December 11, 2006

When Theology Cloaks Bigotry

Rowan Williams is in the midst of a political correctness debate concerning student unions and the right of folks to express traditional views without fear of being called bigots. I will note in passing Williams' apparent disregard for the Pauline justification for marriage ("better to marry than to burn") when he suggests that all homosexual persons could without harm to themselves remain celibate -- certainly Paul didn't expect that of all heterosexuals! The Anglican Scotist has explored this with his customary depth of insight.

More importantly to the issue at hand, he seems not to be fully aware of the core ethical dilemma: Does the fact that a negative opinion towards another rests on some theological opinion or belief wipe away any guilt? One needs to examine, I think, first, if the opinion is indeed a matter of the faith, or a mere cultural artifact. In the present situation "homosexuality" has been elevated to a place in our discourse that a cold-blooded examination of Scripture hardly warrants. (One might also do well to see if the "belief" is true or not; that is, does it truly reflect what the tradition and reason and the Scripture point to?) But secondly, must we not also consider the harm done by holding the negative opinion, even if it is justifiable on the foregoing bases; to ask, What is the fruit of this opinion? Does it build up, or does it in fact cause suffering? For generations, it was held as a core theological belief, justified by Scripture, that women are inferior to men; I need not retail the suffering such a theological opinion has wrought, and wreaks. Racism too finds ample justification in Scripture and the tradition -- and it is no use suggesting that such matters are trivial or medieval when the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa only finally repented of their doctrinal support for apartheid in this last decade.

Finally, it would seem that the highest standard, one our Lord himself advised, was not to judge others, that is, not to have opinions about other people's moral standing. Even if such opinions are justified, it is best, we are told, not to indulge them.

&mdash Tobias Haller BSG


John said...

There needs to be care over this Christian Union/Students' Union issue. The problem is nothing to do with "traditional values" or "bigotry" - it's very simply that the Students' Union (a body that provides services to various student societies, membership of which is in no way obligatory) requires certain things of its member societies. Among these is that the leadership be elected - many CUs appoint their leaders instead, and often won't allow women to lead (again, contravening SU policy). And the SUs require that membership not be unreasonably restricted, and many CUs aren't even open to all Christians (their doctrinal bases are usually very narrow); indeed, many would not allow celibate gay people to join.

All that being so, various Students' Unions have been having discussions with CUs about whether membership is appropriate. In some cases, these have been heavily politicised and discussed in the Media. But these discussions almost always miss the main point, and instead emphasise the "persecution" of these Christians and the "unfair" way they've been "kicked out" of the SU. But, in others, when there has been mature discussion, suitable compromises have been found (such as allowing CUs to use SU facilities without being members).

pax et bonum

Tobias said...

Dear John,
I agree entirely concerning the separation of the issues here, and agree that free and open debate is to be encouraged, within the limits of existing bodies, preferably through reasonable compromise.

My issue here is with ++Rowan's tendency to go off on what is apparently a tangent -- as he often does. And it is with his comments on this tangential issue that I take exception. By suggesting that an opinion (if theoglogically based) is somehow immune from the critique of bigotry, he falls into what I can only call a rather separatist view of religion. And while I am perfectly happy to say that bigots, including religious bigots, have the right to hold and express their opinions (e.g., that women are inferior to men; that Africans are "naturally" a slave race; that same-sex relationships are always morally culpable and objectively disordered) but that the opinions themselves represent bigotry, and lead to the diminution of the divine image in humanity, and fall below the standard set by Christ.

Ann said...

It is also my understanding that Member groups receive funding from the student body - seems that they want their opinions and the money - never mind that those who pay might not like it.

*Christopher said...

I have offered a few further thoughts as well. I find your points as always historical and pastoral, and therefore, cogent. Your second comment at the Scotist's place asks the historical questions I've been asking for some time as well.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

what the bigots want is very simple: they recognize that they might be wrong, and they want to be sure that everyone thinks that, even if they should be in factual or doctrinal error, they are certainly free from any moral guilt, since they were, after all, acting sincerely.

of course, this is precisely what they do not grant to those who are the targets of the bigotry, is it? they want to be able to accuse others of great and horrible moral turpitude, without recognizing that if truly only one side or the other can be correct, then whichever side is wrong is also probably wreaking great moral havoc at the same time.

it is this utter lack of existential buy-in by the bigots which is perhaps precisely what justifies the term! they do not recognize that, if they are wrong, they are really quite horribly disastrously wrong. they are desperate not to see that, if they are wrong, they are wrong in the way the KKK and the anti-semites are wrong.

why might they not want to see that? because, um, well, some self-deception is likely going on. it is that bad faith, that self-deception, which indeed lies right at the heart of bigotry.

Tobias said...

The root of my concern in all of this isn't to be able to call people "bigots" so as to solve the argument, to convinced them of the error of their opinion, or to call their dignity as human beings into question. What I am disagreeing with is the apparent argument that because a belief has a religious basis it is somehow immune from being named as bigotry, if that is what it is. As I noted, apartheid was defended on religious grounds by the Dutch Reformed Church -- to such an extent that the Worldwide Reformed fellowship disowned them and called them to repent. (This is, to my mind, a good example of when a church is called to repent!).

One of my brothers once worked for a large NY banking firm, and they had a phrase for any issue that was beyond discussion. They would say, "It's a religious question." And that would be that. This may be fine for banking, but not for the church, in which relgious questions are the subject under discussion.

To be fair, calling someone a "bigot" is no more a contribution to the discussion than saying, "it's a religious question." Certainly we've seen enough of the 'Yes it is / No it isn't' sort of non-debate on sexuality. But since religion has demonstrably served as a cloak for bigotry in the past, I think it wise to keep that in mind before appealing to religion as a defense from the charge of bigotry.

Tobias said...

A few more thoughts: I suppose my concern on this matter arises because I sense that there is more to the argument than the surface propositions; that there is, in fact, a cultural or psychological underpinning to the opposition to same-sex activity, which cloaks itself in theological costume. Why do I say this? I have two primary reasons:

1) There are other activities, some of them sexual, equally condemned by Scripture and tradition, and equally "revised" in fairly recent history, which do not garner the fevered attention that same-sex sexuality attracts or engenders. To take just one example, the prohibition on sexual relations of man with a woman in menses. (This behavior is singled out for much more consistent condemnation in Scripture, btw.) It is also widely condemned in the tradition and in some present-day cultures, while others have come to terms with it to the extent that it is no longer considered a serious matter. My point is that this is an example of a "cultural" taboo that has in some places come to be ignored -- the initial imputation of wrongness to this practice was cultural, not, strictly speaking, theological. (And I would say the same goes for same-sex realtionships). It is therefore not a "rational" conclusion.

2) The "rational" arguments against same-sex relationships (such as they are) tend generally to fall into a number of logical errors, primarily and most importantly petitio principii -- the assumption as a premise of that which must be proved as a conclusion. This renders the arguments moot, and striclty speaking, "irrational" -- as they depend for their "proof" on a restatement of the premise. I'm in the process of putting together a "Syllabus of Errors" along these lines, and I have yet to see a "rational" argument on this subject that doesn't fall prey to this or some other error in logic. So, again, we are not dealing with a logical truth, but a "belief" -- and if that belief causes real suffering or harm (this I think an important aspect of the matter) then perhaps it does deserve more of a correction than a mere, "You are mistaken."

Calling people "bigot" will, of course, not help -- and I avoid that approach. But I think those who hold opinions that ultimately do relate to "people" and not only "practices" (I think it is very hard to tease actions apart from actors, and question the moral basis of this on the basis of the tenth commandment!), need to be ultimately much more careful of their judgments of others. The quickness with which "that is a sin" morphs to "you are a sinner" is not even a full step, no?