Saturday, October 25, 2014

About Halloween. . . .

I'll always remember the Halloweens when I was a kid.  Mom decorated the house with cutout witches and bats made with stencils and black or orange construction paper.  We would start planning our costumes, and what faces to put on our pumpkins, weeks in advance.

We lived high in the Rocky Mountains, and the houses in our little community were few and far between.  Every year one of the mothers would volunteer to drive all the kids (there were around ten of us) around to all the houses (about 20 of them). Usually it would be very cold, and often it would be snowing.  Everyone knew everyone else, and at every house we'd be invited in and asked to take off our coats to show off our costumes.  At some houses we'd be offered cocoa.  Often the treats would be homemade popcorn balls or caramel apples.

When I was a little older there was a scare about some people putting razor blades in Halloween treats.  We knew no one in our own neighborhood would do that, but it was a weird thought. According to Snopes there have been a few documented cases of this actually happening, but it's always been very rare.  We didn't worry too much about it.

The real problem with Halloween arose when I became a Christian in the early 1980s.  Committed Christians, I learned, didn't celebrate Halloween-- not if they were truly serious about Christ.  Halloween was an evil, Satanic holiday, a glorification of the occult.  The Christian group I was with in college generally had a prayer meeting on Halloween. With locked doors and lights low to discourage trick-or-treaters, we prayed fervently for God to prevent the devil and his demons from doing any real harm that night. Gullible people, we were told, by celebrating Halloween had "opened a door" in the spiritual realms for demonic forces to dominate during the holiday.  So we did "spiritual warfare" by praying against the powers of darkness, and drew a sigh of relief each year when it was all over.

By the time I had kids (the mid-1990s), attitudes were loosening up a little in our Christian circle. It was conceded that ordinary people who celebrated Halloween were not demonically influenced. The best thing to do was to either use the opportunity to spread the gospel to trick-or-treaters, or to hold our own alternative celebrations. These, instead of focusing on scary things, were designed to thank God for the harvest.  Harvest parties were organized at county fairgrounds and other locations, where church volunteers would lead a variety of games for youngsters.  The kids were even allowed to wear costumes-- as long as they didn't dress up as ghosts, witches, devils, vampires or other occult creatures.

It was nice that things had changed so that our kids didn't have to feel they were missing out. Harvest parties were certainly more entertaining than prayer meetings! I was glad we no longer had to hide in darkened rooms while our neighbors were out enjoying themselves. But I had to admit what the kids suspected-- that the harvest parties just weren't as fun as trick-or-treating.

The year our younger child was two, we gave up on harvest parties and went back to really celebrating Halloween.  It was a pleasure and a relief.  The new church we had recently begun attending, though it helped sponsor the local Christian harvest party every year, believed in letting its members make their own decisions about these things.  This was in fact one of the main reasons we had begun attending!

So the kids began trick-or-treating, both downtown at the local businesses during the afternoon and around the neighborhood in the evening.  They came home with a lot of candy, and we dumped it all out on the carpet and sorted and counted it with them.  We passed out candy to the trick-or-treaters who came to our door and didn't give them any religious tracts.  We relaxed and enjoyed the fun of creepy things, of scary things that never caused real fear because they weren't real.  And I began, finally, to begin to understand Halloween.

Not that my earlier Christian view of Halloween has died out. Sites like Born Again Christian Info still promote the idea that this is an evil, occult celebration that no real Christian would have anything to do with:
It is plain from its roots that Halloween has nothing to do with Christianity, but is simply Satan worship, derived from Babylonian practices. Christians should only ever get involved for one reason: to denounce, expose and destroy it by proclaiming Christ's Victory over all the works of the Devil. . . those who dare to indulge in the occult will not go to heaven. . . You may not be serious, but Satan is. You are being deceived and sucked down a slippery slope. . .  Ignore these warnings and you will lose your children to Satan.
The website cites a number of scriptures against witchcraft and divination.  It cites the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain as a form of sun-worship similar to ancient Babylonian practices, and traces Halloween back to these early pagan rituals.

I understand the religious devotion that gives rise to this viewpoint; after all, I once subscribed to it myself!  But I cannot sanction the practice of listing a set of proof-texts and claiming that they support the one and only clear Christian position on something like Halloween, implying that anyone who disagrees is simply being stupid and rebellious against God.  The modern celebration of Halloween really doesn't include any divination or witchcraft.  It has nothing to do with sun-worship; in fact, it's not about worship at all.

The LiveScience website offers a more objective and accurate overview of the origins of Halloween:
Because ancient records are sparse and fragmentary, the exact nature of Samhain is not fully understood, but it was an annual communal meeting at the end of the harvest year, a time to gather resources for the winter months and bring animals back from the pastures. . . 
[A]ccording to Nicholas Rogers, a history professor at York University in Toronto and author of "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night" (Oxford University Press, 2003), "there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship.

"According to the ancient sagas, Samhain was the time when tribal peoples paid tribute to their conquerors and when the sidh [ancient mounds] might reveal the magnificent palaces of the gods of the underworld," Rogers wrote. Samhain was less about death or evil than about the changing of seasons and preparing for the dormancy (and rebirth) of nature as summer turned to winter, he said. . . 
Some evangelical Christians have expressed concern that Halloween is somehow satanic because of its roots in pagan ritual. However, ancient Celts did not worship anything resembling the Christian devil and had no concept of it. In fact, the Samhain festival had long since vanished by the time the Catholic Church began persecuting witches in its search for satanic cabals.
In any event, the rejection of Halloween by Christians is a fairly recent development.  This archived 2009 post by the late Michael Spencer, the "Internet Monk" laments the change which occurred in the late 1970s and early '80s:
From the late sixties into the early seventies, the churches I attended and worked for–all fundamentalist Baptists– were all over Halloween like ants on jam. It was a major social activity time in every youth group I was part of from elementary school through high school graduation in 1974. 
We had haunted houses. Haunted hikes. Scary movies. (All the old Vincent Price duds.) As a youth minister in the mid to late seventies and early eighties, I created some haunted houses in church education buildings that would win stagecraft awards. 
The kids loved it. The parents loved it. The pastors approved. The church paid for it! . . .
It was fun. Simple, old-fashioned, fun. No one tried to fly a broom or talk to the dead. Everyone tried to have fun. Innocent play in the name of an American custom. 
And then, things changed. 
Mike Warnke convinced evangelicals that participating in Halloween was worshiping the devil. Later, when we learned that Warnke may have been one of the most skillful of evangelical con-artists, lying about his entire Satanic high priest schtick, the faithful still believed his stories.  
Evangelical media began to latch onto Halloween as some form of Satanism or witchcraft, and good Christians were warned that nothing made the other team happier than all those kids going door to door collecting M&Ms. 
Evangelical parents decided that their own harmless and fun Halloween experiences were a fluke, and if their kid dressed up as a vampire, he’d probably try to become one. If there was a pumpkin on the porch, you were inviting demons into your home, just like it says in Hezekiah.
Speaking of Mike Warnke, the website Swallowing the Camel, a fact-checking site similar to Snopes (if a bit snarkier), has archived research on the roots of the whole evangelical Halloween scare.  It's the story of Doreen Irvine, who published an autobiography in 1972:
She was the first of many born again Christians who claimed to be ex-witches and/or ex-Satanists, among them women who claimed to have been high priestesses in destructive Satanic cults, so her testimony provided a sort of blueprint.
Irvine's story of Satanism and Satanic ritual abuse was later determined to be false.  But by far the most popular of such claimants was Mike Warnke.  As a young Christian I listened to Warnke's record albums and read excerpts of his books in which, from his purported expertise as a Satanist high priest of the inner Illuminati, he denounced Halloween as the Satanist high holiday.  It turns out that he was actually capitalizing on Christian enthusiasm for stories like this in order to catapult himself to fame and fortune.

Quite frankly, the stories were lurid and shocking and utterly fascinating.  They showed us that we were not just ordinary people, but heroes in a larger-than-life romanticist saga of good and evil.  We wanted to believe these stories.  And so we did, until in the late 1980s Cornerstone Magazine launched an investigation into the claims of Warnke and others, and discovered that the known facts about their lives utterly contradicted their claims.  Warnke never was a Satanist high priest, but was an ordinary, clean-cut Christian college student during the years he was supposed to have been participating in Satanic ritual abuse.

Discovery of the falsehood of these stories put a real damper on evangelical enthusiasm for them, and probably contributed strongly to the loosening up of taboos that replaced those fearful prayer meetings with harvest festivals that were simply Halloween lite, complete with (friendly-faced) carved pumpkins, costumes and candy.  Evangelical thinktank Christian Research Institute's examination of the 1980's Satanism scare concludes:
There is still no substantial, compelling evidence that SRA [Satanic ritual abuse] stories and conspiracy theories are true. Alternate hypotheses more reasonably explain the social, professional, and personal dynamics reflected in this contemporary satanic panic. The tragedy of broken families, traumatized children, and emotionally incapacitated adults provoked by SRA charges is needless and destructive. Careful investigation of the stories, the alleged victims, and the proponents has given us every reason to reject the satanic conspiracy model in favor of an interpretation consistent with reason and truth.
So what is Halloween really about?

The LiveScience website cited above offers this insight, based on the research of folklorist John Santino:
Halloween provides a safe way to play with the concept of death. . . People dress up as the living dead, and fake gravestones adorn front lawns — activities that wouldn't be tolerated at other times of the year.
Facing our fears by laughing at them or playing with safe versions of them is a very human thing to do, and it seems to be a healthy coping mechanism.  Our English idiom "whistling in the dark" encapsulates the concept, which takes other forms such as jokes about death and dying. The 1970s dark comedic television series M.A.S.H., about a group of field doctors during the Korean War who use humor to deal with daily carnage and chaos, is another prime example.

John Santino was interviewed on the TheoFantastique blog in October 2007, and he shared these further insights:
The study of ritual, festival, and celebration offers concepts for understanding large public events such as Halloween. The idea that there are certain periods when the everyday rules are meant to be broken is one. Also, the idea that during times of transition (in the life cycle or seasonal), all bets are off–the dead can mingle with the living; children are allowed to demand treats from adults, people dress in special costumes; things are turned upside-down and inside-out. These ideas help us to see Halloween for its importance. It is a time when we face our taboos (death being a major one) and playfully accept them as part of life.
I understand people’s objection to Halloween insofar as they believe strongly in the existence of a literal Devil who is engaged in an effort to steal our souls. But I was raised in a religious atmosphere where that simply was not a problem with the celebration. I tend to view it as a healthy occasion for the parading and confronting of aspects of life — symbolically — that we usually pretend don’t exist. Also, Halloween is tied closely to harvest imagery, and I think the lesson is that, as the natural world faces death as a part of ongoing life, so must we. Halloween is many things. It allows us to mock our fears, and to celebrate life. There is room for parody and topical satire in the costumes and displays. But it also deals with deeply important issues involving life and death, nature and culture.
I would go one step further than Santino and say that even Christians who believe Satan is a real being, need not have a problem with this holiday.  Halloween is not about worshiping Satan, and it isn't about glorifying or celebrating evil.  Halloween is about facing our fears through the joint vehicles of pretend and partying.  It's about recognizing that while we live on this earth we are part of the cycles of this earth, and that "seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease (Gen. 8:22)."  To celebrate the harvest is also to accept the dying of the year. Halloween is about both. Christ has taken the sting of death; why not let Halloween help take some of its still-remaining fear?

And I like how Santino points out the way this holiday upends our rules and usual patterns.  The kingdom of God is like that too: the child is the first to enter, the greatest shall be the servant, we save our lives by losing them.  Halloween is the day when we open our doors to whoever knocks and give of our substance to "the least of these" who is standing there with an open bag.  Isn't this a picture of the kingdom?  Why, then, shouldn't we let it teach us its simple lesson?

So this year we'll carve pumpkins again, and we'll pass out candy, and we may even watch a scary old movie about the Wolfman or Frankenstein.  And we will have fun.

I hope you will have some fun too.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Three Years of Blogging

I began this blog on September 27, 2011, with a post called Twelve Good Things I Learned from Being in a Coercive Religious Group.  I have tried to post consistently at least once a week since then (except at Christmas time), and this is my 169th post!

Here are a few things I've learned from my experience of blogging so far:

1.  It's really gratifying to have so many people read something I've written, without having to try to get a publisher!

2.  It's even more gratifying when I can feel that what I've written has helped someone in some way. I started this blog with the purpose of spreading comfort and good news to people (especially my fellow Christians) who have felt constrained, shamed or coerced by religious teachings which don't seem to be the "truth that sets free" that Jesus and Paul both talked about.  (And, incidentally, to just flap my metaphorical gums about whatever interests me, which I love to do too!)

3.  Blogging is like what I've read about newspaper writing:  the blog becomes a beast that has to be fed regularly.  Therefore you constantly surf the blogosphere to see who's talking about something interesting, and you rack your brains for ideas whenever you don't have anything in mind that you particularly want to say that week.

4.  After three years-- well, this starts to get burdensome.  You start a blog to express yourself, and it's fun, but then when your 169th Friday rolls around and you realize that you don't even want to write that week, you start to think about this not actually being a job . . . .

5.  And when you work full time and have kids, there's only so much time you get to take for yourself.  I discovered that writing a blog means I don't have time or energy for other kinds of writing.  And about a year ago, I found a way out of the corner I'd written myself into in the young-adult fantasy novel I'd been working on for years-- but I haven't been able to pick the thing back up again and finish it.

So this blog today is an explanation of why I'm not going to feed the beast every week anymore.  I plan instead to just write whenever I have something I really want to talk about.  This will probably be at least once a month (not counting Christmas time), so if you're subscribing to me, please don't unsubscribe!   And sometimes I'll probably simply post links to other people who are saying things I think are well worth reading.

I've built up a good body of work (see my Topic Index) about walking free of coercive, authoritarian and/or legalistic religious teachings.  I hope people will continue to find those helpful.

To my readers: thanks so much for subscribing, for reading, and for commenting!  You have been more valuable and helpful to me than you know.  Please do stick around; you'll be hearing from me soon!


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Forgotten Women in Church History: Antoinette Brown

Oberlin College Archives
Antoinette Brown (1825-1921) is best known as the first American woman ordained to the ministry (in 1853).  However, although some mainline Protestant denominations in the United States remember her (the United Church of Christ regularly honors outstanding women in ministry with the Antoinette Brown Awards), as an evangelical Christian I had never heard of her.* After all, churches that are opposed to women pastors are hardly likely to celebrate the first woman who became one!

Her story, though, like those of other women I have commemorated in this "Forgotten Women" series, shows a woman of great intelligence, leadership ability and devotion; and it's hard not to wonder, if God really never intended women to be pastors, why He made a woman like Antoinette Brown.

According to American National Biography Online, Brown was:
born in Henrietta, New York, the daughter of Joseph Brown, a farmer and justice of the peace, and Abigail Morse. Antoinette proved a precocious child, following her older siblings to school at the age of three. The preaching of evangelist Charles Grandison Finney in nearby Rochester during the Second Great Awakening deeply affected the family, and before she reached her ninth birthday, Antoinette Brown joined the Congregational church. The associated reform movements of the era--antislavery, temperance, and moral reform--also drew support from the Browns, who upheld the educational aspirations of both their sons and daughters. Antoinette attended local schools and the Monroe Academy before becoming a teacher in 1841.
Brown then enrolled in the only college at the time which would admit women: Oberlin College in Ohio.  It was there that she met Lucy Stone, the now-famous Abolitionist and Suffragette.  The two women became lifelong friends, and in time, sisters-in-law as well-- each marrying one of the Blackwell brothers whose sisters Elizabeth Blackwell and Emily Blackwell became the first and second woman medical doctors in America.  Brown felt called into ministry and Stone desired a lecturing circuit-- but as women at the time were expected to stay out of the public sphere, the college refused to train them in rhetoric or debate.  Stone and Brown therefore formed their own women's debating society:
The young men had to hold debates as part of their work in rhetoric, and the young women were required to be present, for an hour and a half every week, in order to help form an audience for the boys, but were not allowed to take part. Lucy was intending to lecture and Antoinette [Brown Blackwell] to preach. Both wished for practice in public speaking. They asked Professor Thome, the head of that department, to let them debate. He was a man of liberal views -- a Southerner who had freed his slaves -- and he consented. Tradition says that the debate was exceptionally brilliant. More persons than usual came in to listen, attracted by curiosity. But the Ladies' Board immediately got busy, St. Paul was invoked, and the college authorities forbade any repetition of the experiment. 
A few of the young women, led by Lucy, organized the first debating society ever formed among college girls. At first they held their meetings secretly in the woods, with sentinels on the watch to give warming of intruders. When the weather grew colder, Lucy asked an old colored woman who owned a small house, the mother of one of her colored pupils, to let them have the use of her parlor.
Though Oberlin College was willing to give Brown the kind of education it thought suitable for a woman, its response to her desire to study theology was less accommodating.  As Distinguished Women of Past and Present puts it:
Oberlin was the first coeducational school to grant college degrees to women and to accept students of all races. Women, however, were expected to clean rooms, wash clothes and serve food for the male students. . .  In 1847 Brown finished the literary course taken by most women. She encountered serious objections from the faculty when she then decided to study theology. They did not think it an appropriate field of study for a woman. However, the school charter decreed that no student could be excluded on the basis of sex, so Brown prevailed and finished the theological course in 1850. The Oberlin College faculty, however, refused to award her a college degree and she did not receive a license to preach. The degree was eventually awarded to her twenty-eight years later.
After college Brown began to accept invitations to speak against slavery and on women's rights. Her work in support of women's rights and her attendance at the first National Women's Rights Convention caused her to lose a position she had obtained lecturing to raise funds for charitable work. She then became an independent lecturer, attracting the notice of Horace Greeley, the Abolitionist New York newspaper editor.  He offered to support Brown's preaching ministry in New York City, but instead she accepted an invitation from a Congregational church in rural New York state to become its licensed minister.  She was ordained on September 15, 1853.

Attending the 1853 World's Temperance Convention, Brown became what American National Biography Online calls "the center of controversy" because of being an ordained minister.  She was shouted off the speaking platform by her fellow delegates.  About a year later she cited theological differences with the Congregationalists (mostly over eternal damnation and predestination) and left her pulpit, eventually becoming a Unitarian.

Back in New York City, Brown began ministering in the slums and prisons, contributing pieces to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune on the plight of the poor, and also writing her first book.  In 1856 she married Samuel Blackwell.  While raising five daughters, she continued her writing career, publishing on a variety of different topics, including egalitarian marriage (a very novel concept!).

According to the German website "FemBio":
The couple consciously tried to live out a model of equality within their marriage: “We will be governed very much by circumstances and what seems best as the years go by, but I think, Sam we can be self sovereigns, we can bend everything within and without to our wills, and our wills to our intellects.” A businessman, Samuel shared household chores and childcare, and Antoinette continued to lecture after having given birth to seven children. The couple raised five daughters to adulthood, two of whom became medical doctors, another an artist.
After her husband's death in 1901, Brown returned to ministry, this time as a Unitarian in New Jersey, where she remained until her death at the age of 96.

I believe Antoinette Brown Blackwell should be an inspiration to all women who seek ordination and/or pastoral ministry, or who believe in full equality in Christian marriage.**  Even though 150 years ago it was much harder than it still is today, she showed that a woman in church leadership and in egalitarian marriage could succeed in both her church and her home.

The then-rampant opposition to a woman simply learning theology or speaking in public would be disagreed with now even by most complementarians.  It's important to question whether, if those issues ultimately were judged as being without scriptural support, how much of the opposition to women as pastors or as full partners in their homes, is based on tradition more than on careful reading of scripture.

I might also point out that attempts to prevent  Antoinette Brown from becoming a minister ultimately failed.  The words of Rabbi Gamaliel about the new Christian sect in Acts 5:38-39 should perhaps be taken note of here:
Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.
Or, in this case, "leave these women alone."   Perhaps its time for the church to stop fighting against women's equality, and leave it in God's hands.

As Gamaliel said, if it is of human origin, it will fail.

But if not. . . .




--------------------
*I never heard of her, that is, until reading Daughters of the Church by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld.  Her story appears on pages 279-281.

**Some might claim that Antoinette Brown Blackwell's move into Unitarianism, reflecting as it does a departure from Christian orthodoxy, disqualifies her as an example for Christian women or as evidence for women's ordination or egalitarian marriage.  However, no one would ever claim that a man becoming a Unitarian proves that men should not be ministers or leaders in their homes.  And in the early 1900s Unitarians were still a Christian sect, if an unorthodox one.  We don't have to agree with everything Brown came to believe, to honor her integrity and her contributions to American religion.  As she herself said“One thing is certain. I am not afraid to act as my conscience dictates, no matter what the world may think ….”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

But Is It Science?

This week someone close to me brought to my attention an article in the online New York Times called God, Darwin and My College Biology Class, by Professor David P. Barash.

Not surprisingly, Barash refutes the literalist view of the Genesis creation narratives (which I, coming at the issue from the literary rather than the scientific side, actually agree with).  But Dr. Barash goes much further in his claims for evolutionary science; in fact, he stops just short of claiming that it renders belief in God impossible.  Barash takes exception to the view put forth by Steven Jay Gould that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria".  A "magisterium" is an authoritative source of knowledge, and "non-overlapping" means that religion and science as sources of knowledge are not actually in conflict, because they deal with entirely separate spheres of human experience.  Gould's view of science and religion in terms of non-overlapping magisteria is called "NOMA" for short.

Barash's article explains how every year he gives his new biology students "The Talk," in which he presents evolutionary science as progressively removing any place left in human thought for the existence of God.  As he puts it:
These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of them might wish. As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God. The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. . . Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon. . .

Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. . .

Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering. . . The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
All this sounds fairly damaging to religion, and Barash concludes his article by pretty much giving God a pat on the head and saying He hasn't necessarily struck out yet-- but it's clear that in Barash's mind it's the bottom of the ninth and evolution has been pitching a no-hitter.  But what it looks like to me is not that science's magisterium overlaps to the point of overwhelming religion's magisterium-- rather, it's that Barash does not seem to understand the real difference between the two.

Barash conflates the functions of science and religion, treating religion as if it were just another way (a failed way) to answer the questions addressed by science, and treating science as if it were fundamentally capable of answering the questions addressed by religion or philosophy.  Joe Hinman on Metacrock's Blog: The Ideology of Scientism (Part 1) defines this common misconception of the nature of religion as follows:
God is evoked where knowledge runs out. That is a wrong concept because it imposes the wrong view of religion, that religion is failed primitive science. . .The problem with it is that it seems to imply that religion only takes over where we have no facts, thus implying that religion [like science] is also about understanding the workings of the world but it just doesn’t proceed by collecting facts.
But the primary purpose of religion has never been to answer questions about how the physical world works. It's true that humans have at times used religion to answer such questions, but those questions have always been a side issue for religion. The real purpose of religion is to address issues of transcendent value, meaning and purpose, and to mediate spiritual experience.

Science, on the other hand, is defined by the online Webster's Dictionary as:
knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method; such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena.
"Scientific method," of course, refers to the hypothesis-experiment process of collecting information about the world through data.  Webster's again:
principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.
So if science is ultimately concerned with the way the physical world works, why is it treated as if it were the arbiter of all reality, capable of shrinking any possible role religion might have played until it pushes religion out entirely?

Hinman's article explains the problem:
Modern thought tells us science is pure objective observation of facts and direct proof of all that is reality. . . [But] when we examine the nature of modern science, especially in so far as it is used in opposition to belief in God, we find that there is no pure objective science, unsullied by the ideological impulse to impose a truth regime upon reality. . . 
Of course science is about a deeper understanding “of the world.” What does that mean? Is it about understanding the world of metaphysics? Or is it about understanding the world of politics, or the world of meta ethics? What kind of understanding? Is that quotation limited to the “natural” world? Does it mean all “worlds” of our conceptualizing? The more varied the definition the looser they become. We see the definitions drifting away form [sic] the concept of systematic understandings of the workings of the physical world and nothing more. It’s in those “stretches” of definition that are probably designed to allow flexible field of study that we see creeping in various agendas such as the ruination of religion. This is strictly speaking not a goal of science, not even part of science’s business.
However, if we look closely at the kind of claims that Barash's NY Times article is making for evolutionary science, he is actually addressing issues of philosophy or religion.

Any statement about what might or might not exist outside/above or in addition to the physical world is a metaphysical statement.  Even to say that there is nothing except the physical world involves making metaphysical assumptions that cannot be supported by physical evidence.  It cannot be proven scientifically that everything that exists can be proven scientifically.  This is because science by its very nature can only find physical phenomena-- either past or present.  To say science can prove that nothing except the physical world exists, is like saying there is no such thing as air pressure because you can't measure it with a ruler.  Anything non-physical, while it may cause physical traces or "footprints" in the natural world, cannot itself be directly tested or proven by science.  But that doesn't mean it cannot exist.

Science also cannot say that because there is suffering, there are therefore only natural, amoral processes. Barash has set up certain parameters for what kind of world he thinks God would create, and then eliminates God because this isn't that kind of world. But Barash's conclusions are not science, nor do they come from science. The questions, "Is this a good world? or "Is there any meaning in suffering?" are questions of philosophy. Not science.

To claim there is no God because humans are not apparently divinely central to the universe, is the same sort of thing.  Barash says that evolution somehow shows that there is no divine spark in humanity.  But any divine spark in humanity is exactly the sort of thing that science would be unable to find, because divinity is not part of physicality. And to claim there is no God because humans don't appear to be physically distinct from the rest of creation is to make an assumption about what God would be likely to do if God existed.  But "If there were a God, what would God be likely to do?" is a theological question.  Also not science.

Further, the point of religion is not to say something like, "The world is complex because God."  That kind of religion is a straw man that hides fearfully in the ever-shrinking gaps of what we still can't explain about how the physical world works. But religion, though it can be, and has been, used to explain the physical world, is not really about such explanations.  These things are completely peripheral to religion in terms of human religious culture and experience.

So what Dr. Barash has done is claim that religion is losing out to science because religion is meant to do the same things science does, but just doesn't do them very well.  Also that science is defeating religion because its methods alone (and not the philosophical conclusions of people like himself in interpreting its data) are succeeding in answering the questions of transcendent value, meaning and purpose with "no such things," and in mediating spiritual experience by denying it.

Bararsh is committing the error called "scientism."  Scientism is defined in Webster's as:
an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).
Science can help us in matters of morality by informing us, for example, whether a particular thing is healthier for humans than another, upon which "do unto others" would kick in to instruct us to seek the healthier thing. But science cannot decide whether "do unto others" itself is morally good or not. That takes humans making philosophical or religious judgments.  Scientists make those kinds of judgments just as much as anyone else-- but what underlies them is not science.*

Barash would object to a religious preacher using the Creation narratives of Genesis to teach on matters of science. But I find it just as objectionable for a science professor to use evolutionary science to teach on matters of religion. Science professors should teach science.

Just because a person is a scientist or science professor, does not qualify them as an expert in religion or philosophy. In fact, a man like Dr. Barash, who is in a position of authority, lecturing to students whose grades are dependent on his favor, needs to be very careful on how he uses that authority. Barash's "Talk" is designed to undermine religious belief.  Sure, at the end he kindly gives his students permission to hold onto their religious beliefs-- if they can.  But Barash is a professor, and they are only college kids.  Barash speaks as an expert, while they sit in the position of learners. And these students, especially the young ones just out of high school, probably have not acquired enough understanding to see the flaws in Barash's assertions.

The power differential is completely in the professor's favor.  So I think he should be asking himself, "Is it right for me to attack the religious beliefs of young people who have neither the background nor the authority to be able to rebut me?"

One thing is for certain.  Whatever answer he gives to that question, it will not be science.



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*In fact, from a naturalistic point of view which strives to be objective, it's debatable whether humans thriving is a good thing or not.  It's good for humans, certainly, but has historically been very bad for the thriving of many other species.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Thus, Male Headship" - Christianity and Gender Essentialism

My last two posts have involved the use of sociological studies by Christians, in support of the doctrine of male headship, known in its harsher and gentler forms, respectively, as "Christian patriarchy" or "complementarianism."  Using science as a support for our premises is very characteristic of the culture of Western thought in which most of us have been steeped since birth. And of course, rebutting or debunking the science or scientific methodology behind premises we disagree with, comes from the same basic mindset.

The problem, as I mentioned in my last post, is when we pounce on evidence that seems to support our own position, while simultaneously ignoring evidence that seems to point the other direction. This is called "confirmation bias," which is defined in Science Daily as "a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."  In addressing the science presented by male headship proponents, then, I'm attempting to avoid this bias myself.  Thus far, though, I have not seen any evidence that compellingly supports their position.

In this post I want to look a little deeper at underlying assumptions.  Why are these sociological studies being used to support male headship?  What is it that they are supposed to prove, that can then be used to say, "thus, male headship?"  The answer, I think, is this:

The studies examined in my last two posts, as used by male-headship proponents, are supposed to show that certain fundamental human traits are specific either to men or to women.  And these fundamental differences are then supposed to prove that men are meant to be in authority, while women are meant to be under authority.

This idea of specific, fundamental traits belonging to either one sex or the other, is called "gender essentialism."  Gender essentialism goes beyond biological differences between the sexes* to personality traits, fundamental desires and leanings, and so on.

This article at Ignitum Today illustrates Christian gender essentialism very clearly:
I am sorry to be the one to raise this issue but I am going to put it straight out there so there is no confusion: men and women are not equal. For two things to be perfectly equal they would need to be the same and it should be self-evident that a man and a woman are not the same. . . 
This is where society is getting it wrong; a false notion of equality. It begins at a subliminal level where the message is diffused that one’s gender is a social construction, meaning that a woman is a woman because she was dressed in a skirt and given dolls as a child, and a man is a man because he was dressed in trousers and given toy trucks. . . 
When a society fails to understand the nature of men and women it is true that everything can look unfair but we set rather arbitrary standards of where fairness lies. Men dominate senior positions in the largest global companies, most likely because they have particular natural abilities to do those tasks well. Women dominate the raising of the next generation of humanity and professions which nurture and educate, most likely because they have particular natural abilities to do those tasks well. 
Gender essentialists tend to resist the distinction between one's "sex," which is biological, and one's "gender," which is sociological.  They believe to be a man and to be masculine, or to be a woman and to be feminine are (or should be) the same thing.  They often do make a sort of disclaimer that not all men fit the pattern, nor do all women; as the article above goes on to say:
Of course there will always be men and women who have certain talents which mean they are better in tasks that are not as common for their sex and that is fine also.
However, when it comes right down to it, this deviation from the gender-essential norm usually isn't "just fine" after all.  The studies I examined in my last two posts show that there is always a percentage of the study group that goes against the trend-- but that doesn't stop male-headship proponents from confidently saying that the studies show the way "men" are and the way "women" are-- not "some" or even "most" men or women, but simply "men" and "women."  And thus, male headship.

My real problem is that the Christian assertion of gender essentialism is fundamentally unfalsifiable. That is, the way it is presented keeps it above the possibility of disproof, so Christians who believe in it never have to question it.  The argument is usually that if a man is presenting masculine traits, or a woman feminine traits, it is evidence of God's gender-essential design-- but if they fail to present those traits, or present opposite ones, it is because of human sinfulness.

Therefore, though deviation from the norm is acceptable in theory, in practice it's not, and many men and women who simply don't fit the norms are treated as if they were in sin.  As the Touchstone Magazine article I quoted two posts ago puts it, men who have been "feminized" by the Church of England's theological training become
wet, spineless, feeble-minded, or compromised. . . malleable creatures of the institution, unburdened by authenticity or conviction and incapable of leading and challenging. Men, in short, who would not stand up in a draft.
To not be "masculine" (which these gender-essentialists apparently define, fairly typically, as authoritative, independently minded and leadership-oriented) is to be weak and sinful. Similarly, the True Woman  website teaches that embracing the submissive, responsive, nurturing "Divine design of His female creation" will save us from the sinful, unfeminine pattern of unsubmissive, worldly womanhood:
Whether they realize it or not, the vast majority of Christian women have bought into this “new” way of thinking. In the home, the church, and the marketplace, they have adopted the values and belief system of the world around them. The world promises freedom and fulfillment to those who embrace its philosophy. But sadly, millions of women who have done so have ended up disillusioned, wounded, and in terrible bondage.
Thus, it becomes impossible to refute gender essentialism using the evidence of real women's experience. If a woman is quiet, gentle and submissive-- it's because it's natural for women to be that way. If a woman is assertive, extroverted, and leadership-oriented-- it's because of her sin nature that is fighting against her true nature. For real Christian women just trying to be themselves, it's a shaming and muffling experience. One kind of personality is honored and the other rejected and silenced, because God is limited by their interpretation of the Bible, as to what kind of woman He is allowed to make.

The percentages of deviation from the gender norms in the sociology cited by male headship proponents, therefore, might as well not exist.  Those who deviate are not being "real" men or "true" women, but are merely capitulating to wordliness or to sinful rebellion against their own natures. The sociology then becomes an unequivocable support for what male headship proponents believe the Bible teaches about the divine creation of the sexes.

But does the Bible actually teach that there are separate and distinct personality traits which God designed for one sex and not the other?  And even if it did so teach, would that lead irrevocably to "thus, male headship"?  Interestingly, Marc Cortez at Everyday Theology, who appears to be a complementarian, would answer "no" to both questions:
[T]he main problem lies in thinking that these two are logically connected such that complementarianism requires gender essentialism to work. So egalitarians invest considerable effort in defeating gender essentialism, and complementarians conversely go out of their way to defend it. As interesting as that conversation might be, though, both sides need to realize that complementarianism does not require gender essentialism. . . .
There does not need to be any essential difference between men and women for God to decide, for example, that only men can be elders. He can decide this for any reason he wants. He is, after all, God. 
People might worry that eliminating step 2 would render God’s decision somehow arbitrary, as though he simply flipped a coin to determine how the gender qualification would work. But that doesn’t follow either. The fact that God’s decision does not necessarily rest on some essential difference in human persons does not make his decision arbitrary; it just means that his decision rests on something else, possibly even something he hasn’t told us about.  [Emphasis in original.]
I don't think Cortez escapes the charge of arbitrariness simply by saying God, being God, must have some mysterious reason for denying and limiting women in church roles (the article doesn't discuss male headship in marriage).  If, as I have contended, denying and limiting women based purely on the fact that they are women is against "do unto others" and "love your neighbor," there seems very little justification for God to thus negate what He taught through His own Son, that "this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12.

But Cortez is quite correct that this is a viable alternative to believing that God designed men and women according to gender essentials, such that men are designed for authority and women for submission to that authority.  As he says:
[T]he simple fact is that even if complementarianism is true, it’s hard to find the Bible giving any clear reason why certain roles/offices are limited to men. Some might point to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, a notoriously difficult passage. But whatever Paul intends by his explanation there, he doesn’t point to any essential differences between men and women. However you understand the reference to Adam being created first, that’s not an essential difference. My brother was born before me, but that doesn’t make his humanity essentially different than mine. And my parents may well give him greater authority in the family because he came before me, but that’s not an essential difference either. The same holds true for Adam and Eve. Adam’s being created first doesn’t present some kind of essential difference between men on women on the basis of which God decrees male headship. If the order of creation is significant for understanding gender roles in the church, a question for another time, it would only be because God decided to do it that way for reasons that he has not ever explained to us, not because mere temporal order establishes some kind of essential difference between the two genders. 
Again, I’m not going to walk through all the relevant passages. . . But for now I’ll leave it with saying that I don’t think there are any biblical passages that even complementarians should read as grounding ministry roles in some kind of gender essentialism. [Emphasis in original.]
Many times the Scripture passages that are used to support male headship are read in terms of gender essentialism: words like "head" are understood as showing God's design for men to be natural leaders and women to be natural followers.  But taking account of literary and cultural contexts results in grounding male authority firmly in the culture in which the writer was writing, and not as a divine mandate.  And when real, devoted Christian men and women just don't fit the norm, it doesn't make sense to simply write them off as being sinful or worldly.

There are plenty of other Bible passages that we don't interpret in the teeth of the evidence, insisting on face-value readings no matter what-- the passages on slavery, for instance.  We don't commandeer all the evidence we can find to prove that slavery is good and God-given (though we used to do just that), while we ignore all evidence to the contrary.

So isn't it time to give up on "thus, male headship"?



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*This whole argument by Christians also tends to ignore completely the existence of transgender people or others who don't fit into the binary boxes of male/masculine and female/feminine.  It's not my intention to ignore them or their struggles here, but in examining gender essentialism as used to support male headship, it's easier to stick with the categories used by male-headship proponents.  Let me here promote the voice of a Christian sister who is not cisgender, to show that there are more sides to this story.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Men Need Respect, Women Need Love" - Really?

An anonymous commenter on my last blog post told me this:
God, in His wisdom, made man the head of the union between man and his wife. He has created a desire in the woman to be loved, and in the man to be respected, and there is no amount of social re-engineering that can change that.
This seems to me to be a good opportunity to address the whole love-vs-respect idea that most male-headship proponents espouse.  Where does this idea come from, that God made women to need love more than respect, and men to need respect more than love-- and that this is a basis for belief in male headship?

The chief source of this idea appears to be the very popular complementarian book Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs.  Eggerichs is quoted in his guest series on this topic on the Focus on the Family blog:
Women need to feel loved, and men need to feel respected. This may explain why Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:33 that a husband must love his wife and a wife must respect her husband. Both commands are unconditional. The hard part is that respect comes more easily to men, and love comes easier to women.
To be fair, Eggerichs doesn't teach that men need only respect and not love, or that women need only love and not respect.  On his Love & Respect Website he elaborates:
We all need love and respect. I preach this and I teach this. I am not dogmatic in suggesting that a husband does not need love. I am not dogmatic in suggesting that a wife does not need respect. 
However, because Ephesians 5:33 reveals that a husband must love his wife and a wife must respect her husband, we see a distinction that is full of significance. Maybe we can answer this way: though we all need love and respect equally, like we all need water and food equally, a wife has a felt need for love and a husband has a felt need for respect. Said another way, she feels hunger pains for her husband’s love more often in the marriage and a husband feels more thirsty for his wife’s respect.
Ok, but is this really what Ephesians 5:33 is talking about?  Do men really feel more need for respect and women for love?

Psychologist Shauna Springer, PhD., wrote a rebuttal in This Psychology Today online article, questioning the universality of the results Eggerichs obtained from his study samples of 400 men and a similar number of women.  Four hundred is not a very big number from which to extrapolate to what all (or even most) men vs. women want.  Springer used a sample group that was deliberately weighted towards highly achieving women, and obtained the opposite result from Eggerichs' sample of women:
To test my theory that respect is equally critical for many women as for many men, I set out to profile the marriages of some of the smartest women I have known and their equally capable friends (The Lifestyle Poll). The first phase of data collection for The Lifestyle Poll was based heavily on a Harvard college graduate sample. In this group of 300 women, 75% reported that they would rather feel alone and unloved than disrespected and inadequate.

In other words, within this group of highly educated, accomplished women, the tendency to favor respect over love was equivalent in degree to the preference expressed among males that was used to launch a best-selling book predicated on what now seems to be an inaccurate assumption of a consistent gender difference. [Emphasis in original.]
Given the differences between Eggerichs' study results and Springer's, it appears that at least for women, their felt need for love vs. respect depends a lot on individual differences between women. The same is likely to be true for men.  If Eggerichs' study samples contained, for example, a high proportion of evangelicals, then the results he obtained may have been more related to the expectations of evangelical culture than to any general tendency in all men as opposed to all women.

In any event, common sense tells us that respect is part of love. You really can't love someone if you don't respect them, and a person who is treated without respect will not feel loved.  As the same Psychology Today article puts it:
At times, I thought that Eggerichs might begin to see how disrespect is at the core of many marital problems for wives as well as for husbands. For example, he says that a wife “yearns to be honored, valued and prized as a precious equal” (p. 11) and that wives “fear being a doormat,” (p. 53) and informs his male readers that a wife will feel “esteemed” when “you are proud of her and all that she does” and when “you value her opinion in the grey areas as not wrong but just different and valid” (p. 73). Why not just substitute the word “esteemed” with the word “respected?”
Words like "honor" and "esteem" are really pretty synonymous with "respect."  In fact, the Bible does indeed tell husbands to respect their wives:
Likewise, you husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. 1 Peter 3:7, King James 2000 version, Emphasis added.
Honor, especially in the honor-shame culture of the New Testament, is pretty much respect and then some.  To give someone "honor" in that culture was not just to be respectful and show esteem in your private lives together, but to give them public recognition and respect.

The Bible also advises that wives should love their husbands:
The aged women likewise, that they be in behavior as becomes holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the young women to be sensible, to love their husbands, to love their children... Titus 2:3-4, King James 2000 version, Emphasis added. 
 So why this emphasis on respect vs. love in terms of men as opposed to women?

Some of this is simply confirmation bias, which is defined as "a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."  We Christians may think we believe in male headship because the Bible teaches it, but we have to watch our tendency to conclude that the Bible teaches male headship because we believe in it.*

The idea that men feel the need for respect more than women do, tends to confirm the idea that men are natural leaders, and the idea that women feel the need for love more than men do, supports the idea that women are emotional, dependent beings-- and thus, male headship.  So a verse like Ephesians 5:33, which tells husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, is easy to read as a statement of fundamental gender differences underlying the principle of male headship.

The problem is that other verses (like 1 Peter 3:7 and Titus 2:2-4) simply don't support the use of Ephesians 5:33 as a proof-text for a love-and-respect difference between men and women.  After all, if we were to base our theory of gender relations on 1 Peter 3:7 all by itself (as we've been taking Ephesians 5:33 all by itself), we would conclude that what women need most from their husbands is actually public honor.

So, since the social science doesn't seem to bear out this love-vs-respect differentiation between men and women either, then it's most likely that Ephesians 5:33 is talking about something else altogether.

What it comes down to, I think, is a fundamental failure to consider the Ephesians 5 passage in terms of its original authorial intent, as it would have been understood by its original audience. As I've said before, until we understand what it meant to them, we can't understand how to apply it to ourselves.

The real question to ask, then, is what were the basic dynamics of marriage in the time and place Paul was writing Ephesians?  To refrain from asking this question is to read into the Ephesian passage the modern, Western dynamic of married life: that is, that two people who are essentially social equals, with equal rights and responsibilities, fall in love with one another and choose one another to commit themselves to.  Thinking of marriage in this way does give us very little reason to think why Paul would tell men to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, if these instructions were not related in some way to the male and female psyche.

However, what Paul was thinking about when he taught on marriage, and what his first-century Ephesian audience would have had in mind, was a different dynamic entirely.  As this brief synopsis on PBS.org states:
Marriage in Roman times was often not at all romantic. Rather, it was an agreement between families. Men would usually marry in their mid-twenties, while women married while they were still in their early teens. As they reached these ages, their parents would consult with friends to find suitable partners that could improve the family’s wealth or class.
As this article from Women in the Ancient World explains, marriage in the ancient Rome-controlled world did require the consent of the man and woman involved, but they often did not choose their spouse, but only consented to their family's choice.  And for a woman, especially if the family had substantial assets and it was her first marriage, there was an even greater expectation for her to go along with her father's choice and put his authority first:
[Y]oung girls were in no position to fight their parents even on something as important as the choice of a marriage partner. Over the years there was a gradual increase in women’s economic power and in their status in society, but a father’s right both in theory and in practice to choose at least the first husband of a daughter remained constant throughout the Republic and the Empire. . . For the last century or two of the Republic and throughout the Empire most marriages were “without manus.” That is to say, the wife remained under the authority of her father. If a woman had to be under someone’s control, a doting father living in another house was a much better bet than a husband.       
Further, though men also may have simply consented to, and not chosen, their bride, the groom was not expected to confine his sexual activity only to his wife. This scholarly paper by Claude Dauphin states:
The fourth century BC Athenian orator Apollodoros made it very clear in his speech Against Neaira quoted by Demosthenes (59.122) that 'we have courtesans for pleasure, and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property'.
So instead of our understanding of a marital union by mutual consent of two partners who love each other and both swear to be faithful, the shared assumption between the writer and the audience of the letter to the Ephesians would have been an authority-subordinate arrangement for the benefit of the man, in which he would most likely have been 10 years or more older than the woman, and where she had little choice and few options.

I have written at length elsewhere about the historical-cultural understanding of marriage in Ephesians, in which I summarized:
Paul was trying to grow an infant religious movement, which meant not fighting existing authority structures– but if within the body of Christ, Christians in positions of authority did not act on that authority, but laid down their privilege and served, and where those in subordinate positions did not passively resist or actively rebel, but willingly gave their best and served, it would all end up in a kind of functional equality, existing in Christian households in an age where the concept of “equal rights” as we now know them, did not yet exist. Paul’s teachings on Christian relationships would, if followed, undermine ancient societal norms from within, eventually resulting in more just, equitable social structures in cultures influenced by these teachings.
 In light of this, what might Paul have been getting at by telling husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands in Eph. 5:33?

As the Scripture4All online interlinear informs us, the Greek word Paul uses for "love" in this verse is transliterated "agapato," while the word often translated as "respect" is "phobetai."  "Agapato" or "agapeo" is, according to Vines' Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, a kind of self-sacrificing, deliberate love that seeks first the good of the beloved, which is "the characteristic word of Christianity."(1966 ed., p. 20-21).  "Phobetai" or "phobeo," on the other hand, actually means "fear," and often refers to the respect one has for social structures of authority, as in Romans 13:6-7:
For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Emphasis added.)
Understood this way, what Paul is probably saying about love and respect in Ephesians 5:33 is probably something more like this:

Husbands, in this marriage relationship you have a lot more power and agency than your wife does. I've already told you to lay down your power and position just like Christ did, in order to raise your wife up as Christ raises up the church.  So love her as Christ loves the church!  Deny yourself for her sake; don't deny her for your own sake. Don't treat her as only a vessel to give you offspring, or as a servant to take care of your house.  Don't go visiting prostitutes or keeping mistresses.  Put her needs first, give yourself for her, and treat her with the care you use to take care of your own body.

And you wives, I know you didn't choose this man you're married to, and that your consent to this marriage may have meant very little.  I know he's much older than you.  I know that society has placed you as a woman, under male authority.  So I'm not expecting you to be able to give your husband the kind of self-giving love that I'm expecting him to give you.  But since in many cases you're still considering your primary authority over you to be your father, I'm asking you to turn to your husband instead.  I've already surprised you by treating you as not merely a possession for him to rule-- I've spoken to you as one who has a choice in the matter, because you're free in Christ.  I've asked you to choose to submit to him voluntarily, and to consider that a service to Christ.  So don't rebel against your husband, but respect the authority society has given him.  I've told him to lay down his power and privilege and raise you up as Christ raised up the church, so if he does as I ask, you'll find yourself by his side and sharing his power, rather than beneath him and obeying his power. 

Am I putting words in Paul's mouth?  Maybe-- but certainly not more so than those who say Paul was talking about some intrinsic characteristic of all women everywhere to need love more than respect, or of all men everywhere to need respect more than love.  If I'm putting words in Paul's mouth, at least they're along the lines of what he and his audience would have understood about marriage at the time he wrote his letter to the church at Ephesus.

If I'm putting words in Paul's mouth, at least they have the meanings he would have given to the words "love" and "respect," and not what they might sound like to us 2000 years later and half the globe away.

Love and respect are not gender distinctions supporting male headship.  As used in Ephesians 5, they're not stand-alone concepts that can be lifted out of context and used to make blanket statements about men vs. women.

And it really doesn't make sense anyway to build a whole theory of gender out of one verse.


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*Of course, confirmation bias can work the other way as well, as male-headship believers often tell gender-equality believers: that we want the Bible to teach gender equality and so we find that it does. Christian egalitarians need to be aware of this possibility-- but there are other compelling reasons to believe the Bible teaches gender equality than simply that we think it should.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fathers' Influence on Children's Church Attendance: What Does this Study Actually Show?

This week I want to talk about a particular set of social science statistics published in 1994 by the Council of Europe called The demographic characteristics of linguistic and religious groups in Switzerland.  As I have dialogued on the Internet about gender roles in Christianity over the last several years, I have noticed that male-headship believing Christians, or complementarians, really love this study and bring it up over and over again.  Here is a detail of the results of the study, as set forth in Wikipedia's Article on Church Attendance:

Practice of religion according to practice of parents (%)
Practice of ParentsPractice of ParentsPractice of the childrenPractice of the childrenPractice of the childrenPractice of the children
FATHERMOTHERREGULARIRREGULARNON-PRACTISINGTOTAL
RegularRegular32.841.425.8100.0
RegularIrregular37.737.624.7100.0
RegularNon-Practising44.222.433.4100.0
IrregularRegular3.458.638.0100.0
IrregularIrregular7.860.831.4100.0
IrregularNon-Practising25.422.851.8100.0
Non-PractisingRegular1.537.461.1100.0
Non-PractisingIrregular2.337.859.9100.0
Non-PractisingNon-Practising4.614.780.7100.0

The point, as I understand it, is that a father who attends church regularly is much more likely to have his children attend church regularly after they grow up, than a mother who attends church regularly; and if the father is not a practicing Christian, his children are very likely to grow up to be non-practicing themselves, even if the mother is a regular church attender.

There is also supposedly an American study showing that "If the mother is the first to become a Christian, there is a 17 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow. But if the father is first, there is a 93 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow."  According to this article in The Baptist Press, the study is cited in the book The Promise Keeper at Work by Bob Horner, but I have been unable to locate any reference online to the actual study which generated these statistics.

In any event, I have seen this Swiss study cited over and over again by male-headship proponents as a sort of definitive proof that male headship is God's blueprint for humanity. As one commenter on  this discussion of gender roles at the Wartburg Watch put it:
To briefly summarize, the mothers spiritual life has virtually no effect on her children. But the fathers is HUGE. What dad does is what the kids will do. 
This, in conclusion, is why I contend for comp theology. Can mothers and women be amazing teachers, Godly examples, skilled leaders, etc….Absolutely. Is there an internal wiring that is deeply dependent upon male leadership (in this case…fathers) that shapes us, and our communities, in a way that women, regardless of their “skills” do not have? I think it is obviously and observably true.
Touchstone Magazine wrote an article showcasing the Swiss demographic study in June of 2003, now available online as Touchstone Archives: The Truth About Men & Church.  Here is one of the main points Touchstone used the study to make:
The results are shocking, but they should not be surprising. They are about as politically incorrect as it is possible to be; but they simply confirm what psychologists, criminologists, educationalists, and traditional Christians know. You cannot buck the biology of the created order. Father’s influence, from the determination of a child’s sex by the implantation of his seed to the funerary rites surrounding his passing, is out of all proportion to his allotted, and severely diminished role, in Western liberal society. 
A mother’s role will always remain primary in terms of intimacy, care, and nurture. . . No father can replace that relationship. But it is equally true that when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and engagement with the world “out there,” he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for his role model. . .  
Mothers’ choices have dramatically less effect upon children than their fathers’, and without him she has little effect on the primary lifestyle choices her offspring make in their religious observances.
[Emphasis added.]
Touchstone goes on to blame the advent of women priests for the decrease in church attendance in Switzerland-- and anywhere else where church attendance is declining.  According to them, men just can't stand going to churches that flout God's created order by letting women lead, and when men stop going to church, so do their children.  Touchstone goes on to blame feminism and the rise of women leaders for a plethora of society's ills:

The disintegration of the family follows hard upon the amorality and emotional anarchy that flow from the neutering, devaluing, or exclusion of the loving and protective authority of the father. . . In the absence of fatherhood, it is scarcely surprising that there is an alarming rise in the feral male. This is most noticeable in street communities, where co-operatives of criminality seek to establish brutally and directly that respect, ritual, and pack order so essential to male identity.
After going on to denounce the feminization of the church (which I have written a refutation of here), the article concludes:
A church that is conspiring against the blessings of patriarchy not only disfigures the icon of the First Person of the Trinity, effects disobedience to the example and teaching of the Second Person of the Trinity, and rejects the Pentecostal action of the Third Person of the Trinity but, more significantly for our society, flies in the face of the sociological evidence! 
No father—no family—no faith.
Never mind that the First Person of the Trinity is also described using mother images. Never mind that the Second Person of the Trinity never taught "male headship," and specifically spoke against the father-rule of His own earthly time and culture.   Never mind that the Third Person of the Trinity was poured out at Pentecost on "sons and daughters" alike. To challenge male headship is to challenge fatherhood itself, and to challenge fatherhood is to cause the demise of society.

The important thing to ask, though, is whether this one Swiss demographic study from 20 years ago really supports all the claims that have been pinned upon it.

We have to take into account, for one thing, the religious climate in Switzerland, especially from around the time of this study.  This Swissworld article on the religious landscape in Switzerland looks at the state of the nation six years later:
In a wide ranging poll of Swiss attitudes taken in 2000, only 16% of Swiss people said religion was "very important" to them, far below their families, their jobs, sport or culture. Another survey published the same year showed the number of regular church goers had dropped by 10% in 10 years. Among Catholics, 38.5% said they did not go to church, while among Protestants the figure was 50.7%.
Given that the same article shows that in the year 2000, roughly 42% of the Swiss population was Roman Catholic and 35% was Protestant (with another 2% in Eastern Orthodox and other forms of Christianity), this means Switzerland was 79% Christian in 2000.  And yet only 16% considered religion "very important."  Does the relative lack of priority given to religion in Switzerland, compared to the United States, have any bearing on possible causes of the study's results?

I think that if we're going to look at this in terms of sociology, we ought in fairness to consider another documented sociological factor: gender contamination.  In short, "boys and men. . . are more tightly constrained by the prevailing views of masculinity that associate being masculine with avoiding anything feminine.”  In a country like Switzerland, where very few people consider religion a high priority, what happens to a family's view of churchgoing if only the mother does it? Touchstone's article itself gives the answer:
When children see that church is a “women and children” thing, they will respond accordingly—by not going to church, or going much less.
Is this really the same thing as there being some intrinsic, God-given authority built into men and not women, so that children naturally follow their father's example and not their mother's?  Even assuming that the study's results are accurate (and corroborating studies seem pretty hard to find)-- and even if the same dynamic is going to repeat itself in every culture everywhere (which is not proven), there are three even bigger assumptions being made, none of which are proved by the study: first, that this father-influence is innate to humanity; second, that it is from God; and third, that it comes from or is part of what Christians call "male headship": that is, the essential spiritual authority of manhood over womanhood.

First of all, it cannot be definitively shown that fathers have an innate influence over their children that supersedes the influence of the mother.  After all, what the study's numbers seem to show is that a mother who wants her children to be regular churchgoers would do better (if the father is a regular churchgoer) to stay in bed eating bonbons and watching soap operas than to go to church with the family.  The numbers show that if the father and mother are both regular churchgoers, their children are 32.8% likely to be regular churchgoers-- but if the father is regular and the mother is non-practicing, this percentage jumps to 44.2!  This actually would mean that the mother actually has a big influence in pushing the children to follow their father even more closely.  But does this even make sense?  Is it logical to think children would react against their non-churchgoing mother to that extent?  Couldn't it be more sensibly accounted for by other factors?

For instance, what may be going on is that in Western culture as it stands right now, it takes a certain kind of man-- one with a great deal of energy, devotion and sense of responsibility-- to get his kids ready week after week to go to church with no help from their mother.

Comparatively speaking, a mother who is devoted to church attendance when the father is not, is a different story. We still have a culture (and this is apparently true in Switzerland too) where the mother does most of the day-to-day dressing, nose-wiping, and gathering-together-and-herding-into-the-car-ing. In short, mothers are used to it. But for a father to get his kids up in the morning, dress and wipe noses and herd them into the car while the mother watches TV or lies in bed, he's got to really want to go to church.

The dynamic, then, wouldn't be so much that the children's tendency to stick with church attendance rises with the mother's slackness at all. The dynamic would be that children whose father puts himself to extra effort to get his kids to church while the mom stays home, is the kind of man who is more than usually devoted to church attendance-- and that superlative devotion is what rubs off on the kids.

I suspect that many dads who want to go to church, but mom doesn't, simply say to themselves, "This is too much trouble," and don't go at all, thus moving the family into one of the different statistical groups.  In short, this influence of the fathers is probably not innate, but a result of social factors. Raw numbers in a sociological study simply don't give us the whole story-- and because they don't, they  certainly don't prove that the fatherly influence they show is innate.

Second, it simply cannot be shown that this father-influence is from God, even if it were innate. Not everything that is innate to humanity is from God; orthodox Christian doctrine states that humanity is deeply affected by sin.  Often, indeed, society's role is to civilize humans so that we can live peacefully together, through the imposition of laws and social rules.  But then again, not every law or social rule is from God either.  As Christians, we can look to the Bible, of course-- but does the Bible ever advise children to pay more attention to their fathers than to their mothers?

Well, in fact it doesn't.  The Bible tells us to "Honor your father and mother." Exodus 6:2.  Proverbs 6:20 says, "My son, keep your father’s command, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching."  Even Ephesians 6:1, which continues from the Ephesians 5 passage so often used to support male headship, says, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord."  Although the Bible often assumes a male power dynamic, it seems to be more in terms of accommodation than in any explicit teaching that says, "men, you are to take charge."

It's just as likely that this extra influence of fathers, if it truly exists, is a factor of sinful human power structures that enhance the influence of one group while marginalizing another.  Children pay more attention to their fathers because the world around them pays more attention to their fathers-- and so, sadly, does the church.  In a culture which still puts spiritual women on a pedestal (a place where we can be admired and yet be prevented from having any real power or influence), is it that surprising that there would be an attitude of “My mother was a saint, but she was just my mother”?  It certainly doesn't mean women should despair that no matter how devoted to God they are, it will do their children no good unless the father is also devoted.  It means we should work to counteract this marginalizing influence, not glorify it.

Third, even if fathers have a greater influence over their children than mothers do, and even if this influence expands beyond this churchgoing study to other areas of life, we can't actually move directly from that to "thus, male headship."

If the Swiss study tells us anything good, anything worth noting, what is it?  Only that children having a relationship with an involved and spiritually committed father is a good thing; something we already knew. Only that fathers have an important role in their children's lives-- that they should appreciate their powerful influence on their kids and act responsibly.

What the study certainly does not tell us is anything about mothers being subordinate to fathers. The study says nothing whatsoever about husband-wife relationships or that men belong in leadership over their wives. Neither does it imply that mothers cannot be leaders in their homes and churches, or that mom must be "first mate" and not "co-captain" with dad.

Finally, the study does not actually give any reasons as to why any of the study group went to church, or didn't go to church, or stopped going to church.  It doesn't address whether or not Swiss culture encourages grown children to do their own thing, like American culture does, or to stay more in line with parents' practices.  It doesn't address the individual dynamics of each relationship between a child and his or her mother, or in what ways it differs from that child's relationship with his or her father.  It's a sociological study; it's not a judge of internal motives, or a cookie-cutter shaper of every home into its own image.

The fact is that many complementarians are taking this one 1994 Swiss study and using it to support a large number of things they already believe, whether or not the study actually justifies or even addresses what they conclude from it.  Wouldn't it be better to recognize the study's limitations and keep our responses more in line with those limitations?

I would suggest that the best way to use this study is for dad to use any extra influence he may have, to make sure the children pay more attention to mom.

That would certainly be the Christlike thing to do.