Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Little Lower Than The Laity

The best ordination I ever went to was the one when the ordinand started breastfeeding her baby during the sermon. Gene Robinson was preaching, and he was a little taken aback. He stopped in the middle of his sermon and jestingly invited the congregation to discuss to the finer point of the Trinity until little Alice was full.

Even without that incident (and I adore unexpected eventualities in church: little mishaps that disrupt the high-church events of Episcopalianism with a congregational giggle are extremely theologically important to me), it was still a kick-ass sermon. Bishop Robinson's description of the role of the clergy has stayed with me and has become incorporated into my ecclesiology. Clergy, he said, are not closer to God or holier or better than any other Christian; if anything, they are beneath the laity, because they are servants of both God and the Church.

(This is why I think of Church hierarchy as lowerarchy.)

The ordination I attended today has given my ecclesiology another dimension of theological thought, which I think is a necessary supplement to the piece Bish Robinson gave me.

Because I now live in a wealthy 'burb town in the tri-state area, and because Anglo-Catholicism is really gay, today's preacher used an analogy from Broadway. Just as, when the famous actor you came to see is taking a break, your Broadway playbill has a slip of paper in it stating that "The part of Scarlett Johanssen will be played by [unheard-of actress]" (yes, that is actually the example he used), so -- metaphorically, theologically -- ordination is a slip of paper stating that "The part of Jesus will be played by [ordinand]."

My hackles shot up. This sounded suspiciously like elevating clergy over the laity. If this means that clergy are -- inherently, ontologically, by virtue of being clergy -- more Christ-like than the laity, then my most Reformation instincts respond with incoherent yelling about the priesthood of all believers.

When I think about it a little more, though, it's much more interesting than that.

Clergy are the religious establishment par excellence. The Pharisees, if you like. Jesus was frequently at loggerheads with the religious establishment; so how are clergy to be both the religious establishment and playing the part of Jesus? How do you "play Jesus" within the Church?

I believe the logical answer is that clergy (and, modestycough, theologians) have a duty of dissent and challenge toward the institution they (we) are a part of. By definition. Our inherently contradictory position has built into it the necessity of protesting the very institution that gives us the power to speak our protest.

That is how we are to act as good citizens of the Kingdom. It's not about submitting unilaterally to monarchical power. It never was.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Surprised By Love

It seems ridiculous now, but before my godchild was born, I was genuinely worried that I would hate him.

He wasn't my godchild then, of course. He was the imminent spawn of two of my best friends, and while I was legitimately excited for them, I also had a lot of concerns. I'd never been around babies much before, and what I knew about them didn't sound promising. They cried a lot. They pooped a lot. They consumed their parents' time, thoughts, and lives. One time when I was nine I held my neighbor's newborn and accidentally hit her head against the edge of the dining room table, and I was terrified of ever holding a baby again in case I broke it. My friends would be obsessed with their youngling, and I would be unable to participate. Was this tiny human going to ruin two of the best friendships I've ever had?

A week or two before the baby's birth, I was a jerk to my friends. It wasn't premeditated jerkiness – it was just thoughtlessly being a shitty friend – but it's the last thing you need when you're freaking out about your first child's impending entrance to the world. Subconsciously, I think it was a preemptive strike against the baby: you're going to ruin my friendship? Screw you, I'll ruin it on my terms. I'd also had more than enough of being around pregnant people, which is a massive dysphoria trigger for me. Regardless of my reasons, it was a lousy thing to do.

So I was doubly nervous as I made my way to the hospital on December 11th. Not only was I going to meet a day-old newborn who, as far as I could tell from the Facebook pictures, looked and smelled and sounded exactly as bad as any other day-old newborn, but there was also the lingering tension of my as-yet-unatoned-for shitty behavior.

I was lucky. I got two reconciliations that day. The first was apology and forgiveness over lunch with the baby's father. The second was the moment I took that tiny, sleeping person in my arms.

I hate to be such a cliché, but meeting the person who would be my godchild really did change everything. Leaving the hospital, I felt as though the whole world was a little sparklier, a little more special, a little more awe-inspiring. Before long, I was doing all the things I swore I'd never do: changing diapers, shrugging off spit-up, talking incessantly about the wondrousness of the baby. The most amazing thing to me is just how much I love him.

I've spent much of the past year contemplating this love. It's incredible, and it's frightening. I would throw myself under a bus for my godchild in a heartbeat. I would wrestle spiders for him. I would forgive him if he murdered my whole family in front of my eyes. My love for him is vast, and it is unconditional, and it makes no sense. Why do I love him so? What has he done to merit such love? The answer: nothing, and because he has done nothing to earn my love, there is nothing in all of creation that can separate him from it.

I believe strongly that, in the words of Les Mis, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” I believe that anyone who teaches you a new way to love is revealing to you another glimpse, another facet, of the divine. My godchild has taught me something I didn't know about grace: love that is unearned, unconditional, yet in no way cheap.

I had no idea I was capable of a love like this, and I believe that it is the work of God within me. My love for my godchild has opened me to new loves I had thought beyond me, manifest most recently in romantic love and in the first steps of self-reconciliation. If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have denied that I had the capacity for godparental love, romantic love, or self-reconciliation, but all of these loves are or will be part of the ever-expanding, dizzyingly vast cosmic Love I have only just begun to explore.

Happy birthday, Jay. I love you with all the love God has graced me to give.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

CONTEXT: Postmodernism's Material Benefit to Society

When I tell people I'm a doctoral student in theology, with a particular interest in poststructuralism and queer theory, they have an inevitable follow-up question.

"What are you going to do with that?"

Sometimes it's asked with a detectable sneer, an undisguised contempt for the waste of a good brain in such an arcane discipline. Sometimes it's asked quizzically, with genuine puzzlement on the part of my interlocutor. Never is it something I want to be asked.

I mean, there are only three possible answers, right?
  1. Ordination (and that one is clearly out, if you've known me for five minutes).
  2. Academia.
  3. "No idea. HAHA oh god you're right, I'm wasting my life, let me switch to STEM despite not having studied any science since the age of 15."
It's the people who seem to be hoping for answer 3 who really bug me. There's a broad cultural trend here in the US toward the devaluing of humanities and especially of anything with a postmodern bent. I think it's part of a depressing economism undergirding US society (even more so than UK society, in my experience): if something doesn't have an immediately apparent material benefit, people genuinely can't comprehend why you would do it.

But the fact is, postmodernism does have a material benefit, if we would only apply it. The primary lesson of postmodernism is still what it was in 1967: il n'y a pas de hors-texte. Detractors use Derrida's words to dismiss deconstruction, poststructuralism, and the whole project of postmodernism as sophistry, caricaturing our work as immaterial language games; but the point is not "there is nothing outside the text," but "there is nothing outside context."

(Yes, there's a not inconsiderable irony in the fact that a statement about the supreme importance of context is so often taken out of context.)

The lesson of postmodernism is: Everything we do, say, and think is historically and contextually contingent -- profoundly, radically so. Is that the same thing modernism was trying to say? Kind of yes; but we're trying to say it in ever new ways, because clearly the lesson hasn't stuck.

For example, I woke up yesterday to this infuriating story: "Men and women's brains are 'wired differently.'" The BBC, of all things, recites a new iteration of the same tired neurosexist hogwash that was so comprehensively debunked in Cordelia Fine's wonderful book Delusions of Gender. It's terrible science and terrible reporting on science. It's cissexist, it's reductionist, and it's just utter BS.

My criticisms are ideological, of course. That's a term lobbed at postmodernists by detractors who like to think of themselves as unbiased viewing subjects who coolly take in all the scientific evidence before forming a judgment based on the facts. What these small-o objectivists don't realize is that this is an ideology too. It's more insidious, because it's an ideology that disguises itself as an objective view-from-nowhere. Feminists have long been aware that there is no view-from-nowhere, and to claim otherwise is an at best disingenuous, at worst nakedly malicious perpetuation of oppression.

The gift of postmodernism is epistemological self-awareness. Everything we think we know as an objective, timeless truth is radically contextual, and postmodernism is the practice of constant vigilance, of consistent suspicion of truth-claims.

"Men and women's brains are 'wired differently.'" There are so many profoundly contextual assumptions packed into that short headline: that "men" and "women" are clearly definable, discrete categories; that there is meaningful difference between men and women, rather than wide variation among all people; that the wiring of the brain tells us anything useful about human personalities; that brain wiring is predetermined and perhaps immutable; that there's a "right" way to be a man or a woman; etc. etc.

And there are so many real-world injustices that are perpetuated by the uncritical parroting of this ideology. The murder of trans women, the wage gap, the war on reproductive freedom -- none of this takes place in a void. It's all a part of the context within which it's seen as acceptable to report cognitive bias as scientific fact.

Postmodernism is not a disconnected, immaterial, ivory-tower discipline that's all about proving how clever you are. It's a tool for justice, and it matters.