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.

Whatever happened to discipleship?

Whatever happened to discipleship?

The morning of writing this I watched a squat young blackbird following its parent through my cramped back garden. They’d often visited, at first the parent would leave and fetch food for its offspring, now they are looking for food together. Soon the young bird will be looking for food by itself, until it has its own children and the cycle repeats. This is natures discipleship, the elder apprenticing the younger until the disciple becomes an elder in their own right.

In the church we call our Archbishops respectfully Patriarchs but more affectionately (in some circles) Popes. Both are related to greek terms for ‘Father’. The Desert Fathers were called ‘Abba’ and ‘Amma’ aramaic for ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ which gives us ‘Abbot’ and ‘Abbess’. Jesus himself used familial language to describe believers and their relationships to one another..

He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’

Matthew 12:48-50

Paul likewise wrote to Timothy..

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

1 Timothy 5:1-2

Even in the community of Israel, the Levites passed their responsibility from generation to generation. The elders teaching the next generation how to administer their duties and stewarding their inheritance until it was time to pass on. Did the church, a ‘holy priesthood’, abandon this pattern or have no need of it?

We keep up this language and idea today, particularly when we focus on particular passages which place emphasis on this pattern, but I wonder to what degree discipleship is currently present in the British Church. I think the trend is more likely that many are to understand discipleship as the growth of our relationship between us and God our Father. This is important, this is our ultimate aim, but are we confusing our terms here? Aren’t we called Christians because we imitate and follow Christ? Is Christ himself not the visible image of the invisible God? Are we likewise called to be in turn visible images of Christ to the world, and one another? Jesus called us not to go into all the world and make ‘believers’, he called us to go and make disciples. Theres a distinction, that distinction is the great commission.

Brother, let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

Verse 1 of ‘The Servant Song’ by Richard Gillard

We might agree then that it is not perhaps so general. Many places I have witnessed see the small/study group pattern as a means to discipleship. However even here they fall short. Mike Breen, an Anglican minister and discipleship advocate defines these insufficiencies as the following..

  • Small groups are usually much lower commitment.
  • They are usually looking to grow by adding new members.
  • Anyone can be part of it.
  • Challenge is not a regular fixture in most small groups because the emphasis is much more on sharing, contributing and creating as warm an environment as possible so that newcomers feel welcome.
  • Small groups are usually led by facilitators who are looking to create space for everyone to share and contribute.
  • Small groups multiply when they are too large, and usually it’s through splitting them (every Small Group Pastor in the world just cringed that I used the word “split”). It’s growth by addition.
  • Small groups tend to lean towards the lowest common denominator in terms of spiritual content so that anyone can step into it (again, we’re not saying all small groups do. But in general, many do).

That isn’t to say these small groups are bad, its just we need to recognise that whatever is going on in these meetings isn’t discipleship, at least not within itself.

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Discipleship as Guilds and Family

Discipleship I believe ultimately is a term that can be considered synonymous with apprenticeship. Their are differences but I think when you read letters like 1 and 2 Timothy, Timothy the (young) man is clearly an apprentice to Paul. Thats the relational context in which he emerges in the New Testament, we might caveat this by stating that this is the process for the training of leaders alone but I think in doing so we are drawing an artificial distinction between those who head up a spiritual community and the community itself. Paul in the book of Hebrews rebukes Jewish background believers for refusing to step into the leadership role expected of mature believers by adopting ignorance.

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:11-14

Paul’s phrasing ‘by this time you ought to be teachers‘ touches on a perceived logical progression in his mind on the part of the believer. That ultimately, given time, all believers might progress to be teachers in some fashion if they are sincere and able. Likewise his use of the word ‘infant’ and his imagery of milk and solids draws on the example of child being fed over time by a parent, a Father (Abba) or a Mother (Amma).

All of this to me reminds me in a fashion of the old guild system. Timothy for me strikes me as a Journeyman minister, who having completed his apprenticeship under the Master Paul is sent out to train and educate others on his journey to become a Master in his own right by the process of training others. This sort of practice, in my personal experience, has disappeared from the Church in many places, especially for the laity. If it occurs at all I think there is a tacit expectation that such practices happen purely within the biological family, but this is often without any vested interest taken in the state of such mentoring by the broader church. Family in many ways is the natural place for such a thing, however this apprenticeship is entirely dependent on the sufficiency of the parents to ‘distinguish good from evil’ and not only distinguish it but teach others to do so. It also assumes that it is normative for Christianity to be passed generationally in a steady static fashion with no obvious provision for adult conversion, which is no longer the case in Britain. What we need is a more robust and scalable model of discipleship that isn’t based on biological familial lines but on the idea of the church as family. Our elders are fathers and mothers, our peers brothers and sisters, our children sons and daughters.

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Discipleship as Sponsorship

Another parallel for Discipleship is that of Sponsorship. In my mind I’m thinking specifically of the kinds seen in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Before I lived in London, whilst not involved myself, I knew a great many people who had gone through AA and greatly respected the community it created. One outline of the role of a Sponsor (worth reading in full) details the responsibilities as follows..

  • This is an individual who will usually have more experience in the program than the sponsee. This means that they will be able to share their wisdom and experience.
  • Most sponsors will tell their sponsee to contact them at any time of the day or night if it is an emergency. The urge to relapse can come at any time, and having somebody to contact can make all the difference.
  • A sponsor can just be a good friend. One of the things that people worry about when they first enter recovery is that they will never be able to form meaningful relationships without their chemical crutch. What they learn is that friendships in sobriety can be stronger than anything they have ever experienced previously. One of their most important relationships may be with their sponsor.
  • This is an individual who will offer encouragement and provide praise for achievements.
  • A sponsor should be able to provide honest feedback.
  • A more experienced person in recovery will be able to spot the warning signs of an approaching relapse. They may be able to guide the sponsee back to safety.
  • This is someone who can be a good role model for their sponsee
  • It is often the job of the sponsor to help the sponsee work their way through the 12 steps

These principles can be adapted for education, mentoring and growth of disciples. This is a practice which requires no money from its participants and only some oversight to guard against abuse. The 12 steps in this instance we might treat as synonymous with Pauls ‘teaching about righteousness’ he mentions in Hebrews. Practically this could take the form of walking a sponsee through the Catechism and serving as an confidant as they are inducted and brought up into the faith, the life it entails and the acceptance of sponsee’s of their own. This is something easy in the sense that Jesus’s yoke is easy for us, it is only requiring the will of the parties involved. Something which I think, to be honest, is in short supply today.

Discipleship is essential, yet often missing

We ask why our young people leave church when they leave home, we also ask why men are not involved in church to the same degree as women. I genuinely believe a forsaking of discipleship is one of the major roots for this. People groups forget their native languages when they do not see a benefit in the next generation learning it. Likewise religious communities inevitably disappear when they do not see a benefit in making sure the next generation knows their faith. Talking from a pulpit isn’t discipleship no matter what the content and if we are unwilling or unable to take the time to disciple others as a community, the community will simply disappear.