Sunday, January 3, 2016

Morality and Christian identity

It’s probably no surprise that the recent SCOTUS ruling on same sex marriage seems to have upset a few Christians. Of course, many Christians have seen no problem with the new law and have wholeheartedly supported it, but they remain in the minority. But a vast number of others—some of whom are my friends—are less than impressed. As far as I can tell, the big upset has something to do with a what some perceive to be a contradiction of their so-called Christian moral values. If the media is to be trusted, which it shouldn’t be, what many Christians seem to be perceiving is a secular order that is increasingly becoming a greater and greater threat to Christian morality.
Before I get to my reasons for thinking that this is not the main issue here, it is worth noting that the greatest threat to Christianity has never been the secular order. The greatest threat to Christianity has always been Christians themselves. This fact was humorously reflected by Pope Pius VII’s Secretary of State, Ercole Cardinal Consalvi, back when Napoleon threatened to “crush” the Roman Catholic Church using his very small French fist. The cardinal shook his head at the emperor’s naïveté and simply said this: “If in 1800 years we clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that you’ll be able to do it?”
Christians have been trying to destroy Christianity for two millennia, although usually not on purpose, and yet it’s still here. One of the prime ways that Christians have gone about trying to destroy their Christianity is by insisting on coupling a particular kind of morality with their very sense of identity. This may seem like a fairly innocent thing to do, but it is nothing less than the number one crime of religious orthodoxy. In fact, a few of Jesus’ more radical pronouncements had to do with the importance of always questioning one’s identity (“deny your self,” “hate your family,” “love your enemy,” etc.)
Religion (as Law) has always been the enemy of authentic Christian faith. So, in case you missed it, the major irony here is that the destruction of Christianity, or just a part of its destruction, is most evidenced by those Christians who are moralising about same sex marriage, as if it has anything to do with them as my friend Jonty Langley has helpful suggested here. Just to be provocative, allow me to say this: if you want to know who the Christians aren’t, just look for the moralisers.
Of course, it’s also not news that Christians are accustomed to thinking of their ‘Christian identity’ (which is an oxymoron, by the way) primarily in terms of their moral values. This, from the perspective of the popular media, seems to be Christianity’s only contribution to society, apart from their horrifyingly bad pop music and irritating rhetoric. But, really, this is precisely where Christians in particular go wrong: they insist that morality is married to their identity rather than being just a symptom of their faith in the Transcendent Other who also, in orthodoxy, is the Other who took on flesh and moved into a very human neighbourhood not only disguised as a man but as a man.
By marrying morality and identity, true transcendence actually becomes irrelevant; what matters most is not the Good or the Just, but the Tribe (What Lacan calls ‘big Other’ and what Heidegger calls ‘The They’ are fairly decent approximations of this tribe because they reflect not God but an externalised idea of the collective spirit/Spirit of the group) . And when the tribe has spoken, as Simone Weil points out well in advance of years of torture-by-Reality-Television, both conscience and intelligence are defeated. When the tribe makes the rules, in other words, morality itself becomes immoral, and the members of the tribe become morons. Say it with me: Moronic immoral morality. We could even say that if you were to turn empathy into a law, you would have tyranny.
To better understand this moralistic loss of transcendence, which is what fundamentalists and moralists represent so well, it is helpful to understand that there are, generally speaking, two ways to set up the identity of any community or tribe. There are, in other words, two kinds of culture (religion being one expression of culture). The first is based on violence, which insists on naming an enemy in order to establish its own credibility. The enemy could be anyone, but, following the insights of mimetic theory, it’s easiest to pick an arbitrary but obvious mark of uniqueness. In the time of King James VI of Scotland of the King James Bible fame, any wort would do. This arbitrary mark would be used as a reason to expel the enemy from the midst of the community, or, in very bad cases, would be used as an excuse to legitimate the committing of a murder.
This is also known as scapegoating, and it is used by just about anyone. For example, the New Atheists are fond of scapegoating Christians to establish their own sense of identity, and Christians (especially of the fundamentalist, puritan strain) are fond of scapegoating all kinds of people, depending on the season: New Atheists, Muslims, and (lately) people who fit into the LGBTQ categorisation. Christians will scapegoat other Christians, too, especially when those other Christians are perceived to be heretics—a fact that should be taken as a sign that the main danger to Christianity, especially of the kind that is legitimated by symbolic violence, is not “out there” but part of its very inner structure. As I said, the real threat to Christianity has always been Christians.
This way of establishing identity through scapegoating is the easiest because you never have to spend much energy trying to figure out who you are or even who your enemy truly is (The enemy is you and me, by the way, and your and my selfishness)And you certainly never have to figure out how to love your (other) enemy because you’re too busy naming and shaming them for failing to uphold your own group’s standards.
So, obviously, the fundamental hypocrisy in this way of establishing identity is that the very source of the identity is the one (person, community, people-group, nation, etc.) that has been expelled/rejected. The rejected stone has become the cornerstone. In other words, the very ‘problem’ for the community is in fact the primary reason (or one of the primary reasons) for its existence. Put in more paradoxical terms, for the scapegoaters there is no greater friend than their greatest enemy. Without their enemy, they wouldn’t be who they (think they) are. Without the ‘poison’ they would have no ‘health’ (because the poison is the cure).
The second way of establishing community identity is through solidarity; that is, through a shared connection: something like the feeling of being part of a minority group, or the shared experience of a ritual, an event like a shared loss, or even a shared failing, as in Alcoholics Anonymous. With solidarity, no external enemy is needed. Because the enemy is us. We, solidarity teaches us, are our own worst enemy. And yet solidarity is a form of forgiveness because it is a form of acceptance of individuals as individuals, no matter what their current state of being. “Family,” we learn from Lilo and Stitch, “means nobody gets left behind.”
But, sadly, this second way of establishing community identity—clearly the healthier and less violent of the two—is often usurped by the first. Countless reasons can be offered for this eventuality, but human arrogance is first on my list. Ignorance is probably number two. And arrogance and ignorance form a half rhyme, which is nice. A lack of empathy is by definition part of both arrogance and ignorance.
So, anyway, as I’ve said, for the Christian (fundamentalist, puritan, moralist), the LGBTQ community has tended to be an easy target. And by making same sex marriage legal and widely acceptable, what SCOTUS has done—at least as the average Christian moralist perceives it, albeit sometimes unconsciously—is set up the way forward for Christendom to start slackening its own moral boundaries.
The ‘slippery slope’ argument that has been bandied about by ninth-rate philosophers and first rate trolls is not a really worry about what’s going on in the world for the Christian (the world has always been full of troubling morality for Christians). The ‘slippery slope’ is feared because of what it may do in the fundamentalist’s or moralist’s own sacred territories. The real threat is to tribal identity; the worry is that the morality that has become central to Christian identity will become somehow generic, which is to say that the very centre of (perceived) Christian identity—a particular moral code—will no longer be uniquely Christian.
So, in brief, if morality and identity are coupled (a move I see as a genuine heresy rather than a symbol of orthodoxy), any challenge to that morality is really a challenge to the cohesion of the tribe. If the morality of the tribe is dismantled, and if your identity has been rooted in that morality, the question will become this: What does it mean to be a Christian? i.e. Does it even make a difference to be a Christian at all?
I realise that there is some speculation in what I’ve said so far, but it is not entirely based upon guesswork (I also know that there’s more to it than what I can cover here, so please be generous in allowing for the fact that I’m fully aware of the complexities of the issues I’m discussing). A large number of Christians will couple the legalisation of same sex marriage with what they perceive to be the natural consequence of the law: the idea that pastors or clergy in churches will have to perform marriage ceremonies for gay/lesbian couples, or that bakers will have to cater for them, or that designers will have to make invitations for their weddings, etc. But, again, to restate my central point:this is not an issue of morality but about a perceived morality, which is really about identity.
It turns out that the historic, orthodox Christian faith, especially in its earliest days, did not always insist that morality should be synonymous with identity. This is not to say that all moralities are unimportant, but rather that they are not the main priority.
In fact, the radical thing that an authentic Christocentric Christianity does is separate the issue of identity from morality. Who you are and how you live, it turns out, does not necessarily mean that you are no longer “in Christ”— the phrase used by the early Christians to designate the identity of those in those early Christian communities. Being “in Christ,” it turns out, amounted to a collective rejection of tribal identity; the mark of the Christian, then, was simply a shared identification with the God-man who was crucified, and that is all. (Certain communities did have moral codes, as we find especially in the letters of St. Paul, but none of that had to do with so called Christian identity and everything to do with making community life heaven or hell—I feel like I need to add caveats to everything I’m saying here, but I will let the moralisers and the Council for All Things Orthodox and The Correct Interpretation of Scripture have whatever field day they want with this).
So, again: morality and identity are not inextricably bound in Christianity. St. Paul, for one, identifies himself as “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1.15)—in the present tense—and yet does not regard himself as less a part of Christ because of his crimes (scapegoating being the chief one among them, as we learn from the book of Acts). And Jesus, in the first pronouncement of his Sermon on the Mount suggests that the “poor in spirit” (another way of saying “moral reprobates”) are not in any way excluded from the “Kingdom of Heaven” (see Matthew 5). The morally reprehensible are no less able to come into contact with the Transcendent.
In fact, after a rather spicy tirade against a community of Galatians, who had wrongheadedly made their Christianity into a tribal concern (symbolised by their adherence to the law of circumcision), St. Paul angrily tells them that he wishes they would go all the way and just hack off their dicks and balls completely rather than just chopping off a bit of foreskin (Galatians 5.12). It’s a weird passage to be sure—somewhat sanitised by most English translations—but if nothing else this is to say that making some law into the mark of a person’s identity is tantamount to a kind of personal castration.
Here’s the kicker of Paul’s tirade in Galatians: It is not the excluded other that loses out, for Paul, but the newly castrated insider—the holy faithful, clutching at their groins in agony after their little ritual, unable to see that the non-castrated other is right there, being human just like them, and also unable to notice that they have just altered their own sexual identities. (As an aside, isn’t it interesting that sexual identity has become such a massive issue for Christians, when there are really far bigger and more serious problems in the world—poverty, violence, etc.?)
In fact, carrying Paul’s castration metaphor a little further, any violence (real or symbolic) is merely a sign of the puritan’s impotence. The reason that religious people go to such lengths to enforce a moral code or some other concrete way to set up identity is because faith is a terribly uncontrollable, mystical thing. I speak from experience. In fact, faith and certainty are not the same thing. If anything, certainty is almost definitely the opposite of faith. Faith is uncertainty. Faith is doubt.
Faith is a leap into the dark, closely allied to the hope that Someone will be there to catch you. Unfaith, it turns out, is also a leap into the dark (it’s a kind of faith), but it is closely allied to the hope that No One will be there to catch you or anyone else. But, as I’ve said on this blog before, the fundamentalist—and the moral puritan—substitutes knowledge for faith. For him or her, you don’t have to believe because you know. The puritan has their morality sorted. So they don’t have to reach out to the other. The moralist knows the difference between right and wrong as immanent concerns, and so there is no need for God anymore. In short, the moralist is the atheist among the true believers.
I know I’m going on about this a bit long, but what I’m getting at is the so called “Death of God” is not something that happens outside the church, in the secular order, but inside the church, where people have no faith left, no love left; and so they resort to rules, laws, and other assertions of identity. The anchor of identity in the transcendent is replaced by an anchor in the immanent.
St. Paul’s tirade against tribal identity in Galatians is echoed in far more theology than I care to go into right now. In any case, what I do want to point out is that faith is almost certainly a critique of the tribe and its obsession with scapegoating. It is a destabilising kind of certainty that rests itself in the hope of the Transcendent, which manifests itself not just in the love of friends but in the love of those considered enemies. It is faith, which is a particular view of the way we ought to relate to the world, that brings about the truly ethical, not some purity code or moral law.
This idea is somewhat captured by Kierkegaard, who affirms the identity of the Christian in quite a unique way. He talks about three levels of living, each one higher than the previous one—aesthetic, ethical and religious. And the weird thing he does is suggest that the religious (as an affirmation of faith, not law) is so much higher than the ethical that it can, if granted by God, render the ethical mute. This is also referred to as the teleological suspension of the ethical. I know that there are complex aspects to all of this, of course, but this (despite all appearances) is a blog post and not a book.
The gist of what I’m getting at, though, is still simple: the minute the so-called Christian shifts into a way of operating that regards morality as synonymous with identity, he or she has shifted away from the Christ of the Christian scriptures, who cared more for loving people than for judging them, who cared more for company than alienation, and who cared more for forgiving people than for holding their so called sins against them. The sheer and unabashedly radical nature of Christ’s ethics is found in its insistence upon intimacy with the “enemy” other rather than insisting on general laws for setting up judgment against the alien. Even the statement “If your enemy hits you on the one cheek, offer him the other” is about confronting your enemy with your humanity, just as “If your enemy asks you to carry his stuff for one mile, go two” is about allowing time to let your enemy see who you really are.
The people who operate outside of this loving, forgiving spirit of Christ are in fact aligning themselves with the Pharisees—those people so concerned with purity codes that they would exclude those who had violated them. In fact, it’s weird to me that Christians tend to read Jesus’ criticisms of these Pharisees as if they are about someone else (some other Pharisees out their in the world: heretics, in other words). But Jesus, if he is still speaking today as Christians believe he is, is addressing them. They are the new Pharisees for embracing a tribe that casts out the heretics. They are the new “sons of hell” and “bastard children of serpents”—these are phrases Jesus uses, in fact, to point out that the puritans are Satanic, not the so-called sinners. The people most in danger of hell are not the wicked, but the self-righteous. Why? Simply because their entire existence works according to the principle of scapegoating.
As an aside, as John Milbank points out somewhere, morality itself is generally problematic because it assumes a state of disorder and immorality that needs to be brought under control. It assumes, in other words, that the world is inherently evil and that goodness needs to be be brought to it—a Gnostic conception of reality. It begins with Genesis 3 without taking Genesis 1 and 2 into account, and this, it turns out, is a terribly violent thing to do.
It also turns out that a lot of Christians in the political sphere insist upon their laws and their morality in a way that makes it seem like that is the purpose of Christianity. But that’s just not it. In fact, I would say that as soon as Law becomes the main focus of any discussion, what we are dealing with is a failure to love (and a failure of faith). We need laws against murder, because people fail to love, and we need laws against bigotry, because people fail to love. And love, in case you missed it, is the only thing that Christian orthodoxy insists on unequivocally.
So the thing that I really wish for more than anything is that Christians would learn to love first. If they would just see the other as a human being with hopes, dreams, fears and failings just like them, there is actually a chance that people would take their Christianity more seriously. If you look at history, you will see that this is actually why Christianity grew in the first place. (The New Atheists’s account of history are largely bogus, so I would start with David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions or the work of Rodney Stark). The Christians were the ones loving people, serving people, being compassionate. That was why the Roman Empire persecuted them—because their allegiance was not to a Caesar (or some other form of Empire Nostalgia) who advocated scapegoating rituals and violence, but, rather, their allegiance was to a God who they believed, through Jesus, had told them to love without reservations.
What I’m encouraging here is that Christians should re-enact the gigantic humility of the Incarnation rather than the supreme arrogance of raising themselves to the level of God or some other Lawmaker. Because the lesson of the Incarnation, if nothing else, is that God is somehow incomplete—not God—without also being human; and also that when we take on flesh and blood, there’s a pretty good chance that love will actually win. But for love to even stand a chance, love must come first.
(Originally posted at on July 17, 2015)

No comments:

Post a Comment