Doug Gay is a Scottish theologian who has written a book entitled “Honey From the Lion“. It intends to offer a theological defence of nationalism, with a specific application to Scottish nationalism. It manages to do this without becoming a “God thinks you should vote yes” diatribe, so that is pretty impressive right from the beginning.
So the argument that Gay makes is firstly, that there is a kind of nationalism that isn’t bad. He goes further than this and thinks that nationalism can take a shape that can be good, even good enough that Christians can embrace it. His unpacking of the ideas that trade around the concept of nationalism in the early chapters is really very good. He points out that in a world of nation states, nationalism is pretty much inevitable. Quoting Jonathan Hearn he suggests: “Liberal democracies do not so much transcend nationalism as domesticate it.”
This is something I have noted since moving to the UK. The ubiquity of the Union flag on packaging, the “Great British” trope present in the titles of products of popular culture, and the always present symbols of military power are notable when you first arrive in Scotland. Is this the liberal nation state domesticating the “lion” of nationalism, extracting honey that is sweet for society? Or is there a connection between the common and aggressive racist and xenophobic graffiti I see on the streets of Aberdeen and the voluminous reminders of Imperial Britain in all aspects of our shared life?
In other words, I am not so sure that nationalism can be domesticated. But Gay makes a really excellent case by marking out the ways in which nationalism is out of bounds theologically. Our nationalism cannot be imperialist or essentialist or absolutist but instead our task would be:
To renounce imperialism is to renounce domination and to practise recognition of the other.
To renounce essentialism is to renounce a biological nationalism based on the ius santuinis or law of the blood in favour of a habitat-based nationalism, based solely on the ius solis, on the law of territory.
To renounce absolutism is, in the language of the Barmen Declaration, to place the state under God, asserting God’s sovereignty over the state and the state’s accountability to God.
- Doug Gay, Honey From The Lion, 81.
Having staked out the argument that nationalism can be a good, Gay moves on to consider the idea of a Christian society. Throughout the book he is in dialogue with some serious theological voices; Milbank, O’Donovan, Hauerwas, Bretherton, and Cavanaugh, amongst others. I presume he hasn’t dealt with my Facebook posts on the topic because he sent the proofs off to the publisher before I came out in favour of the Yes vote and swung the entire referendum. The leading idea that allows us to consider society Christian-ly is Augustine’s concept of society sharing objects of love; “The better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.” Christian theological thinking on society demands a rejection of the flat space imagined by militant secularists and instead conceives of society as a complex space where the state and the market and the arts and the religions and all the other human collusions that make up our shared life clash against each other and cling to each other and compromise with each other.
In the book’s second half, Gay gives us a history of the Scottish devolution movement and a really good, practical chapter on the good, the bad and the middling that can be said to have come from the Edinburgh parliament since it was inaugurated in 2000. The book closes by suggesting certain ways in which the independent state of Scotland could go if the vote on September 18th is “Yes”.
Having not been completely convinced that Christians can dabble in nationalism, I am convinced that we cannot simply dismiss it. Gay demonstrates, for example, how Scottish nationalism in the 20th Century has been internationalist in nature. That those two things sit side by side is not inherently contradictory. Similarly, as a Christian socialist, Gay compellingly shows how socialism can accommodate nationalism – think only of how effective nationalism was for colonies in the overthrowing of the British empire.
He does completely convince me, a second time, that I should vote Yes in the referendum. This paragraph, quoting Charles Warren, is especially convincing to me:
Half of the entire country is held by just 608 owners and a mere 18 owners hold ten per cent of Scotland. Of Scotland’s private land, 30 per cent is held by 103 owners, each with 9,000 hectares [22,250 acres] or more, and 50 per cent by 343 owners. A minuscule 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of the privately owned rural land. Thirty owners have more than 25,000 hectares [61,750 acres] each.
- Doug Gay, Honey From The Lion, 121.
Paragraphs like this should be on the tip of every tongue in Scotland. Of course, land reform doesn’t live or die based on the answer to the September 18th vote, but an independent Scotland is in a vastly stronger position to undue centuries of hoarding of the basic asset that a nation has – its space.
In the final chapter Gay turns to the possibility of a Scottish constitution and his discussion of the establishment of the Church of Scotland and the persistence of the Windsor monarchy in an independent Alba are far less convincing than his argument for a Yes vote. The trouble with both is revealed in his anecdote that at the ceremony where Elizabeth Windsor was made Queen of England and Scotland, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused communion to the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. What kind of Union is this that people want to protect? What kind of Christian nation is the UK? It seems to me that the ambivalence about both establishment and monarchy is a failure to follow through with the style of the earlier chapters. He makes such a good go of launching so complex an argument as a defence of nationalism that his himming-and-hawing here about the peculiarities of the Church of Scotland’s role in Scottish law seems to lack clarity. The hedging on monarchy is even worse.
But I am a staunch Republican, and maybe I am just sore that he didn’t join my team at the end?
There is one more question raised by the end of the book that I need to unfurl on my unfortunate readers. Gay proposes the use of common good” as the rubric under which Scotland ought to shape its new independence. But the failing here is the poverty that I always encounter with this language. What is the common good that holds Scotland together? There is no such thing. The conceptual deployment of Augustine’s common objects of love is one thing. The practical application of Catholic Social Teaching’s common good is another. What’s the common good in intractable conflicts – for example between profitability and sustainability? The common good is obviously sustainability, but the common choice will be for profitability. Or what’s the common good is in incommensurable moral conflicts – for example on the question of legalised abortion? Competing goods do not necessarily overlap. How does common good help as a political idea if it doesn’t lead to meaningful compromise?
The best reason for voting yes is that the new Scotland won’t have nuclear power or nuclear powered submarines or nuclear bombs. The second best reason for voting yes is that the new Scotland won’t invade Afghanistan or Iraq or Sierra Leone or the Falkland Islands. The reasons that Gay cites are excellent reasons as well. And the argument he makes that carefully extracting a narrowly-defined nationalism from the jaws of the lion can lead to sweet honey is a good one. The book is a rare example of theology being applied to contemporary issues in non-simplistic ways. It is practical theology at its best. That doesn’t mean all the arguments are equally convincing and it isn’t without its flaws, but it is genuinely worth tracking down.
The best reason for voting no is that you will really miss Liz Windsor’s face on some of the money used in Scotland or because an actress from Game of Thrones recommended it on Twitter. Small nation states are well placed to thrive in the years ahead and Scotland is a distinctive culture with its own language and history. It is more open and more socialist than the UK. It has arguably the most impressive educational traditions in the world. Its citizenry will be better off (not necessarily richer, as Gay points out with wonderful Christian clarity) making decisions about what happens in their territory without the opinions of people from Swansea, Sion Mills or Stockport weighing just as heavily as the folk who live in Stirling.
We can advocate this position and still be skeptical of nationalism. After all, Samson, who took the honey from the lion, ended his life in an act of suicide terrorism that killed thousands of people. He killed them because they were the enemies of his people, even though in so doing he directly repudiated the Torah that constituted his people. Nationalism can be rejected, while the nation state of Scotland can be welcomed.
Practical theology like the kind found in this book should be welcomed too.
Your Correspondent, A little boy told him “The English are best at everything”
One of the reasons why it really aggravates me when people justify a position based on “in this day and age” argumentation is how disrespectful it is to the genius and seriousness of our ancestors. Reading the Patristic interpretations of the parables can be infuriating because of the liberties they take with the text and the fanciful flights into metaphorical interpretation that is their natural stance. I have to remember that theologians reading us in centuries hence will roll their eyes at our self-satisfied scholarly scientific tone.
But they are delightfully clear that when we give to the poor, we give to Jesus. There would be no need to distinguish mission from charity for the church fathers, since they keenly grasp this. So their advice is to give indiscriminately. Augustine says be hospitable with your house and advises us to “let in the unworthy, in case the worthy might be excluded. You cannot be a judge and sifter of hearts.”
But they are also really good on seeing God the Father as the patron to end all patrons. If worldly gain is achieved by making friends in high places, the disposal of our wealth in acts of rampant and reckless generosity is the wisest of all strategies since it is a language that the Master in the highest place loves to speak.
Here’s John Chrysostom, offering excellent financial advice on where to place that windfall you received, that annual bonus you earned or that inheritance that just came your way:
You know that many high standing people renege on repayment of a loan. They are either resistant with a bad attitude or unable to pay because of poverty, as it often happens. In the case of the Lord of all, there is no room for thinking this. On the contrary, the loan is proof against loss. He guarantees to return in good time one hundred percent of what was deposited, and he keeps life everlasting in reserve for us. In the future, what excuse will we have if we are negligent and fail to gain a hundredfold in place of the little we have, the future in place of the present, the eternal in place of the temporary? What excuse will we have if we heedlessly lock our money behind doors and barricades, and we prefer to leave it lying idle? Instead, we should make it available to the needy now, so that in the future we may count on support from them. Remember that Scripture says, “Make friends with ill-gotten gains so that, when you go down in the world, they may welcome you into their eternal dwellings.”
- John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 3.21.
Make it available to the needy now, so that in the future they will be your friends. That might be tomorrow or it might be eternity, but if Jesus comes to us in the form of the poor, then it will certainly be repaid.
Your Correspondent, It turns out that pragmatic generosity is utterly impractical
Of course, the fathers of the church couldn’t imagine an age of Willow Creek and Holy Trinity Brompton, but I read this sermon by Cyril of Alexandria on the parable of the sower in Luke’s Gospel and I couldn’t help but think he was talking about us.
Let us consider those others of whom Christ said, “And those upon the rock are they who, when they hear, receive the word with joy, and they have no root. These believe for a while and in time of temptation depart away.” There are men whose faith has not been proved. They depend simply on words and do not apply their minds to examining the mystery. Their piety is sapless and without root. When they enter the churches, they feel pleasure often in seeing so many assembled. They joyfully receive instruction in the mysteries from him whose business it is to teach and laud him with praises. They do this without discretion or judgment, but with unpurified wills. When they go out of the churches, at once they forget the sacred doctrines and go about in their customary course, not having stored up within themselves any thing for their future benefit. If the affairs of Christians go on peacefully and no trial disturbs them, even then they scarcely maintain the faith, and that, so to speak, in a confused and tottering state. When persecution troubles them and the enemies of the truth attack the churches of the Savior, their heart does not love the battle, and their mind throws away the shield and flees.
- Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 41.
Your Correspondent, Only half in jest
I have never even been to the state of Missouri. All I know about the city of St. Louis, I learned from Jonathan Franzen books. Obviously I am not well placed to offer comment on the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder.
Why should that stop me?
But (A) I do read the Bible carefully. And (B) I think an awful lot about how our possessions possess us. And (C) I have the clarity that comes from distance.
(A1) The Scriptures are clear that law should be shaped to make life safe for the people who are most vulnerable. (B1) The system of ownership we have in place encourages in us a criminal lack of empathy. (C1) The United States of America is a nation full of people trying desperately to forget that the entire edifice was built on successive slaughters.
An alarming amount of the commentary I have read from friends and friends-of-friends in the US has been preoccupied with the issue of looting. The people who mention the looting never mention the fact that an American black man was killed by a security officer EVERY 28 HOURS in 2012. Forget:
- the illegal invasion and occupation of two countries,
- countless private, undeclared wars,
- attempted total global surveillance and
- the rampant torture of some folks,
that every American citizen I know doesn’t think of this fact every time they hear the Star Spangled Banner should be enough to prove to all of you that the New Testament is right. The world is in thrall to Powers and Principalities above our consciousness.
313 MEN MURDERED BY “EXTRA-JUDICIAL” KILLING IN A SINGLE YEAR.
When next you feel like lamenting the fact that some people stole some televisions, remember that those people are trapped in a world where the basic necessities for flourishing life: freedom from harassment, certainty of medical care, right to gainful employment, access to education and a reasonable expectation of civil respect (to name a few) are systematically denied them.
If you think I am wrong about that, remember that a black man was killed by the guns of law enforcement officers every 28 hours in 2012.
In the London riots of 2011, popular opinion was full of barely contained fascist pronouncement about looting. It struck me as odd. I remember one young member of my church writing on Facebook about the “scum” who made him sick. I took him up on that, as gently as I could.
I remember telling him that rage frightens us and so we try to judge it. But I realised I was wrong. Rage only frightens us when we don’t identify with it. That summer, young men expressed their rage and were it not contained, their rage could have consumed the world. But I don’t mean the men caught on England’s ubiquitous CCTV cameras and then later imprisoned. I mean the men who rage for a living on the floors of the London Stock Exchange and get rewarded with Porsches, cocaine and leggy blondes.
We identify with them so they don’t scare as they should.
You identify with them and that’s why you think I am making too big a deal of this.
It is utterly unChristian and ethically bankrupt to lament about looting when innocent men get killed by the forces that exist to protect them. But it is still insufficient to call America what it is: a deeply violent and racist state. Why? Because America is just capitalism with a constitution. I read the Scriptures carefully and I spend a lot of time thinking about how our possessions come to possess us. And I am starting to have the clarity that comes from closeness.
Capitalism should be looted.
Your Correspondent, Is already on the watchlists
Over the weekend we had dinner with friends and they told us the great story of St. Lawrence. Lar was a deacon in Rome who was martyred under the persecutions of Emperor Valerian.
As the story goes, Lar was in charge of the church’s finances and he was given a few days to gather together all the Christian treasures in Rome and hand them over to the Empire.
So the time passes and Lar shows up at the appointed hour, with all the poor and the homeless and the sick that the church supported. He shepherds them into the offices of the city’s administrators and announces:
Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown.
Needless to say, he didn’t receive any mercy from the persecutors. He was placed on a boiling hot grid laid above burning coals, so as to die painfully. It is said that after a good while on this white-hot rack, Lawrence piped up and shouted, “I’m well done. Turn me over!”
Today, among other offices granted to him by the church, Lawrence is the patron saint of comedians and barbecues.
No joke. But it is very funny.
Such Christian witness is practically unimaginable today. Faced with such threats the contemporary church would resort to lawyers to defend us from the regulations and accountants to put our assets out of reach. We’d do everything except respond with the guileless good humour of people who are convinced that because of who God is, it definitively isn’t their job to make everything work out in the end.
In the course of our conversation we got to tell them about another church official who was good with assets. John Charles McQuaid was archbishop of Dublin for over thirty years, through the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He bitterly opposed the changing trajectories of Irish culture, strategically reinforcing the influence of a certain kind of Roman Catholic authoritarianism over the capital city’s society. An example of his influence: He blocked Irish Catholics from attending Trinity College in Dublin, which was admittedly established as a Protestant university, albeit in the 1500s! An example of his attention to detail: He heard that the gifted short-story writer Frank O’Connor was living with his girlfriend and personally made sure that he never received any contracts from state broadcasters as a chastisement.
Here was a man of supreme guile and apparent joylessness. He lived in a palace and he exerted political power for decades in support of a Gospel that is basically allergic to that sort of manipulation. In Preventing the Future Tom Garvin notes that:
For several years in the late 1940s, McQuaid ensured that vaginal tampons were forbidden and repeatedly complained to the government about the corset advertisements in the Irish Independent.
- Tom Garvin, Preventing the Future, 72.
So what does it mean to be Christians in Ireland in our time and place? The answer is to cultivate the faith of Lawrence instead of the faith of John Charles. The self-deprecation that comes from humility isn’t simply charming to those who don’t worship our God. It reveals reality. In the story, Lawrence is sane, not delusional, when he wisecracks through his martyrdom. He was telling the truth, not taking the mick, when he presented the church’s treasure to Rome.
Tampons are not the enemy and corsets are not the opposition. Our unwillingness to be knocked out of our comfortable places is the reason why Christianity is so commonly untenable in Ireland. We aren’t even threatened with firey death but we stay where we’re comfy. We didn’t even budge when we heard of children brutalised by our priests and we barely lifted a finger when hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs.
That is a joke. And it isn’t very funny.
Your Correspondent, Who needs money when he’s got feathers?
Last year I wrote an article for The Other Journal about the ambivalence with which Karl Marx engaged the concept of human rights. I argued in that article that rights-discourse may casually draw on concepts of universality but that the reality is that they are time-bound, culturally-conditioned and loaded with the biases, assumptions and convictions of the people who draw up the laws.
This is not a contentious claim.
I proposed that remembering that rights get “created” in this way helps Christians to engage in conversations about extending rights-talk to things they might be opposed to because it reminds us that the rights that are extended are always a compromise between the contingent factors at play in societies. So for instance, rhetoric of assisted suicide as a human right should be no more distressing than talk of assisted suicide as a medical policy in circumscribed situations. Both are things Christians object to. Both are things that will come to fruition in different states in the coming years. And both can be tolerated while our opposition to them remains (graciously) stubborn.
A friend sent me a book for my birthday that I would never have thought to get for myself and I read it recently. Is That A Fish In Your Ear? is the renowned translator and linguist, David Bellos’, introduction to the complexity and adventure of translation. It is far from a perfect book, being unusually dull-witted when it strays into Biblical interpretation, but it was a very enjoyable riot through some key considerations.
In Chapter 20 he argues that international law is one of the major sites for translation in today’s world and to investigate the difficulties involved he traces the path from the French declaration on the Rights of Man in 1789, through to the UN Declaration and its subsequent elaborations. The critical problem rests on gender language (very relevant to my recent posts). Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen explicitly states to whom it refers. Male citizens.
While the UN Declaration on human rights is a direct descendant of the French declaration, you can automatically see the significant change that occurs between droits de l’homme and human rights. But when you translate human rights into other languages, all kind of ambiguities spring up and so the international jurisdiction that relies on the UN Declaration such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) or the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979) don’t even mention the phrase.
It isn’t just that human rights as a concept fails to achieve universality. It fails to achieve consistency even in its own semantic use. How could it be any other way? Human rights is a legal discourse and so it has to take the shape of legal languages in the various nation states where it applies. What law is in Ireland is different from what law is in Scotland. That’s why Ireland isn’t the same country as Scotland. The “universal” human rights that apply in Alba hold in Eireann because the two cultures are so similar, but the ways that they take form have to be different.
This in no way undermines the significant achievement of the UN Declaration. Nor does it neuter the power of human rights language, which for all its failings is at least one way that the majority world can demand equity from those with the money and the power. But it does encourage us to be careful in thinking about how easily we can talk about the universality of these rights.
It reminds us that the philosophical conceit that human rights are inalienable and just need to be recognised by society has reality only as a political lever. In societies where that leverage doesn’t hold, the rights will not be recognised. It does not necessarily follow that those societies and cultures are more primitive.
Further, when we imagine we are selflessly agitating for rights which today appear radical, we may find that future generations see us clearly as people engaged in everyday politics, but found guilty of using a particularly lofty language to achieve our aims. The French Revolution was intended by its leaders to be a liberation of society, but it defined society to exclude the majority of it.
In all likelihood, we’re making equally big mistakes, to which we are blind.
Your Correspondent, Thinking too much gave him wrinkles
Here Comes A Resolution
This week I have sought to unpack (for myself, as much as anyone else) why the Kellers’ book The Meaning of Marriage disappointed me. On Monday I praised the good aspects, on Tuesday I introduced the core problem of complementarianism, on Wednesday I tried to show how this argument rests on natural theology and yesterday I picked at the big issue, which is how this form of complementarianism runs a risky game with an unusual reading of the Trinity.
Today I want to turn to consider a different book entirely, that I read at the same time. Equal to Rule (published in Dublin by Columba Press but available everywhere at a brilliantly low price on Kindle) is written by the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Trevor Morrow.
I should begin by clarifying that just as Keller has had a huge, formative, positive influence on me, I have learned vast amounts from Morrow. Different from Keller, Trevor Morrow is a personal friend. I became a Christian listening to his sermons at Lucan Presbyterian Church and I am lucky to count him as a mentor who has guided me through my faith since then, encouraged me into preaching and then into ministry and came round to my house one cold January day in 2010, when I had two broken arms, to tell me that I needed to think about doing a Theology PhD.
So the clarification is that I am biased in favour of the book I’m about to discuss. I got to talk it through with Trevor over coffee before it was ever written and I got to read preliminary copies and I even get thanked on the Acknowledgements page. But if you think that means I will automatically like what he has to say, I remind you that my devotion to Keller is such that I once went on an expensive pilgrimage to hear him give two talks on how to preach, flying to London to learn from him in person. I appreciate both of these guys, who enrich and serve the church in significant ways. I think there are problems with the Kellers’ marriage book and I think that Morrow’s book is a much better approach. So let me explain how.
How To Decide Who Reads Gooder?
There has been one line of inquiry notably absent from my critique of the Kellers’ and that is Scriptural discussion. Whatever reference I have made to their reading of Scripture has been positive. The book can be read as an extended reflection on Ephesians 5 and the reading that it offers, apart from jumping off into complementarianism, is superb. It doesn’t offer extended treatments of the contentious passages. This is one of the reasons that the Kellers manage to espouse the doctrine in so winsome a fashion – they consciously avoid getting bogged down in defending “Biblical doctrine”.
The doctrine is defended Biblically by citing the passages in the New Testament that refer to gender issues (verses from 1 Timothy and 1 Peter are especially important to them). Only the most unfair of students would look at the complementarian interpretation of Scripture and deny that it has internal coherence (their Trinitarian theology might not pass such a test!). Yet on the “egalitarian” side, they have a strong and internally consistent set of readings for the verses that are at the centre of the debate.
How do we get out of this textual logjam? Christians have numerous ways of shaping tensions towards health. We might have an authority that declares the right way to read the texts, like the Roman Magisterium. Or we might have a big ecumenical council of all the bishops and they might issue some guidance (harder since the Orthodox schism and the European Reformation!). Or we might agree to live together and seek to embody our positions with grace.
This is the position that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland came to in 1973. We ordain women to eldership and to ministry and we still welcome people whose conscience doesn’t land in the same place. And in Equal to Rule, Trevor Morrow lays out the rationale behind why this decision was reached and why we maintain this decision. The sad fact is that the influence of American evangelical culture means that complementarians are increasingly influential in the denomination and they are perhaps more strident than old fashioned conservatives (although what do I know – I no longer even live in Ireland!).
A Diminutive Book With A Powerful Punch
So Morrow’s book is the rarest of thing. It is a churchman, explaining the position of a church, for the sake of church-members. This isn’t just of interest to people who are a part of my tiny denomination however. There are three factors that make it especially worthwhile.
Firstly, it is an excellent example of a Christ-focused interpretation of Scripture. He reads the Bible with Jesus as the controlling factor in interpretation. What does that mean? It means that Morrow reads the rest of Scripture informed by what Jesus, the best reader of Scripture ever, says first. He is “particularly concerned that women will experience in reading this the love and acceptance which Jesus brings in restoring them to be co-rulers with men over the new creation.” (8) In support of this he quotes this lovely bit from Dorothy Sayers, talking about how around Jesus women were:
first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross. They had never known a man like Jesus – there never has been such another. A prophet and a teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend.
- Trevor Morrow Equal to Rule, 9-10.
Jesus was taught the Scriptures by a woman and he was witnessed in his glory by women, he taught women after Easter Sunday and sent them as his apostles and through his Spirit he gifts them today to lead and guide the church. This simple prioritising of Jesus clarifies a great deal.
Secondly, Morrow reads the wide narrative of Scripture. Of course, this is what all Christians with skill in reading the Bible do. The Bible interprets the Bible and Keller is as good at this as anyone I know. This is why the doctrinal reference to speculative inner hierarchies within Trinity is so disappointing. The dots that Morrow connects are not tenuous or arcane. You begin in Genesis 1 and 2 with equality. In Genesis 3 there is Fall and the distortion of gender identity that produces, among all the other chaos, misogyny and the rest of the sin that we bear. But from that point onwards the culture-transcending revelation of God pierces through with judges and prophets and poets and saints that direct our attention to the restoration of creation’s goodness. This comes to fruition in Jesus, and Morrow reads the succeeding letters of the New Testament as part of the real-time working-out of what the Kingdom means for worshipping communities. Figuring out what it means for gender is why we have the passages over which people battle. But Morrow is able to draw on as many fine resources as anyone else to justify the evangelical and Reformed position Irish Presbyterians took.
Thirdly, this is all achieved with a brevity and clarity that is sort of amazing. I sat down to write a quick word here about how Morrow’s book is a useful rejoinder to Keller’s. Now I’ve written over 1270 words. But Morrow gets this entire argument, an extensive set of practical advice for how to encourage women into leadership and pointers to further resources in 106 pages. He does it without using the words like “the epistemic relations within the hypostatic union”. I could leave out the line-drawings that head up sections, but my admiration for how straightforward this book is just grows.
My Experience Of the Egalitarianism of the Gospel
Morrow is an outstanding preacher, but when I was first considering Christianity he shared his pulpit with two younger ministers, one of whom was a South African woman. Lorraine Kennedy Ritchie would preach from the Old Testament and have me on the edge of my seat. She would cry in the pulpit, so moved by the words she was called to expound upon and so overwhelmed by the task that she had to fulfill.
In the congregation were women who are now leaders, evangelists, elders, ministers or in training to be ministers. These friends of mine had the same transformative experience, not just of Trevor’s gift for preaching, but the Gospel’s gift of community. Men and women were gathered by the Spirit into this little band of folk lit up from the inside by the goodness and beauty of God. I met one of my dearest friends in the world one Sunday in that church and she is now in leadership in a church plant in middle England. Her roommate is finishing off training for ordination. Her friend is the minister in inner city Galway. My wife runs an intervention programme for children in Aberdeen and preaches in the local churches. There are probably 10 women who are elders in the Presbyterian Church who I met in that relatively tiny congregation.
But the men went into leadership as well, to an extent unparalleled anywhere I know of. Men who are now ministers all over the island and as far afield as Switzerland were members at Lucan at some stage. They come under the influence of Lucan, where the practical steps of discovering and cultivating gifts in men and women were taken seriously, and they found a joyous call to dedicate their life to prayer and preaching, eucharist and baptism.
This is not down to Trevor Morrow, as much as I revere the man. It is down to the Gospel. Lorraine Kennedy Ritchie didn’t cry in that pulpit because she is a woman and my argument isn’t “Well don’t women bring something to the task that men can’t!” I know this because I cry in that pulpit. I cried in Lorraine’s pulpit when she had me preach there the week before I moved to Scotland. I cry in every pulpit because I, like Lorraine, am a human being incapable of comprehending just how glorious a thing God has done.
At the final stage for selection for ordination, I had to give a short sermon in front of a panel of ministers and elders. I broke down in tears there too, trying to explain how the older brother in Luke 15 couldn’t get past himself to see what his Father had for him (see how deeply Keller influences me!). As I remember it, in that slightly embarrassed quiet as I sought to control my sobs, Rev. Cheryl Meban reassurred me with a smile and encouraged me to take my time. In that moment of extreme vulnerability, I didn’t find myself grateful that there were women who were ministers. I found myself grateful that there were ministers who could pastor me. It was God’s choice to gift her the way He did, and gift me in a similar way.
Conclusion: Where we Stand
The brutish effect of careless complementarianism will leave men afraid to be human and women disbarred from being human. The Kellers don’t come anywhere close to that kind of machismo and princess-fascism, but nonetheless their argumentation is out of character, over-extended and highly problematic. The content of the good news is new creation. Man and woman are called to partake in it.
They become citizens of the Kingdom on the same terms. They are gifted on the same terms. They should be welcomed on the same terms.
Your Correspondent, Always finishes on a sexist joke
So I am almost done. On Monday I talked about the things I liked in the Kellers’ book The Meaning of Marriage. On Tuesday I introduced how they argued for a complementarian understanding of gender roles, which I felt was a strange turn for the book to take. Yesterday I tried to demonstrate how natural theology is under the surface of that argument. Today I get to the real objection I have with the book, which is how underneath it all, the Kellers draw on a tenuous theology of the Trinity to develop their theories on gender roles. This is an alarming way to address a relatively open question. It is both problematic that they use such treasures to resolve a minor problem but also how dangerous is their use them.
This is a real problem, which I think justifies all these thousands of words expanded on it.
The Real Problem Is The Trinitarian Machinery of the Argument
I hope it is clear that I have huge respect for the Kellers. And the considered reader will realise that this entire complementarian edifice cannot be built simply on the natural categories I discussed yesterday. On page 200, in the succeeding chapter, they come back to the empty-set that is masculine and feminine and they re-assert that they don’t want them to be defined: “it is nearly impossible to come up with a single, detailed, and very specific set of ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ characteristics.”
So I propose that the natural theology argument that I went over yesterday is just a habit that is slipped into, a common coin in American evangelicalism that can be traded in without ever noticing that you are passing counterfeit currency. The real machinery of the argument is the source of the major problem I have with this book.
The Kellers lock down their complementarian gender roles argument by reference to the Trinity.
I’ll let that settle in.
The entire question of Christianity could be summed up by asking, “Who do we call when we call on the name ‘God’?” The early church was made up of radically monotheistic Jews and confusingly pantheistic pagans who came to the conclusion that when you call on the name Jesus you call on God. Over time, as they grappled with what it meant to worship this God-who-begets-the-son-Jesus-who-comforts-us-in-the-Spirit, Christians derived the language of persons and essence and formulated a concept we call Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit. One God. Three persons. A single essence. The attributes of God followed and before long you find Thomas Aquinas sitting in Paris writing with both left hand and right at the same time, expounding on all the things we can know if we know this one thing.
So when we talk about Trinity we are talking about the very core of Christianity.
I have thought about this for a week, since finishing the book, and I think I can phrase it gently now. It annoyed me no end upon first reading it. So here goes: To resort to Trinitarian argument to resolve a cultural question about marriage roles is the equivalent of firing a Patriot missile to drill a hole in the wall. In terms of arguments, this is as an astonishing over-reaction. It speaks of the heightened way that American evangelicals go about their business. One could speculate that the bad habits of heresy-hunting, bitching and gossipping and the lack of any real ecclesial bonds means that Christians find themselves using the most explosive and potent and subtle (and dangerously complex) tools we have to resolve relatively minor disputes.
There is a tremendous asymmetry between starting a book about marriage and finishing with a theology of Trinity.
Before we even get into the nuts and bolts of the argument, we have to see how poor a step has been made. We jump from a pastoral book full of cultural commentary into a debate about how the about-dance of God implies gender-roles in marriage (that need to be defined in each particular instance depending on context). These components don’t fit together.
But I am afraid to say, it gets worse. The Trinitarian theology that is espoused is a form of subordinationism. This is a variety of Trinitarian thinking that has re-appeared since the late 1970s. Before this generation, the last major figure I know of to espouse it was John Milton. It itself is not a heresy, but it certainly leads in that direction. If you take it to its logical conclusion it arrives at Arianism, which is the foundational Christological error. You can block its way from going down that dark alley, but only at the expense of veering off into tri-theism.
In short, this is a new and dangerous kind of argument.
What subordinationism argues is that there is a hierarchy within the Trinity. God the Father is above God the Son and the Spirit. The Son is “subordinated” to the Father and so, the Kellers argue, the wife should be “subordinated” to the husband. This is saved from being pure power-play by the perfect mutual love of the persons in the Trinity. “The Son defers to his Father, taking the subordinate role. The Father accepts the gift, but then exalts the Son to the highest place.” (176)
Now that movement can be justified on functional grounds. In the Gospel of John especially, Jesus is seen as the Sent-One, on a mission from God the Father. So you could use this to describe an aspect of Jesus’ work. But the Kellers appear to ontologize this functional arrangement. What I mean by that is that they make this arrangement part of the very being of God. They are not saying that the Father and the Son are on the same team, playing different roles, from incarnation to ascension. They are saying that the Father and the Son are in some deep way placed in an order, one above the other, one below. How else can they make the correspondence “we are differently gendered to reflect this life within the Trinity”?
If it is true that man and woman are fundamentally different, and that this reflects the life within the Trinity, then it follows that Father and Son are fundamentally different. If Father and Son are of different essence, we are no longer talking about the same thing Christians talk about when they talk about God. We must realise what is at stake when we build our picture of Trinity up from our level. The conservative Christian who embraces this argument is running the most serious of risks. It is not good evangelical theology. It is insufficient as a reading of Scripture.
And if you still don’t see the danger in this problem, I refer you to the Athanasian Creed, the Nicene Creed, or even the Westminster Confession of Faith. They all articulate a view of the Trinity that shows no trace of hierarchy, subordination or these sorts of internal roles. To speculate on the inner-life of the Trinity to justify some internal arrangement of marriage is dubious. To do it with a view of Trinity that is so fraught with ambiguity is outright dangerous.
You see the irony here? In pursuit of supporting a socially conservative position they cherish, complementarian engage in a very non-conservative interpretation of the Holy Trinity.
Conclusion: So Here’s My Problem
So can I recommend a book that is altogether excellent, apart from 35 pages that are terrible? Is it just that the solid, good stuff at the start of the book goes awry towards the end and we don’t have to stress about it too much? Or is the stuff at the end, built on a theory about the inner workings of God, the source for all the apparently solid stuff, that in fact, in retrospect, looks super-dodgy?
Books about marriage are much needed. We have so few of them that puncture the cultural idolatry of the institution, avoid getting dragged into political positions that wrestle the life out of Christian witness, and actually offer good, gracious, practical advice. I love Tim Keller’s preaching and aspire to embody his winsome and considered approach to things. I really appreciate how this book is so deeply centred on Christ. It just makes it all the more disappointing that the Trinitarian reflections do not begin from that centre either but speculate loftily.
My problem isn’t simply what do I make of this book but what are we to make of a Christian culture that sometimes seems so devoted to certain kinds of cultural institutions that we’re happy to warp the Scriptures and also our doctrine of God to keep getting the outcomes we want?
I want to recommend this. I want to buy many copies so I can give them away to friends who are getting married. Instead, this will go back on the shelf and I’ll keep looking for the book that hasn’t yet been written.
Tomorrow I will draw your attention to a much better book about gender roles that isn’t going to sell nearly as many copies or be nearly as influential. That book is Equal to Rule by Trevor Morrow.
Your Correspondent, Knows there is just one who is unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, and inseparable
Recap Of What Is Going On Here
On Monday I wrote about the good things about the Tim and Kathy Keller book The Meaning of Marriage and yesterday I wrote about the veering off-course that happens towards the end where the Kellers advocate a strong “complementarian” position on the roles between the genders in marriage. What is interesting about this argument is how little is being argued. The complementarianism that they advocate is nuanced to the point of losing its vitality entirely. So even though the book’s argument leads to a sort of functional egalitarianism, this sensibility is won at the drastic cost of embracing a view on the roles between genders that speaks more to our culture than to the pattern of the Scriptures.
But as far as complementarian arguments go, this isn’t that offensive a version. So why am I writing all these words about it? I DON’T KNOW! SOMEBODY PLEASE SEND HELP!
Also, because the argument provides an unusually clear view of two elements of the contemporary complementarian arguments that are usually well hidden. Today we look at the role natural theology plays in the argument. Tomorrow, we get heavy with the Trinitarian theories espoused by the Kellers.
A brief definition of natural theology might be well placed here. Natural theology is the belief that you can look to the created world and build up arguments that lead to knowledge about God. Classically, this is summed up by William Paley’s “Blind Watchmaker” analogy. But my difficulty with it is deeper. Siding with Karl Barth, the desire to build arguments towards God without reference to God is a form of delusion that intends to keep us away from heeding God’s revelation. As the London-based theologian Lincoln Harvey quips, natural theology is plagiarism. It copies what can only be known by revelation, passes itself off as itself and therefore is a totally bogus form of theologising.
The “Natural” Slide Into Natural Theology
So I grant that the complementarianism of the Kellers is of a relatively benign variety, but I am still deeply troubled by it. What is my problem?
Well this is the problem I have with the book. It isn’t simply that it denies the egalitarian message of the New Testament. It is how it does it.
Firstly, this argument always appeals, explicitly or implicitly, to natural theology. Underneath the proof-texting, there is always a “plain” “common sense” reading of the created world that does the heavy lifting in the argument. So Kathy writes “even at the atomic level, all the universe is held together by the attraction of positive and negative forces. The embrace of the Other, as it turns out, really is what makes the world go around.” This is finely crafted and humourous sentence but it is also at base, an appeal to a deeply troubling authority. You can’t just leap from sub-atomic attractions to gender roles in modern western marriage and call it theology.
Everytime I hear arguments like this I think of Dr. Ian Malcolm flirting with Dr. Ellie Slater in Jurassic Park, talking about “strange attractions”.
Natural theologians are rarely as cool as Jeff Goldblum however.
One of the best tells of natural theology doing lifting work in theological arguments is when you start noticing terms that haven’t been defined. So the Kellers are insistent that actual, concrete instructions about masculinity and femininity are not provided for in the Scriptures (which is true). But they are still able to deploy the terms masculine and feminine without defining them.
We fill in the definitions from our prevailing cultural mores and don’t even notice.
All that is said towards that is a brief (clear, and accurate) exposition of what it means in Genesis when Eve is created as a suitable ‘ezer. Woman is “like-opposite” to man. Notice though that all we have is a tension. The Scriptures put man and woman into an inter-defining relationship. But that tension can take different forms in different places. But 8 pages on we find discussion of “hyper-masculinity” and “rejection of masculinity”, “hyperfemininity” and “rejection of femininity”. Here, the argument has slid into terms left undefined. How does the chapter still work? It rests on the “natural” categories of masculine and feminine that the reader places into those word-containers.
What better response can there be to this sort of argument than: “Nein!”
Your Correspondent, Nature is a modern invention