23 January 2007

How political feminism validates the hierarchical model

(OK, that's glib. But - made you look!)

A recent article in "Books and Culture," (January/February 2007, Vol. 13, No. 1, Page 28) is entitled, "On Slippery Slopes, the Blogosphere, and (oh yes) Women". In it, Susan Wise Bauer responds to the outcry following her review of a book:
I haven't come out against the Trinity or the bodily resurrection. I remarked on my blog how much I liked John Stackhouse's new book Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender.

This fairly mild pronouncement got highlighted on Gender-News.com, which published a headline story announcing that "many evangelicals may have been blindsided" by my blog entry, and quoted Randy Stinson of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as saying, "She is undermining biblical authority by holding her current position on the gender issue."
In the rest of the piece, Bauer seems to try to defend her positive review of his book, while somehow convincing people that the charge of "undermining biblical authority" cannot be true.

Well, I'm not convinced.
Women and homosexuals: they're inextricably linked all across the evangelical cosmos. Al Mohler writes that "feminism must necessarily be joined to the homosexual agenda." Egalitarian thinking, says Rick Philips on Reformation 21, "launches its adherents onto the slippery slope: by following this principle one cannot fail to end up endorsing homosexual unions." Ligon Duncan insists that as soon as the PCUSA approved the ordination of women, it had already "decided the issue of homosexual ordination."
With our love for condensation and distillation and shorthand - "blogging" for "posting to a web log," for example - the use of "homosexual" tends to get abbreviated to the word itself, which is too easily understood as "the person of homosexual orientation." That makes people mad, and rightly so: it's inaccurate, and unfair.

What is meant by "the issue of homosexual ordination" is not "we don't like homosexuals and won't have them around us." The issue is more accurately stated as, "Paul was explicit in his condemnation of homosexual acts, following a long tradition of explicit condemnation of homosexual acts in the Old Testament. Are we going to have a minister who upholds what Paul said, or not? If not, where do we draw the line? Do we want to get into those kinds of discussions in church, or do we want to worship without mental reservations?" And, in virtually all cases of which I'm aware, churches have no objection to ordaining celibate homosexuals. Churches which want to live according to the plain words of Scripture will bar from their pulpits those who engage in homosexual acts and are determined to teach and preach their acceptability in spite of the clear words of Scripture. They will also bar from their pulpits heterosexuals who violate the teachings of Scripture they are supposed to honor by example as well as with their words. It isn't about sex, but integrity. It's like helping out at Republican headquarters while actively campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Cognitive dissonance, and all that.

Now, since the Scriptures contain admittedly inconvenient teachings about sexual morality, it is a very human, albeit childish, tactic to simply ignore the unpleasant bits and enjoy the rest. However, this has a predictable effect. That's why this paragraph made me laugh in astonishment:
As a defense of the Bible, this is very peculiar. If allowing women to be ordained will destroy the authority of Scripture, why doesn't the slippery slope argument go, "Ordain women, and Christ's bodily resurrection will be the next thing to go," or, "Ordain women, and we may have to relinquish our belief in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of the sins, and the life everlasting"?
Um, Ms. Bauer ...? Excuse me, but that's already happened, and quite a long time ago. How about if you get up to speed on some of the jaw-droppingly heterodox and/or pantheistic and/or monist statements coming out of Episcopal leadership these days, and get back to us.
There's a political reality underlying this particular line of argument that has little to do with Scripture. Egalitarianism shares some its premises with political feminism, a movement which originated in the 1970s and which (as Stackhouse points out) is blamed by many conservative Christians for "a wide range of social pathologies," including promiscuity, "depression of wages" (brought on by too many women in the workplace), the phenomenon of latchkey children, a rise in divorce, and hatred of Christianity.

Whether or not political feminism is responsible for all the ills laid at its door,...
Unfortunately, this is a huge topic, and while there is room for nearly endless debate about whether political feminism is a cause or a symptom, it's a bit off-putting to have her use the written equivalent of a dismissive wave of the hand.
...this much is undeniable: as political feminism matured, it lent its language and much of its agenda to the growing gay rights movement. Politically, gay rights did build on the women's rights movement, just as women's rights had built on the civil rights movement of earlier decades.
Uh-oh... I sense where this is going. And the way she states that, it sounds like women's rights came out of the civil rights movement... instead of the cause of women's rights hitching a ride on the civil rights movement to gain traction and credibility by painting women as an oppressed minority.

But let us persevere ... here (at last) is The Point she is trying to make:
[The civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, and the gay rights movement] are secular political movements. Their task has been to figure out how a wildly diverse population can co-exist in a democracy, a secular political entity which theoretically gives every citizen an equal voice. They mix the good and the just (women should be paid equal wages for equal work; homosexuals should not be fired or assaulted because of their sexual preference) with the unholy and un-scriptural. But since when do secular political movements provide a model for the church?

This is, unfortunately, not a rhetorical question. Plenty of churches are democracies, which is not necessarily a scriptural model. Plenty of churches have adopted other elements of American political structure, more or less uncritically. To those who argue that, in some denominations, the ordination of women has led to the open acceptance of homosexuality, I would agree that this is indeed a real phenomenon. It has occurred because, in those denominations, the church has completely lost sight of the fact that it is supposed to be the gathered people of God, a counterculture which lives apart from the power-structures of the world.

When a church moves from egalitarianism to an open rejection of the biblical teachings on sexuality, hordes of conservative theologians ought to post essays on their blogs about why we shouldn't model ourselves on the world. They ought to argue that the church shouldn't be adopting secular political modes of leadership, including elections and Robert's Rules of Order. They ought to point out that the power structures of the church are supposed to be entirely different than those of American politics.
I hadn't thought of that before. I think she's right. And I think - perhaps inadvertently - she has, with that paragraph, validated the historic structure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which has always seen the clear difference between its modes of governing its realm and the secular techniques for achieving civilized cooperation.

(These days there is always the specter of The Scandal lurking behind any consideration of the Roman Catholic system of self-government. Whatever one's position or conclusions, I think it's fair to say that The Scandal was due more to intemperate and unwise changes to spiritual and religious practice after Vatican II, and to the appalling choices made by bishops who did not deal appropriately with problems when they became aware of them, than to the structure of the Roman Catholic church per se.)

I think Ms. Bauer's point about church governance is valid. I think she has a long way to go in her development as a critic, though, because she got waylaid along the way by all sorts of tempting side-trails, and that's where she ran into trouble, in my opinion. Her observation about church government was valid, and interesting. I believe she should have left the rhetoric and inflammatory logic to the author. He may be able to wade into those battles and win; she cannot, yet.

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