Monday, October 27, 2014

Disability, Limits, and the Church

A couple weeks ago, the World Council of Churches called for more inclusivity of people with disabilities in churches. The coordinator of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network apparently said this:

“The communion of the churches in unity and diversity is impaired without the gifts and presence of all people, including persons with disability.”

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this statement since I first read it. There's so much to unpack here with respect to my theological interests.

Ever since I started trying to do embodied theology, theology that is in and of and about the flesh, I have been compelled by the image of the Church as Christ's body. This is already a powerfully rich and evocative image in New Testament literature. The image is present in Paul's letters to the Romans, the Ephesians, and the Colossians, but I suppose it gets its most extensive treatment in 1 Corinthians 12.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.
I often think about taking this image quite seriously. Given what we know about bodies – from queer theory, from crip theory, from critical race theory – what does it mean that we the Church are, collectively, Christ's body? And what does it mean to call this body, for whatever reason, impaired?

On the social model of disability, “impairment” usually refers to a physical fact about a specific body, while “disability” as such is caused by social and environmental factors. Any disability theory worth its salt from the last five years or more will, of course, note that this distinction is as necessary a step and as unsustainable a dualism as the sex/gender distinction: one can no more conflate these things absolutely than one can separate them entirely. Impairment (/sex) the physical fact and disability (/gender) the social construct are hopelessly entangled, to the point that even what we call “the physical fact” (of impairment or of sex) is itself a social construction.

Deborah Beth Creamer proposes a model of “limits” to displace or supplement the social model's inadequacies. Limits are not identical with either “disability” or “impairment,” and are inherently value-neutral. As a society we naturalize some limits (a person who cannot fly is normal) and pathologize others (a person who cannot walk is defective). As in Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's concept of “misfit,” our understanding of limits tends to be circumscribed by the relations between human bodies and their environment, but attention to the limit or misfit can enable us to interrogate the “default” bodies we construct. Disability becomes “an intrinsic, unsurprising, and valuable element of human limit-ness” (Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, 96).

So far, so human; but what of God? What about the limits of God? The classical theological notion of kenosis, self-emptying, proposes that God took on limits in the incarnation; but, traditionally, this was in order to overcome said limits through glorification and resurrection. But if the Church is Christ's body – a body of bodies, human bodies, defined by the having of limits – is God, then, not still flesh? Still material? Still limited?

The Church is Christ's body, but it is also a (or many) human institution(s), and as such it is deeply flawed – perhaps even impaired, in the most negative sense – and never more so than when it practices the exclusion of those whose bodies are too disabled, too queer, the wrong color. The Church is the communion of saints, but it is also a temporal coalition of temporal bodies, and as such it has limits – limits that are not necessarily intrinsically good or bad, but limits that are constitutive of it as a body.

I wonder what that means.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Habakkuk 1:2

This morning, we had an active shooter drill on campus. We had our emergency response plans in place from a preparatory meeting a few weeks ago, and today we tested them out. When the alert was sent out – by text, email, phone call – everyone in the building where I work piled into a little office, locked all the doors behind us, and spent the next ten minutes sharing stories of other workplace drills and laughing too loudly in the buzz of adrenaline.

This week, the town of Ferguson, MO, is under siege. Last night, all the activists I know were glued to Twitter and its eyewitness accounts of staggering police brutality.

My school, the place where I study and work, is located in one of the 10 wealthiest counties in the nation. Ensconced in our office, my coworkers and I talked about friends in other places who had been mugged. All of us are white.


Campus Safety is working hard to protect my school against the remote possibility of a gunman on campus. Statistically, he would be white, male, lone, probably a disgruntled student.

Police in Ferguson shot and murdered an unarmed Black man. The community has refused to accept this. The police have responded by going nuclear.

When we had the first meeting about the active shooter drill, I panicked. I'm still not accustomed to gun culture and the idea that I might have to face it firsthand freaked me out.

I'm ashamed of myself. I'm ashamed of my race.

There's a lesson in this juxtaposition. I'm learning something visceral about the nexus of violence, poverty, race, and security in the US. I struggle to unpack the enormity of the injustice. Long may it haunt me.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Trouble With Trans Discourse

My God, I am sick of trans discourse.

I am sick of the toxicity of each subculture of trans ideology toward those who do not share its particular rigid orthodoxy (none of which are adequate anyway). I am sick of the bitter infighting, and I am sick of the calls for unity. I am sick of the holier-than-thou posturing of the language police, and I am sick of the pretensions to bold truth-telling in the face of censorship. I am sick of hearing what's a slur and who needs to lighten up. I am sick of hearing who's a true transsexual, who's a newly-minted queer, who's a gendertrender, who's a quisling shill for the cissupremacy/patriarchy, who deserves necessary medical treatment or basic fucking human respect based on whether or not they agree with your definitions. I am sick of everybody wanting to eradicate everybody else.

I'm sick of radfem ideology. I'm sick of the oversimplification of claiming that, because the social construction of the gender binary as we know it is harmful, gender as such needs to be eradicated. I'm sick of the reduction of sexism to the nakedly biological, as if sexual dimorphism were the entirety of biological sex/gender diversity, as if patriarchy could be exhaustively described by “people who can't get pregnant oppressing people who can get pregnant,” as if its complex matrix of the material and the discursive could be adequately described in terms of uteri alone, as if the Foucauldian soul had never been posited.

I'm sick of truscum ideology. I'm sick of the oversimplification of asserting that being trans is always and necessarily reducible to a medical condition. I'm sick of the implied reification of medical conditions, as if they were eternal, subsistent, and external to the culture that diagnoses them. I'm sick of the binarism, the refusal to treat nonbinary genders as legitimate. I'm sick of the biological reductionism that dovetails exactly with the TERF understanding of sex and gender, differing only in the degree to which they believe trans people should have access to medical care.

I'm sick of genderspecial ideology. I'm sick of the reduction of gender to a feeling, to something that has no overlap with the flesh in which it is manifest, to a garment that can be donned or sloughed with the day's outfit. I'm sick of the holding sacrosanct of potato genders and nounself pronouns, placing them above critique just because someone nebulously “identifies as” them. I'm sick of the disembodiment of gender just as much as I'm sick of the biological reductionism thereof.

I'm sick of appeals to chromosomes or gonads, of claims of “deception” or the knowability of “true sex,” of the kind of biological reductionism that binds me to my birth assignment. I'm sick of born-this-way-ism, of brain sex and prenatal hormone exposure, of the kind of biological reductionism that is nothing but trans apologetics. I'm sick of airy-fairy gendering that erases the body so utterly as to make people believe that medical care is not a necessity for those who require it.

For most of my master's degree, I avoided writing about gender. I was undertaking the coming-out process, and I felt that, in a life where gender (what it is, how you know, what mine is) consumed my every waking thought, my academic work constituted a single blessed corner of relief. I would talk about Derrida and Johannine Christology and new media theory, and I could immerse myself in deep topics where for once, for once in my life, I didn't have to think about gender.

Now, in my doctoral work, engaging with gender seems unavoidable. It's still not my primary interest – I'm more interested in disability and crip theory, Eucharistic theology, and phenomenology – but I can't seem to talk about anything else without also talking about gender.

I fantasize about quitting Tumblr, about shutting down this zombie blog, about leaving trans discourse altogether. I believe in listening more than I talk, and most of the time I suspect that what I have to say is neither interesting nor valuable.

But, my God, anyone should talk who can add a little nuance to the trans wars 2k14 and their relentless, horrifying oversimplifications.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Boyhood/Girlhood

Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood sounds fantastic, and yet I've been consciously avoiding going to see it. Two years into social transition, one and a half into medical transition, I still feel that little fishhook of pain in my chest when I contemplate boyhood and my lack thereof.

To comply with the popular trans discourse, I suppose I would have to claim that I “always was” a boy, even when I didn't know it. To be sure, there can be both rhetorical and emotional value in the “always was” narrative, but for me that is a conscious rewriting of my history, which doesn't sit quite right with me.

Not that it's not to some degree true. There is a truth in the suggestion that I always was a boy; there is a truth in the admission that I never had a boyhood. These truths are not contradictory so much as complementary. Each alone only tells a fragment of the story.

For me, the value of the “always was” narrative is very limited. I see its use for trans people who were conscious of their gender from an early age; but what does it really mean for me? For a female-assigned child with two cis brothers, who deeply internalized the “(birth) genitals=gender” message of a cissexist society, who could plainly see that I was not a boy in the precise way that my brothers were boys, who did not know that there was any other way to be a boy and who therefore assumed that my desire to be a boy belonged to the same imaginary realm as my desire to go to wizard school? (And later, on discovering feminism, decided my desire to be a boy must be rooted in internalized misogyny?)

I find more use in a negative framing and a paradox: it's not that I “always was” a boy, but that I never was a girl, and that I was not a girl even as I was a girl.

The logic of Jewish philosopher and theologian Peter Ochs is helpful here. For Ochs, the dyadic logic of binarism – the notion that not-X is the opposite of X – is properly applicable only to situations of suffering. To the sufferer, actions either help alleviate the suffering (X) or they do not help (not-X), and as such the world can be divided into the binary categories of X and not-X. In all other situations, however, binarism is misapplied, and it is an oversimplification and a logical misstep to assume that not-X is necessarily the opposite or absence of X.

This, I think, is the logic of transition, and it helps to explain why trans people, particularly in the earlier stages of transition, can be so sensitive to seemingly small aspects of the gendered world, such as being called “sir” or “ma'am” at the grocery store. A transitioning person experiences gender from a place of suffering, and as such divides the world into two categories: my-gender and not-my-gender. Anything that reinforces my-gender helps to alleviate the suffering; anything that reinforces not-my-gender does not help.

(Clearly, I am referring to a binary-identified trans person. I have not yet thought through the implications of this logic – or even, if I'm to be perfectly honest, the limited temporality inherent to the concept of “transition” – with respect to non-binary genders.)

However, the binary logic of my-gender and not-my-gender only applies once I am consciously aware of my gender. Accordingly, it would be inaccurate to retroject this binarism onto my childhood. My childhood as I lived it at the time was, as far as I knew, a girlhood. My childhood as I view it from my current perspective as a male adult is not-a-girlhood. Both perspectives are true.

Much as I long for boyhood, driven by losstalgia for a past that was never mine, and much as I could psychoanalyze my childhood gender identity, seeking evidence for the sublimation of my own felt maleness into an abundance of carefully nurtured fictional personae – even so, I have had experiences that turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Anglo-American culture categorizes under the heading of “girlhood.” I was given dolls and dresses alongside legos and pants. I was permitted, even encouraged, to embrace masculinity as male-assigned children still tend not, even in liberal households, to be encouraged to embrace femininity. I first embraced feminism as an insider, and I know firsthand fears such as that of walking alone among men as a (perceived) woman at night (though I think I am a better feminist now that I am no longer at war with the feminine in me).

My girlhood, as I understand it now, is not a matter of having “been” a girl, but of having experienced much of what is culturally considered to be part of girlhood. It is not an ontological but an epistemological girlhood. Even as I ache for the boyhood I should have had, I recognize that I have learned a great deal from girlhood and that it has been a major contributor to the man I am becoming.

I don't know if I will ever learn to love my girlhood. But I hope to someday be at peace with it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Things I Read: Justin Holcomb's 'Know the Creeds & Councils' and 'Know the Heretics'

This review is based on digital review copies provided by NetGalley.

Justin Holcomb's new books from Zondervan, Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils, make good companion pieces for the lay reader who wants greater familiarity with the history of the Christian faith. Creeds and Councils is the stronger work, but Heretics has a more important goal.

I assumed, from certain tell-tale tics of vocabulary and theological emphasis, that the two volumes were aimed primarily at an evangelical-leaning audience. It surprised me to learn that Holcomb is an Episcopal priest; I rather suspect he went out of his way to be accessible to the popular evangelical subculture of the US. (Of course, he might just be more conservative than me. He did get his PhD from Emory, and I was specifically warned off applying there because I would be too radical for them.) In my experience, evangelical Christianity tries to put the Bible above all else. The trouble is, an awful lot of Christian tradition cannot possibly be derived by the individual from scripture alone – for example, the Trinity. Creeds and Councils would be a valuable book for readers in a position like my own of about five years ago: unclear about the relationship between certain church doctrines and scripture, unsatisfied with the answers provided in an evangelical context, uncertain where to look for a history of doctrine that is not geared too specifically toward a single denomination.

It's a nicely laid out book, first explicating the differences between a creed, a confession, a catechism, and a council, and then going on to examine a number of important examples of all four. Holcomb hits all the biggies, from Nicaea and Chalcedon through the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession down to Vatican II (and, somewhat surprisingly to me, the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy). Each chapter provides historical background for the creed (or council, etc.) in question, a summary of its contents, an exploration of its theological relevance, discussion questions, and a list of further reading. It's a solid structure that should have particular appeal for evangelicals, with their love of expository preaching. Throughout, Holcomb tries to stress the importance of knowing this history, critiquing those who “decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct 'real Christianity' with nothing more than a Bible” (10). Holcomb's critique has a particularly evangelical flavor to it, focusing on “being faithful to God” (10) and how “Jesus continues to build his church” (22) – not arguments I would personally have used, but appropriate ones for his audience.

Know the Heretics is a more exciting and potentially more challenging idea for a lay evangelical readership. I can't be the only ex-evangelical who has been told not to even read certain books because of their poisonous theological content, and I think it's still a pervasive attitude in certain strands of Christianity that faith is a fragile thing that must be protected from too strong a challenge lest it crumble. The distinction between heterodoxy and heresy is one of the reasons I left an evangelicalism that seemed narrowly prescriptivist for the broad theological tent of Anglicanism, and Holcomb's solid Episcopalian emphasis on that distinction is a crucial contribution to evangelicalism as I experienced it.

Structurally, Heretics is similar to Creeds and Councils, providing background, content, relevance, discussion questions, and further reading for each heretic – Gnostics, Marcion, Docetists, Arius, Pelagius, and so on. However, I have three major reservations about this volume.

First, at an epistemic level, I find Holcomb's truth-claims unsatisfying. Again, this reflects my viewpoint as both an ex-evangelical and a graduate student in theology and philosophy, but frankly any definitive statement of theological truth or falsehood makes me uncomfortable. I am willing to accept value judgments of a given theological statement as good or bad (referring to its intellectual honesty, its coherence, its fruitfulness or harmfulness, among others), but in general I think that to call theology true or false is to make a category mistake. For example, modalism and partialism are models of understanding the Trinity; a model is not true or false, but is misused when it is taken literally or ontologically, rather than being seen as a way of understanding at least one aspect of something bigger than itself. To me heresy is not a matter of giving the wrong answer to a legitimate question, as Holcomb defines it (12), but of elevating the finite to the level of the infinite. (You could also call this the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Or idolatry.)

Second, I find Holcomb's soteriology inadequate, and borderline disingenuous. Substitutionary atonement is throughout presented as the only orthodox soteriology, and is used to bolster Holcomb's Christology: “Only a divine Savior can bear the weight of God's wrath in atonement. Only Jesus as the God-man can satisfy the enormous debt and penalty caused by human sin against God. … Only a divine Savior can pay the costly price for redeeming us from our bondage to sin and death” (97). A major reason for my drift from evangelicalism is my no longer finding substitutionary atonement sufficient. Frankly, I think it's an example of the very fallacy I described in the above paragraph: one specific model of atonement has been concretized above all other models. The anthropocentrism of this soteriology is distasteful to me, especially given than John 1:14 states not that the Word became human (anthropos), but that the Word became flesh (sarx). To me, a good soteriology must stress the redemption of all creation, and thus a good Christology must understand Christ not narrowly as a “God-man” but expansively as Creator-creation. Holcomb hedges the possibility of alternate soteriological models, discussing only Socinus' view (“Jesus' death is only an example,” chapter 12) which is set up as an unacceptably extreme alternative to substitution, instead of a different model that demonstrates a different (but still important) aspect of salvation.

Third, the heretics of the first chapter, whose heresy is summarized as “The old rules still apply,” are referred to unreflectively as “Judaizers.” Christianity's history of antisemitism is such that, if you're going to use a term like “Judaizers” and be unrepentantly supersessionist, you had damn well better acknowledge the embedded anti-Jewishness here and actively combat it. That Holcomb doesn't is not a minor point of theological disagreement but a major and unfortunate misstep.

With these reservations taken under advisement, I do think these two books provide a generally sound and accessible introduction to the history of church doctrine, especially for Christians whose denominational background under-emphasizes the role of tradition and history.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Is Masculinity Inherently Toxic?

A while ago, Red Durkin posted something on Facebook celebrating Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, expressing her delight at having two such fantastic people as the highest-profile trans women in the US at the moment.

One trans man's response was a jocular wish that the guys had anyone half as good to represent us. As he pointed out, who do we have? Chaz Bono? Buck Angel?

What I want to know is: why

Why are the high-profile trans women amazing people who speak out with incredible nuance and sophistication about intersectionality, while the high-profile trans men are just swimming in unchecked male privilege and douchebaggery?

Is it because they're men? Is masculinity inherently toxic?

The answer is, I think, more complicated than a simple "yes" or "no." It's a bit of both.

Obviously not all men -- not all trans men, not all cis men, not all non-binary-but-masculine-leaning people -- are privilege-denying (trans-)misogynists. I'm not literally saying that all men are terrible and all masculinity is toxic. But I do think that, as long as we are uncritically beholden to western late capitalism's current construction of maleness and masculinity, we can't help but be misogynistic, for one simple reason:

Masculinity as we know it is primarily about rejecting femininity.

Western late-capitalist masculinity is basically this, with fewer newspaper hats and more violence.
Around eighteen months ago, I was getting really sick of being taken for female. Being pre-T and in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was consistently seen as a butch dyke. In frustration, I took to Facebook to ask my friends for tips to appear more masculine. Every response -- every single one -- was about being a douchebag. I was told to take up more space, to be loud and annoying, to be rude and obnoxious. Farting and misogyny: is that what masculinity is?

I don't think it has to be, but I think we have to try extra hard if we want it not to be. I wish I could say that trans masculinity is a different creature than cis masculinity, but you don't have to spend time in the cesspool that is the FTM Facebook group to know that trans guys are exactly as insecure, juvenile, and misogynistic as cis guys. Just because your gender identity is different from your birth-assigned sex does not mean you have spent a lot of time pondering the nature of gender and trying to challenge cultural sexism (and, of course, vice versa).

One of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my gender was when a friend said I reminded her of her son, because we both manifest a kind of masculinity that is not about constant oneupmanship. Of course, then the danger is that I find myself Doing It For The Cookies, and my God that's a strong temptation. I want to be a good man, a man committed to dismantling the patriarchy, but I want to be doing this for the women and the non-binary people and the gender-non-conforming guys, not for the accolades.
COOKIES FOR ME BECAUSE I AM ONE OF THE GOOD ONES!!!!!
This post has been on the back burner for a while, not least because I was afraid it would turn out as narcissistic cookie-hunting, but in the wake of Elliot Rodger it seemed important to finish it. There's a direct line between a masculinity predicated on rejecting femininity and violence against women (and men judged insufficiently masculine -- the gender-policing of men and boys in our society is appalling). As long as masculinity manifests as misogyny -- objectifying women, a sense of entitlement to women's bodies, controlling and policing gender expression, self-defining in opposition to femininity -- it's going to be toxic. "Misogylinity," as Jenn at Reappropriate calls it, is inextricable from white supremacy. And cis supremacy, and all the other supremacies that constitute the shit stew we call kyriarchy.

I don't really know what non-toxic masculinity is. Maybe we'll only find out once we've dismantled the toxic kind. Maybe non-toxic masculinity is the dismantling of toxic masculinity. I know it's my duty as a man.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Reflections: Depression and Redemption

Spider-Man 3 is not a very good film, but there's a scene that resonates with me on an almost primal level. Peter Parker is struggling to divest himself of the alien symbiote Venom, which takes the form of a black version of his Spider-Man suit. It wraps itself around him, dark and sticky and inescapable, corrupting him as it leaches him of his conscience. He only gets rid of it with the help of church bells: the toll of music, liturgy, call to worship.

I recognize that thing, I said to myself the first time I saw Venom tightening its grip around Peter even as he fought to be free. It's inside me.

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15)

When I was little, I didn't know depression could happen to me. In my mind, I called it “sticky black sludge”: the inexplicable but overwhelming sense of worthlessness, the despicable inability to do or think or feel anything good. As I grew older, I reconceptualized the sticky black sludge as the sin that dwells within me. Only after a friend suggested that I'd probably been mildly depressed my whole life did it occur to me that there could be another explanation, and maybe I should seek diagnosis.

Sometimes I wonder if depression makes me especially susceptible to a narrative of salvation and redemption. This acute sense of my brokenness, the engulfing and inescapable sin in which I am swallowed, the feeling that I am nothing but ungodly wretchedness – is it, as a powerful strand of Christian thought would have it, a reflection of the objective reality of a fallen world that can only be saved by God's grace? Or is it just the darkness of mental illness, a chemical imbalance in my brain that has to be treated with medications and therapy?

Can it be both?

“Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.” (Psalm 69:1-2)

The part of prep school Easter services that stays with me is the Good Friday portion. The hymn “O Sacred Head” and the Pergolesi “Stabat Mater” are two pieces that gave me chills and tears even as a theologically unsophisticated child. Something about the death of Jesus, his torture and agony on the cross, always called to me, powerfully and awfully. But can a theology that centers on Christ's death ever be other than morbid, scapegoating, cosmic child abuse?

I'm taking a theology class on new materialism this semester, and some of my classmates have been pretty resistant to theory that moves agency and subjectivity away from the human individual. It makes good sense to me, though. I am so used to feeling powerless, to feeling shaped and buffeted by forces far beyond my control, to a feeling of absolute dependence straight out of Schleiermacher, that I honestly find it a little relieving to surrender some agency. Maybe that makes me pathetic.

“I am a worm and no man … I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax.” (Psalm 22:6, 14)

In my academic work, I do everything right. I deconstruct foundations and resist absolutism. I challenge orthodoxy and interrogate the taken-for-granted. I am well-versed in the theological and ethical problems with satisfaction atonement theory, and I know and espouse the alternatives.

And yet, in my lowest moments, when I am in the grip of agony, crushed and breathless from the total unbearableness of being me – that's when I return to satisfaction atonement. That's when I cling to the blood of Christ. It's all I can do.

I recoil from the death of Jesus. But I need it.