A bit of UK politics: Tim Fallon’s resignation letter

UK politics is not something I know a lot about, actually. And it seems to be as much of a mess as politics in the US. But I noticed the resignation of Tim Fallon, leader of the Liberal Democrats, even though I hadn’t really followed the campaign closely. Fortunately, the letter was handed to me this evening, and I read it with great interest. If you care about Jesus, it’s worth reading, even if you don’t care about politics. So here it is (addressed to my husband, who is a member of the Lib Dems):

Dear Lewis,

This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election. 
That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election.

Most importantly the Liberal Democrats have established ourselves with a significant and distinctive role – passionate about Europe, free trade, strong well-funded public services underpinned by a growing market economy.

No one else occupies that space.  Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.

We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do.

From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith.  I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience.  Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith.  I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.

Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit.  The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.

A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I’m a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.

There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it – it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.

In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.

That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I intend to serve until the parliamentary recess begins next month, at which point there will be a leadership election according to the party’s rules.

This is a historic time in British politics. What happens in the next months and years will shape our country for generations.

My successor will inherit a party that is needed now more than ever before. Our future as an open, tolerant and united country is at stake.

The cause of British liberalism has never been needed more. People who will fight for a Britain that is confident, generous and compassionate are needed more than ever before.

That is the challenge our party and my successor faces and the opportunity I am certain that they will rise to.

I want to say one more thing: I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party.

Imagine how proud I am to lead this party.  And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.

In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.

Thank you,

Tim

 

Gender in trouble?

I read John Milbank’s piece (published last week), What liberal intellectuals get wrong about transgenderism. As expected, I found that some of what he says expresses (rather more forcefully) my own concerns. I hesitate to enter into a public conversation about these issues, both because I am a Catholic moral theologian who takes the magisterium seriously, and also because I sometimes suspect that my first reactions (which I’ve hardly got beyond) are likely to be visceral rather than intellectual. And nobody wants to hear what my viscera have got to say. So, I’ll let Milbank speak a bit.

What is more, it is possible that liberals have too easily assumed that there exists a new consensus over abortion rights, gay marriage, transgender issues and positive discrimination (as opposed to formal equal access) for women and racial minorities. In reality, it may well be that a large number of people either reject or have doubts about these things, but feel that it is no longer acceptable to say so. Their real views perhaps emerged anonymously as one aspect of the votes for Brexit and for Trump.

The only person I know personally who voted for Trump would cite dissent from that imagined consensus as one factor in his decision.

In what follows I am not denying that there are some people with confused bodies who deserve our every help toward a viable individual solution. Nor that there are others with unfathomable psychological conditions estranging them from their own corporeal manifestation. Perhaps, in extremis, surgery is the only solution for them.

But many people rightly sense that the liberal obsession with the transgender issue has gone beyond merely wanting to help this minority. It has become a whole movement to change our notions of gender. And its preoccupations come across as irrelevant to most people, unjustified in its conclusions, and apparently condemnatory of the normal with which most people identify.

My shaping by the academic lunacy Milbank later decries makes me cringe at ‘most people.’ Not because I don’t think it’s true. The majority of people don’t feel they’re in the ‘wrong body’ (though, given the choice, I would trade mine for Halle Berry’s or Angelina Jolie’s in a heartbeat), and are attracted to the ‘other’ body. From a purely evolutionary standpoint, this is what you’d expect. I’m just worried about the way that ‘most people’ have made life very difficult in the past for people who are ‘different.’ I am, after all, the mother of a teenage girl with Down Syndrome. Milbank again urges compassion, though:

I repeat that there are some people who really do have a psychic disparity with their gendered body. They may be a very small minority, but they should be listened to — and liberalism has certainly helped us to treat them with understanding and compassion.

But we should still consider irremediably psychic disparity with one’s gendered body to be a highly rare exception, and normatively one should assume (with the sensus communis of all ages) that gender indeed follows upon biological sex. Otherwise, one is embracing a most bizarre dualism of mind and body or soul and body.

True. And I would add that nobody who thinks s/he is in the wrong body wants one that is biologically, sexually ambiguous. Which makes me wonder whether it is not the oppressive ways in which ‘normal’ gender performance has been enforced that are to blame here. Listening, as Milbank recommends, seems indispensable here.

And without bodily sexual difference, there would of course be no prompting to the social imagination of gender. This is the very simple point that is naïvely overlooked as too naïve by the Butlerian thinkers. It is dangerous to suggest that any and every claim to be in the wrong body requires the expenditure of scarce health resources, rather than some form of guidance. If we treat gender identity as so easily laid aside, we could lose our bedrock understanding of what human nature is. 

Gender is, of course, not so easily laid aside: the Butlerians have got that wrong (if Milbank has got them right). One of the key points of Gender Trouble is that the social construction of gender does not negate its power. That’s one of the things structuralism tells us, rightly: that we are shaped by constructions like gender.

Sexual difference is a fundamental aspect of our humanity. As Genesis has it, ‘male and female [God] created them.’ While I am willing to fight for a flexible understanding of what ‘male and female’ means, I think that to give it up entirely is neither possible nor wise. And to do so would be to reject entirely one of the other beliefs that Judith Butler and this Catholic moral theologian share: bodies do matter.

Bodies matter so much that gender dysphoria drives young people to suicide. Whatever I might say, once I get beyond my visceral reaction to these issues, it will never lose sight of that.

on weakness

These days are dark days, the days when Job’s lament (which I read out, in part, to a class on Monday) seems to voice the despair of my own soul–I, who have lost nothing and have healthy children. My darkness is of a different kind, and is heedless of all the good (and lack of it) in the world. So I have little to say. Luckily teaching means reading and re-reading, and today I find comfort and inspiration in the words of an encyclical more than six decades old.

For as the Apostle with good reason admonishes us: “Those that seem the more feeble members of the body are more necessary; and those that we think the less honourable members of the body, we surround with more abundant honour.” Conscious of the obligations of our high office, we deem it necessary to reiterate this grave statement today, when to our profound grief we see at times the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease deprived of their lives, as thought they were a useless burden to society; and this procedure is hailed by some as a manifestation of human progress, and as something that is entirely in accordance with the common good. Yet who that is possessed of sound judgement does not recognize that this not only violates the nature and the divine law written in the heart of every man, but that it outrages the noblest instincts of humanity? the blood of these unfortunate victims who are all the dearer to our Redeemed because thy are deserving of greater pity, “cries to God from the earth.”*

In all those who suffer or are in need, in all those who are small and weak, we ought to see Christ. Why is this so hard? We long to see Jesus–and here he is, right here. If only we had eyes to see him, we would find our heart’s desire.

 

*Pius XII, Mystici corporis (1943), 94

giving thanks (for some women)

This past week, I was honoured to find myself on Maggi Dawn’s list of women writers of theology, spirituality and Christian history–especially as the list included women who have taught and inspired me over the years. I am no less grateful to Bryony Taylor for reading the list all the way to the bottom, and discovering my name near the end of an alphabetically-ordered postscript. Thanks, Bryony, for broadcasting your findings!

And I have been thinking about that list, and the women who have taught me. Because even though I have been taught by many more men than women, it is the women who have drawn me forward, pointed me toward the path I now tread. I wasn’t just being nice when I acknowledged my debt to feminism. (See my feminist paradox.) So today I am giving thanks for a few of these women .

As an undergraduate, I looked forward to the classes I had with Karen King. After class, I would grab my dictionary and look up the words I hadn’t heard before, which she used in class as ordinary and precise vocabulary. Her lectures were always interesting, and she was brilliant in the Q & A. Thanks, Karen. I knew as a junior at Oxy that I wanted to be like you when I grew up; I am still trying.

When I continued in my studies at Duke University, I encountered two particularly gifted and challenging teachers, who introduced me to worlds about which I had known very little. Elizabeth Clark taught me more through her silence at the beginning of seminars than many others could through eloquence: think, and learn to speak your mind carefully and clearly. We were expected to read and to make an intelligent contribution to the discussion. I fell in love with early Christianity because of Liz (and ended up married to Lewis as a result, perhaps). Thank you, Liz.

The teacher I have always most desired to emulate, however, didn’t teach me theology or anything about Christianity, really. Lynn Sumida Joy taught me the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I avoided philosophy, too intimidated and unsure of myself, until I arrived at Duke and was forced to take ‘Theories of Religion’; I became intrigued by Kant, and signed up for Dr Joy’s seminar the next semester. Never mind that some prior study of philosophy, preferably of Kant’s philosophy, was really necessary for the seminar–if not listed as a formal prerequisite. I was baffled by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and turned up to class feeling that I had no idea what it was all about. By the time I left the classroom two hours later, I thought I grasped the basic point. She wasn’t just a teacher, she was a miracle worker. Thank you, Lynn (if I may).

For these women, and many more who have instructed, inspired, encouraged, and challenged me, I give thanks.

Deo gratias.

What worries me

Well, honestly, a lot of things worry me. Stupid things and little things and big things and almost impossible things. But Rowan Williams names precisely what worries me about what I do as a theologian: “[the desert fathers and mothers] seem very well aware that one of the great temptations of religious living is to intrude between God and other people. We love to think that we know more of God than other people…” (Silence and Honey Cakes).

That worries me. It probably worries me more because I am not the smartest theologian I know. Not nearly. (Since you asked, I would certainly rank Rowan Williams as one of the two or three smartest theologians I know.) I spent an awfully long time trying to write a Very Clever conclusion to my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, and eventually realized that in trying to write a sexy and theoretical finale, I was trying to be someone I am not. Yes, I read the necessary books by de Certeau. But in the end I didn't write about that stuff. I wrote about discipleship, because that's what seemed to me to be the heart of Christian identity. It's about following Jesus. This is not a Clever and Original idea. It's a commonplace in Christian theology from the gospels onward.
 
So where does that leave me, as a teacher of theology? Well, the book was published, and the only review I have seen so far didn't write it off as just repeating stuff everyone already knows. I'm grateful for that, and for the reviewer's practical response to the book, which was to read Gregory of Nyssa. But I am never going to be a person who trades in cleverness. I know how much I don't know, and I would far rather start with cards on the table. I know what I do know, and I have confidence that I can teach the subject. I also know that I am not going to win arguments with John Milbank about Plato or political theory. (By the way, he's in that small group with Rowan Williams.)
 
I would, however, be perfectly happy talking with John, even arguing, about Jesus. Not about Christology, certainly, but about Jesus. And that's what worries me. Because not trading in cleverness all these years, first as a graduate student, and then as a teacher, has meant that I put a great deal of emphasis on faithfulness to the gospel and on spiritual discipline; I say that it is more important to be faithful than clever, if you are a theologian. It isn't knowing about God that makes good theology; it's knowing God. (It is both, of course, and you can't just have one or the other, as Andrew Louth suggested a great many years ago in an essay about theology and spirituality. And he's another theologian I would place on the top of the smart list.)
 
But do I thereby imply that I know God better than my students or my colleagues? Good heavens, no. Teaching theology to people who are training for ministry is an awesome privilege and a serious charge. What qualifies me to stand in front is formal and academic knowledge; it's having practiced talking about the God we all know in particular ways, ways that are faithful to the Bible and the Church's memory of Jesus preserved through the ages in its sacred doctrine. I certainly can make no claim to “know more of God” than my students. Faithfulness is a shared enterprise, and spiritual discipline is for the Church and not solely (or even primarily) for individuals.
 
A lot of the things that worry me are petty, even ridiculous. But not this one. I take Rowan Williams' words to heart. This should worry me. I don't have any formula for getting it right, for teaching sound doctrine intelligently to intelligent people, and simultaneously bearing in mind that it's not all about intelligence; or for bearing in mind that in the classroom faith does actively seek understanding, that the exercise of the intellect is a part of faithful discipleship. It is enough that I worry about it, I think, so long as the 'worry' always becomes 'pray.' This work I do is like the rest of my life before God: possible only by his grace.
 
 

Syria and St Augustine

A few weeks ago, my heart turned toward the situation in Syria in a new way. I thought: I don’t know very much about Syria, and I am neither politically nor militarily savvy. But I know that if my kids were fighting, and the stronger one(s) hurt the weaker one(s), my first move would be to attend to those who were hurt and keep the others away from them until I could sort it out. I was really worried about the prospects of a US military strike. On the same day, which just happened to be the feast of St Augustine, Lewis (who is much more knowledgeable about such things) offered the following: ‘…if we were prepared to do the dirty and get lots of boots on the ground and establish protected areas for civilian refugees with decent medical care inside Syria, I would say ‘great’. But this, no boots just bombing the bad guys so the bad guys can take over don’t seem wise. Damn, this is enough politics on facebook for about a year! As you know my attitude toward Turks and the French leaves much to be desired, but let’s hear a word for the Ottomans and for the French mandate after WWI. {Admitting that he isn’t against bombing in every case, he added:]  I’ll own up to the campaign in 2001 in Afghanistan and the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia as examples where (horrific as it of course was) it seemed to do the job. It’s a fallen world folks: Saint Augustine, pray for us.’

I was encouraged: if it isn’t just the mama in me talking, if this ‘looking after the injured’ is something that makes sense to someone like Lewis, well, maybe there is hope. But as the US moved towards a military strike, I faltered. What will become of Syria? and what will happen to the world? Even Jean Vanier, with whom a (nun) friend of mine had spoken last November, echoed what Lewis said: it’s a fallen world; these things happen.

In the most technical and articulate language: bummer.

So when Pope Francis called for prayer and fasting for Syria on the 7th of September, my heart leapt. Yes, I am that sort of person. I thought prayer (St Augustine’s and ours) was a clear and practical step in the right direction. I happened to be on retreat last weekend, which afforded me far greater opportunities for prayer than a Saturday at home would have, from vigils to compline, with an extra hour of adoration after vespers. I’ve no idea what I thought would happen; indeed I had no idea of what would count as an ‘answer’ to prayer.

On Monday, Lewis was in the kitchen criticizing Obama, for having had to change course in the face of Putin’s intervention. Stepping back made Obama look weak. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I did wonder: ‘But doesn’t it make God look strong?’

Maybe it is to the credit of Christians everywhere, who’ve prayed for Syria, and who joined the worldwide prayer vigil last Saturday, that no one is celebrating the triumph of our God. I’ve not heard a soul claiming that this change in the situation is an answer to prayer. But I see hope where before there seemed to be no hope, and in my experience, only God can do that.

I will keep praying for Syria and for the middle east, with hope in my heart, and giving thanks to God.

Deo gratias!

in the kitchen

When I started this blog, I thought I’d be sharing the conversations we have in our kitchen, on those rare occasions when we talk theology like we did ‘in the old days’. But I have found that often, those conversations are not really fit for public consumption. It’s not because they’re trashy (though sometimes the language isn’t what we’d want the kids to use at school), but because they are unformed.

In teaching theology and ethics, I often have to wade into treacherous (for a doctrinally conservative person who works hard at charitable living) waters. Usually I keep my feet on the ground. The classroom isn’t a place where I want to work out what I really think, at the edges of my Christian faith and practice. Nope: that’s what I do in the kitchen.

Theologians and ministers especially, and Christians in general, won’t always have a ready answer to the question of the moment, or the latest news. We need time and space–safe space–to consider, to pray, and to talk with people who know us well enough to help us figure out what to say, if indeed we find we need to speak. That’s my kitchen, and I am glad there’s no webcam in it. Sometimes I realise that what I was thinking is just plain wrong as soon as I have said it. And then I’m really glad only Lewis was listening.