Monday, January 28, 2008

Morality, Men and You

Great bit today on Talk of the Nation about how morality is hard-wired into our brains, and how that, if morality is part of our programming, doesn't mean that morality still isn't moral.

Of course you had a person call in and say, "Well, God decides our morality anyway." The guest, Steven Pinker, tore that argument apart with a great reply that's part of his essay that was published in the New York Times:
Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not -- if his dictates are divine whims -- why should we take them seriously? Suppose that
God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others -- if a command to
torture a child was never an option -- then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

He also gets very Lakoff-ian about the moral left-right divide: libs focus on fairness, convervos focus on authority and yadda-yadda.

There's a lot about us human beings that are hard-wired into our brains and our bodies. Love, for example, is completely biological, that doesn't mean it's not romantic or meaningful. I think that we in the West, and we in religion, have let this body-spirit divide go on for far too long. We need to reclaim the body and stop regarding it as secondary or superfluous to spirit, and, in that same vein (literally) stop letting the body run the show of the mind by ignoring all the influences that it does have on how we think.

I've been considering the concept lately that we can't get to the spirit unless we go through the body. Maybe that's a reason for the Incarnation.

Also on Talk of the Nation there was a discussion about the "Child-Man" -- you know, the 26-year-old guy who lives in a ratty house with his buddies and plays X-Box all day who may or may not be employed. You usually see these guys featured prominently on Judd Apatow movies. Neil Conan talked with a woman who wrote an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News called "The Child-Man" where she takes these guys to task for not being "grown-ups." They talked a bit on the radio about how the Child-Man might be a reaction to feminism, which created new roles for women and men are reacting to those roles. They act that way, she says, because we let them. Now it's time for them to start acting like adults -- husbands, fathers, good jobs, mortgage, nice lawn.

Give me a crappin' break.

How is creating such a tightly defined role for men any different that creating tightly defined roles for women that revolved around wife, mother, good helpmeet, nice clean house, etc.? Wouldn't we feminists be all up in arms if someone tried to decide what it is to be an adult woman? What it is to be acceptable? I started leaving those ideas behind me a loooong time ago. My house is a pit, I'm opting out of motherhood, and while I love my husband and will be with him forever, I'm not really happy with the idea of "marriage." I create my own ideas of being a woman. I do this because I let me. And I'm happy about it.

Maybe the whole "Child-Man" thing is young men reacting against the very idea this author is trying to pigeonhole them into, that there is one definition of being a man, that society has a tendency to determine a man's worth by his paycheck and material goods than by his heart, his personality, his inner self. Maybe they're in the process of throwing off the old patriarchal shackles that imprisoned/imprisons and hurt them as much as it did/does us and creating a new definition of manhood. The world has changed, women have changed, but men are still pushed into these old, archaic roles. Maybe it's time for new definitions.

(Also, quite honestly, there really seems like a whole "The guy I want to marry refuses to marry me and only wants to play Wii all the time! How can I make him into what I want?" thing going on. Jeez, life's too short to try to remake a guy into what you want to marry. Here's a hint -- don't go out with that guy. Or, if you do and you love him, love all of him. Encourage him to do what he really wants to do, what will really make him happy. That'll help make him the real man that he is inside. And get real, women who have this kind of contempt for men have always considered them to be nothing more than children anyway: "He can't survive a day without me, look he can't dress himself, he'd be nothing if I weren't behind me." This "Child-Man" thing is just saying it out loud in the worst, snarkiest way.)

I think society is what needs to grow up, and not these guys. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a nice steady job, but if your guy has one and he's a good companion to you, who gives a damn if he PlayStations and drinks beer in his free time? Hell, so would I if I had the game system. Scoot over, guys, give me the Wii-mote. I'll join you.


drlobojo said...

"They act that way, she says, because we let them. Now it's time for them to start acting like adults -- husbands, fathers, good jobs, mortgage, nice lawn."

She forgot to mention, ATV's, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, boats, ski's, snowboards, big useless four wheel drive SUVs that go to the mountains once a year. The Child man is in everyone of us. Some have more money than others. Some have more ego than others. Not to mention that women would rather go it alone that marry some their choices.
It has been my experience that it is the woman who decides which man she will have, not the other way around.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

On the whole body-soul thing - yeah, it's gone so far that I had a far-right Christian insist that sexual desire, and its fulfillment is wholly selfish.

Without getting too personal, I can honestly say that some of the most spiritual moments I have ever had have involved the satisfaction of sexual desire with a person for whom I have had a deep emotional attachment. Those moments are transcendent, eternal.

We cannot be who we are without being embodied, and that includes being spiritual. Spirituality either encompasses our wholeness as integral physical creatures, or it is a truncated spirituality. So, yes, there is a deep spirituality about sexual desire. There is also a spirituality about eating. There is a spiritual dimension to those long portions of a day spent in the dull, mundane tasks of work, driving to the gas station, brushing our teeth, even (I would argue) the less seemly activities our bodies force upon us. Unless we are willing to be, whole, and completely, ourselves, we are not ready to call ourselves children of God.

On the whole morality thing and the question of whether or not it is "hardwired" in to us, I would suggest a more nuanced interpretation would be to say the tendency towards defining certain acts as within and others outside the accepted boundaries of human behavior is hardwired in to us. How those boundaries are drawn, however, becomes a function of accidents of birth. Headhunting societies, worshipers of Kali, and others whose spiritual journeys take them to a darker place nonetheless have a consistent ethical and moral vision. It is not one I could ever accept or live by; all the same, I can understand it, and see them as fellow human beings.

The God gambit is a convenient way of refusing to face up to the responsibilities entailed in living an ethical and moral life.

By the way, God did ask one person to torture a child - in Genesis, Abraham was called by the LORD to sacrifice Isaac on an altar on a site that became the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Mt. Moriah (whence my older daughter's name). While the text in Genesis says that the LORD did this to test Abraham - wow, what a test. You know what? That's a test I would want to fail.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

As for the Child-Man thing, I heard a recent report - I think on NPR - about how our society is extending childhood, such that both young men and women are delaying marriage and child-bearing even more than in the recent past. I don't think it's just slacker guys with a Wii controller in one hand and a hash pipe in the other; it's also young women with career on their minds as well.

HapaThealogy said...

Drlobojo -- hah, it's a perspective thing. Reasonable people choose each other, but I know plenty of romantic stalkers. Makes me very glad I'm reasonably married.

Goeff: I think you're referring to the report I'm referencing, and it is both, but the woman was picking on the guys. I hate bullies and that opinion is definately bullying.

I carried around an opinion last semester that God was a thug, after working my way through Genesis. We had an interesting time in class theorizing that the reason Sarah disappears from the story at around that time is she dropped dead after watching her men go off, sure that her son would never return. Not too far off.

And you're right about brushing teeth. It can be spiritual if you do it right. Not so flossing ...

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

In reference to God as bully in Genesis, I recall the most contentious discussion my OT survey class held, lo these 17 years ago now. It was on precisely the topic of the sacrifice of Isaac. The text in Genesis famously prefaces the call of the LORD to Abraham to murder his only (legitimate) child, with the announcement that this was a way the LORD was testing Abraham's faith. The professor kept pushing back against all those who insisted that Abraham was aware that the LORD was only testing him, etc., etc. I spoke up and said that all we have to go on is what it says; Abraham's faith apparently included human sacrifice to this God that had called him from Ur and sent him and his family all over the Levant in search of a new home.

I often hear discussions, based upon Paul's reading of Genesis as he relates it in Romans, of Abraham's faith being demonstrated in his leaving his ancestral lands at the call of this LORD. Hebrews, also, references this as a demonstration of Abraham's faith. For me, however, it is this scene, this call and response that demonstrates Abraham's faith far more.

Does anyone have that kind of faith? Would anyone want that kind of faith? A question to keep a parent awake at night. . .

HapaThealogy said...


Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Shudder, indeed.

Please don't laugh when I quote Stephen King, but at the end of The Stand, King's attempt to wrestle with the fundamentalist religion of his childhood, he has one of the main characters muse on the implications of the twin horrors of a plague that wipes out 99.9% of the world, and a spiritual standoff and confrontation between the forces of good and evil. Asked his opinion of the demand for sacrifice, Stuart Redman says that God is soaked in blood, human blood, including that of his Son. Yet, there seems to be no explanation for it other than that it is.

The first time I read this line, it struck me as absurd. Yet, is it? We are called to self-denial - even to the point of self-sacrifice - and so, I wonder. In this context, how do we explain the last-minute reprieve Isaac receives? Is the ritual sacrifice of animals in ancient Hebrew religion nothing more than an attempt to end human sacrifice? Is the theology of the cross merely substituting a human person, returning to the source, as it were?

These thoughts are occurring to me as I write, to be honest, and they are leading me to places that frighten me. Yet, I do think they are in need of exploration. There is a dark side to the whole story of Jesus and his seeming death wish; while we tend to wrap it up with a transcendent Easter story, in which (as we intone in the Easter liturgy) that now even death is swallowed up in victory, we say this without wrestling with the fact that death is still a requirement.

I think I'll stop now. I'm freaking myself out.

HapaThealogy said...

Geoff, The Stand is probably one of the book I'd make required reading for most of the world. People dismiss Stephen King as just a horror writer, but he's very astute. The man's a deep thinker, and he thinks as scarily about God as he does about human nature. Have you read Cain Rose Up in Skeleton Crew? God's a meat-eater, in whatever form the flesh takes.

Lent was always a scary time for me because I clued in to the clamor for death and it freaked me out. Picture, if you will, sweet six-year-old me in church on Palm Sunday, staring up at a bloody crucifix while the congregation around me chants "crucify him, crucify him, let his blood be on our hands." I started getting hives every Lenten season and couldn't go to church until Easter, well into my high school years. To this day I view atonment theology with distaste that borders on revulsion. I just can't go there.

But these are human understandings of God, they're the best way we've gotten at the divine. I guess I'm systematic/process in my theology, that it bugs me that we stopped at these understandings millenia ago and always try to re-root them there, at least those are the popular theologies.
I favor the post-modern/post-colonial, contextual ones, that focus more on the relationship/love between God and Jesus (and by extension, humanity) than on the death. I think that it's not God that requires death and sacrifice, but us, and even if scripture is divinely inspired, it's still our meaty hand holding the pen. God's between the lines and in the margins. I like to think the more we know about who we are as humans, the more we'll be able to figure out which is human understanding and which is divine revelation.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I have every book King published, except Carrie. "Cain Rose Up" is one of my favorite stories of his, because of the quiet insanity of the man involved. I think the reference to his roommate, "Piggy", is a sly reference to Lord of the Flies. The Stand actually gave me my first steps on my journey back to belief in God, but that is for a post on my own blog. . .

As for alternative theologies, I would agree with you to an extent. Yet, we still have this dangerous root source material. I think it important not to dismiss it as primitive syncretism. That is the happy hubris of the comfortable bourgeoisie (if you can't guess, there's a lot of Marxism in my background). How do we not know that this view of God as demanding death is not more true to what God asks of us? After all, the essence of it is still there in the demand of "death to self" that has existed in Christian tradition since the beginning. Even the celebration of martyrdom among Third World Christians, and left-wing First World Christians who celebrate the memories of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Archbishop Romero is a celebration of their willingness to embrace death for the sake of God.

I am a Wesleyan in my approach to faith. This means, for me, an approach that emphasizes the mystery of grace, and the way grace is the center point of God's relationship with humanity. Yet, it also emphasizes the demands of the disciplined Christian life. I am not saying we should chuck ideas of self-sacrifice and self-denial. I think we need to examine their roots more clearly, and more honestly, and not allow ourselves to be lulled in to thinking that earlier expressions are so limited as to be dismissed.

This is why I linked to you. This has been the best, most fruitful theological discussion I have had in years. Thank you.