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Showing posts from September, 2016

Good Christian Sex, Chapters 1 and 2--The Question Behind the Question

Chapter 1 of Good Christian Sex is about pleasure and, more specifically, self pleasure (McCleneghan makes the case that "masturbation" is a ugly and negative word, and while I hadn't thought about it before, I think she is right), and Chapter 2 is about desire, especially our first early experiences of desire.  Before I get to the specifics of those chapters, there is something that has come into focus for me--before we talk about the specifics of sexual morality, we first have to figure out what sexual morality is and what it involves, because Christians definitely don't agree on this preliminary point.

Here's what I mean.  There are basically two accounts of what is at stake in sexual morality (and all morality, but the book is about sex and sexual morality puts these issues into sharp relief).  The first view, which we can call "Side A," is that there are a set of things that God doesn't want us to do with regard to sex, and, if we do them anywa…

Good Christian Sex, Introductory Chapter--Mrs. Powell's Religion Class and Its Aftermath

Bromleigh McCleneghan begins her book Good Christian Sex by describing how she came to understand sexuality.  It is a pretty typical story for folks raised in moderate-to-liberal homes in the 80s and 90s.  She was given open access to as much factual information about sexuality as she wanted, had parents that communicated a amorphous sense that they would not be thrilled with her having lots of sex as a teenager or young adult while being careful not to communicate shame around sex, and otherwise left her alone to figure things out for herself.  By her account, she did not receive or internalize any religiously-oriented messages about sex--no particular moral rules, no spiritual approach to sex.  In fact, McCleneghan locates the origin of the book in a call she received in college from a friend who wanted help in walking through whether to have sex with her boyfriend from a Christian perspective, and realizing that she didn't have any particular Christian perspective on the topic …

A Matter of Honesty, Part V--You Keep Using That Word. . . .

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Let's do a thought experiment, shall we?  Imagine I call you up on the phone and say, "hey, it would be great to see you.  Why don't you come by and visit?"  "Great!" you say, so you drive to where I live.  You knock on the door, and I answer the door while talking on the phone.  Without getting off the phone, I usher you into the house.  Eventually, I get off the phone, and proceed to have a long monologue about how your life is going astray, and how you are making terrible decisions and "lifestyle choices."  I then tell me that you can stay, but you can only have a meal with me if you promise to give up said "lifestyle choices."

Would you say that I have been "welcoming" to you on your visit?  Probably not, right?  And if I claimed I was being welcoming insofar as I invited you to come to my house, it would be fair to object that welcoming has much more to do with the treatment once I arrived than the official posture of the…

Good Christian Sex--Introduction

A couple of years ago, I did a lengthy, multi-part review of Dr. Greg Popcak's book Holy Sex!  In general, the book was, well, not good.  There were some decent parts, but the good stuff was buried under the overwhelming tide of a stark duality--everything related to sex can be divided into "Holy Sex" (which is good) and "eroticism" (which is bad).  It was a more sophisticated version of the "two boxes" approach to sex that causes so many problems.  Plus, there is the Popcakian weirdness, like how wearing lingerie is like clergy wearing vestments during services.

But the biggest disappointment about the book is that a book like Holy Sex! is good and needed.  A nuanced take on sex and sexuality is desperately needed in Christianity, especially among more progressive visions of Christianity.  It is easy, though problematic, to simply "just say no," but it is hard to come up with a set of tools for navigating the complex and turbulent waters of…

A Matter of Honesty, Part IV--No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

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I talked in the last post about the motivations behind the apocalyptic stance of Ross Douthat's Sunday column.  However, whatever his motivations, his core position--that "allowing" (more on that in a bit) divorced and remarried couples to receive Communion will be the end of everything--is a crazy position.  And it is a crazy position for a couple of reasons, but the most basic reason is this:  Douthat is concerned about Pope Francis softening a disciplinary rule of the Catholic Church that is not only not being enforced, but is one that cannot be enforced, given the culture and socialization of the U.S. Catholic Church in 2016.

Let's break that down.  First, despite yeoman's efforts to make all of this into some central doctrinal and theological Rubicon, what we are really talking about here is a disciplinary rule--under what circumstances can a Catholic come up and receive Communion.  Canon law in the Catholic Church (Canon 988, p.1) says "[t]he faithful…

A Matter of Honesty, Part III--Why Is Ross So Mad?

As they say, sometimes you go to the mountain, and sometimes the mount comes to you.  Witness Sunday's column by Ross Douthat on his bete noir, Pope Francis.  Douthat evidently is working on a book on how Pope Francis is destroying Catholicism and maybe Western civilization as well, so perhaps this column is some sort of trial balloon for that project.  I love this column, because it is a perfect encapsulation of many of the sources of dishonesty that I want to talk about in this series, all in a nice package.

There are several things I want to hit on in Douthat's column (probably requiring a couple of posts), but I want to start in this post with the question that I am sure New York Times readers who don't follow the ins and outs of Catholic politics are asking themselves---what is Ross's deal?  Why is he so mad at Pope Francis?  Here is my theory--Douthat is singularly focused on Pope Francis because Pope Francis has exposed that conservative Catholics of the Pope J…

A Matter of Honesty, Part II--The Virtue of Open Dissent

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I have made the claim before that I disagree with everything Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written.  Well, I have to take that back now, because I more or less agree with this article that he has written in Crux. I know--dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria.


Before I get to the things I agree with, a couple of niggles.  First, I don't think the statement of Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine that "Catholicism will come around on same-sex marriage" is hypocritical.  Longenecker asserts that it is OK to "think the Catholic Church is just plain wrong about this or that," and publicly say so, while "stay[ing] in the Church as 'the loyal opposition.'"  If so, it seems to be a logical extension of that to say "and eventually the Church will come around to my way of thinking, because I am right and they are wrong."  That's a prediction about the future, not a claim about the current state of Church teaching.  Moreover, if one …

A Post-Script on Feelings

There is no such thing as a discrete issue.  We like to believe that we are perfect scientists in the way we approach problems, slicing off every complication and condition in order to get down to the pure, uncontaminated, "objective" analysis of something.  All of that is self-delusion.  Everything exists in a context, and that context informs the way you look at any issue. It's very hard to parse out why we react the way we do to something, why we believe what we believe about something.  Sometimes it is the thing we think it is, sometimes it is the circumstances in which the thing is situated, and often it is both.

For the last two months or so, I have been almost exclusively attending an Episcopal Church.  The parish is decent distance away from where I live, out in the suburbs, which is why it took me a while to find it.  If some nefarious group of Episcopalian conspirators were to design a parish for the purpose of maximizing the chances of getting me to switch tea…

A Matter of Honesty, Part I--What Is The Problem Here?

Lots of people have lots of different diagnoses of the state of religion in general in the West and the Catholic Church in particular.  Some will say that the forces of secularism are to blame, necessitating that we retreat into protected, sectarian enclaves.  Some will say that the failures are mostly personal--if we only had better priests or better bishops (however one defines "better"), then things would be swell.  Some say it is simply a lack of faith.

I would like to offer an alternative theory.  I believe the biggest problem in the Catholic Church in 2016 is that our discourse--the way we talk to each other and to the outside world--is fundamentally dishonest.  When we talk about the issues that are affecting us or are at the front of our collective consciousness, far too often we don't talk about what the actual issues are and what we actually think about them, but instead we have this constructed, artificial discussion that is designed to be a substitute and a p…

A Girardian Thought Experiment, Part II--When Do We Become Human?

In the previous post, we looked at two basic ideas.  First, there is a moral intuition that many of us have with regard to the beginning of life--a child who is born is fully human, zygote is not fully human, and the stages in between are something of a disputed grey area.  Second, drawing on Girard, there is the notion of defining humanity in terms of its participation in human society, the "Social Other" as James Alison puts it, that forms us and is formed by our presence and action.

Let's, then, try to put these ideas together.  By defining humanity in terms of the interaction with and participation in the "Social Other," the most critical event in the life of any human being is the moment of birth.  At the moment of birth, a human being is "installed" in human society in a way that is categorically different from what comes before, in at least two ways.  First, at the moment of birth a baby is able to interact with and be influenced by the entiret…