Talking about Transgenderism 2: “Ew”

Talking about Transgenderism

In the first of a series of posts on this topic, I address some things that don’t change, here.

Moral philosophers and psychologists discuss a profound influence on the act of making moral judgements, an influence which is pervasive, convincing, and irrational: the phenomenon the literature calls “disgust.” Everyone knows the experience of whiffing rotten milk or witnessing crude behavior. There are experiences that just make you say “Ew!” In some cases, we then attach moral weight to that feeling. The problem is that this powerful intuitive sense isn’t always right. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to explain why it triggers us the way it does.

Consider a series of examples:

  1. Eating bugs. Normalized in many cultures of the world and arguably good for the global environment, many of us get squeamish at the idea of ingesting creepy crawlies, even cooked.
  2. Eating synthetic meat. Scientists can, in a lab, grow a steak. Using cells of a living animal and a regenerative stimulant, scientists can recreate this dietary staple, and do so in a way that neutralizes much of the concern about cruelty to animals. But given the choice, many (even non-vegetarian) people are too turned off by the idea to give up the real thing.
  3. Eating synthetic human. Think this through. #2 can be replicated with a swab of the cells of a human cheek. No one dies, and there’s nothing fundamentally unhealthy about it, but scientists could plausibly create edible human matter. See? That’s the feeling of disgust you’re having right now. Such an idea is, and I’m carefully choosing the scientific term here, super-gross, and I’m never going to try it, but it’s hard to explain morally why it would have to be morally wrong.

So what is that phenomenon of disgust that we feel? Being overpoweringly revulsed by something feels a lot like a moral intuition, but if one tries to discern a moral principle that lies behind the feeling of disgust, or the moral facts that disgust identifies, it’s hard to pin them down. That’s because there aren’t any. Disgust alone is not a moral radar.

Disgusting Research

Jonathan Haidt, professor at New York University, has been studying disgust for decades. In The Righteous Mind (2012), Haidt identifies six different loci of moral decision making, and one of them he calls “purity.” We make moral decisions about what we think is pure. From a sense for purity comes the reaction of disgust. He and other evolutionary psychologists trace a sense of disgust back to a survival-instinct’s self-protection against pathogens, but over time it has been transferred to a moral inclination to protect the social order. Haidt has developed the “Disgust Scale,” an instrument for measuring to what degree individuals experience disgust (spoiler alert: we don’t all experience it to the same degree or at the same things). He says, curiously, that feelings of disgust are stronger in people who vote conservatively rather than liberally.

Discussing Disgust

Disgust is a good indicator of one thing – it tells you how you relate to a subject. I dislike bugs…deeply. I feel it whenever I see one in the bathroom and call out for my wife or children to come and kill it. I am perfectly willing to endure the household ridicule as long as I don’t have to touch bugs. What disgust is not a good indicator of is the moral worth of the subject. God made bugs, and for all I know, loves them. I can’t see how, but maybe. They certainly aren’t evil, even the ones that look like they crawled out of hell (to take up lodging in my bathroom). Disgust doesn’t tell me anything about the value of the thing in itself, only the nature of my relationship to it.

It’s also entirely possible to be disgusted by something that is actually morally wrong. There really is a sense of propriety that we develop, and violations of it will set off our disgust alarm. Some of this comes from the psychologically healthy, genetically encoded inclination towards empathy which makes us dislike seeing someone else being unjustly hurt. We may be disgusted by injustice. But the moral wrongfulness of someone being unjustly hurt is something that can be explained rationally on moral principles; it doesn’t rest on negative feelings alone. If anything, the negative emotions are a healthy trigger that make us investigate the moral value of a state of affairs, but they can’t be left on their own to answer the question.

Think about ways that disgust goes wrong or is inconsistent:

  1. Watching an autopsy can make one feel totally disgusted, but scientific research on cadavers has made vast contributions to medicine.
  2. It’s not that long ago in American history that people responded with disgust to interracial marriages. In certain cultures today, romantic relationships across social castes are met with disgust.
  3. People with OCD, especially fixated on cleanliness, feel disgust at things and to degrees that a healthy person would not.
  4. A 1997 study (by Rozin) of vegetarians shows higher feelings of disgust towards meat among vegetarians motivated by ethics than among those motivated by health concerns.

In sum, disgust alone can’t lay a moral foundation.

Transgenderism, Disgust, and Morality

The relevance of the phenomenon of disgust to the discussion of transgenderism is that disgust (or choose a term that suggests a milder aversion – any feeling that it must be wrong without a rational grounding) is that this feeling doesn’t get to cast a deciding vote on the issue. If, for the Christian, transgenderism is a moral issue, it can’t be a moral issue based on feelings of squeamishness. Nor can a thinker with any integrity try to craft a rationale around the feeling to justify it; any moral argument must stand independent of feelings of unease.

This is not to suggest that everyone who deems elective gender transitioning immoral is motivated by feelings without rationale (I’m going to move on in other posts to look at those rationale). But some are. For some people, the whole idea of gender transition just feels weird and wrong. I’m trying to sweep this mistake out of the way before we get to the heart of the issue.

Issues of gender and sexuality are often linked to intense feelings, social mores, guilt, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and the like, and it’s hard to get through that river of emotion to do the hard work of moral reasoning. But the truth is, when we talk about people with gender dysphoria, we’re talking about people who are made by God and loved by God, and they deserve that difficult river-crossing. We owe this slim minority of people, a fraction of one percent, the compassion it takes not to condemn them to silence and alienation, abuse and suicide. For the Christian, whatever moral conclusions we draw on the issue, it’s not enough to feel disgusted and walk away. We have to get past those feelings to ask what is really right and wrong and how we know.

“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” – Luke 7:39

Talking about Transgenderism

Talking about Transgenderism

I had a first-in-a-lifetime experience this week. I got together with a circle of other pastors and we talked about transgenderism and the church’s approach to people who experience gender dysphoria, the experience of being uncomfortable with one’s own gender. I have things to share on the topic, but not in this post. In this post, I want to talk about talking about it.

I sat in a circle of other pastors who don’t necessarily agree on the issue, what it means, what the Bible says about it, and how churches should address it. We questioned each other, debated a bit, talked about what Jesus said and would say. We prayed together. We weren’t trying to come to a final agreement between ourselves; we were trying to understand each other. We agreed that the church historically has been horrible to minority groups, outsiders, people whose lives were held questionable by society at large – basically everyone Jesus associated with. We agreed that we don’t want to contribute to that horror. There was no risk that any of us were going to stop talking to each other when it was over. We weren’t going to rule anyone a heretic or begin an excommunication trial. I’m so deeply thankful for these committed leaders who were willing to think, pray, and be gracious together. I cherish them. I hope that the tone we set together grows increasingly normative for conversations of its kind.

One thing I noted when we were done, after more that 90 minutes of talk, was that if a small group of theologically-trained friends took a lot of work to simply begin a conversation on such a weighty topic, it’s hardly imaginable what that conversation is going to look like spread over a congregation, much less a society, much less a globe.

While Christians continue to stumble along trying to talk about ethics in the abstract, minority groups continue to live lives of isolation and silence, abuse and suicide. Before we even get to sorting out the hard subjects, should it not be quickly obvious that the only way for Christians to talk to each other, and anyone else, is from a deep reservoir of love for all of God’s children? Shouldn’t that come first? When you follow the one who taught that we should not only love our neighbors, but love our enemies, not only our own kin, but prostitutes, adulterers, traitors, diverse ethnicities, and people who hurt us, how can you approach people with anything but love? There should be no question from the public that the last place you would find someone eager to throw rocks at you would be church. And yet, that’s exactly what people have come to expect from churches. And aren’t they often right?

For all of the panicked declarations echoing out of the stained glass windows about what a flaming dumpster society has become, it might be time for Christians to realize that a significant contribution to the public’s disinterest in the church’s prescription for a better world is the demeaning tone in which it has been preached. The world would be better off with more of Jesus, and a primary obstacle to that is his followers’ callous misrepresentation of him.

I remember talking to a self-declared atheist who nonetheless attended church events. I asked her why. She replied, “They’re Christians. They like you anyway.” The day could come when everyone thinks the same.

Six Signs of Calling

 

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When I’m seeking to discern what God is calling me to, there are a few biblically-based signs that tell me really clearly that I’m on the right path.  For anyone who is searching for a job, praying over a move, or considering a significant change, these are worth reviewing.

The places to which we are called usually involve these six factors.

  1. Joy: Calling brings you joy.  Jesus said that he promises us abundant life.  The guy who turned water into wine at a wedding isn’t amassing an army of the miserable. (John 2:1-12, John 10:10)
  2. Service: While calling brings us joy, it’s something that we do to make the world a better place, and specifically to love other people.  This ensures that the joy calling brings us is not merely selfishness, and that we don’t gain the world only to lose our souls. (Mt. 16:24-27)
  3. Gifting: Calling uses the gifts that God has given us.  Some people are made to be teachers, some to be administrators, some to heal and some to help.  Calling employs exactly that mix of tools that we carry in our belts.  It shows us that we were made for a purpose and that we serve a valuable role in the world. (1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12, Eph. 4)
  4. Inadequacy: Despite the fact that we may be gifted for calling, a true calling from God is always bigger than we could handle on our own.  God told Gideon to whittle down his army to the point that it was unwise to enter into battle, and that inadequacy served to prevent Gideon from taking credit when he actually won. (Jdg. 7)
  5. Confirmation: The community around you, the people who know you best, ought to confirm that you’re on the right path.  Our friends sometimes know us better than we know ourselves.  To forge ahead when everyone around us tells us we’re on the wrong path is foolhardy.  It’s exactly like dating.  When friends tell someone that she’s dating the wrong guy, the friends are always right.  She may say, “You just don’t know him like I do.  He told me that when he plays video games all day, he’s only thinking of me.” But the friends can see the situation objectively, and if the friends say, “no,” the friends know what they’re talking about. (Gal. 2:1-3)
  6. Commitment: Nonetheless, calling is that thing you’re going to do no matter what.  Even if no one around you confirmed it, it’s that thing you can’t live without doing.  There is a church denomination that used to ask its pastoral candidates one final question before they could be ordained.  After batteries of tests, exams, theological essays, and psychological interviews, the last question each candidate was asked was, “If we told you we wouldn’t ordain you, what would you do?” There was only one acceptable answer, and every candidate was expected to say the same thing in a sort of litany.  “I’ll preach it anyway,” was the correct response.  Calling is like that.  I’ll do it no matter what. (Gal. 1:11-17)

So those are the six criteria I use to evaluate whether or not I’m on the right path as I pursue my calling.  As you can see, they exist in three pairs, and each of the two members of each pair stand in tension with one another: joy but service, gifts but inadequacy, confirmation but commitment.  It’s in exactly that tension that calling seems to balance.  I’ve encouraged a lot of people to pray over these six things when they make decisions.  I’d encourage you to as well, or share it with a friend who is making big decisions.

 

 

2019, Six Signs of Calling, James W. Miller

The Letter and the Spirit

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The contemporary American Church has forgotten itself, both the letter and the Spirit.

There are three contending voices in the modern Church concerning the letter, concerning the role of Scripture in the Church.  First, the letter has been lost among modern megachurches who forego exegesis to such a degree that it is not clear how, if at all, the Bible undergirds the proclamation of the church.  The text is at most a theme upon which the pastor riffs, a pastor whose voice trumps that of Scripture.  His tone and content need not reflect those of the letter; the Bible is there only as a source of material among the many anecdotes from the pastor’s family life, his sporting loves, and illustrations clearly mined from some website.  Were one to only learn the Bible from these pastors, one might reasonably assume the book is a practical guide to successful work and marriage, a therapeutic relief to stress and anxiety, and a promise of material rewards that are just around the corner.

I listened to a great big pastor in a great big church not long ago who said he “had enough people in the cheap seats.” It was time for serious discipleship, he insisted.  His only text for the next 45 minutes was John 3:16, which he read and then never mentioned to again.  I came to realize that the reference to the cost of the seats was meant to point out that many people attended but didn’t tithe.

These churches have largely surpassed and replaced the second voice, the dying stream of liberal Protestantism which practiced a sleight-of-hand exegesis, using the Bible, but only so as to give the educated the clergy the opportunity to cleverly reveal that it didn’t mean what it seemed to say.  Mainline Protestantism is now settling into a well-deserved retirement.

Third, the last refuge of the Bible is American fundamentalism.  Unfortunately, what we find here tends to be the people who know the words but not the meaning.  They want to debate how long were the days of creation and whether or not life could have evolved, just as their predecessors were energized against the heliocentric universe.  Here, conversation is consumed by creed.  They read the Bible, but only so they can weaponize it.

We’ve forgotten that the Bible is God’s word, and thus it’s worth learning.  We’ve forgotten that it’s living and active, rather than static and dogmatic.

Likewise, the Church has forgotten the Spirit.  The early church spread for one reason – Jesus was a wonder-worker.  People weren’t traveling for miles to hear a good speaker; they were coming to see paralytics walk.  People weren’t praying to make themselves feel better; they were praying because someone was answering back.  They were sufficiently convinced that God was present that they gave away their money with reckless abandon.  Honestly, what might it take for you to do something like that?  It takes a miracle.

I envision a church of the letter and the Spirit, where we embrace the Scriptures enough to care about what they say to us, and the way they say it.  I envision a church where miracles come to be as natural as they are super.  And I don’t think any of this is unreasonable or far-fetched.  I think this is what Jesus meant from the very beginning.

Christian Persecution in 2019

The bombings in Sri Lankan churches that killed over 300 people, claimed by ISIS and said to intentionally target Christians in response to mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, bring a moment’s attention to a horrifying underlying trend.  The persecution of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.  According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog group:

  • 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution today
  • 345 Christians are killed each month for faith-related reasons
  • Christian women generally face the worst of it
  • China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, have bad records for human rights violations against Christians
  • Reported incidents of the persecution of Christians in the first half of 2019 are already higher than they were in 2018

The Wall Street Journal reports an exodus of Christians out of Egypt, as Muslim persecution of this minority grows, and the Christian population of Egypt in the last hundred years has shrunk from 15% to 9%.

Why the increase is a fair question.  Surely it doesn’t have to rise.  One would hope that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, all forms of persecution would wane.  An increases worldwide speaks of a trend, and trends have causes.

I have a suggestion.

The world of philosophy and its ideas are hotly contested in the University.  Some people think of it as nothing more than intellectual banter, but history says otherwise.  Ideas propagate themselves from the University and through a culture, and ideas lead to actions, belief spawns behavior.  Marx’s ideas about the oppression of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to the birth of new political regimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the hands of tyrants.  What started as philosophy made its way to warfare.  Likewise, Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest profoundly influenced Frederick Nietzsche, who chided Christianity for protecting the weak.  The weak should be put aside, he said.  Only power and genius should be allowed to thrive.  Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, took over his estate as he fell to mental illness, and she promoted his works.  As Nietzsche’s praise of power was taught in the German universities, the Nazis would take it on wholesale as an ideology.  Nietzsche’s work was so influential on the Nazi regime that Hitler attended Elizabeth’s funeral.  They agreed, the weak should be put aside.  There are dozens of other examples of how ivory tower ideas later carry worldwide influence.

Now, what have philosophers and academicians been saying about Christianity recently?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a group of boisterous and condescending intellectuals began propagating atheist literature in the public sphere.  They had absolutely no new ideas to promote – most of their work was panned by their peers.  What was new was the absolute ire with which they approached their subject.  There has rarely been such a concerted mockery of religious people as this circle put together.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has been perhaps the most sardonic.  He refers to dawkinsthe God of the Bible as “the most malevolent bully in all of fiction” and he calls religion “a kind of mental illness.” He says God is “about as likely as the tooth fairy.” Anyone who has been to a secular American university knows that these types of taunt are taken up wholesale by the average sophomore, and Christian students are often mocked into a defensive silence.

It’s been over 12 years since Dawkins began his public attack on religion.  It’s been reported that his book has sold over 3 million copies, relatively small for the planet’s population.  However, the unofficial Arabic pdf of the book has been downloaded 13 million times.  (Arabic is the language of the Quran.)

Now, one could suggest that the book’s popularity in Arabic comes from a number of different impulses – curious, defensive, etc. – none of which have to do with the persecution of Christians.  But I want to suggest that there is a growing side effect of the treatment of Christianity in the American University.  As the American culture becomes visibly less supportive of its religious bodies, those who see Christianity as a rival become all the more empowered to act out against it.  If Christianity is ridiculed in America, it’s unlikely that the financial strength of America’s institutions is likely to be leveraged to make a difference in its defense overseas.  Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, church membership in America had dropped over the last two decades from 70% to around 50%.  There are simply fewer Christians pleading and speaking out for their brothers and sisters who are minority groups elsewhere in the world.  Here, Christianity remains an open target of public ridicule in a way that other religions are exempt from.

If the public voices of the University consider Christianity a fair and easy target for mockery (and no, they don’t give equal time to insulting Islam and Judaism), it’s easy to see that those will be propagated through the culture and ultimately be expressed in the form of action, specifically, action against Christians.  A dozen years of vicious attacks on Christianity may be paying off in the form of growing persecution.

Given its general uselessness as a contribution to intellectual exploration and inquiry, it might be fair to ask whether the open mockery of Christianity coming from public intellectuals ought not to be considered hate speech.  That seems the most apt description.

Dressed for Heaven

-excerpted from “It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church”

I discovered that the work of justice still needed to take place in my life when I was questioned by a Black friend of mine.  “What’s the experience of being White in America?” he asked me.

I shrugged.  “I’ve never thought about it.”

“That’s the experience of being White in America,” he told me.

320px-Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_edit.jpgI can now answer the question.  The experience of being White in America is comfortable apathy.  It’s not necessarily malice or stereotyping.  It’s the mere disregard for the fact that you are benefiting from a system which disadvantages others.  The sense of nonchalance in the face of the struggle of a minority, the passive negligence of the other who must work against tougher odds, is the modern face of racism.  We may not have separate bathrooms, but we still have separate possibilities.

Justice is that outward movement of love from a simple compassion for others towards a determination to create compassionate systems and structures.  Love seeks to build a home for the homeless.  Justice seeks to stop future generations from experiencing homelessness.  The blueprint of heaven is not merely for an individualized faith that makes one a better person.  It is a plan for a better world.

Justice means living as though by a set of laws no one else has read.  Becoming a citizen of a new kingdom means living by the laws of that kingdom, even it if is still only a kingdom to come.  It is when employment is free of gender bias, when education is free of political slant, when relationships are founded in respect, society is awash with civility, and classism gives way to abundant generosity that it becomes clear the kingdom of heaven is infecting the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus told us to look for signs of it – that the lame would walk, the blind would see, and the deaf would hear.  Is it any less supernatural when unjustly shackled are free to run, the prejudicially blind are awakened to clarity, and the apathetically deaf become compassionate?  These are the signs that the kingdom under construction is coming to be.

The call of Christians is to begin to live by the rules of the kingdom that is to come instead of by the rules of the kingdoms we’ve inherited.

Standing in the Chicago airport, I was bundled in multiple sweaters, coats, and undershirts.  I had been summoned to be a groomsman in a frigid January wedding (for which I never forgave the groom).  I couldn’t wait to get back to my home in Hawaii.  Standing across the terminal from me was an older couple dressed in matching aloha wear, which, in Hawaii, is the equivalent of writing “tourist” on your forehead.  I couldn’t resist walking up to them and asking, “So where you headed?”

They almost shouted, “We’re going to Hawaii!” Of course they were, and everything about them said that they were, from their audacious outfits to their beaming smiles.  They knew where they were going, and they couldn’t wait to get there, so much so that they had already dressed for it.  They dressed themselves in such a way that no one could miss what they were doing, even if someone might be prompted to make fun of them.  And making fun of them wouldn’t have dampened their spirits, because their destination was just that appealing.

Shouldn’t it be that way with the people of heaven?  Shouldn’t we be so dressed for our destination that no one could miss it, so excited about our travels that it just oozes out of us?  The kingdom of heaven is so compelling that we can’t wait till we get there; we have to start living it here.

A Mess of Metaphors

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First published in Sunday U Magazine.

Most church conflict is not about worship styles, theological affiliations, or carpet color.  Most church fights are about metaphors.

Everyone has an operating metaphor for what the church is supposed to be.  Some think it should be a cruise ship, where the staff offer stellar customer service and glittering performances.  Some expect it to be a classroom, whose primary purpose is to instill a hearty theology in the minds of the students.  More than a few want a circle of wagons that keep them safe from the evils of post-Christian culture.  Some just want a punch clock that they use at Christmas and Easter to check in.  Whatever the preferred analogy, most people have one, and that frames all of their expectations for the church.  Nothing is more disorienting than a new pastor who comes to town with a fresh, vision-inspiring metaphor that isn’t the one the last pastor preached.

One of the biggest conflicts in churches in the 20th century came when….

Read the rest here.