in the middle of one of the more bizarre paradoxes of Christianity: that of our immense value for earthly life, which ultimately, nevertheless takes second place to the Divine Life in a case of head on conflict.  This creates a massive puzzle when it comes to the handling of an epidemic* of a sort to require serious precautions.

On the one hand, we should be taking every precaution to protect the sick and vulnerable, made in the image of God and designed, within God’s plan, for eternal glory.  Earthly life is made more precious, not less, by the life to come: partly because it is ultimately the resurrection of the body in which we believe, and partly because the created and redeemed human person is infinitely precious.  Earthly life is a gift of God too.  It is Gnosticism that makes earthly life evil and the spiritual good, not Christianity, in which this world is God’s good but fallen creation, which he is in the process of redeeming.

On the other hand, death is fundamentally unescapable.  We will stand before the judgement seat of our Redeemer, one way or another.  The Divine Life, that does not notice death, is normally received through prayer, worship and the Sacraments, and the transformation of being and action that sincere engagement with these things creates.  And the Divine Life is a more fundamental life than the temporary life of the earth.  Though it is impossible to say very much about the practical nature of these things (data deficient) salvation is something that grows in us through this life, as we become more truly restored in the image of God.

Therefore, care for earthly life should be extremely fundamental, but care for the Divine Life even more so.  The secular world may, according to its principles, treat Christian practice as if it was an emotional indulgence of the same sort as going down to the pub.  We cannot.  The normal means of the inbreaking of the Divine Life into human life is not something that can be completely yielded to pressure of any sort, even the threat of mortality, artificial or natural.  Indeed, it is in the face of mortality that we most need God, and it is in the face of death that the commission to reach out to the suffering world with the knowledge of God becomes most urgent.

I would suggest this creates a situation where we should mostly be trying to find ways of co-operating with epidemic precautions, legal and to a lesser extent advised, but should never give up on trying to find ways of working with them which make sure worship and the Sacraments are still accessible to people**.  And at the last, I think any restriction should be disobeyed, if accepting it means accepting a secular view of life and death, with its trivialisation of Christian worship.  However, I don’t think we should ever hold doing so lightly, or do this when there is any option which allows us to honour both commitments.  As far as I can see, much excellent work is currently being done in putting worship online.  But the weight our branch of the Church places on the Sacraments does not really allow us to stop there.  What is or isn’t being done about this, I am not at all clear, and I would like (again) to thank all the clergy for their efforts to keep on supporting people, but I admit to being rather uncomfortable with the way in which I’ve heard it talked about, without mention of the Christian understanding of life and death, or an apparent consciousness that this understanding might cause us to think differently from our culture about what we should do***.

I think, for instance, that I’d suggest the Church should be the last to stop gathering (whether that was the case this time, I have no idea: where I am it all happened so quickly).  Also, if the nature of gathering can be altered effectively, it would be logical to do so – gathering for services outdoors, for instance, at a careful distance, is something I have heard has been done in plague conditions in the past.  After which, I suppose, it is necessary to resort to non-public reception of some kind, such as cautious home Communion, with careful observation of the same precautions that would be used by visiting carers.

Indeed, though it would not be the sort of thing appropriately resorted to under any but the most extreme circumstances, I do remember hearing it said that the Easter Eucharist was distributed in a Russian labour camp of the Communist era, by concealing fragments of the Consecrated Bread in the boxes of cigarettes handed out to each prisoner.  That sort of thing raises the interesting question of which of the normal church rules of handling and reverence it is appropriate to suspend in any particular extreme circumstance.  But, as I would argue that any reverent reception of the Precious Blood is preferable to refusing to allow people to receive it at all, I similarly think any devout reception, even if the normal manner of reverence is impossible, is preferable to not allowing people to receive at all.  Having said, I do not think the issue a simple one.  Such a thing could certainly not be done without great caution, or indeed, without a reasonable amount of knowledge on the part of the recipients as to how to handle the Sacrament.

Ultimately, I think the point I am trying to make is that though our priorities rightly coincide with those of the secular world up to a point, it is necessary to refuse their priorities when it comes to the importance of supporting people in the Divine Life.  And following from that, it is worth in such circumstances talking about Resurrection, worth challenging the view that the best we can hope for is that science will ultimately defeat the illness (an expectation for which I have great gratitude, but which I do not think to be the end of the story).  Death is an enemy that has been far more utterly defeated than that, by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lenten call to repentance is not a call to despair but to hope.  It is a call to remember that we are ultimately created for a Life that no grief can touch or disease destroy.

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Cherry Foster

 

*I remain puzzled as to what causes the problem, given that coronavirus seems to have an incredibly low death rate as these things go, but I accept – despite initial scepticism – that there is a real problem now if people are ordering lockdown.  That isn’t a step most governments would undertake lightly.

**Possibility is different from what individuals choose to do.  It may be conscientious decision on the part of some Christians to stay away in time of sickness, or not to look to receive Communion in a time when it is difficult to gather or be in contact with others.  God works differently with everyone, and some people may be quite happily supported in their faith short term by other things.  But that is completely different from others saying to them “due to the risk we will not do this”.  That is not much different (perhaps slightly worse, by the logic I’m suggesting we should be using) from refusing to care for the sick on the grounds of the risk.

***Given what people are doing, this may well be because they are taking the modifiers for granted: as I didn’t grow up with a Christian world view, I don’t.  If what people say sounds purely secular, that is what I hear :-S

A letter to a hospital

Non-judgmentalism includes not judging when the issue is moral standards we believe in.

[I wish to raise a concern] about policy stated in a notice in the waiting room which I felt raises legitimate concerns about whether the paramount priority of patient care is being maintained.

The notice said that the hospital would not allow patients to refuse treatment from a particular member of staff on racist grounds, and that any refusal of treatment on such grounds could be considered refusal of treatment altogether.

I was horrified to find that any patient of yours refuses to be treated by a particular person for such reasons. Racism is very wrong, and its ongoing presence in our communities is rightly a deep concern.

However, I was more horrified that a hospital would consider responding to the problem in this particular way. Granted, patient care requires politeness and mutual respect, and I think it is quite reasonable to insist that no one responsible for their actions uses certain types of language within the hospital. But this is different from removing the patient’s autonomy to ask for a different doctor irrespective of whether their reason is good or bad.

For one thing, it creates a practical problem, at the minimum being a cover for incompetence, and at the worst, an abusers’ charter. Suppose a woman (or a man) believes that a doctor (or other member of staff) is using medical access to her body as a cover for groping her sexually, and that doctor is of a different race.

Such a policy puts her in a situation where if she requests to be transferred, but cannot prove a complaint, she is liable to be accused of racism if she requests to be treated by someone else. This may prevent her receiving treatment or trap her in a situation where the price of treatment is submitting to abuse. In cases where a person is not happy with the doctor’s competence, playing the race card to block their access to another doctor is likely to be even easier, as such concerns are often instinctive rather than analytical. The only way of preventing this is not to regard the patient’s possible reasons for making the request as a relevant factor.

I would also ask whether refusing someone treatment because they are being racist is really any different, in theory, from refusing a pregnant woman treatment because she refuses to marry the father of the child. The precise similarities and differences of the two cases are interesting, but the question is worth asking. It is usually argued that it is right for medical practice to aim to be non-judgemental about moral issues.

I appreciate the awfulness of racism, and the fact that the policy is a natural reaction to it. However, I think in the case of a hospital, it is necessary to stop at insisting that people must not be verbally or physically abusive, and not to reduce the autonomy of patients to make choices about who treats them.

 

Any thoughts, further arguments for this position, counter-arguments to it, or experiences of (probable or indisputable) racism in such circumstances, or of being accused of racism, or being unwilling to make a request for a different reason for fear of being accused?  It is hardly a simple question.

Cherry Foster

A Question of Value

Conventional feminism and real freedom

Suppose someone takes their daughter, or a young friend, to a social gathering*. This young woman is conscientious and high-achieving, and she’s at the stage of thinking about what she wants to do with her life, or, better still, about how she can best serve given her God-given temperament, interests, and talents.

At this gathering, she meets and talks with two women in their late sixties, one of whom has recently retired after being a consultant doctor for many years, and the other of whom has spent her life as the stay-at-home mother of her three children and as a housewife and homemaker.

On the way home, discussing these conversations with her grown-ups, would you expect both these women to be held up as role models for her? Would their different life choices be regarded as equally good ways for her to consider using her gifts and talents by her teachers, her parents, her school careers advisers?

Freedom, I think, would mean having the choice between paid work or traditional woman’s roles equally valued, advocated, supported, and respected.  Not a situation where girls are pushed into medicine and engineering in order to prove someone else’s political point!

We seem to have an odd tendency as a culture to say nice things about stay-at-home motherhood when directly challenged, but to talk and behave the rest of the time as if it was a waste of people’s time and talents, which no intelligent girl or woman could possibly “want” to engage in.

The acceptance that stay-at-home motherhood is not the right way for every family to do things, and the insistence that it isn’t a laudable ambition for a young woman** who’s drawn in that direction to “want” to occupy herself chiefly with the daily care of her family, are very different things.

Cherry Foster

 

*Or suppose, being at the stage I’m describing, you go to a social gathering, etc. I couldn’t write it to include that grammatically without it being hopelessly confusing.

**Or for a young man.  The gender specific language here is chiefly because I am trying to make a point specifically about women and feminism, not because I think stay-at-home fatherhood is wrong, or that it should be off the map.  I am not an egalitarian but a complementarian: I don’t want men who are suited to usually feminine roles, or women who are suited to usually masculine roles, to be prevented by prejudice or convention from doing them, but I don’t think it helps to try to obliterate the tendency of some roles and tasks to devolve more to men or women.  Rather I think, where relevant, a masculine or feminine environment should be aware of its tendencies and understand what it needs to do to welcome and include members of the minority gender.

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

On Healthy Eating from a “Picky” Eater

Some practical and theoretical comments

800px-Basil_and_Organic_Tomato_Soup wikimedia commons copyright to attribution
Tomato Soup. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a child I was taught I was morally depraved because of the way my body reacts to food.

And while I am sure there is plenty of excellent scientific advice in something like the NHS’s dietary advice, the overarching approach drives me crazy because, ultimately, the human body is not a machine, but a complex, living, dynamic, organic aspect of the human person. I don’t need to know that it is generally more ideal to eat vegetables whole than pureed. I need to know what to do given that I mostly can’t.

“Don’t listen to your body”* is surely the worst food rule of all. The human body, which is an integral part of the person, deserves respect. Brother or sister ass should not be force-fed and cursed for not acting exactly as wanted, but gently and respectfully trained, with empathy and kindness and acceptance of real limitations of whatever kind.

It isn’t clear exactly what my physical difficulties are – probably sensory defensiveness (it is likely I have sensory processing disorder of some type; certainly I have dyspraxia), and possibly also some sort of mild swallowing difficulty and/or general digestive sensitivity**.

The worst problem I have with eating an adequate diet is that I am pretty much literally incapable of eating most cooked vegetables, at least in any quantity, and I don’t find it comfortable to eat raw fruit either. I also have a lot of difficulty with new foods. Texture seems to be the most significant issue, in that I can eat soft mashed potato quite happily, but cannot eat more than a few mouthfuls of the firmer sort without my body reacting as if I was trying to eat soil or cloth. I also over-react to strong or strange flavours and odd flavour/texture combinations.

I’d emphasise that I’m not a nutritionist and what follows is not intended to be scientific dietary advice: it is a set of things I’ve found work for me personally on the vexed question of fruit and veg, which I hope may be a useful starting point for others with similar issues with this food group.

 

Small portions of new foods; avoiding creating an acquired dislike by pushing it to a bad physical reaction.

Eating slowly; and keeping a glass of water or other drink by while eating.

Coleslaw – particularly bland coleslaws with a lot of dressing and finely shredded carrot and cabbage. I can’t cope with carrots and raisins together, though. Try cheese coleslaw if lack of protein is a problem too.

Salad leaves with dressing – I find most dressings fine, so long as they change the texture. Salad cream is my personal favourite. Squeezy mayonnaises tend to have a better texture than those that come in jars.

Red onions with salad cream.

Cream of tomato soup. I’ve had varying success with other cream-of soups. I am more tolerant of tomatoes and onions than I am of most vegetables.

I’ve had a certain amount of success taking tinned soups with whole vegetables, that I couldn’t eat as they were, and putting them through a blender until completely pureed.

Eating soup with bread greatly increases my tolerance of the texture of the vegetables in the soup. Dryish, crusty bread works best for this.

Strained vegetable broth. Cook vegetables to death so all the nutrients end up in the water, and then strain them out of the water and either use the water in further cooking, e.g. gravy, or eat as soup. (Search for vegetarian alternatives to bone broth for recipes. Bone broth may be worth trying too, given it is supposed to be nutritious, though strictly speaking it isn’t part of the vegetable hegemony! Be cautious with it, though – it made me quite sick when I took in too much too soon, and that’s apparently not unusual, even among those who find it helpful long term).

Fruit/fruit and vegetable smoothies. Typically, I use banana and other fruit blended in milk and yoghurt, with ground flax and chia seeds, and added cereal or wheat bran for fibre. And a spoonful of cocoa and/or spices. This is one of my favourite approaches, as the texture and nutrition can be varied a lot. It’s also possible add raw eggs (check they are safe in your area), and/or nut butters, if extra protein would be useful.

Smoothie bread pudding. Instead of using raisins etc. among the bread, blend bananas and strawberries, cocoa and spices, with the milk and eggs, pour over the bread, and bake as normal. This gives a very smooth texture. It makes a good frozen dessert too, though it needs to be allowed to soften for a few minutes out of the freezer before eating.

Brown bread, wholegrains, wheat bran, and other cereal sources of fibre.

Baked beans.

Most tinned beans, chickpeas, and lentils, in moderation and mixed with other foods. Pureeing beans and using them in a sauce or coating on meat works quite well. I can’t take green beans or peas at all, except for pureed peas in soup. Rice and meat/fish salads tend to be quite good with beans or lentils.

Small portions of fresh fruit – however much can be eaten without discomfort. I tend to assume that eating one segment of orange, one slice of apple, half an apricot, two grapes, is better than not eating any. I don’t do this much at present because I live on my own and it would run to a lot of waste, but it may work within a family setting.

I find fresh pulpy fruits, such as mango or banana, easier to take in than fresh juicy fruits like apples.

Real fruit yoghurt. Puree fresh or frozen fruit with plain yoghurt – and spices/cocoa/vanilla essence/instant coffee/honey etc. if desired. Using fruit that’s currently frozen and eating straight away gives a different texture. In theory using pureed fruit should work with frozen yoghurt and ice cream as well.

Relishes and pickles. Again, probably not ideal. But sandwich pickle and sandwich spread and burger relish do generally contain real vegetables, and the way they are prepared and eaten tends to be relatively friendly to texture problems. I usually eat chips with relish rather than ketchup.

Vegetables combined with bread and meat or bread and cheese. I can eat a lot of fresh salad in a burger that I would have no hope of eating on its own. Similarly, I can eat peppers and tomatoes and onion in unusual quantity on pizza, or in a sandwich with bread and cheese. I also get on quite well with things like chopped onion in tuna mayonnaise sandwiches, though I find it tends to be necessary to chop vegetables quite small (use a food processor). I’ve found that the trick with this is to add the size of portion I can eat comfortably and no more, even if all the textbooks are screaming at me that I must, must, MUST eat a larger portion.

Stewed fruit, and stewed fruit desserts such as crumbles.

Tinned peaches and apricots. These generally have a softer texture than fresh.

Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots. I like eating dried fruit in tart, plain, Greek-style yoghurt. Raisins and dark chocolate drops in yoghurt are one of my favourite desserts.

 

Cherry Foster

 

*Clarification: I mean listen to the body as a whole, not gratify immediate sensual preference without thought. There is a difference between the mind behaving like a slave-driver towards the body, and its behaving like a group leader towards a valued colleague. Interestingly, I am using the same underlying structural reasoning in my approach to food and healthy eating (i.e.: respect the body as part of the person) as I do in relation to chastity (sexual ethics), and I think that is probably correct.

**It is possible to have a physical difficulty without the explanation being clear! The explanation explains the causes of the pre-existing physical difficulty, rather than the difficulty being brought into being by the explanation. Our social culture has a strong tendency to treat disability as if it was the explanation and not the thing explained, and to treat anything unexplained as if it was unreal.

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.

You are worth more…

Towards a positive view of Christian Chastity

In 2014 there was a scandal when private “naked pictures” taken of various celebrities were leaked to the press.

One of the women involved said: “I started to write an apology, but I don’t have anything to say I’m sorry for. I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”*

If it is possible for someone to say of a relationship which only lasted four years, and in which the woman felt her boyfriend would look at porn unless she made a substitute for him out of pictures of herself, that it was “healthy”, “great”, and “loving” what does that say about what Western culture now means by those words? And how it is possible to communicate a different set of values across such a language barrier?

I think Christian ethics, including chastity (that is, sexual activity within marriage only, where marriage is between one man and one woman, and is a commitment for life) is partly about God’s care for human worth and human dignity**. An understanding of this aim can be seen very plainly in what is said about social justice***, but it doesn’t seem to be as quickly applied to sex.

You, and your living body, made in God’s image and destined for resurrection and eternal joy, are worth more than this. They are worth more than to be reduced to a matter of casual enjoyment for yourself or another, worth more than to be used against their biological nature and physical potential****, worth more, even, than to be given in any situation other than an absolute commitment for life to you and to any children you may have together*****. You are worth having another commit their life completely to you, and the intimacy of your body should not be given or received at any lesser value.

Wedding_ring_Louvre_AC924 Byzantium 7th c AD Wikimedia com no copyright
Byzantium wedding ring, 7th century AD, showing Christ uniting the bride and groom. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

*Jennifer Laurence, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/10/jennifer-lawrence-photo-hacking-privacy. Though I oppose the attitude to relationships expressed, my sympathies are entirely with her regarding the wrongful violation of her privacy.

**See previous post: “On the nature of God’s commands”.

*** For example, when people talk about the dignity of labour and the fact that the person should be paid a living wage.

**** It is impossible to write on this issue in modern times, and completely avoid the issue of sexual activity between people of the same sex: I appreciate the issue is both complex and sensitive, and what I wanted to say touches on it obliquely rather than being about it, which in some ways I feel is not ideal. However, I think it is better to be immediately open about what I mean and where I’m coming from, as confusion about what different people are really saying is a serious problem in this debate. I believe God’s love is unconditional and is given freely to all people regardless of their inclinations, sexual or otherwise. I have no strong opinion either way on the question of romantic and physically celibate same-sex relationships, though in accord with traditional Christianity I oppose same-sex marriage (I will write on why I don’t think same-sex marriage makes sense in detail sometime: it is one of the most interesting academic debates I’ve ever been involved in). I also think that non-violent sex between consenting adults should be legal.

However, I do in all honesty believe that sexual activity is always unethical between people of the same sex, (a) because it doesn’t make sense to set aside the scriptural standard and replace it with one of our own, and (b) because part of using our bodies to love others is to respect the reality of the potential and nature of the human body, and the bodies of people of the same sex are not adapted or created for sexual relationships with each other. It is worth noting that I would apply (a) to a lot of similar issues, including cohabitation and our approach to divorce and remarriage.

[N.B. I will be interested to read and publish comments of the form “I don’t agree because”, whatever you have to say, but I will not publish anything along the lines of “these dreadful people who…” whether referring to people who are homosexual or people who don’t agree with the liberal agenda.]

*****This is not to condemn every sexually active relationship between two people who are not conjugally married as evil in every way. From the academic point of view, it is possible to admire the commitment a business owner has to their workers, while wishing they would not go in for sharp practice on the stock exchange or dodge their taxes. Similarly, it is possible to admire the good things about a relationship, while believing it would be even better – meet more fully the plans God has for our joy – if it were also chaste (i.e. if the couple abstained from sexual relations unless and until marriage was appropriate). From the personal point of view, I am also a sinner, and have no right to judge.

Cherry Foster