Buffered and porous sexuality

Buffered and porous sexuality

There is no easy way to talk about what I’m about to mention, even anonymous I’m trying to be light on the personal details of the issue. Yet recently I’ve been challenged by my view of sex as one that is arguably sub-Christian. I think my view is one that many Christians in and in a way many outside the Church share, to the Churches shame. That is one in which we have essentially sundered the link between sex and new life. Procreation has become an opt-in measure, not the natural by-product of sex and this is as much a change of the mind as a change in our bodies and practices.

For years I realised that I had come to view sex as something in and of itself to no absolute end. I held marriage as the natural and right place for such a thing but sex within that was about shared union and mutual enjoyment, not life. Biologically I knew what was meant to take place, but I was also aware of the barriers we had put in place to stop biology taking its natural course. The reason deep down was economic and arguably selfish. We told ourselves we could not afford children and wanted to pursue careers and lifestyles that were not possible as parents. We did not want the responsibility.

When we changed our mind on this my idea of sex changed too. It became scary, to be honest, it became something potent and powerful in a way which was bigger than either of us that was beyond our control. The idea of choosing this responsibility also seemed somewhat inane and cheaper than the idea of just embracing the fact that sex for many people in history was always like this. I realised, to use Charles Taylor’s terms that sex is an inherently ‘porous’ act and we had been living with a ‘buffered’ imitation of such things. That is not to denigrate ‘buffered’ sexuality but really to explain that ‘porous’ sexuality seemed so much more powerful. It changed you physically but it changed you in coming to terms, climbing and overcoming that mountain that parenthood presents. To choose it, to bottle it and put it on the shelf for a rainy day seems artificial and manufactured, not authentic in the same way.

We are emotionally invested in the choices we make, and we make them for our own reasons. Our autonomy is really important to us in today’s age and it is something taken from us with pregnancy. It follows its own course for good or bad and you cannot help but worry your way through it because it is in many ways out of your hands and totally in God’s. We are unwillingly dragged into becoming porous people for a time as life grows outside and yet within us. We are so desperate to bring a measure of control and agency over the whole experience but you realise in some ways pregnancy, like life, isn’t about you ultimately. You are a passenger as much as the child in a way. The fate of all of you on that journey is still, even today, uncertain. I feel uncomfortable writing about this, mainly because I am a man, sex doesn’t affect me in the same way as a woman. At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. This is arguably cultural as well as religious decline. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. To replace the generations that are now unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if they look at our culture and see it as impotent. Maybe this is too strong,

At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. This is arguably cultural as well as religious decline. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. To replace the working generations that are now unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if they look at our culture and see it as impotent. Maybe this is too strong, maybe not.

At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves in small ways. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. Even the church is loosening its sexual mores in the face of this. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. Faith isn’t the only thing that suffers from this but our culture too. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. That we need to replace the generational gaps in the labour market that lie unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if the new arrivals look at our culture and see it as impotent.

As a Protestant, I realise now maybe I sound more Catholic on this matter but I think they are right in this and we have simply no voice of any conviction on this. Yet I think, to be honest, this is the downside of having churches localised to a particular nation, culture or time. The ever-quotable G.K Chesterton once said that tradition is the democracy of the dead that refuses to be overthrown by those who happen to be living (paraphrased). Yet people say that something like 80% of Catholics use contraception in the West and I completely understand why. At the same time, however, I increasingly think that they are wrong to do so. Despite all the struggle and challenges, it might present to us. We want our lives to be safe, we want to be in control but that isn’t life as intended. Maybe this is naive but I’m wondering if the accepted societal wisdom isn’t right on this. I understand choice, I understand autonomy, but I also understand that this might be idolatry.

Pushed up into the world

Pushed up into the world

Over the last few years I’ve been noticing a particular shift in my beliefs. I don’t know why, because it isn’t intentional and it feels in many ways out of my control. What seems right or decent today is something I’m not sure the me a decade or even five years ago would necessarily agree with. A decade ago I was more ‘principled’ I believed in rights or values that were universal. I believed society should be organised along those rights and values applying them without consideration to all people. Yet in many ways whilst this is admirable I’ve increasingly seen such things enacted or enforced by those in authority, in power to pressure smaller groups, increasingly individuals, to fall in line. These principles don’t have to be popular they just have to be ‘right’ to those with the ability to enact change.

Today I increasingly see the value in community, in immediacy and the particular. That is an intrinsic part of being British, in our politics we don’t have a constitution like the US, we have a tradition. It’s not always for the ‘best’ but love it or hate it this is who we are, and if we don’t like it we acknowledge that and change it but we cannot forget who we are. This is why the blind insistence on ‘British values’ by politicians in trying to combat extremism is so asinine. The very attempt is an exercise in denigrating who we are by conjuring up vague, ahistorical and generalised principles that we should fall in line with. What is being British? In reality it has a great more to do with Tolkein’s ‘Hobbits’ than Parliament’s ‘Values’. Who we are is a particular thing more rooted in our history, culture, habits and language than any abstraction. Abstraction is what we have been seeing increasingly in the tail end and conception of the 20th and 21st centuries which has gone hand in hand with a diminishment of individual liberty.

From my own perspective, this change is a shift of seeing the good in the world not as something pushed down on the world but instead as something pushed up into the world. It starts with the individual, family and what they produce is important. They produce beliefs, aesthetics, languages and homes. They might be good, they might be bad but an abstraction of the truth does not determine this. Truth isn’t abstract but grounded in the particular, there is a reason Christ was born to Mary, died on a Roman cross and rose again. These things are increasingly being treated by the world as incidental or even optional but they are not, they’re important. Truth is ultimately found in Christ, nothing else. It can’t be abstracted, it can’t be divorced from Christ and his particulars. We live in an age where we are taught that secularism is value neutral, this is a lie. Secularism is a relativising notion that supplants any truth for the authority of the state. A Monarch in that sense is more honest in their particularity of beliefs and convictions, just as you can be an honest opponent or supporter for your own differing reasons. The contemporary secular state by contrast claims it has no time for the particulars of right or wrong and instead seeks to universalise, to homogenise. In place of truth is pure commerce and the erosion of anything other than the facilitation of the state and its financing.

This particularism is the natural outworking of position that prioritises a love not just of home but the land itself. We should care about our environment because it’s not only our home but our sustainer. Environmental abuse is nearly always perpetrated by those who have no attachment to the land being abused. This is most applicable to the natural environment, but I believe increasingly it applies to our social and cultural environments. None of these are sustainable in our current circumstances. We are fortunate in that social and cultural environments are inevitable and should old ones be supplanted new ones will be founded. Yet this is to say nothing of the cost of loss passed on to a community in the event of such a thing.

As a result of this change I realise I don’t really believe in things like ‘human rights’ anymore and the statement ‘we hold these rights to be self-evident’ in the US constitution I think are based on a faulty premise. Yet as a Christian I know certain behaviour is warranted of me by God that might constitute something akin to human rights but that the language is not helpful. Economically I subscribe much more to something like Distributism these days. I feel like I have a greater respect for other cultures and languages and how we communicate the kingdom of god to various cultures becomes a much more important consideration. I’m interested in how that has been done historically in addition to being much more passionate about my own history, the good and the bad. People do matter, but the term people is too abstract. My neighbour matters.

The basis of society

The basis of society

For a long time I thought of myself, or rather the individual, as the basis of society. Like pixels on a screen make an image individuals en masse make a society. I didn’t really think the church had a great deal to say on this matter, to my mind it was something so basic that it went unchallenged. God made the Man alone in the beginning and we all ultimately live and die alone before God. Yet whilst God did make the Man alone, this wasn’t good, it only became so when out of his side God made Woman.

It is in the dynamics that emerge between husband and wife that I am now beginning to believe form the basis of society. It is the first point in which the interior world of the individual moves beyond itself and engages with the interior world of another at its most comprehensive degree. The world of ideas becomes incarnated in the physical interactions of a husband and wife, more so, it is the most basic unit that is self-perpetuating. The presence of children ensures this society continues and the means by which they are raised communicate what is collectively held of value and importance. In fact the catechism of the Catholic church describes the family as.

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.

Catechism of the Catholic Church #2207

An individual in their interactions with others may form something approximating society yet it is not self-sustaining. Nor does it hold the special intimacy found between husband and wife, parent and child. If we boiled everything back and some tragedy struck England it is the family through which everything begins again. What the parents pass on to their children defines the shape of the subsequent society.

Looking at the issue from another perspective, we have the individual and we have contemporary society-at-large, a family of families. The individual alone, something only possible more recently, is subject to the values and expectations of the society they find themselves in. The family is the most basic institution where the individual might flourish and work out there own vision of the world, to create their own culture. As a result the family can be the foundation of resistance, it stands between the individual and overbearing external authorities. It creates space for new culture to emerge. Just as it is the most basic unit of society, a healthy family enriches even the largest society. To lose the family is a loss of the bedrock of individual liberty. Other institutions; formal societies, guilds, religious institutions, unions, orders, organisations and corporations do this too but none in quite such a foundational way as the family. The extent to which these groups facilitate the family or oppose it collectively determines the ultimate flourishing of the individual in any given society. Likewise these things can lead to the flourishing of the family and help unite separate families together to form the bonds that make increasingly large scale societies successful. This is why the assault on these institutions, ultimately all rooted in the family, is the hallmark of authoritarians who seek to impose their own will upon a mass of individuals.

When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale

G.K Chesterton, Heretics

On the subject of the individual, Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age highlights the shift in where we find meaning as integral to the rise of the individual as a form of ‘buffered self’. Prior to secularisation we found meaning inherent in the world around us but the secular mind places it as something generated within the mind. With the shift in posture from an communal self to a individualist self it follows that our association with any institution or external influence is progressively questioned and negotiated. Does this now mean that society is found in the mind of the individual? So if the family was once the basis of society, has it now become the individual? Can the basis shift?

Yet for the buffered self, if meaning is generated within the mind, can one mind reach out and genuinely touch another? Or is it simply giving itself the impression that such a thing is occurring? For the buffered self its a subject always open to debate, a lingering doubt. Could such a private mind be driven to create a sustainable society? Its more reasonable that the buffered self can inherit a society, rather than found one. Yet even then its inherent doubt will over time contribute to the renegotiation of public institutions to the point in which they cease to exist in any ‘meaningful’ sense. Even the language used in such a setting becomes increasingly contentious as people can no longer agree over the very meaning of words. During such times a society either eventually becomes possessed by more robust visions of society or it becomes increasingly authoritarian in an effort to maintain current social arrangements. Something I think we are seeing in the West.

Considerations of the individual aside it does nothing to address the inherent creative nature of the family. The individual will expire, family will not but instead changes over time, children becoming parents who give rise to their own children. The individuals can transmit beliefs but if they have no vision for the family it cannot be considered sustainable.

The individual is often put forward for the basis of society as opposed to that of the family. However I would contend that the individual is most enabled when emerging from the context of the family. As a result the healthy society is only guaranteed by, among other things, the promotion of the family as its most basic constituent unit. From this individuals are taught a vision of the world and find, in the words of the catechism above ‘initiation into life in society’. That life might take the form of meaningful work and participation in organisations that reach across families as necessary and form nations. Yet we should never forget it all started with the union of a husband and wife.

On President Donald Trump

On President Donald Trump

I woke up on the morning of the 9th to find the WhatsApp group for my team at work exploding with news that Donald Trump looked like he was about to win the US election. The night before I had been talking it over with my wife, I knew he had a chance but I didn’t really believe it would happen. My wife however was more certain Trump was going to win. I was just glad I wasn’t in the US to make the choice. Yet as the day went on it only became more certain and the reaction from many of my peers at work was similar to that at the time of Brexit; despondency, shock, disbelief and disparaging comments. I made a point of staying away from social media, I’d learnt that from Brexit too.

The question asked repeatedly throughout the day was ‘how could anyone vote for Donald Trump?’ and I think this question itself simplifies the issue to a binary that I imagine for many Americans didn’t really exist. For many it wasn’t just a vote for Donald Trump but an expression of dissatisfaction with the state of government. Those who voted for Trump were more likely to feel disenfranchised by government, not feeling the effects of the ‘Hope’ that Obama originally campaigned on. In fact the biggest surprise was that consistently many places that originally voted for Obama had swung towards Trump. Its been said repeatedly that both parties gave the population the worst it had to offer in Trump and Clinton its just that the former was a chance to roll the dice and hope for something different from those who were dissatisfied.

The dissatisfied in question it seems came from large swathes of White America. Hilary notably failed to win over white women. White men are less of a surprise having increasingly been portrayed as emblematic of all thats wrong in the west. Despite the fact that White rural poor communities throughout America world are the only demographic group seeing a drop in life expectancy in recent years. With consideration to identity politics these efforts to demonise White men potentially backfired by pushing them, pressurising them, and others, into a voting bloc that just carried the election. Many quarters of the progressive establishment simply couldn’t believe that their ‘punching bag‘ of choice really had a say anymore and that the election was a done deal. The culture wars had been won by the progressives and the idea that the ‘White man’, let alone anyone else still wouldn’t vote for Clinton was something that wasn’t seen before and is being turned on with what seems equal parts rage, fear and disbelief.

The really disquieting thing, in an immediate sense, is the increased frequency  I’m seeing by those on the wrong side of the Brexit and Trump votes to argue against the democratic process. If such outcomes really are unacceptable to a nation then what validity is the democratic process if it only serves to support the conclusions we already came to? So many people are outraged by the idea of Elites dictating the direction of society. Yet cannot bring themselves to digest the results of votes that go against their own vision of society. Are these people really any different from the elites they bemoan? Is the only difference for these people their influence? Even now as I write this, in earshot I hear of people discussing the means and ways for Trump to be impeached or removed from office. How progressives should increasingly just start using propaganda to get people to fall-in. We’re outraged when the US did such things in places like Honduras but when we stand to gain its not a problem. People in the West are increasingly getting used to talking about democracy as if it was a bad idea.

Trump is an objectionable character and one that should be held accountable for his deeds. I still struggle to understand how so many Evangelical leaders threw in their support for him. If you are cynical, fine, be honest about it but the trumpeting of Trump as some Christian saviour is a cause for concern. The love felt for him in this area I fear is not reciprocated by the man himself.

In writing all this I’ve also been consciously aware of the role the internet has played in all this. The internet is increasingly becoming an echo chamber for our own opinions, social media in particular. The reason this was a surprise was because we share, like, retweet and ultimately regurgitate the content attractive to us. Its made me wonder personally, the value in writing online (the irony in writing this is not lost on me). The internet feels increasingly a vehicle of ideological segregation. Our world is getting smaller, partly because we are increasingly screening people out of daily life who aren’t like us. So when they do break into our world in a dramatic way, like in the US election the reaction is one of outrage, anger and disbelief.

The extent of this isolation, particularly by the progressives of the US to the actual populace is also something worth reflecting on. Nearly every talking head predicted a Clinton Presidency. This vote has exposed the divide between progressive institutions and the American population as a whole. Historically the more you spent on a campaign, the better your chances and Hilary outspent Trump considerably. Increasingly this isn’t the case anymore, Obama had great success online in his bid for presidency and so did Trump. The media that sways votes for these elections is increasingly in the air. In many ways the internet has contributed to a more bottom up style of campaigning that even the many endorsements of celebrities for Clinton could not budge.

To conclude, no one knows whether the Trump presidency was a vote for Trump or just a vote against Hilary. Time will tell. The whole thing is emblematic of the loss of moral authority by the powerful in American society in the eyes of the populace. I believe that division will only grow over time partly because neither Trump nor Hilary are equipped as individuals to address this divide. Many progressives marked the election as a step backwards for America but such thinking can only occur when you believe theres only one way forward. Trump I find is a disturbing character for a time equally deserving of that descriptor. I don’t know if a man I consider bad can bring about good but the next four years will be crucial for America and the world as we understand it.

As someone outside the US I feel like I can moderate my reaction to the election more so than someone who lives in the US. I know Americans both distraught and elated by the vote. Many in the UK, and I imagine the world, wanted a Clinton Presidency and truth be told I don’t know who I’d vote for given the choice. I am totally sympathetic to the large numbers of the population that stayed at home on the day of the election. I have no love for Clinton and think it mocks the idea of a democratic republic to elect a lifelong bureaucrat who was married to a prior President. I also think the idea of a Trump presidency is troubling for its own reasons. I appreciate the role America plays in the world but I also know I can’t do much about the election so regardless of outcome I can only control my reaction to it. This is a time that necessitates grace, understanding and humility on all involved.What does concern me is the growing notion that this whole election process has highlighted a fragmentary west that shows no sign of slowing its cultural break down. As a Christian it doesn’t matter who is President, Christ is my Lord and that doesn’t change. I do what he commands, not culture, nor a president on the other side of the world.

edit: I think this video, although expletive laden, is pretty on it.

Are we fully converted?

Are we fully converted?

The first time I really began to take Christianity seriously was when I first opened a copy of The Violence of Love whilst travelling in South America. It is a collection of homilies by Archbishop Oscar Romero from the period leading up to his assassination in El Salvador. Prior to that Christianity had been something, in retrospect, propositional and something abstract but Oscar Romero grounded it for me. When I was younger I was inspired by the early chapters of Acts but whenever I heard someone preach from the book the caveat was added ‘but of course that would not be practical today’. Christianity I knew was costly but I understood it as something that was not practical and this idea of sensible Christianity struggled to hold any appeal, it was tiring and pointless. I want to do something that strives against the meaninglessness of the world. As a young(er) man I wanted a challenge, something to give my life meaning that didn’t just change my life but also the society I found myself in. I still want that, although I have a great deal more responsibilities these days. I still believe the Kingdom of God is in the midst of us.

In light of my own context and disposition I find the work of someone like Scott Atran appealing. Atran is an anthropologist best known for his book ‘Talking to the enemy’ in which he interviews Islamic extremists and terrorists to find out their motivations and reasoning. He suggests that, in a general sense, these Muslims feel alienated or unfulfilled by the world around them and see themselves as part of a counter cultural revolutionary Sunni revivalism. I find this interesting because, being honest, I can sympathise with those motivations I just disagree with the response. In light of this Atran’s latest piece published online entitled “ISIS is a revolution” is compelling reading.

Humans make their greatest commitments and exertions, for ill or good, for the sake of ideas that give a sense of significance. In an inherently chaotic universe, where humans alone recognise that death is unavoidable, there is an overwhelming psychological impetus to overcome this tragedy of cognition: to realise ‘why I am’ and ‘who we are’.

Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2016

Theres something in the appeal of ISIS that is more than something distinctly Islamic, its the belief that your life, and the world, can have meaning. Its the conviction of sorts that compels you to shrug off comfort and if necessary your life for some greater cause. Some might see it as simplistic, too binary but at its most basic level is the alternative a better option? Wasn’t Jesus himself in a fashion an extremist?

Growing up this is what I didn’t understand, we were meant to be followers of Christ and proclaimers of his Gospel. The Gospel itself changes the world and restores all things to God, we didn’t have to live in our own strength anymore. We talk about how amazing it is, make the right noises and say the right words. Yet I very rarely saw anyone who acted like this was true. Especially not from the people teaching me about Christianity. I saw this in the life of Oscar Romero, the Desert Fathers and the Early Church but today I looked around, and still look around wondering whats going on. I understand why the church is declining, its because I’m not sure if deep down we even really believe in Christianity badly enough to want to save it in our country. We’re more comfortable with the world as it stands, we’re not angry enough, we’re not disenchanted enough, we’re not shameless enough in our beliefs and ultimately we don’t trust God enough to go out there and start risking our lives in order to start baptising the world.

We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood,the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.

Oscar A. Romero, The Violence of Love

Most Christians I know don’t see their faith as central to their identity, pragmatically it isn’t the hinge the door of their life swings on. I think I include myself in that, we believe with all conviction but our lives largely look like those around us. The medium of our life is fairly mundane for the overwhelming majority of us and largely undistinguished when contrasted against that of the world. If, as McLuhan suggests, the medium really is the message then Christianity doesn’t really offer that much for many reasonable well-adjusted middle-class people outside of what they’re already getting, any change is largely internal. This Christianity doesn’t rock the boat and its just one option among many for which people might medicate themselves in response to any number of ills possessing the world.

This isn’t a desire to uncover some form of religious utopia, which I feel ISIS is, because we fully embrace the world as it is. We aren’t trying to change the world but to follow the will of God and follow his example, the world changing is the fruit of this and his spirit at work in the world. However a business as usual lifestyle with added theological baubles isn’t appealing to anyone, but it feels like this is what we offer people sometimes.

People are willing to do terrible things for what is seen as the right reasons. Atran at the beginning of his article draws parallels between al-Baghdadi and Robespierre, leader of the french revolution, for their blending of terror and virtue. He later goes on to draw further lines between the appeal of the Islamic State and the Nazis citing Orwell’s review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Hitler knows… that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene … and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

George Orwell, Review of Mein Kampf, 1940

The Nazi’s fought harder than both the Russians and the Allies in World War 2 pushing well past the threshold at which most military units would capitulate in a battle. The reason for this was that they genuinely believed in what they were doing, even if it was terrible. Atran in his studies defines four criteria by which to measure the determination of an individual to their cause.

  1. Disregard for material incentives or disincentives: attempts to buy people off (‘carrots’) from their cause or punish them for embracing it through sanctions (‘sticks’) don’t work, and even tend to backfire.
  2. Blindness to exit strategies: people cannot even conceive of the possibility of abandoning their sacred values or relaxing their commitment to the cause.
  3. Immunity to social pressure: it matters not how many people oppose your sacred values, or how close to you they are in other matters.
  4. Insensitivity to discounting: in most everyday affairs, distant events and objects have less significance for people than things in the here and now; but matters associated with sacred values, regardless of how far removed in time or space, are more important and motivating than mundane concerns, however immediate.

Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2016

How do we compare, even if we are not extremists, when we consider the things we believe? What things would these criteria reveal to us as actually sacred in our lives? Jesus repeatedly called us to leave everything behind and follow him. Do we in fact do that? If we did I imagine churches would look a good bit fuller today. I imagine it would look a lot more like the book of Acts.

When we asked captured Islamic State fighters in Iraq: ‘What is Islam?’ they answered: ‘My life’

Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2016

The other factor Atran outlined that gauges a persons commitment to a cause, or willingness to fight, is what he calls ‘Identity Fusion’. Identity Fusion occurs when an individual no longer makes a distinction between themselves as an individual and the group they associate with. We might not need to fight but should we as Christians seek to more closely align our self perception with the Church? I imagine those most willing to share their faith in the public sphere see little to no distinction.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

These things of course are no indicator of the truth of the beliefs or convictions held. Yet if someone believed something truly it is arguable that these indicators Atran outlined would be present in an individual. In the case of the Islamic state, the only people he found to have comparable sincerity, out of those he interviewed, were the Kurds. I imagine other groups like the Assyrian minorities in the region would probably score in a similar way. Atran described the people who still saw a distinction between themselves and their faith as ‘not fully converted yet’. Are we fully converted? If we are, what are we converted to?

Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.

Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2016

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.  Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

 I am writing to you, dear children,
    because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
 I am writing to you, fathers,
    because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
    because you have overcome the evil one.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives for ever.

1 John 2:1-17

The church and gender disparity

The church and gender disparity

Its not exactly news to say the Church of England (CofE), overall, is still in decline in the UK. The question of where this decline is coming from however is something normally associated with age. Its really obvious in many churches, even independent churches, that the older generations are generally the more faithful in their observance compared to a group like Millenials. However this is compounded in the CofE with the exception of newer church plants in the mould of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) which disproportionately attract young people. The divide which is still more broadly consistent however is that of gender.

In the UK women are 50% more likely to attend church than men. At times this figure can grow to as much as 66%. Even out of all those who attend in the CofE only 16% are ‘convinced’ their belief in God is true, drastically lagging behind the conviction of 71% of self-identifying Evangelicals and 88% of British Muslims. This is interesting in that globally the places in the world which are typically associated with Islam show much higher rates of male over female participation despite women overall globally being more active in a faith. We can assume therefore that Muslim men in the UK are far more likely to be active in their observance than their Christian counterparts. The only other male dominated group like this in our society are Atheists.

If men disappeared from church life altogether, aside from the issues regarding the priesthood the church would still be able to function. However if women disappeared from the church it wouldn’t be able to practically function from the moment such a vanishing were to take place. Yet the real significance of gender disparity in a church is that it correlates with its decline over time. As a result the lack of gender disparity is a good indicator of the long term health of both a local church and a faith overall. For many Christians therefore, this should be a cause for concern. In the words of one writer..

Women may be the backbone of a congregation, but the presence of a significant number of men is often a clear indicator of spiritual health.

George Gallup Jr., “Why Are Women More Religious?” 17 December 2002, Gallup Tuesday Briefing, Religion and Values

Even in many of the newer HTB plants around London whilst they manage to attract young people the gender divide is still present. The style of Christianity is described by New Frontiers minister Andrew Wilson  as “middle-class, charismatic, non-confessional, low church, generic evangelicalism” which statistically and anecdotally, in my own experience, still appeals to more women than men. Realistically however its all but confirmed that if the CofE is to endure in any fashion its likely it will look like HTB due to its success in both ‘revitalising’ existing churches and the success of courses like Alpha. Despite this it still divides the population at large by both economic class and gender. It also arguably contributes  towards a culture of decreasing doctrinal clarity as Andrew Wilson expounds..

Perhaps it’s the breadth of Alpha’s appeal, perhaps it’s the elevation of Justin Welby, perhaps it’s the genial personalities and inspirational styles of the key leaders (Nicky Gumbel’s tweets resemble, and even quote, Joyce Meyer an awful lot of the time), or perhaps it’s something else entirely – but it seems to me that externally, HTB has avoided taking a “position” on a number of controversial contemporary issues (much more so than the centre of American evangelicalism in the last generation, Billy Graham, and in this one, Rick Warren), and that their doctrinal boundaries internally are much less defined than most local churches’ (they have numerous staff members and even worship leaders, let alone church members, who do not agree with each other on all sorts of doctrinal issues, including some that Christians in previous generations have died over, and allow huge theological diversity to be represented by speakers in their church, conferences and Focus weekends). How many people who run Alpha or the Marriage Course, I wonder, know what view (if any) HTB have of penal substitution, or hell, or predestination, or gay marriage, or any number of other contentious issues in the contemporary church?

Andrew Wilson, The New Centre of British Evangelicalism

All of which casts questions for over the long term health of HTB churches. This is something I struggled with, and I know many other guys who are still in places touched by HTB do too. The lack of clarity on doctrinal issues is difficult, as is trying to engage constructively with the unspoken assumptions and theology evident in the style and structure of HTB gatherings. What you believe pertaining to something like ‘penal substitution’ isn’t the issue so much as the fact that your onboard with their style of service and its contents. There are guys for who this is fine, but there are plenty of guys who also just go through the motions. They don’t bother to sing the songs, don’t come forward for prayer and just leave church altogether to their wives and girlfriends only turning up occasionally or at social events (if that). Many still believe its just that church, aside from the relationships, is something to otherwise be winced through and often isn’t compelling or relatable to many of them. Let alone anyone they’d consider sharing their faith with.

The exception to this within Christianity seems to come from two places..

These observations say nothing to the the accuracy of the belief found in those places. Yet at its most basic quantifiable level, ideas about inherent gender traits aside, this numerical disparity in gender is something that needs addressing if the church is to see growth in any sort of healthy, widespread way. Europe several times has been rebaptised by the works of the monastics, of men (and women) who were willing to sacrifice way more than many of us do today. Today believers struggle at times to pray consistently, read scripture and to make it to worship once on a Sunday. I don’t think its even that the church has become ‘feminised’ because many of the expressions of Christianity seemingly popular with men (I’ve broadly outlined two forms in the points above) seem just as popular with women. We shouldn’t be looking for masculine christianity necessarily, but one that can achieve equal gender parity, because that isn’t happening currently and we need to move beyond seeing this as a binary his and hers issue of gender stereotypes. Particular when one gender comes across as alienated from the church to a greater degree than another, the honest answer is that currently both genders are experiencing alienation given attendance numbers. The well known quote ‘Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets’ seems appropriate here. The system isn’t functioning as intended but it is functioning per design.

Its something of a conundrum that Christianity today is at times accused of being patriarchal. Men dominate the leadership yes but women make up the bulk of its members and many men are distancing themselves from it. How we respond to reaching better gender parity depends on our outlook on subjects like gender. In talking to others about the issue of gender disparity one of the more common glib responses I saw was “Jesus either appeals to some people or doesn’t” and that most discussions on the subject can be attributed to sloppy gender dualism. The implicit implication here however is that more men than women are less willing to humble themselves in obedience to God and the church which is reflected in their lower attendance. Arguably this itself actually reinforces a measure of gender dualism whilst attempting to skirt an issue which is consistently played out around the world. Ultimately if we believe gender determines behaviour, we will approach this differently to believing that gender is a purely sociological construct. Yet I think pragmatically we must concede that there is perhaps a measure of both taking place. We see this concession in the business world with their unashamedly, albeit generally successful, gendered product marketing. On this note, as I’ve written previously, the impact of the free market on the church today has changed how we perceive church, and if the majority of church attendees are female it stands to reason that the church is viewed in terms more acceptable to women than men as a result of the material marketed to us within it, if that is the audience being drawn.

We live in a post-industrial service based society where many men struggle academically, financially and emotionally being far more likely to die of suicide today than any other means. The advent of innovations like widespread and affordable contraception also mean people are having families later, or not at all. We wish to live life on our terms, even if such actions prove self-destructive at an individual and societal level. Any solution to addressing gender disparity is rightly condemning the trajectory of the society around us which perpetrates the struggles both genders experience today. Many of us have little prospect of stable careers, homes and family life. They’ll be no singular solution which will address gender disparity in church, but its about time we recognise that such a thing exists and needs to be addressed.

A Swiss study conducted in 1994 concluded overwhelming that one of the greatest contributing factors to children inheriting the faith of their parents is the role of faith in the life of the father. This is actually compounded further when the father attends church regularly and the mother does not where 44% of all such children went on to become regular church goers themselves. When the opposite is considered, the mother was devout but the father not, only 2% would go on to be regular church goers. Whatever you think of the study this suggests a clear link setting up fathers as lead role models to their children, particular in the area of belief. Also on this theme researchers Paul Hill, David Anderson, and Roland Martinson in their book ‘Coming of Age: Exploring the Spirituality and Identity of Younger Men‘ also highlighted that many men listed their parents, male mentors and friends as the key relationships which helped them grow in their faith. I’m sure the equivalent is applicable for women too but if this is true, perhaps it follows that these things are missing from many churches today particularly for men if they’re the ones missing. We can’t do much about biological parents, but we can provide spiritual fathers, mentors and friendship.

On a personal note the idea of gender disparity is something I’ve been noticing for awhile. It’s not palatable in society to be a Christian, that’s one thing, but there’s been a number of times where I’m sat in the pub with male friends, both believing and otherwise, who confess they either don’t understand it or see the point in it. Yet deep down I understand it and see the point in it. Despite this to be honest my internal and private religious life and how I imagine it should be expressed differs quite significantly from my public religious life. That’s partly the reason for this blog. The disconnect is that I want to share my private religious life with others but the only thing ‘present’ is the public side which at times feels the ‘least bad’ option of whats going on in public that I can join in with. By public I mean church, public prayer, worship etc. the only point where my public and private meet fully are in the blood and wine of communion. In private I want to spend more time talking (or thinking) through ideas, I pray in a very different way privately (I struggle with long open prayers, lose focus and find reading written liturgical prayers easier), my areas of interest in the faith differ sometimes wildly from what I might see on a Sunday or in a study group and am perhaps more political, practical or socially minded. I also would give way more of my week to sharing, working out and discussing my faith with others in a more down to earth environment given the opportunity. I feel the lack of role models and mentors in the church and I wish there were more out there available. I know I’m not the only one who thinks like this thanks to the internet, but the internet isn’t the public sphere, not really.

Trying to address gender disparity doesn’t mean we need to buy into a specific cultural ideas of what a man is. The men who saved Christian Europe in the past were monks, men who don’t exactly fit our classical stereotypes of masculinity. Yet the absence of many men raises challenging questions we need to address. This is a sensitive subject for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, so we need to be gracious in how we go about this but the status quo isn’t working. Something needs to change.