Posted by: dacalu | 11 August 2014

Bite Size Jesus

I’ve set myself a goal of writing a series of very short essays on Christianity: 200 words to capture some of the core beliefs that Americans seem confused about.

 

Christianity in Brief

There is a basic order behind the world and, confusingly, that order is both a general principle and a touchable person. We call him Jesus, the Word, Logos. The Word loves humans and came to us, not as a ruler or even a tourist, but as a guest. We hold a great sadness that we treated this guest so poorly – so much so that we killed him in human form. We hold a greater joy that his love overcame our betrayal. He came back as one of us and still loves us both as a person and as the order behind the universe. Christians feel called to treat one another as the Word treated us, with curiosity, care, and service that holds others equal to our selves. The story of love lost and re-found is played out in our daily lives over and over again and we think it will also be played out in the course of history.

Posted by: dacalu | 25 July 2014

Suspended

Between Seattle and Toronto

the airplane window

fails

to show me

the space between.

 

Traveling mercies –

the innkeeper with room,

the roadside attractor,

the roses –

call me away from myself

 

One perfect moment of peace,

neither here nor there

but in the meantime,

the mean time,

whose value comes from averages.

 

I try to sum my life

with variable delights,

summaries and maximums

that protect me

from the moments themselves.

 

The sheer mass

scares me –

the weight of moments

pulling me

into reality.

 

Gravity:

a thousand thousand

pieces of my soul

calculated

in moments.

 

But wrapt in aluminum

and engineering

how can I know

what passes beneath –

what passes within?

 

It’s ironic

that the plane

keeps me

on the surface

of things.

 

[24 July 2014]

Posted by: dacalu | 28 June 2014

Anti-Virtues

As my friends well know, I have a rather medieval mindset at times.  I have a preference for ordered lists and hierarchies, quite popular in Medieval (scholastic) theology which favored exactly 7 sacraments, 9 ranks of angels, and 7 orders of ministry. [1] Thus I learned early the 7 deadly sins and the 7 human virtues. [2] It always puzzled me that the one did not mirror the other.

The more I reflected on them, the more I realized that the 7 deadly sins [3] were more sensationalist than helpful.  They make for popular art (from Garth Nix’ children’s books, Keys to the Kingdom, which I recommend, to the Brad Pitt movie, Se7en, which I am just as happy to have not seen).  They do not, I think, make for good meditations as focusing on what not to do rarely helps.  I would suggest that instead of thinking about these, it is far more practical to think about the seven virtues and the want of of them.

There are two ways to be in want of a virtue: to lack it all together and to have it’s opposite.  For instance, one who does not love might hate or simply be apathetic.  It’s hard for me to say which is worse, for hatred leads to antagonism, but it also requires some interest in the object of your hate, thus love can turn to hate (and vice versa) more easily than it can turn to apathy.  There is so much more I could say, but for now, I’d just like to give you list to see what you make of it. Note that the virtues are all related to love of God, neighbor, self, or creation, while the lacks are all forms of apathy.

 

Virtue (Anti-Virtue, Lack of Virtue) [4]

Love (hate, apathy)

Hope (despair, carelessness)

Faith (distrust, ignorance about persons)

Fortitude or Courage (recklessness, cowardice)

Temperance or Self-Control (scrupulosity, impulsiveness)

Prudence or Wisdom (foolishness, ignorance about things)

Justice (injustice, isolation)

 

 

[1] In case you are wondering, that would be Sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Unction; Ranks among the heavenly hosts: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Ophanim, Cherubim, Seraphim; Orders: Porter, Lector, Exorcist, Acolyte (minor orders), Sub-Deacon, Deacon, and Priest (major orders).

[2] In the Middle Ages, they were known as the princely virtues, but the Roman Catholic church renamed them in the 20th century in a fit of political correctness.

[3] The seven deadly sins have been mentioned in multiple versions, but the ones I am familiar with are Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, Lust, and Pride.  Due to a diminishing vocabulary, some moderns may be unaware of the distinction between Envy (wanting more than your neighbor) and Avarice (wanting to accumulate stuff). Alternate lists include vainglory and despair.

[4] The first three or “theological” virtues come from I Cor 13:13.  The second four “cardinal” virtues come from Wisdom of Solomon 8:7. A number of other popular and historical lists exist as well.

Posted by: dacalu | 28 June 2014

Prayers for Ordained Scientists

This past week, I joined many friends for the annual retreat of the Society of Ordained Scientists.  I was asked to lead the prayers of the people for our closing Eucharist, incorporating some of the themes we covered in our meditations. Here is the result.

Dear Emmanuel,

In you we see the height of the heavens and the depth of the seas,

fullness and breadth, living and breathing with us.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for the Church Universal,

eternally triumphant and yet presently struggling;

May we find ways to be your body in the world,

to be good to one another, and to bear the fruits of the Spirit.

We pray especially for the Society of Ordained Scientists,

for our sisters and brothers, present and absent,

for David our visitor and Keith our warden.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for your Creation,

the spacious firmament, stars and quarks in their courses,

planets and atoms, plants and animals, protists and bacteria,

and every living thing;

Give us due respect for your will in them and in us

that we might use our particularity to serve the whole.

We pray especially for wisdom and grace in our use of science and technology;

Give us justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude

for the use of the powers you have granted.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for the human condition,

for sinew and synapse, sensation and spirit,

always both part and whole;

May we see ourselves and one another as heirs

and true images of your perfection;

When we have choice, may we choose wisely;

When we suffer, may we feel your presence;

When we see suffering, may we act.

We pray for all who live with bodies

subject to corruption and competition, disease and infirmity.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for the pursuit of truth in all its forms;

That we might use our intellect and intuition, conscience and consciousness,

to enter more fully into the world which you have made;

Give us faith, hope, and love to study and share the wonders of your handiwork.

We pray for all who seek and for all who find

and for the lost;

We pray especially for our parishes and schools and all communities of learning

and for those who are alone.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for all who have gone before us on the path,

trusting their step into the darkness will reveal a greater light;

Help us to learn from their learning,

to find strength in their strength,

and to follow in their footsteps.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

And for all those things,

which in our blindness we cannot or in our fear we dare not ask;

Make us ever more willing to pray, to ask, and to receive;

In Jesus name we pray.

Amen.

Posted by: dacalu | 23 June 2014

Why Rape is Wrong

In a post two back, I set forth what I see as the main reasons people have sex. This is part of a continuing series on Anglican sexual ethics that began here .

God of all creation, no sparrow falls but you take notice, look with compassion upon all who suffer from sexual violence, in our communities and the world. Open our hearts and awaken our minds to act on behalf of our sisters, that our world might become a haven of peace and safety for all. We ask this in the name of the one who transforms our lives, Jesus Christ. (Borrowed, with slight modification, from a prayer by Ann Fontaine for 16 Days.)

Why is Rape Wrong?

This should not be a tough question, but sadly it is. Many people see rape as wrong for all the wrong reasons and that leads them to think that certain kinds of sexual violence are acceptable, even laudable. Throughout the last few posts, I have been setting forth a case for sex being primarily and ultimately about communication, both in the Bible in our ethical view of the world. This may seem counter-intuitive to some readers for whom sex is, or at least should be about other things, notably procreation or pleasure. Rape provides a very concrete case where those intuitions can prove disastrously wrong.

First, let me say what I think rape is and why I think it is wrong.

What Rape Is

Rape happens when one person takes advantage of another sexually without their consent. As with many things related to sex, there are no clear dividing lines. We most commonly associate rape with a violent sexual assault by a man against a woman involving penetration. That is definitely rape. It is important for us to expand that, somewhat, however.

Rape need not be perpetrated by a man on a woman.  Many cases are present in law and history of all possible gender and sex combinations.

Rape need not be violent.  Violence usually suggests physical force, but humans have found numerous ways to force one another to have sex, from physical violence to physical threats, emotional violence to emotional threats, even spiritual violence and spiritual threats (in the case of unwilling marriages, for example).  One of the reasons Christians have been so strongly opposed to prostitution comes from the very real possibility (and common occurrence) of financial coercion.  No, I’m not saying all prostitution is rape; simply that within the context of prostitution, sex workers are often treated as commodities by pimps and madams and forced to continue working due to economic and legal forces. Holding a debt over someone’s head and forcing them to repay it sexually still constitutes rape, even when there is no physical violence.

Rape need not be against someone’s will; it need only be without their consent. This follows directly from the idea that sex should be about communication. Drugging someone who would not otherwise be open to sex counts as rape.

Rape happens any time sex happens with someone’s body but not their will. It can happen because the offender wishes to hurt the victim or simply through apathy, but Christians believe that the will must be just as involved as the body.

Why Rape is Wrong

Rape is wrong because sex is about communication.  Sex involves vulnerability, physical, mental, and spiritual. To force someone into that kind of openness is to send the message that you have more control over their body, mind, and soul than they have themselves. THIS IS FALSE.  Nonetheless, it is the message sent and can easily be believed by the victim. Rape has been used historically as a tool of domination because it can be immensely effective to that end.

Rape is so terrible because it causes damage while breaking down the best avenues for healing. The type of intimacy, love, and acceptance most capable of restoring a sense of personal and sexual health usually comes through sexual contact, which can become terrifying in the wake of a sexual assault. Trust in one’s ability to express oneself, even verbally, to receive and interpret the signals of another can be dangerously compromised.

Communication is broken and the core part of our identity, our relationship with others, our very existence in the image of God seems broken.  I say “seems” because Christians affirm that our soul exists in relation with God always. No matter how broken we feel, we are always whole in this sense: we are with God.

Alternative Sexual Ethics

Many are tempted to take communication out of the role I have set for it – the prime motivation for sex – but I would challenge them to think of the consequences particularly regarding rape.

If procreation really is the core value in sex – as many conservatives will claim – it becomes easy (not necessary, but easy) to start thinking of reasons why procreation might justify rape. In the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites force local women to become their wives and bear their children (Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20). It is a perfectly logical and consistent ethics that counts women as property and procreation as an obligation. It is, however, utterly foreign to modern sensibilities and, I profoundly hope, incomprehensible to modern Christians. I am unconvinced any account of Biblical literalism could render this Godly to me. Procreation can never be an excuse to neglect or override the will of one partner in sex.

If pleasure really is the core value in sex – as many liberals will claim – it becomes easy (not necessary, but easy) to start thinking in terms of comparative pleasure. If this gives person X a great deal of pleasure but is only slightly distasteful to person Y… Such an ethics appears in the book Brave New World. Admittedly, that is a utopia, but I think many a modern abuser has used this type of reasoning, saying that a potential partner really will enjoy something even if they profess not to. I will reiterate the common slogan: “no means no.” It does not matter one whit whether they will enjoy it or not.  What matters is whether they are engaged in the process as a willing and open partner.

Rape is a serious problem for our culture, and I believe it is for most cultures.  We have an evolutionarily conditioned drive to have sex.  At the same time, we also have brains and wills to make more of our reality than that simple drive. For the Ancient Israelites, Greeks, and Romans, rape meant neither more nor less than a man using sexual property which he did not own. It was an offense against property.  The modern sense of rape is very different and, I think, much better. It will, however, require Christians to be ever so careful interpreting the Bible on this subject. The rules are there. The ethics set forth so clearly in Genesis and the New Testament tell us we must value humanity as individuals in community and in communication. Our sexual ethics must be built on this foundation and not a false adherence to ancient categories – or for that matter, modern ideas of individuality.

Posted by: dacalu | 1 June 2014

When and with Whom

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

O God, our times are in your hands; look graciously upon us, giving us good gifts in due season; help us to form loving relationships with one another, to find our true calling, not only as individuals but as friends, lovers, and companions; grant us, where it is your will, to find true partners, raise loving children, and show forth grace in all we do; in the name of him whose passion and humanity make us one, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Over the last several blogs I have tried to set forth a way of understanding the physical and emotional intimacy involved in sex. That way has more to do with a healthy perspective than a list of dos and don’ts. Here I wanted to sum up where we’ve been and try to answer directly “when” and “with whom” The challenge for me is that I think our society should  be having far more sex (intimacy mediated physically and communication about that intimacy) and far less sex (intercourse and fixation on things related to intercourse and procreation). I’m doing my best to encourage both at the same time.

Sex is a big deal in the same way that talking is a big deal. Anyone over the age of 13 should be aware that you can get in more trouble with your tongue than you ever imagined. One ill-timed word can ruin a friendship for life, or provoke a fight, or get you kicked out of a community. One well-timed speech can save a life, or even a country. It is important precisely because it is a regular part of life. And so we need to learn to be comfortable with it, to learn, to make mistakes while on our way to compassionate competence.

1) Sex is, first and foremost, about communication. As much as we might like to, we cannot separate sexual thoughts, behaviors, and relationships from the rest of our thoughts, behaviors, and relationships. Instead of making them taboo or rigidly fitting them into social norms, we need to be aware of how they work, what impact they have over us, and what we want to do with them. There is a broad range of “sexual” activity that includes how we dress, how we think of ourselves, and how we interact as well as whom we touch, and how, and with what part of our anatomy.

2) Intercourse and other types of physical intimacy can be very intense physically, mentally, and spiritually. Caution, patience, and reflection are called for if we want to do them compassionately and well. It’s best to start small and work your way up.

2a) It’s valuable to have some grasp of who you are before attempting to share that with someone else. None of us knows ourselves fully and sex can be an important part of figuring things out, but its worth setting the groundwork. Get to know your own body and emotions before exploring them with someone else. I hate strict guidelines, but as a point of reference, I’d recommend letting puberty set in for a year or two before trying anything explicitly sexual with another person.  Before 13, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to kiss or date, much less anything more serious. The feelings you have and the signals you get will be confused and may not be helpful in figuring yourself out in the present or future.

2b) It’s valuable to know who you are before committing to who you will be with someone else. Intercourse always comes with the possibility of a lifetime commitment. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, it need not be so serious, but the possibility of pregnancy and disease, not to mention the emotional impact of firsts means that this experience and this person could be with you for a very long time. Let some level of independence set in for a year or two before going all the way with someone – either intercourse or marriage. Before 19, it doesn’t seem worthwhile and can set you up for unhealthy relationships. You’ll want to have some ability to differentiate yourself from your parents lest you jump into a relationship to escape or perpetuate old habits.

2c) It’s important to have some ability to read others – their intentions, needs, and emotional state – before getting too involved with them. This, I cannot put an age on. It happens differently for everyone and intimate relationships are a necessary part of learning. I can only suggest that you reflect on it so that you learn to read the cues as early as possible. Start by figuring out what holding hands means to you and to them.  Work your way up. Try not to skip levels. This is not a competition to see who can make it around all four bases first (even though society tells you it is).

2d) It’s not just about you. Let me repeat that: it’s not just about you. It doesn’t matter whether you are ready if the other person is not and it takes serious skill and talent to figure out whether the other person is ready. It’s great if you believe you are precocious – some people are. If you want to jump in early, please take care that the other person is precocious as well. Find someone mature enough to help you reason this through. If you don’t have friends mature enough to reason this through, chances are good you’re not as precocious as you think you are.

2e) Parents, take it easy on your kids. See if you can communicate with them about what it all means without giving them an unhealthy attachment or aversion to sex. It is not a mystical and wonderful distant country to be aspired to when they are older. It is not a shameful place of guilty pleasure and/or pain to be avoided in all but the most proscribed of circumstances. It’s a way of figuring out who they are, what they want out of life and what God wants for them. Start talking to them early about gender and orientation and physicality. They will ask; you need only be calm and comfortable talking with them. It’s probably worth talking with your partner or friends about what topics you want to cover, how, and when. Don’t leave the strategic thinking until they are 13 and bring home a girlfriend.

3) Choose wisely. I’m a scientist and a fan of experimentation, but I mean that in a very particular way. Experiments call for a controlled environment and attention to detail. From your first sexual relationship to your last, find people you can trust and with whom you can communicate. Look for partners who will tell you what’s on their mind and ask what’s on yours. Find an appropriate time and place. Find people you trust to talk with about the experience and move one step at a time. Biology has conditioned us to pursue sex in a rush. It has also provided us with a brain that can make sex and relationships more fulfilling (and even better at producing children). We might as well use that brain.

4) Have fun – care does not mean lack of passion… Blogs are intellectual and verbal and concise. Sex is not (unless you go in for that sort of thing). Sex should be visceral as well as intellectual, expressive and expansive, however you express and expand yourself. It means blurring the boundaries between yourself and someone else. So I can only talk about one aspect – the intellectual moral one. There is a much more emotional moral one to attend to as well. And there is a letting go. Hopefully, these posts have given you some rational tools, with which you can prepare a place to be far less rational (but just as considerate).

5) Finally, be forgiving, both of yourself and others. If you don’t look like a fool when having sex, you’re not doing it right. God made us vulnerable and fragile and silly, perhaps so that we would never make the mistake of thinking we were perfect. Sex should be about sharing things you’ve never shared before and discovering things you didn’t know about yourself. They will be raw and unrefined; just another reason to take things slowly. It’s not about getting it right. It is about being honest and kind.

The process is never ideal. It couldn’t be. Every person is different and every relationship is different. I didn’t write this as an excuse to judge people who do it differently. I wrote it as a meditation for people who want to do it right – for whatever value of right they (with God’s help) come to. And I really think being honest and kind and careful at whatever stage you find yourself will make the whole process more rewarding for everyone.

I write with the hope that we, as a society, can learn to be more open about these difficult issues. They are important in Christianity because they are important in life. And talking about our hopes, fears, and expectations helps. For me, the good news of Jesus Christ means that our humanity may be fulfilled by attending to the love God has for us and the opportunity to love one another – and valuing that love, in joy and humility, above all else. Where better for such love to play out than in sexuality? (And where else can it be so diverted?) You may well disagree with me. I’d love to hear if you do. I may change my position or a I may not but both of us will know a little more about our priorities and about our selves.

Posted by: dacalu | 21 May 2014

Children as a Reason for Sex?

 

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

In my last post, I addressed the question “Why Have Sex?” My friend Josh pointed out that I left children off of the list. Aren’t children a reason to have sex?

Sex can and does produce children, and while that can be a good reason to have sex, it is my sincere hope that almost everyone choosing to do so is also in the process of forming a strong relationship with their partner. The bar should be ever so much higher for choosing to have children with someone than choosing to have sex with someone, so by and large, I will assume people make the sex decision first.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that the scheme presented applies perfectly to the question “Why Have Children?” As I pointed out in a recent post, I do not think there is inherent virtue in reproduction. There is inherent virtue in forming relationships.

1) Desire for a deeper relationship with partner AND discovering a relationship with the child. Note that the relationship with the partner may not be one of marriage, but it is nonetheless life-long when a child is involved. Compassionate communication is necessary to make that work healthily in any case.

2 through 6 also represent common reasons to have a child. They become deeply, deeply dysfunctional when not informed by compassionate communication. Because every person should be treated as an end in themselves – and not as a means to an end – the less pure motivations for having sex become positively unethical when applied to having a child, or to having sex in the hopes of producing a child.

2 an 3) Pleasure and Comfort. Children can be a blessing to parents and grandparents, but they must be viewed as ends in themselves and not as an asset or client to the family.

4) Control. Children are frequently used, either as an object of control or as a lever by which to move a partner. The classic trope is of an opportunistic woman having sex with a man, so that she will become pregnant and he will have to support her. Alternately, we have stories of men seducing women so that they will become pregnant and be brought into the wife’s family. At a less drastic level, we can see cases of men and women using the possibility of children to keep their partner off balance emotionally.

5) Self-medication. Many people believe that children will solve personal or relational problems simply by coming into being. While children can provide common purpose and common identity to a couple, they can also exacerbate already existing emotional problems. I cannot recommend having children in the belief that it will fix a troubled life. I am under the impression that it fails to solve the problems and is cruel to the child.

6) Social expectations. There is straightforward social pressure to have children, often from parents wishing to be grandparents. As with the other reasons, this one is not enough, in itself. You have to want a relationship with the child and be willing to enter into shared responsibility with your partner.

Most of the time, I don’t think the hope of having children alone is a good enough reason to have sex. You need to want children with someone. Within the context of a relationship, I think the list of reasons works.

In rare cases, I do think we are called by God to have offspring and raise them as a single parent. I do not mean to dismiss those who have children by in-vitro fertilization or surrogacy and raise them without a partner. Those involve their own ethical issues to be dealt with later; meanwhile, they don’t involve having sex, so I’m off the hook for now (whew!). I am unconvinced that there is a low tech equivalent: if you are considering someone as a biological co-parent and are thinking of having sex with them, it will be important to view it as a profound relationship with long-term consequences for both of you. The rules of relationship still apply, so the ethics of having sex with them still apply.

 

Posted by: dacalu | 21 May 2014

Why Have Sex?

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

Holy Trinity, you made us one for another, that in coming to know another we might better know ourselves and you, in whose image we are made; grant that we may each be blessed by our sexuality and find grace in intimacy, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Amen.

Why have sex? That probably sounds like an easy question to answer. It is a biological drive and a great source of pleasure. All of this is true, but it does not capture the incredible complexity of our motivations. In this post I would like to explore the reasons we choose physical intimacy and how that might affect the choices we make.

Why have sex? I have suggested in recent posts that the core purpose of sex is to deepen relationships. The idea covers a host of intimacies from a touching hands to intercourse. For this post, I’m just going to say “sex” with the understanding that the whole range exists. It’s worth being thoughtful and kind in all types of physical communication and, of course the amount of thought and care we invest should be proportional to the significance of the interaction.

When choosing whether to have sex at a given time, it’s worth attending to what you want out of the interaction – and what your partner wants.

1)      Compassionate communication. I see this as the primary goal for sex. Do you see this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and the other person? Do you know them well enough to be confident they have the same intention? Are you curious? There’s a good chance your motivation is wrong if you know exactly what you want to do with this person. Good sex means discovery, even playfulness in encountering another. Hopefully this will be true even for long term partners; we change with time. We experience new things. Sex can be an opportunity to enter into their perspective in a profound way.

2)      Pleasure. Yes, sex is about generating happiness and yes, that’s a good reason to have sex. And… And it is important not to confuse anticipated pleasure with actual pleasure. One of the reasons Christians advocate care and delay in having sex is pure pragmatism. It’s worth figuring out what gives you pleasure and what gives your partner pleasure. Jumping directly into an intense physical relationship can result in some very unpleasant circumstances, both in the long term and the short term. God gave us brains; it is worth using them to help us achieve our ends. That often means figuring out how to get perspective…especially when we feel driven by our desires.

These are both good reasons to have sex. I would say 1 is better than 2, because a real care for the pleasure of your partner (both short term and long term) requires communication. Sadly, people have sex for a number of other reasons other than 1 and 2. It’s worth being aware of when you or your partner might have these motivations. I’m not saying they are inherently bad, but I do think they can lead to bad (unethical) and bad (unpleasant) sex when we allow them to get in the way of compassionate communication.

3)      Comfort. In the best sense of the word, comfort means something that is strengthening. When dealing with shock or loss, physical comfort can be extremely important, up to and including intercourse.

4)      Control. One of the most fundamental human insecurities has to do with feeling a lack of control. Some people feel particularly powerless with regard to their sexuality and act out in order to feel more in control – or to feel like they have “lost” control. The huge social weight we attach to sex in addition to a strong biological drive means this is a common way for people to act out on their control issues. Other people feel powerless in other areas of their lives and see sex as a way of coping. In either case, the desire to use sex – and hence use a partner – to help with control issues can be very strong. This appears most dramatically in cases of bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism but manages to show up in a broad range of sexual activities. Less severe examples include using sexuality to embarrass (by teasing, flirting inappropriately sexual contact,…) or manipulate (as threat or bribe).

5)      Self-medication. Physical intimacy comes with a whole host of chemical and emotional responses. People can use everything from visual stimulation, to touching, to intercourse to distract them from other issues in their life. Again, this appears dramatically in sex addiction, but lesser forms of self-medication may include constantly seeking new and exotic romantic (and/or sexual) partners or using sex as a way to avoid actually talking with a friend or spouse.

6)      Social expectations. In American culture, we face a strong expectation that we will be sexually experienced by the time we leave college and that we will regularly have sex once we become an adult, either with a spouse or while dating. One common case of extreme dysfunction involves having sex with a spouse even though it is uncommunicative, unpleasant, and manipulative, just because it is expected. Many themes in popular media – most transparently the movie Forty Year Old Virgin – rely on the myth that if you are not having sex, you must be defective.

No doubt, there are other reasons as well, but I think these are some of the most common. Again, I’m not saying that reasons 3-6 are bad reasons to have sex. We are all dealing with the challenges of being alive in the world. Sex can be an amazing opportunity for us to deal with very difficult life issues, literally in the arms of someone we love. This only works though if you start with reason number 1. Compassionate communication is the only thing that can turn 3-6 from selfish usage of one person by another into a profound act that strengthens both.

Being aware of your true motivations–and your partner’s–before being too intimate can lead to healthier, happier relationships and a healthier, happier you. That will require humility, self-examination, talking, and even a bit of experimentation to get things right. If you approach the whole affair with a light heart, genuine curiosity, and caution that respects both people’s vulnerability, this should not be too difficult. It will mean, though, waiting to find someone both trusting and trustworthy, someone you are curious about and who it curious about you.

Posted by: dacalu | 19 May 2014

The Truth about the Truth

This Sunday I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of University Lutheran in Cambridge, MA. Here is the sermon I shared.

 

Readings

Acts 7:55-60 (The stoning of Stephen)

1 Peter 2:2-10 (“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood”)

John 14:1-14 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life”)

 

Sermon

Hello. My name is Lucas Mix and I am a recovering academic.

It’s been 7 years since I last took a degree.

 

I was working on a PhD at Harvard in evolutionary biology.

About three years into the program, I made a horrifying discovery.

I was not in control of my own productivity.

As hard as I worked,

as many nights as I studied instead of sleeping,

as carefully as I attended to my research,

sometimes I simply couldn’t make progress.

The progress in question

had to do with culturing strains of green non-sulfur bacteria,

filamentous anoxygenic phototrophs,

so that I could isolate their proteins.

After a year, I had almost nothing to show for my work.

 

We live in a society, particularly here in Cambridge,

where our worth is measured in productivity,

success, money, publications, appointments.

And, though I was doing all I could, I simply could not produce

in the way that I wanted to.

I was afraid of being a failure as an academic,

and having invested so much of my life, my identity,

in the academy,

I was afraid of being a failure as a person.

In retrospect it seems trivial;

at the time it was terrifying.

 

I had to learn, as an academic, and as a person,

that there would be seasons of growth,

and seasons of stagnation,

times of increase and times of stasis,

even times when things seemed to be going backwards.

Above all, I had to learn that,

though there was always something I could do,

I was not the only one in control of the outcome.

I had to let go.

 

 

As heart wrenching as this was for me,

I suspect I can barely imagine the sort of anxiety

Thomas must have felt in today’s Gospel,

my favorite skeptic, pragmatist, and (occasional) pessimist:

“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

These are words for a disciple,

words for the foot of the cross,

words for the road,

and I think words for every day.

How are we to make sense of this God, so seemingly in control,

and yet seemingly out of control,

this world so strange and wonderful

and occasionally terrifying.

“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

 

I like to use the words of the twelve steps from alcoholics anonymous.

I have come to believe that in times like this

a Power greater than myself

can restore me to sanity.

I have made a decision to turn my will and my life

over to the care of God

as I, in my limited understanding,

understand God.

 

I don’t mean to make light of alcoholism.

I consider myself immeasurably blessed

to be free from chemical addiction.

Still, I see the twelve steps as a terribly useful spiritual practice,

crafted in response to a real problem many of us face,

and applicable to the life of any disciple.

I commend them to you.

 

We are confronted again and again in our lives

with circumstances beyond our control:

events, communities, challenges

that make us question who we are,

whether we have the power to succeed,

or even just make the world a livable place.

Thomas faced the death of God incarnate.

Paul and Stephen faced persecution

by the religious and civil establishment.

We face war and natural disaster,

systems of oppression, violence, and corruption.

And it all seems overwhelming sometimes,

but there is a response.

 

 

Neither do I want to make light of the academy.

I have chosen to live my life,

largely within the confines of the ivory tower,

to serve as a scholar, a student, and a teacher.

This is a valuable pursuit,

one I never left.

Still, I consider myself a recovering academic

for one very important reason.

I have a tendency to forget why I study,

and why I teach.

I forget that I do it because I take joy in learning,

and because God asked me to.

I forget that learning is, by itself a wonderful thing,

and not just a means to an end,

even if that end is “fixing” the world.

I forget that no matter how hard I try,

I am not the only one in control.

Knowledge cannot fix everything,

and sometimes true knowledge is hard to come by.

 

So, in my fourth year of doctoral work,

I came to understand that academia,

for me,

only made sense in light of my relationship with Jesus.

He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.”

 

What matters to me,

at the end of the day, is whether I know him,

and the children of his Father,

and the world that, through him was made.

As a Christian, everything makes sense in the light of Christ.

 

 

I am an academic,

but only in moderation.

God gives knowledge and productivity.

I seek God through these things,

and I seek these things in God.

That letting go,

that acceptance that I can plant and water,

but only God gives growth,

that is freedom for me.

It allows me to be a skeptic, and a pragmatist,

and occasionally a pessimist.

Yes, I’m responsible for the work,

but God is responsible for the result.

It allows me to devote myself to the best scholarship I can,

without fear of the outcome.

 

Thomas said to Jesus,

“Lord, we do not know where you are going.

How can we know the way?”

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

 

We are Christians,

we know the truth,

but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to follow it.

It doesn’t mean we don’t have to run to keep up.

 

Many, both inside and outside the church,

would take my sermon so far

as an excuse not to reason,

not to study,

not to work at the wisdom of Christ.

But that is not what Jesus asked for.

In Jesus’ most famous response to Thomas, he said,

“Do not doubt but believe.”

“Have you believed because you have seen me?”

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Thomas’ care for the truth was rewarded,

but it was a care for the person of Christ,

and not just a care for the doctrines of Christians.

How could the Truth be a reason not to seek truth?

And how could the way mean anything if it is not a way to walk.

 

And so, I am a Christian academic,

one who trusts God can stand up to any amount of questioning,

indeed, one who trusts that God wants to be questioned.

How else are we to come to know the truth?

I finished my Ph.D. and headed off for seminary.

I now have a tendency to overthink things,

both as a scientist and as a theologian.

Seriously, though, I have found my calling in life

in helping people speak the different many languages

of reason and faith,

because most of us do have our eyes on the prize.

We want real understanding of the world we find ourselves in.

For my part, I continue to explore theoretical and theological biology.

How do we understand the concept of life?

What work does it do in religion and biology?

How do our models shape the way we think about

and investigate the universe?

 

And every once in a while, I think too hard.

Every once in a while I think my pursuit is about capturing

or claiming the truth,

about putting it in a box so I can control it,

or pinning it to my chest so I can brag about,

or forging it into a hammer

so I can hit people over the head with it.

 

You’ve all done these things.

I know you have.

I have too.

 

There is a profound difference between knowing God

and knowing about God.

Christianity reminds us that the truth is not some thingto be used.

It is someone to be met:

someone who doesn’t always show up,

someone we sometimes have to track down, chase, and find,

but also someone who shows up,

unasked,

perhaps even unwanted,

but always exciting, joyous, and revealing.

 

Christianity says not only that the Truth can be met,

but that when we meet him,

we will discover that he is good.

 

 

I have a dual vocation.

As a scientist, I pursue the truth about the natural world.

As a priest I help people to encounter it for themselves,

and encounter him through whom it all makes sense.

I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists,

a group of people with a similar dual vocation,

who know that speaking truth

sometimes requires knowing a second language,

a group of people who feel that our two vocations,

support and strengthen one another.

My pursuit of truth in science and academia has been enhanced,

not only by my relationship with Christ,

not only by the wisdom found in theology,

but by the concrete practices of the church,

by daily prayer and meditation,

by reflecting on scripture,

by knowing that I am not alone in my pursuits.

This community, the Church, is with me.

The rituals of the Church comfort and support me.

The rules of the Church (usually) keep me in line.

And the words of our tradition,

including, believe it or not, the twelve steps,

help to keep me sane.

 

 

This is not just my calling; it is a calling for many of you as well.

To seek and share the truth through knowing.

This is a Lutheran congregation.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that all of us are priests.

All of us have been asked, even required, to go into the world,

sharing the love of Christ

and making the ways and wisdom of the Church

accessible to all.

All of us have been asked to mediate God for one another,

as my friend, Bill Countryman says,

to serve as guides, living on the borders of the holy.

Academia can be such a border,

a frontier, where the truth of God’s creation

and God’s coming Kingdom,

may be seen more clearly and lived more fully;

but only if we are willing to let it be the border country,

and not the homeland,

the path and not the destination;

and only if we give up being completely in control of the process.

 

 

“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,

in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts

of him who called you out of darkness

into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

 

I hope, with me, you will follow Thomas,

in questioning God, so that you may come to know,

in questioning reality, so that you may come to serve,

and it in letting go of responsibility for the outcome,

so that God, working in us,

can bring about infinitely more

than we can ask or imagine.

Posted by: dacalu | 15 May 2014

Is It Virtuous to Have Children?

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” Genesis 1:28

A tremendous weight of Christian sexual ethics, not to mention environmental ethics, rests on this one line from scripture. Let me suggest that it provides an important key to both Israelite sexual ethics and later Christian thought. First, Old Testament sexual ethics depends on a particular reading of God’s will: God want’s the people of Israel to have children – lot’s and lot’s of children. Second, New Testament ethics considers the end to be accomplished. Procreation may be a blessing but is not, in itself, virtuous.

“So Numerous and Strong”

Sexual ethics in Genesis and Leviticus can seem somewhat arbitrary to modern ears. It becomes clearer once you recognize two fundamental premises of Israelite culture, one theological and one scientific.

Theologically, God had commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Moreover, God had promised Abraham offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven (Genesis 26:4). The Israelites thought God was invested in their becoming a great and populous people, capable of out-competing their neighbors and ruling the Holy Land. This was a promise God made to the people and a promise the people made to God. Thus they felt a moral obligation, for the sake of obedience, to take a spouse and produce many children. Procreation was considered both virtuous and obligatory.

Scientifically, the Israelites had a different picture of how children happened. Along with the Greeks and most cultures around the world until the 19th century, they thought that the father planted a seed within the mother. We now know that fertilized eggs come from a fusion of male and female gametes in most animals and plants. The sperm and egg come together to make a genetically new organism which begins as a single celled “zygote” (in the mother’s fallopian tube for humans). We now know that this zygote, and not the father’s semen, is analogous to the plant seed. Ancient biologists and doctors, however, thought the form of the baby came entirely from the father. The mother only contributed food and shelter. That gave semen a moral weight, for which there was no female parallel.

Israelite sexual ethics, as seen in Leviticus and throughout the Old Testament, reflects a call to purity, certainly, but it also contains very practical advice for not wasting semen. The goal was to ensure every drop was directed to increasing the size of the community. That meant that semen was intended for the production of certifiable offspring – legitimate heirs by a wife or recognizable members of the clan by a concubine or slave.

Intercourse between men was prohibited (Lev. 18:22, 20:13), but no parallel needed to be drawn between women, because no sperm was at stake. Intercourse with animals was prohibited, lest the men waste seed or the women be corrupted (Lev. 18:23, 20:15-16). Intercourse with a menstruating woman was prohibited (Lev. 20:18). There is no mention of masturbation, though in the story of Onan (Gen. 38) God punishes Onan for stopping intercourse and spilling his seed on the ground.

That same story emphasizes an odd dichotomy between rules against a man marrying his brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21) and injunctions that he must marry his brother’s widow (Levirite marriage; Gen. 38:8; Deut. 25:5-10). This caused stress at the time of Jesus (Matt. 22:24) and later to Henry VIII, who married his brother’s widow (Catherine of Aragon) and was subsequently without heir, the penalty mentioned in Leviticus. I would suggest this is easily resolved if we note that the important aspect was to provide an heir for your dead brother. In an age where men have multiple wives, it insures that every man (with the wealth to marry) ends up with someone to inherit their wealth. Such concerns only apply after his death.

The command to procreate also explains the importance of knowing who the father is. The child produced from a father’s seed is the offspring of the father, but only incidentally of the mother . Israelite ethics are set up to insure that the men have as many offspring as possible and that any women who might be bearing the children of non-Israelite men are removed.

Other proposals have been suggested to explain all these rules, but the virtue of procreation seems the simplest and most straightforward.

(Just to be clear, this is not modern Jewish ethics! It is Israelite Ethics from around 500 BC.)

 

Mission Accomplished

Christians have a different take, or should have a different take. According to tradition, neither Jesus nor Paul had a wife or children. This means they did not see procreation as required. Nor should we, following Jesus, feel obligated to have children. Nor is it a communal requirement.  God is capable of rising up followers from the very stones of the earth; propagation is not necessary for preserving the church.

If you read Genesis 1:28 carefully, you will see that God issued a command with a condition. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Mission accomplished; humans have covered the face of the earth and we have subdued it. We exercise dominion and the command has been fulfilled.

Does this mean procreation is immoral? No. I still believe many, if not most, Christians are called to marry and have children. The ability and opportunity to have children are blessings. That said, there is a time and place. If procreation is not inherently virtuous, then sometimes it might be a vice. In a world with so many starving people, social and economic justice questions must arise. Can this new person be fed without taking food away from others? Will this new person upset the balance of society?

This is not an argument for abortion. In that case, I believe the person is already present; we are asking how we should treat it. I am making an argument for contraception. If procreation is no longer a matter of obedience – for we have fulfilled the command; if procreation is no longer a matter of purity – for the New Covenant does away with purity; then sex should be allowed to serve love at times where procreation is not called for.

It would be a mistake, as modern Christians, to feel bound by the Israelite law. As with every other opportunity in the New Covenant, we must work out with God the right thing to do. We cannot assume that more children is always better.

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