Barna: Finding Faith in Ireland (2): Musings on some political implications

Barna Finding Faith in IrelandOne page of the Barna report Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland previously discussed here, has a list of words used by Irish youth workers across the denominational spectrum to describe young people (14-25) in Ireland today.

 

Roughly speaking, in order of weighting given they are listed below with more ‘negative’ characteristics on the left and more ‘positive’ ones on the right :

Anxious and Pressured               Passionate

Lost                                                  Searching

Apathetic and Bored                    Gifted

Insecure                                          Open to Ideas

Cynical                                            Hopeful

Aggressive                                      Curious

Image-Conscious                           Creative

Tech-addicted                                Campaigners for social justice

Susceptible

Self-Centered

Fragile

Confused

Entitled

Lazy

Busy

Now these are only anecdotal comments by youth workers. If you live here, do they describe your perception of Irish youth culture?

Class and social location is not discussed in the Report – a church in the leafy suburbs of South Dublin is going to have a very different youth profile to one in the streets of Tallaght a very few miles away. And then there is the urban / rural divide that splits the country.

But let’s go with the descriptions above, coupled with the statistics on religious attitudes and behaviour peppered throughout the report discussed in the previous post. What emerges in very broad terms? (and this obviously is just my reading with its own interpretative bias!).

There is a major ongoing generational shift from Christendom to post–Christendom attitudes and behaviour. It is fast and it is deep, and has not finished yet.

  • individualist morality (moral therapeutic deism) vs Christendom’s communally enforced morality
  • a late capitalist culture vs Irish Christendom’s fusion of church and state
  • lack of job security (high competition; self-promotion; extreme inequalities between older and younger generations) vs Irish Christendom’s limited opportunities and resultant high levels of emigration
  • high levels of uncertainty about the future (jobs, cost of housing, environment) vs Christendom’s modernist assumptions of ongoing progress
  • deep scepticism towards authority (political and religious in particular) vs Irish Christendom’s extreme authority structures
  • embrace of ‘flat’ communities of modern tech (Facebook, Google, Twitter) vs Irish Christendom’s numerous hierarchies [it remains to be seen when or if the ‘dark side’ of the new tech will be recognised and or resisted. It seems to me anyway that so far it has been uncritically embraced.)

None of this is that unusual in the West. But a few things make Ireland different.

1, Just how quickly it has shifted to become very similar to other liberal secular democracies. Tolerance, inclusion, individual freedom, pluralism etc.

2. Its particular relationship with Irish Catholicism, and how young people’s abandonment of that Church is all mixed up in redefining Irishness, rejecting their experience of Christianity per se, and embracing libertarian freedom (we know what we are running from, we are not sure where we are running to, but it has to be better than the past).

3. Its recent experience of capitalism. For a while it seemed to be Ireland’s new saviour, but it is proving to be a ruthless taskmaster for a young post- 2008 Crash generation.

4. Its delayed ‘sexual revolution’. Rather than the 1960s, it is only in recent times that Irish culture has ‘caught up’ with the rest of the West. My sense is that there is deep exhilaration felt at throwing off the past – almost a type of ‘liberation theology’ at work – in the adoption of same-sex marriage and in the upcoming Abortion referendum in 2018. (The Barna report did not ask about abortion – my guess is that it will be supported by a high % of 18-25 year olds in the referendum).

All of this describes, I think, a culture in ferment, uncertainty and confusion.

With the collapse of old certainties, identity politics (political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify) is beginning to exert more and more influence. The problem with such politics is that young people become focused on the battle for narrow political and social agendas that marginalise a wider sense of pluralism and the common good.

Take Katie Ascough’s recent impeachment as President of the Student Union in University College Dublin. It seems pretty clear that the reason she was voted out was that pro-life views were deemed unacceptable to hold by a student president. This is not democracy or tolerance or doing the hard work of actually debating and persuading people who hold different views to you. It is identity politics that denies your opponent the right to hold views that you find intolerable and so you seek to silence or remove them.

This is the paradox of illiberal liberalism.

My sense then is that post-Christendom Ireland is heading in the direction of increasing fragmentation, intolerance and divisiveness since when there is little to hold a centre together all you are left with is competing power groups.

What do these implications these cultural changes have for Christians in Ireland? I’ll come back to that question in the next post (dramatic pause).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I’m not on Facebook’s ‘behaviour modification empire’

Jaron Lanier

 

 

An excerpt of an interview on the digital future with Jaron Lanier, digital pioneer and inventor of virtual reality on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.

In my view virtual reality can be thought of as some sort of ultimate destination for media. And what that means is it maximises the potential both for beauty and also for peril. I think it is possible to use virtual reality in very horrible ways, I think it could be the ultimate mind control device for instance. What we are seeing with society manipulated by social media today could be much worse if we don’t figure out how to protect ourselves whenever the era of virtual reality arrives …

[Q: asks if he uses social media himself]

Oh absolutely not .. social media is ..  I call them behaviour modification empires. I think they are manipulative. I think it is very foolish to participate in them …

[Q Asks why]

As you are doing these innocent things of keeping up with your football team or whatever it might be, what’s happening is that your every move is being analysed by algorithims and then very slight changes are being made to what you see and then tests are performed on how you respond. So that, for instance, showing the colour blue might get you to like something and then these capabilities for behaviour modification are then sold to third parties that you don’t know about in a very obscure and black fashion.

[Q Asks what different to traditional advertising]

We have crossed over a threshold that it is important to understand. Advertising or persuasion is one thing, that is a form of communication, but if you have a tight feedback loop you are entering into a behaviourist scientific experiment  in which the relationship between what you do and what stimulus you receive is very tightly coupled and can be adjusted to control you gradually. And that is different from advertising, that is why I call it behaviour modification.

[Q  Asks if social media then is like an experiement with rats in cage?]

Yes, that is precisely what is being done now.

… We must appeal to the better nature of everyone in silicon valley and everywhere else to simply cause this change. It might be a difficult transition but it simply must take place, it is a matter of the wellbeing of our species.

[Q Askswill better natures do it? Why would they?]

I don’t think it is about regulation primarily, it is about financial incentives. Right now the financial incentives for companies like Facebook .. the only financial incentive they have whatsoever is to manipulate the behaviour of their users for pay. However, there are other business plans. And, I think the key thing is not so much to regulate in detail … but if we can change the underlying financial incentives I think we can go a huge way to correcting these problems.

Trouble is Facebook is only one such behavioural modification empire … Google is ever harder to avoid.

You can read a fuller interview at the New York Times. Another exerpt on this topic from that interview:

“The whole internet thing was supposed to create the world’s best information resource in all of history,” he says. “Everything would be made visible. And instead we’re living in this time of total opacity where you don’t know why you see the news you see. You don’t know if it’s the same news that someone else sees. You don’t know who made it be that way. You don’t know who’s paid to change what you see. Everything is totally obscure in a profound way that it never was before.

“And the belief system of Silicon Valley is so thick that my friends at Facebook simply still really believe that the answer to any problem is to do more of what they already did, that they’re optimizing the world.

“The Facebook business model is mass behavior modification for pay. And for those who are not giving Facebook money, the only — and I want to emphasize, the only, underlined and in bold and italics — reward they can get or positive feedback is just getting attention. And if you have a system where the only possible prize is getting more attention, then you call that system Christmas for Asses, right? It’s a creep-amplification device.

“Once Facebook becomes ubiquitous, it’s a sort of giant protection racket, where, if you don’t pay them money, then someone else will pay to modify the behavior to your disadvantage, so everyone has to pay money just to stay at equilibrium where they would have been otherwise,” he says. “I mean, there’s only one way out for Facebook, which is to change its business model. Unless Facebook changes, we’ll just have to trust Facebook for any future election result. Because they do apparently have the ability to change them. Or at least change the close ones.”

And towards the end of that interview he talks about the impact Facebook and other behavioural modification systems are having on personality and politics – both liberal and Trump.

“If you’re a mark of social media, if you’re being manipulated by it, one of the ways to tell is if there’s a certain kind of personality quality that overtakes you,” he says. “It’s been called the snowflake quality. People criticize liberal college kids who have it, but it’s exactly the same thing you see in Trump. It’s this kind of highly reactive, thin-skinned, outraged single-mindedness. I think one way to think of Trump, even though he is a con man and he is an actor and he’s a master manipulator and all that, in a sense he’s also a victim. I’ve met him a few times over 30 years. And what I think I see is someone who has moved from kind of a New York character who was in on his own joke to somebody who is completely freaked out and outraged and feeling like he is on the verge of a catastrophe every second. And so my theory about that is that he was ruined by social media.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Desiring more of God (2) Musings on the Spirit, humility and pride in an age of social media

narcissus-and-echo

In the last post we talked about the restorationist impulse that arises from a theological belief that the description of the first Christian’s experience of the Spirit in the NT is, by and large, a ‘norm’ that believers in all ages should long to see in their own lives and churches.

I say ‘by and large’ because some experiences are historically unique – Pentecost and the sending of the Spirit by the risen Christ and the missionary advance of the gospel in Acts for example.

That ‘norm’ includes the following:

  • being united to Christ by the Spirit
  • being given ‘life’ by the life-giver himself (regeneration)
  • a new status as a child of God (adoption by the Spirit by which we can call God abba Father)
  • empowering to live a life pleasing to God.
  • For Paul that ‘norm’ for Paul means living kata pneuma (according to the Spirit) rather than kata sarxa (according to the old age of the flesh that is passing away – see Romans 8:5

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

  • It means ‘walking’ or ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit and life rather than the powerless realm of the flesh and death (Gal 5).

In other words, the NT norm is thoroughly eschatological.

I’d go as far as to say that Christianity cannot be understood unless as an eschatological faith. The new age of the Spirit has dawned with the coming, death and resurrection of the Messiah, King of Israel and Lord of all. A Christian is someone who belongs, by God’s generous grace through faith in Christ, to the new age of the Spirit. He or she is a citizen of the kingdom of God here in the nitty gritty world of family, work, friendships and whatever else makes up your life.

That new life takes concrete shape in a person bearing the hallmarks of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We may say, in other words, that a Christian is to be shaped by the Spirit into a person of virtue. Their character is, through the work of the Spirit, to reflect that of their Lord.

While many Christians stop at this individual ethical transformation through the Spirit, there is no hint in the NT that the presence of the Spirit is not also associated with charismata – spiritual gifts.

The term ‘spiritual gifts’ is actually quite unhelpful. It implies that there are ‘higher’ more ‘spiritual’ gifts (perhaps healing, prophecy, tongues etc) and then other more ‘ordinary’ and less ‘spiritual’ gifts (administration, hospitality, leadership).  Yet all ‘charismata‘ means is ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – they are all ‘spiritual’.  They are NOT just natural abilities, they are visible and tangible evidence of the empowering presence of God who gives good gifts to the people of God so that they may serve others within the body of Christ.

So, to come back to the question in the title of this post – what is our ‘role’ in experiencing more of God’s Spirit?

Well, at one level, the answer is none at all. A gift is a gift. The recipient does not ‘earn’ a gift, it is only received by faith. This is true of the initial reception of the Spirit – it is God’s gracious gift of life, inseparable from repentance and faith in Christ. All believers are given the Spirit to ‘drink’, all are baptised in the Spirit – it is a generous gift of God.

For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13).

This is ALSO true of the gifts of the Spirit – the Spirit gives to whomsoever he wills. Again, a gift is a gift, it can only be received in faith with thanks and used well.

But, at another level, there IS a role for the Christian to grow and develop in his or her experience of the Spirit. Paul’s numerous ethical commands only make sense of the believer has real moral agency. We are not to quench the Spirit or treat prophecies with contempt (1 Thes 5:19-20). We are actively to walk and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5) – which implies that we can choose not to walk where the Spirit leads – to go our own way and act in ways opposed to the Spirit.

To walk on the path of the Spirit requires profoundly Christian way of looking at the self. By that I mean an awareness of the self’s desperate need for forgiveness and spiritual transformation.

What would you put top of the list?

For me, one word comes to mind:

HUMILITY

For it is only from a place of realistic humility and that there can develop a subsequent desire for God’s Spirit to renew, cleanse and empower.

That desire will lead to a prayer like that of David – acutely aware of the depths of his own sin

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51

And a similar theme is taken up by Peter in the NT:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

As Peter says, the opposite of humility is pride.

It’s always been the case in every culture, but I think it is here that the Christian faith becomes profoundly, and perhaps increasingly, paradoxical in an age of technological know how, qualifications and expertise. A world where money, power, status, connections, networking, business plans, personality tests and the necessity of an impressive CV dominate the job market.

A culture increasingly shaped by the narcissistic world of social media.

Now, I am not against social media – this blog is a form of it. I’ve learnt lots from other blogs and enjoy processing thoughts in writing – it helps me think for one.

But it also inevitably presents opportunity to present a certain ‘face’ to the world. There is also a certain arrogance, is there not, about anyone writing for an audience? There is an assumption that ‘I’ have something to say that I think is worth listening to.

But we live in an age, unheralded in human history, where the individual has the ability to project him or herself, in an unmediated fashion, to much of the rest of the world. The subject matter on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms is overwhelmingly ME.

In the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and dies alone since he could not obtain the object of his love (so much for sologamy!). The Nymph Echo, looking on here, is heartbroken as his rejection.

Narcissism has been defined as

Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.

And in psychological terms as

Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.

Where admiration of the self and a craving for the admiration of others dominates,  the call of the gospel to decenter the self, follow Jesus as Lord, honestly ‘own’ (repent of) the self’s failings and deep brokenness, and walk a life of humility in the Spirit will seem to be utter ‘foolishness to the world.

If you accept the broad outline of what I am describing, what are the implications for evangelism, for discipleship and for teaching about spiritual growth and transformation in the church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Sologamy: the logical end of Western individualism?

From Aeon Magazine  –  a superb article by Polina Aronson. Worth reading the whole thing.

‘Sologamy’ is the latest relationship trend not only in Europe and the United States but also Japan. A budding industry of self-marriages promises to make us happier by celebrating commitment to the only person in this world truly worthy of a relationship investment: our precious self. A variety of coaches worldwide offer self-marriage courses, including guidance through preparatory steps (such as writing love poems and composing vows) and orchestration of the ceremony itself.

While self-marriage has no legal power (you can’t normally do it in a town hall, at least not yet), it is open to anyone regardless of age and gender. I wasn’t – and am not – single, but that doesn’t disqualify me; my coach cheerfully confirmed that anybody, regardless of their situation, was welcome to learn how to ‘cherish’ and ‘love’ themselves. Still, most women (and it is almost always women) whose stories I read in blogs, Facebook pages and media reports were driven into self-marriage by the desire to emancipate themselves from the stigma attached to singledom and by the prospect of self-discovery. Some hoped that self-marriage would ‘heal them from a chain of painful break-ups’; others opted for it as a means of proving the worth of their lifestyles – and all of them were willing to learn how to love themselves ‘unconditionally’. Welcome to the 21st century, where we are no longer only ‘bowling alone’, to use the expression coined back in 1995 by the American sociologist Robert Putnam – we are marrying alone, too. So is this a sign of a radical new kind of independence, or a depressing totem to our self-absorption?

 

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (5): the sexual revolution and Christian marriage

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

OK,  some thoughts on marriage in this little mini-series set off by reflecting on allegory and the Song of Songs.

Contemporary Western attitudes to marriage are complex and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is legally and socially less significant – a lifestyle choice ignored by increasing numbers of people. Yet, on the other hand, it is a status vigorously pursued as a legal and human right for those formerly excluded from a male-female heterosexual understanding of marriage.

Much confusion arises from different understandings of what marriage actually is. Modern views of marriage are, at key points, historically novel – radically so. Yet, such has been the cultural success of the modern concept of marriage, that it has swept all before it – including much Christian understanding and practice of marriage. The result has been that much Christianity in the West lacks the theological resources to imagine marriage, sex, and the body in radically counter-cultural ways.

So what is this dominant modern view of marriage? It is shaped by at least two major innovations:

Innovation 1: A revolution in the understanding of sex

  • celibacy is incomprehensible (our previous post)
  • being sexually active is an essential part of being human; repression of who we are sexually is harmful and oppressive
  • sex is an activity detached from reproduction. (This is technically possible only in the blink of an eye historically. Remember that for the early church fathers sex was only legitimate if done for procreation. Sex for pleasure was a venial sin).
  • Detachment from procreation frees sex to be a leisure activity – primarily a source of pleasure, fun and self-expression.
  •  Thus sex becomes an end in itself – a source of personal self-fulfilment and expression of identity
  • Modern sex is therefore deeply linked to modern consumerism – it is no accident that sex is used to sell pretty well anything.

Innovation 2: Romantic fulfilment

  • Everywhere in a thousand ways Western culture affirms that the path to individual fulfilment is through authentic romantic love
  • Such love is equal, sexual, intimate and exciting. It is the Other who meets our needs and us theirs. It is ‘us’ and then the rest of the outside world.
  • This vision of romantic love is also new historically – never before in human history has happiness, meaning, fulfilment and purpose been so invested in one relationship.
  • The stakes are high – if the relationship doesn’t deliver exalted hopes then its future is in serious doubt
  • Rising divorce rates suggest that our ‘all or nothing’ investment in marriage / the ‘perfect one’ / ‘true love’ as the ultimate source of identity, happiness and future hope is unrealistic and unsustainable. There are sadly a lot of broken dreams out there.

How has this framework impacted marriage ?

At least two ways:

1. You might think that it would undermine marriage and you would be right.

Marriage rates in Ireland are still high, but on the decline. Many places in the West are far ‘ahead’ in this trend. This makes sense – logically marriage is an optional extra, unnecessary to a fulfilling relationship. For increasing numbers people the thinking is, why bother?

Easier and quicker divorce also follows – if it is not working out, then get out. (I’m speaking big picture here. I’m well aware that many try heroically and self-sacrificingly to make a marriage work and it still fails with associated enormous heartbreak. It takes two to make a relationship function. But the trend is a devaluing of marriage as a life-long commitment).

2. If marriage is only about fulfilment, love, romance, sex, mutuality and happiness then gender also becomes logically irrelevant.

The reshaping of marriage in the West has been about the rights of two individuals ‘in love’ – so it matters not if you are heterosexual or homosexual or somewhere else on a spectrum of human sexuality. This explains the social revolution of the West’s rapid adoption of same-sex marriage. The speed that traditional norms have been abandoned is indicative of how firmly entrenched a romantic individualist view of sex and marriage has become.

Notice though that children are secondary to this pursuit of authentic love. In contrast to a historic, traditional understanding of marriage as the context for conceiving and raising children, the West’s reshaped understanding of marriage has largely detached it from procreation.

This also means that there is now no logical boundary to the pursuit of the perfect relationship. At the moment marriage is limited to two people, regardless of gender in an increasing number of Western nations; it is hard to see why Western culture will not widen its social experimentation to include other forms of ‘pure love’ – love between free, equal consenting adults in whatever arrangement they find fulfilling.

[Can’t remember where I read someone raising the ironical point that the West’s shifting views of sex and marriage, while totally alien to Islam, makes it difficult rationally to resist the argument for polygamy to be legalised. This both on the grounds of ‘free choice of consenting adults’ AND on the grounds of tolerance & inclusion of other ways of life.]

Challenges facing Christians

I said earlier that in the face of the West’s revolution in understanding of sex and marriage, that much Christianity is struggling to articulate a vision for and practice of marriage that is counter-cultural. That’s a big claim and these are blog musings – but what do you think?

I wonder if we are so impacted by Western culture’s revolutionary understanding of sex and romance that these implications follow:

  • adoption of same-sex marriage by many churches and denominations in the West – eg the Scottish Episcopal church vote in 2017, the similar direction of travel of the Church of Scotland, continuing deep divisions in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the USA etc etc.
  • assimilation of Western romantic individualism that marginalises the idea of marriage as a life-long covenant commitment. Here’s a favourite quote from Stanley Hauerwas talking about a minister doing a marriage preparation course and thinking it

..… interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.

  • a subtle revolution in Christian understanding of and practice of divorce. I know this is a painful and complex area and this is not meant in a judgemental way. But it is here that a Christian understanding of marriage should be most counter-cultural. However we understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on divorce, it is crystal clear that it is a disaster; it should be practiced with the utmost seriousness and in limited circumstances. An easy divorce and remarriage policy and divorce rates similar to that of the wider culture would be signs that the church is losing its vision for Christian marriage. [For a very helpful resource on this see the work of Dr David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House here.]
  • A marginalisation of the practice of celibacy. As I said in this post, while associated with some bad theology, celibacy was the default ‘best option’ in church teaching and life for hundreds of years. It is clearly the New Testament’s preference. Yet today, singleness is not valued as at least an equal option to marriage. While studies vary and stats are unreliable, it is also pretty clear that rates of pre-marital sex amongst young Christians are climbing due to enormous cultural pressures.

Question: do you think celibacy losing credence within the church as well as being incomprehensible outside it?

Of course, describing these trends is easier than saying how best to respond.

Four challenges come to mind:

i. At the very least these are issues we need to be talking about, thinking about theologically, and articulating in teaching and preaching an authentic Christian vision for sex and marriage..

ii. Too often the first response of the church has been to resist and oppose changes in the law enacted by secular governments as a way of ‘protecting’ marriage. Too often absent, has been a first response of looking at ourselves – how church practice and beliefs around sex and marriage have been profoundly formed by Western individualism and consumerism. It is when the church practices sex and marriage well that it will have most impact, not when it takes the Christendom option in a post-Christendom culture of fighting and losing legal battles in the courts.

iii. Almost finally! – there is a need to combine teaching and practicing that vision with listening to people who do not fit within modern church assumptions about the default best option being heterosexual marriage with 2.2 children; singles, people with same-sex attraction, people self-identifying as LBGT+ etc.

iv. Finally finally – let’s return to the Song of Songs. The two lovers are ‘perfect’ – their pristine love captured in beautiful lyrics. We don’t read of them getting older. We don’t read of imperfect lovers making mistakes and failing to love well. Theirs is a wonderful picture of idealised love. It both gives us an inspiring vision and reminds us that our lives and relationships are inevitably marked by sin and selfishness, and our sexual lives are no different. So in all our thinking and teaching about an ideal Christian vision for love, sex and marriage, we also need to practice forgiveness, compassion and tons of grace.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (4): contemporary attitudes to celibacy

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

Two strands of teaching on love, sex and the body

STRAND ONE:  a good gift to be enjoyed

In the last few posts we’ve sketched how the Song of Songs does not need to be interpreted allegorically in order to have a rich theology of love, sex and the body (somatology). It is a celebration of an exclusive, monogamous, heterosexual union of husband and wife in a relationship of intimacy, joy, play, and love. We might say that it is a picture of idealised love between an archetypal couple.

This, if you like, is strand one of the Judeo-Christian theology of love, sex and the body.

( I should add that the Song, being about two lovers coming together for the first time, has no mention of children. The book is not really about marriage per se, more about human love. Within wider Jewish and Christian theology, one of the key ‘goods’ of marriage and the central purpose of sex is the making of children who are raised within the security of a covenant relationship between the man and the woman. So this can be added to strand one).

STRAND TWO: an inextricable link to sin and shame

We’ve also jumped forward into the New Testament and early church history to note how the death and resurrection of Jesus was the catalyst for a radical re-thinking of sex, marriage and the body, so much so that celibacy became the highest expression of Christian spirituality for over a millennium.

Strand two is predominantly Augustinian – taking the examples and teaching of Jesus and Paul seriously, but with a deep ambivalence about sex and the body, a somewhat reluctant endorsement of marriage, and with celibacy the idealised state. Sex and body are tied to shame and sin. The less sex the better and the fun, play and delight of the Song of Songs is definitely off limits. This is the strand of sexual asceticism – a hugely influential distortion of the New Testament’s positive teaching on celibacy / singleness.

A more balanced view is that both sex and singleness are good gifts (charisma) of God’s grace (charis). Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor. 7:7

Each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

There is no hierarchy of status or merit or achievement here – both are gifts of God.

FLUCTUATING FORTUNES

These two strands have in other words, had fluctuating fortunes in church history. To paint with a very broad brush, strand one has made a big comeback since the Reformation, to the point where it re-emerged as the overwhelmingly dominant model of a Christian ethic of love, sex and body. The fusion of marriage, sex and children long ago eclipsed celibacy as the ideal state, particularly within Protestantism with its married clergy and rejection of enforced celibacy. Indeed, it is the nuclear family which has become the Christian ‘ideal’ regarding sex, love, relationships and children and it is that ‘norm’ that churches are often structured around.

However, within both strands, it should be noted that sex is a good gift and belongs within the domain of heterosexual marriage. Sex outside that domain is a misuse of God’s good gift. This is the orthodox and agreed teaching of the Church catholic since the earliest days of Christianity and should not be lightly dismissed.

All this sets the scene for another big jump forward in this post to sex in the 21st Century West.

THE MARGINALISATION OF BOTH STRANDS WITHIN CONTEMPORARY WESTERN CULTURE

ATTITUDES TO CELIBACY TODAY

My suggestion, dear reader, (with which you are welcome to disagree) is that the second strand (the ideal of celibacy) is already completely incomprehensible to the modern mind. When I say modern mind I mean us Westerners – whether Christian or not.

Within the church, in my opinion, the ideal of marriage has been assumed and reinforced in a thousand ways. The strong biblical support for celibacy in Jesus and in Paul, as well as the early church, has been overwhelmed by modern romanticism. Singleness (and therefore celibacy according to Christian teaching) is implicitly viewed as a failure; to be regretted and rarely talked about. Single people in multiple ways are left on the margins.

‘Outside’ the church, attitudes to celibacy are less ambiguous. The 40 year old virgin is a buffoon, an immature idiot, a source of comedy and pity, who must at all costs, get laid belatedly to enter adult life. Sex is the rite of passage into autonomy and self-respect. Sex is an essential part of our identity and self-expression. Sexual identity is who we are – whatever our place on the spectrum of human sexuality. To deny that identity is to deny our core being. Celibacy becomes therefore virtually a form of self-harm; it is evidence of a lack of self-respect. This is why in the movie Steve Carell has to be rescued first and foremost from himself.

If sex is essentially our culture’s idealised form of adult entertainment, a playground of pleasure and enjoyment, then those that refuse to partake in its delights must be victims of a distorted vision of human flourishing. Celibacy, on other words, is not only an idiosyncratic life choice, it is positively harmful.

And when you connect this wider cultural attitude to images of Catholic Ireland, paedophile priests, abuse, repression, and hypocrisy, you can see how celibacy is now understood to be a very dangerous idea indeed.

It was not that long ago that having a son go into the priesthood was a mark of status and honour for an Irish family. No more … just think of the brilliant scene in Calvary where Brendan Gleeson happens to walk with a young girl on her way to the beach. All is charmingly light-hearted and friendly until her father screeches up in a car and tears her away from the insidious danger of a priest – any priest. Gleeson’s despairing slump of his shoulders as the car drives away spoke volumes of a fatally tarnished ideal. The point of the film’s (very) black humour is various residents’ pathological antipathy towards the Church and its representative – a hatred that leads to the climax of the movie.

This post was going to be the last, but it is already too long so we’ll look at contemporary attitudes to marriage in the (really) final one inspired by the Song of Songs.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (3): celibacy better than sex?

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

In this post (it’s in the text if you look hard enough) and this post (an ambivalent attitude to sex and the body) we have looked at two reasons why in Church History Christians have defaulted to an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.

So far we moderns may be feeling rather smug at the naive foolishness of our predecessors.

Of course let the text be the text!

Of course the body and sex are to be celebrated and enjoyed! 

Not so fast. As we come to the third reason we begin to be faced with some uncomfortable truths about the Church’s accommodation to Western romantic individualism and its idolisation of the body and sex.  The third reason is this:

3. In the New Testament, celibacy IS the better option than marriage for a disciple of Jesus.

The first Christians and the early church fathers knew this far far better than we do. They knew the words of Jesus and of Paul. Let’s remind ourselves of them:

JESUS

In Matthew 19:1-12, after an exchange with the Pharisees about divorce (which Jesus seems to prohibit but that is another story) his disciples say

‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

To which Jesus does not disagree. Later in Matthew 22:30 Jesus states that

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven

Which rather drastically relativises the significance of marriage in the future life to come.

PAUL

In answering the Corinthians’ belief that “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) Paul takes a path that, I think, we would be very slow to walk today.

Basically he disagrees with their renunciation of sexual relations. He sees the place for sex within marriage, with a remarkable and counter cultural sense of mutuality between husband and wife it should be said.

The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 1 Cor. 7:3-4.

However – and it is a big however – he sounds quite Augustinian (yes I realise that is a wee bit off chronologically) in saying that sex and marriage is OK for some, but really he wished that they were all like him – single and celibate.

The whole of chapter 7 can be summed up with Paul’s teaching to ‘Stay as you are’. If you are single, stay that way. Don’t pursue marriage and sex and children and all those responsibilities and burdens, leave yourself free to live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord (v. 35)

each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. 1 Cor. 1:17.

Marriage is specifically described as not a sin (v. 28) but that is hardly the most ringing endorsement of marital bliss that you have ever heard. (Don’t hear this bit of 1 Corinthians preached too often at weddings funny enough – that honour goes to chapter 13).

Yes Paul is clearly NOT laying down laws here. He is at pains to emphasise that much of this is his personal preference – he has taken his apostolic ‘hat’ off. But the fact remains that this teaching, like that of Jesus, radically redraws the purpose and importance of marriage, sex and procreation within the kingdom of God.

My point in this post is to suggest that the early church recognised far more clearly than we do, the radical implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus as inaugurating God’s kingdom within the world. Death itself has been overcome in Christ.

The realities for Christian discipleship meant that martyrdom and celibacy were very much live options for serious believers. Marriage and sex and family were ties to ‘this world’. They were not a wrong choice, but the overwhelming consensus of the early church fathers is that celibacy was by far the better option.

If this is so then some questions for us today:

How is celibacy viewed in contemporary Western culture today? (Hint – the picture below).

An Irish related context question – how has the recent religious history of Ireland helped to shape contemporary attitudes to celibacy?

How is celibacy and singleness (whether for heterosexual or homosexual people) thought of within the Church? How do you think of it?

If you are single, what has been your experience ?

What do Christian divorce rates tell us about contemporary Western Christianity – its priorities and real beliefs ‘on the ground’?

In the last post on this mini-series, we’ll turn to think about the revolution in thinking about gender and sex in Western culture and questions it poses for Christian witness and discipleship. Easy answers guaranteed (not) !