Gay Marriage & Assimilation

In his article “How is Christianity thinkable today?” Michel de Certeau provides a lucid statement about what might be called “alterity,” that is, the question of how one deals with the Alter, the other. The other who is Muslim, the other who is racist, the other who is gay. It matters not here who the other is.

He shows, very simply, that there are two ways of making the other disappear: you can simply (try to) exclude them, or you can assimilate or reduce them into a version (or a subset) of the same.

Here is why, if I were a gay man, I would oppose “gay marriage” in the United States. Surely it assimilates gay people into the category of “married people.” This is a reduction of two different groups–groups that need each other precisely because they are different–to a single, univocal element.

It effaces and eclipses difference by reducing everything to the same. By arbitrarily redefining marriage, we have homogenized our political culture: now (more than before) we are all the same.

And the result, of course, is that we are far more manipulatable by the state.

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Trump, Marwa Balker, & Identity Politics

In this story, CNN.com reports on an “open letter” (in the form of a Facebook post) by California college-student Muslim Marwa Balker.

Ms. Balker is responding to the recent, deplorable comments by Donald Trump on the Muslim community in the United States.

Obviously Trump is an idiot. It is, however, Ms. Balker’s comments which I think need to be examined, precisely because the ideology they display is much more insidious, as proven by the fact that CNN holds her comments up as an example of model political speech.

Addressing Mr. Trump, Balker states: “Being Muslim does not make me any less American than you are.” That this statement seems natural and noble is obvious to anyone living in Western society in the 21st century.

However, one of my leading theological / philosophical lights, Michel de Certeau (sort of the Christian version of Michel Foucault) would say that Balker is reducing the difference of another to the same, to a false identity.

She is attempting to constitute one thing (American identity, identity as a U.S. citizen) as the whole. Certainly Trump is performing a different version the same attempt; of course “radical Islam” tries to do the same; admittedly the Church historically has been guilty of the same project.

For de Certeau, however (as articulated in his article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”) this move, this strategy, is not authentically Christian. de Certeau would call this “a false universalism that functions as a mask.”

When I say that I am a Christian first, a Texan second, and an American third, this is the sort of issue I am trying to allude to.

Ms. Balker is plainly an American first and a Muslim second. My stance, on the contrary, is that the only possible universalism is that of the “concrete universal” (Heidegger), in which difference is not eclipsed but lived with and engaged. Authentic Christianity, that is, life within the Body of Christ, really does make such an approach possible. The Christian church is the only (possible) concrete universal I know of.

As de Certeau points out, the existence of the four Gospels demonstrates the founding importance of admitting intractable difference: the Gospel of Mark is not saying the same thing as the Gospel of John.

Theology, as Milbank says, is (or can be) the “discourse of nonmastery.”

Modern liberal political philosophy, of the kind that Ms. Balker has swallowed uncritically, cannot make this claim; nor does it want to.

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Running (with a “light touch”)

A couple of nights ago I had a wonderful conversation with my 73 year old dad (who had a stroke a week ago). We talked about a devotional book that he (and my whole family) read called _Jesus Calling_.

What a blessing this book has been for us. The entry for Nov. 15 reads thus:

Approach problems with a light touch. When your mind moves toward a problem area, you tend to focus on that situation so intensely that you lose sight of Me. You pit yourself against the difficulty as if you had to conquer it immediately. Your mind gears up for battle, and your body becomes tense and anxious. Unless you achieve total victory, you feel defeated.

There is a better way. When a problem starts to overshadow your thoughts, bring this matter to Me. Talk with Me about it and look at it in the Light of My Presence. This puts some much-needed space between you and your concern, enabling you to see from My perspective. You will be surprised at the results. Sometimes you may even laugh at yourself for being so serious about something so insignificant.

You will always face trouble in this life. But more importantly, you will always have Me with you, helping you to handle whatever you encounter. Approach problems with a light touch by viewing them in My revealing Light.

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.
—Psalm 89:15

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
—John 16:33

My godly father went on to speak about how he has _never_ approached life, or life’s problem’s this way. Instead he has always attacked any problem “directly and head on,” trying to fix things immediately and to exercise full control. But now, on the other side of a stroke, he was able to appreciate this wisdom at a deeper level.

What an opportunity, we went on to contemplate together, to let God show us new ways, new paths, new approaches to life, new ways of being. Whether you are 73 or (like me) 43.

Today on my 10-mile morning run, after a rainy morning during which I worked, studied, and wrote at a coffee shop for about four hours (waiting for the rain to end), I was thinking about this “light touch.” I was mindful that this is how it is with running, too. At various points along this morning’s ten mile run, with the sky now dazzling blue with the sunlight dissolving the last vestiges of cloud, I thought about and meditated on the fact that distance running requires a “light touch.” Neither bulldozing forward with brute force, nor procrastinating on your ass waiting for the perfect conditions to run.

Instead, “running with a light touch” is a lot like what the ancients meant by practical wisdom (phonesis; prudentia). As I plan to articulate in a future blog post, the ability or “know how” to live–or to run–with a “light touch” is analogous to driving with a good set of shock absorbers. Shock absorbers which can respond to the bumps and potholes of life. Phronesis is the wisdom to know that sometimes the truths of theory (epistemescientia) don’t link up, don’t precisely “map onto” the rough-and-tumble of life completely smoothly and  without remainder.

Hence, we must run and travel and live “with a light touch,” trusting in God and holding our theory / plans / knowledge very loosely as we travel down the road of life, as wayfarers in transit to our final destination which is God.

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Dog Collar in the Classroom

This morning is a typical morning for me. For three and a half years now I have been rising from my cozy bed (which I share with a snuggly friend) at around 5:00 AM, gathering up my strength and heading westward down I-20 for Dallas. As I sit in the Starbucks in Terrell at 6AM this morning, I wonder what Tylerites I might run into. About half the time—I’m here every Tuesday and Thursday, without fail—I will see a friend from the Rose City in this highly caffeinated place.

And when they see me they are sometimes taken back. “Father Matt,” they say, “I almost did not recognize you: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you without the collar.”

Ah, the collar; usually we clergy call it the “dog collar.” It is one of the true joys of serving as an ordained minister in this Church. As I Presbyterian minister (which I was for almost a decade) I rarely if ever wore one. A few people have asked me over the years “What does it mean?” to which I reply that it is an ancient symbol that reminds us of our slavery to Christ, that we wear the yoke of this slavery daily on our bodies.

And yet, I almost never wear my collar in Big D. (when I pose as a scholar every Tuesday and Thursday). Why not? Several reasons: first, I am not in my “parish:” there are tons of other Episcopal priests in Dallas, and I am content to let them bear that visible burden. Second, though, I use this time to “roll incognito,” to take a break of being a public, institutional servant of Christ, instead choosing to withdraw into a more anonymous mode. I cannot lie: these windows when I am “off duty” as a priest have been a real gift these past three and a half years. Day in and day out (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) I study and read and write for hours on end in solitude, knowing that the exigencies of pastoral ministry lie dozens of miles away to the east, just over the Smith County line. (It is an oft forgotten fact that even smart phones are equipped with “off” buttons.)

In terms of my doctoral coursework, however, I am beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel, for, incredibly, my degree audit form indicates that my class requirements are almost complete, which is one reason I have begun to focus on that other requirement (though less formal) for the PhD student in the humanities: teaching college courses. Thanks be to God, I learned yesterday that I will be teaching 20 – 40 freshmen at the University of Texas at Tyler in an introduction to philosophy class this coming spring semester.

Should I wear my dog collar in the classroom? Even though I can make an argument in both directions, I do intend to do so. (I asked the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences if that would be OK, and he said he has no opinion, and there are no official policies concerning this.) Why? For the inverse reasons why I do not wear it in Dallas. At UT Tyler I will be in the parish. There are no other Episcopal churches or ministers who can lay claim to that mission field called UT Tyler any more than I can. And since I will be in Tyler, I will be “on duty.”

Last but not least, I will channel the power of that symbol as I stand before those wet-behind-the-ears freshmen, for I remember what it’s like to sit where they sit. I remember what it is like to be at the big university, away from mom & dad, wondering what in the world is true, what is worth believing in, what is worth living for. And how in the world could I know? Was it even possible to know anything? My philosophy professors at that other U.T. in that other fair Texas city were not pastorally helpful to me, to say the least. Their goal, it seemed, was to dismantle my faith by any means necessary.

I do not intend to proselytize these students as I give them their first gourmet sampling of the philosophical spread next semester; that would be irresponsible and inauthentic. Instead, I will let this ancient symbol of Christ speak for itself.

 

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