Posted on: November 1st, 2017 Psalm 1 (Gender, Justice, Disenchantment)

Last Sunday the psalm appointed for the day (according to my church’s lectionary) was Psalm 1, which begins like this: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked….”

I want to call attention to that first pronoun, the grammatical subject of the first sentence, “they,” for this translation is not a literally accurate rendering of the original Hebrew, which says, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked….” Rather, the committee of scholars who decided to render the Hebrew ha ish (“the man”) by way of a gender neutral pronoun in English, “they.”

Many biblical scholars of Psalms hold that Psalm one, in the original context of the Hebrew Scriptures, was extremely important, in that it gave its readers (who were also worshippers, since the Psalter is something like the original hymnbook of the covenant community of God’s people) an imaginative portrait of the ideal Israelite, that is, of the Messiah, of whom King David—who, in the ancient Hebrew imagination, was a type or a kind of foreshadowing of the Messiah. Together, with Psalm 2, Psalm 1 stands at the head of the entire Psalter, and (among other things) says to the reader / worshipper: “When the Messiah comes, he will keep his heart pure; he will not participate in unjust schemes; he will be stable and trustworthy … and, just to give you a picture of what that is like, look at King David.” (Of course, the Psalter “knows” full well about David’s sin, and that is part of the point: we are to “look past” David to the true Messiah.)

This is what our king is like. He is the source of our hope and peace and security. He is the one in and from whom my identity ultimately derives. He is the one after whom we are to pattern our lives, in mimetic love.

But notice what happens when the “he” at the beginning of the Psalm is transformed into “they.” This “they” which departs from the original “ha ish” not just in terms of gender (it is no longer masculine), but also in terms of number (it is no longer singular). Suddenly, the Psalm is no longer about a great king, an imaginatively construed messiah-like figure who is supposed to be the object of our contemplation. Suddenly, the Psalm is reduced to a mere moralistic formula for us to follow. It is as if it is now saying, “Do you want to be happy? Then do these things, and don’t do these other things.”

A formula which, of course, is true as far as it goes, but which is still a far cry from the original intent of the Psalm.

Am I saying that gender neutral pronouns are never to be implemented? No.

Am I saying that Psalm 1 is more applicable to males than to females? Obviously not.

What I am saying is that language (and translation) matters. It shapes our thinking. It forms our assumptions. By the providence of God, our thoughts are constrained by “the prison house of language.” We should admit that in making this shift, God’s people have lost something important.

Something which is no longer mysterious, no longer beautiful, no longer transcendent. Now, as thinkers like Henri de Lubac and Charles Taylor would say, things have become immanent and disenchanted.

Is it worth it? Is the justice which has been upheld in this re-translation worth the loss of mystical enchantment? Or perhaps might there be a better way?

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Posted on: May 19th, 2016 The Tyranny of the Exception

I suppose that working on a PhD at a (somewhat) traditionalist Roman Catholic university has made me more “conservative.” But the deeper reason beneath that development, it seems clear to me, is simply that I have learned so much more (than I had known as one reared in secular and evangelical institutions), particularly historically.

In this blog post (which has been simmering for about a half decade or more) I hope to highlight a basic difference (a difference, perhaps, in disposition or orientation) between the premodern mind and the modern, western mind. It has to do with the role that exceptions (or exceptions to the rule) play in our thinking.

First, consider a basic, very elemental, structure or “pattern” laid down by Aristotle. Aristotle, to put it very simply, would say that it is the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. (He talks this way in the Metaphysics and the Physics.) The “purpose” or “end” (Greek telos), that is, of the acorn is the fully developed oak tree. The oak tree is the “fully active” version of the acorn. The acorn, in turn, is a “potential oak tree.” (This way of thinking relies on the Aristotelian metaphysical distinction between potency and act.)

Now, Aristotle perfectly realized that not all acorns successfully develop into fully formed oak trees. As did St. Thomas, who follows Aristotles’s reasoning here without exception. But it would never have occurred to either of them to conclude, on the basis of the failure of some acorns to develop into oak trees, that it is not the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. Rather, they understood that this accomplishment occurs “for the most part,” that is, not 100% of the time. They understood that nature (or natural philosophy) is “messy” and does not comply with our rational, scientific systems in the same way that, say, mathematics does. (As an example of Aristotle’s thinking about things that are true “for the most part,” see Nicomachean Ethics I.3, together with his word of caution that accompanies them.)

The modern mind is quite different. To cite an example of the “default tendency” of the modern mind which I am trying to diagnose in this article, consider the (admittedly, ecclesiastically “intramural”) issue of infant baptism. I could not begin to count the number of times people have registered their opposition to the catholic practice of infant baptism in the church to me on the basis of the exception. “Richard Dawkins,” a good friend of mine likes to say, “was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, and just look at him,” implying that Dawkins disproves that the “nature” of baptism is to bring baptizands into a life of Christian faith. We know that infant baptism is not a valid or true doctrine, so this reasoning goes, because it does not always “work.” This way of thinking, I’d argue, is analogous to the point about the acorn not successfully growing into an oak tree: the exception does not undermine the “nature” of the thing in question.

Exhibit B: sex and the presence in nature of hermaphrodites, or biologically ambiguous genitalia in infants, children, and adults. Yes, the Scriptures speak of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). (They also speak, in the same context, of a binary division between “land animals” and “sea creatures,” but one would be on shaky ground to hold on this basis that they intend to reject the existence of amphibians.) I am certain that the ancient Hebrews were aware of ambiguous genitalia. But, again, nature is messy and “for the most part.”

Does the exception here refute the rule or the “nature” of the thing, that “male” and “female” are valid ways of describing what we find in nature, or what actually is in nature? No more than the stunted acorn does.

(Does my position here make me an “essentialist?” No, because of this, and also because when a Christian speaks of “nature,” she will in the next breath speak of “creation.” But that is a topic for a later blog post.)

 

 

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Posted on: February 20th, 2014 “Gender Fluid:” Men, Women, Elves & Dwarves

Near the end of (the film version of) Tolkien’s _The Return of the King_, at the final battle outside the dark gates of Mordor, the dwarf Gimli looks up at elf Legolas and says (something like), “I never thought I’d fight my last battle shoulder to shoulder with an elf, of all creatures!” To which Legolas replies, “How about with a friend?”

The category of “friend,” to Legolas’ (and Tolkien’s) way of thinking “runs deeper” than the demographic categories of “dwarf” and “elf.”

According to two Eastern Orthodox practitioners deeply committed for forming and nurturing virtuous Christians who can overcome their destructive passions by the grace of God in Christ, Saint Maximus the Confessor would say something similar … except that in this case the binary opposition is not “elf and dwarf” but rather “male and female.” Likewise the ground of unity that binds erstwhile antagonists together in a deeper unity, is not “friend,” but rather “priest.”

Maleness and femaleness in the thought of St. Maximus (thinking in the context of the Genesis 1 story and its development throughout the biblical narrative), is relativized by priesthood.

This, further, fits nicely into the ancient patristic conviction that “male” and “female” (what we late moderns would call “gender”) are fluid categories. Each one of us, that is, contains streams and dimensions of our soul (and our bodies) which are both “male” (such as the driving or insensive power) and “female” (such as the desiring power).

I might be more characterized by “maleness” than my wife is, but these are relative terms, and not at all fixed, static, or absolute.

Facebook has recently updated its “gender preferences” to include the category “gender fluid.” Odd though it may sound, such a development is consistent with ancient patristic theology, and, strictly speaking, a deeply traditional Christian, even on issues of sexual morality, could adopt this gender “preference” on her Facebook profile with complete theological integrity. Strictly speaking, all Chrisitans should.

I’m wondering, finally, if Facebook would be willing to add one more gender option: “priest.”

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Posted on: March 19th, 2012 Gender & Sex: Femininism

First, a couple of notes.

1. One can hear the audio recording of the beginning of this class (most of which is actually a review of the previous class on Ancient Near Eastern Sex Practices & Regulations), here.

2. The reason I chose to talk about feminism in a Christian Formation class: it can serve as a precedent for talking about same sex marriage type issues. That is, feminism is basically a discussion we have already had in our culture. I think that the Church in the main “dropped the ball” in that discussion (mainly simply by not engaging). Not only is it useful to review previous public debates about sex & gender as a precedent, but (particularly when it comes to the “third wave” of feminism) the issues in both “debates” are very similar.

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class

“Feminism”

Sun, March 18, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

I. First Wave.

  • A. Representative Figure: Dorothy Sayers (Are Women Human?).
  • B. Main cause / agenda: basic recognition that women are not property.
  • C. Example: suffrage.

II. Second Wave.

  • A. Representative Figure: Gloria Steinem.
  • B. Main cause / agenda: Political Organization into a Movement-based “Special Interest Group.” (Note: this might have much to do with the rise of electronic media in the 20th century.)
  • C. Example: the Equal Rights Amendment.

III. Third Wave: Pushing the View that Gender is Constructed.

  • Representative Figure: Judith Butler (Gender Trouble).
  • Main cause / agenda: to promote the view that gender (identity) is constructed socially and linguistically.
  • Example: the rise of widespread acceptance of trans-gender as a viable and healthy “lifestyle choice.”

Q: what is right about this view?

Q: Construction vs. Abstraction and the role of language in culture making.

“Assymetrical Reciprocity?” Discussion.

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Posted on: March 19th, 2012 Gender & Sex: Ancient Near Eastern Sex

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class

“Patriarchy & Ancient Near Eastern Sex Regulations”

Sun, March 11, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

 I. How Israelite sex practices & regulations were like its neighbors.

  • A. In both cultures (Israelite & non-Israelite) women were left out of the levirate system of inheritance. (Ie, daughters did not inherit anything from the father
  • B. In both cultures (Israelite and non-Israelite) it appears that women were thought of as the property of the man, the head of the household.

Note, however, that there are certainly tensions here. For instance, we have the examples of Miriam (Exod 15:20,21), Deborah (Judges 4 & 5), Esther, and others.

II. How Israelite sex practices & regulations were different from its neighbors.

  • A.  “Lex Talionis” (an “eye for an eye”) in the case of “ravaging a virgin.”[1]
  • B. Prohibition of Prostitution. Dt 23:17-18. Because the marital relation is seen as analogous to the love between Yahweh and his covenant people.[2] Ezek 16, Ezek 23, Prov 7, Jer 5:7, Isa 23:16, I Kings 3.

Conclusions.

  1. Old Covenant Israel was a cultural product of its time, although we can see the “inbreaking” of justice and grace in ways which a) forshadow the New Covenant, and b) improve the quality of life for women, in comparison to Israel’s neighbors.
  2. We should distinguish between Israel’s torah and Israel’s behavior. For example, polygamy is never sanctioned by the torah, and yet it was obviously rampant in ancient Israel.
  3. In the case of Israel’s neighbors, sexual activity is regulated on the basis merely of economic and social stability, but in the case of Israel, there is clearly a theological component in view.


[1] Hurley notes, 4.

[2] In Assyria and Babylonia there is a legally sanctioned way for a man to engage in extramarital sex without damaging another man’s property. What is prohibited is the damaging of another man’s goods. But in Israel this is not the case. There is no “sexual escape” for men. Hence, it is about more than property.

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