Monday, January 23, 2012

Gender and stereotypes

There was a story on the news this morning - I haven't been able to find an online version, although I haven't looked very hard - about a couple who decided not to let anyone beyond close family know the gender of their child until he was five years old.  Their stated aim was to avoid the stereotyping which they feel often goes on.  They didn't want their son forced to conform to the societal norms for little boys; they therefore elected to keep his gender under wraps until such time as his true character had begun to develop, independent of expectations related to gender.  There have been more extreme stories than this floating around - I saw one recently about a couple who told nobody the gender of their child, and deliberately dressed him/her (I can't remember which) in clothes which would normally be associated with different genders on different days.

I think this is pretty seriously wrong, but also a little bit right.

It is wrong because gender is a given, in at least two senses.  Firstly, gender is biologically given.  We are gendered creatures, and it is not given to us to decide to which gender we ought to belong.  It is true that there are people who do not seem to be clearly gendered physically, but I would suggest that this class forms the limit of human experience - to be taken seriously, to be treated with respect, but not to be used as a source of norms.  The attempt to escape from all forms of 'given-ness' is a part of our society's carrying on of the Enlightenment quest for autonomy.  (Another way this shows itself is the desire to be disembodied, something which we see in the preference for digital media over face to face interaction.  I heard someone on the BBC a little while ago say that she thought that our vestigial attachment to being in the same physical place as someone would soon wither and die.  I doubt it).  For the Christian, of course, these 'givens' - embodiment, gender - are given by God, and therefore to be taken doubly seriously.  If I am male, I am called by God to be male, and to seek to do otherwise is disobedience.

Secondly, gender is socially given.  It is a false model of human existence to assume that I can construct my own identity apart from the norms and expectations of society.  I am born as part of a family, in a specific geographical, temporal, and cultural context.  Many of the most important things about me are decided by these 'givens'.  To try to escape them altogether is to try to be less than fully human.  Again, this is all about the quest for autonomy, and it relates to the first point.  The societal norms surrounding gender are about the regulation and expression of the biological differences.  To deny society a voice altogether is to deny the basic biological difference, and in the Christian framework to deny the Creator.

But these people are also a little bit right.  Unlike the God-given biological differences, the societal norms surrounding these differences are open to critique.  The expression of masculinity and femininity is not the same everywhere and at all times, nor need it be.  Moreover, there are certainly aspects of these norms which inculcate wrong (sinful) attitudes and aspirations.  Whilst we cannot completely discard society's norms, neither ought we to accept them uncritically.  There is a real masculinity and femininity which can only be disregarded by disobeying God; the ways in which these are expressed in a particular culture will vary, and indeed there will and must be variation between individuals within a given culture.

It is this point which I think is often overlooked by evangelical Christians when they talk about gender.  Particularly amongst our North American complementarian brethren, there is a tendency to assume that when God calls men to be men he calls them to be rugged, individualist, North American men.  Well, perhaps he does, in that culture, but perhaps not.  Taking social norms and enshrining them as the only way to express God-given differences seems pretty risky to me.  Perhaps we need to be a bit more open; to accept that masculinity and femininity are there, to be embraced and enjoyed, as part of our God-given identity - but then to think carefully about the way in which we are accustomed to express those identities, and to engage critically with our culture.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Creation and Covenant

I started reading the Church Dogmatics at volume III/1.  I can't remember why; possibly I was looking for a doctrine of creation.  I found one.  Although I would probably recommend that people who want to tackle the Dogmatics begin at the beginning, if that doesn't appeal for whatever reason III/1 is a pretty good starting point, especially if you are coming from a more conservative evangelical background.  Most of the volume is taken up with a theological exposition of Genesis 1 and 2, and the close proximity of the Biblical text provides a sense of security whilst you get used to Barth's theological method and literary style.  Moreover, the volume is relatively slender, and if you don't quite get what is going on when Descartes makes an appearance at the end, it shouldn't mar your enjoyment of the rest.

The gist of Barth's doctrine of creation can be summed up in his two-fold definition of the relationship between creation and the covenant.  Creation is the external basis of the covenant; the covenant is the internal basis of creation.  It is perhaps helpful to think in terms of spheres.  Creation is the outer sphere, which contains and provides a medium for everything within; the covenant is the internal sphere, which supports and provides a reason for the outer.  This means that the doctrine of creation is always looking toward the developing covenant of grace for its justification.  "There is no independent reason for the creature's existence and nature, no independent teleology of the creature introduced with its creation and made its own" (p94).  Creation exists for the covenant.  On the other hand, because it exists for the covenant, creation has real value, not in itself absolutely but in itself as the realm within which God makes himself known and works out his purposes.

Barth thinks the two creation accounts reflect these two emphases.  In Genesis 1, the emphasis is on creation, culminating in the creation of man and the commencement of the covenant relationship with him; in Genesis 2, the emphasis is on the covenant, with man forming the centre and creation shaped around him as a suitable environment.  For me, this is a helpful and illuminating way to reflect on these two texts, and it is of interest that it is the second text rather than the first, which develops the covenant theme more clearly, which is open-ended and leads into the rest of Biblical history.

This relationship between creation and covenant underpins Barth's doctrine of creation generally.  When he speaks of providence, for example, he means God's control in that outer sphere of general human and cosmic history, which has meaning because and as it forms the external basis of his covenant dealings in the election of his people.  In really practical terms, when it comes to application to work, Barth will not say (as many who hold to a 'common grace' position will) that work has value in itself, but that it has value in so far as it has a relation to the covenant, to one's existence as a Christian.  Of course, to state the relationship between creation and covenant in this way leads Barth to make claims which will be problematic when it comes to living: for example, he can only maintain that there is value in non-Christian existence because of Christian existence.  If that is offensive, and it is, I would suggest that it is only what Scripture itself maintains.

Barth's doctrine of creation is powerful, and I am not aware of another way of looking at the issue which so clearly shows that a) all is about Christ and b) all is God's.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Centred on Christ

The Barmen Declaration was substantially drafted by Barth, and formed the rallying point for Protestant opposition to the German Christians in the 1930s.  This confession is the evangelical response to Nazism, and at its heart is the following assertion:

"Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death."

And with it the corollary negative statement:

"We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and alongside this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation."

The power of this statement against the attempted Nazi takeover of the Protestant churches of Germany is obvious.  For Barth, however, this is not just a defensive statement.  Throughout the Church Dogmatics, this is the one theme to which everything is related.  Just as the apostles asserted that there is no other name in which salvation is found, so Barth insisted that there is no other name in which (normative) revelation is found.  God is to be sought only in Jesus Christ, which concretely means only in the prophetic and apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ which makes up the Christian Scriptures.

Barth's insistence on this point led him to recast several major areas of theology.  The doctrine of Scripture is shaped by it, since even Scripture itself must bow to the Lordship of Jesus - it is only the word of God in a secondary sense, and in so far as it bears God's authorised witness to his Son.  The doctrine of election is broken down and remade around a Christological centre - Jesus is the elect one, and the reprobate one in our place.  Theological anthropology takes as its text, not humanity in general or even as created, but the man Jesus Christ.

Incidentally, it baffles me that a theologian like John Frame could write that "...Barth and Bultmann argued that though God still exists, His activity cannot be identified in space and time, that it affects all places equally and none in particular.  Thus, in effect, there is no revelation..."  I wonder whether he has read any Barth.

Whilst Barth's opponents on the scholastic end of Reformed Protestantism derided him as some sort of Christomonist, Barth himself felt that this was the theological battle of the 20th Century (and since it has not yet been won, I suppose it will be the battle of the 21st Century as well) - where the Reformation-era church was called to fight for the sole efficacy of Christ's work in salvation against a creeping semi-Pelagianism, the modern church is called to fight for the sole efficacy of Christ's work in revelation against a creeping natural theology.  The latter is, for Barth, always idolatry, and practically paves the way for the German Christians.

I love Barth for this emphasis.  That is not to say it does not get him into trouble - not, I think, in the places evangelicals often assume he gets into trouble (Scripture, election) but in slightly more obscure places.  His doctrine of angels and demons is radically different from that of the rest of the church, mainly because he refuses to interpret certain verses about fallen angels in what appears to be the straightforward way - for no other reason that this would seem to leave them somewhat unrelated to Christology.  What is happening here is that we are losing the "as attested in Holy Scripture" part of Barmen, and assuming a Christ who does not quite fit that testimony.  Nevertheless, this weakness is the flip-side of a tremendous strength, which leaves me feeling that reading Barth I am being pointed again and again, and in a much more direct way than in most other theological works of this complexity and size, to the Lord Jesus.

And for that, I am thankful.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Love for the Barth

This morning at seven, after sitting up with a poorly child for three hours, I became a member of what is, I imagine, a fairly exclusive club.  I turned over the last page of volume III/4, and there it was: I had read the whole of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics at least once (and some volumes two or three times).  This has substantially occupied my brain for the last five years, and I dare say will continue to require investment of cognitive ability well into the future as I wrestle with what I've read.  Over the next few days, I wanted to share a few of the things that make me love Barth, even when I disagree with him, and hopefully give any suspicious evangelicals a chance to rethink any lingering antipathy they may have towards the great man.

Today, just a brief thought: I love Barth because he does theology.

That may seem pretty obvious, but actually I think there is very little theology going on in evangelical circles much of the time.  There is quite a lot of exegesis, and a substantial amount of Bible reading, but not much pushing beyond this to do theology proper.  Barth does theology.

One of the things that you notice when you get into the Church Dogmatics for the first time is that, whilst Barth regularly offers Scriptural exegesis and Biblical argumentation, this is usually confined to the small print passages.  (For those unfamiliar with Barth's opus, CD contains two font sizes; the larger gives the main flow, whilst the smaller gives the detailed argumentation, and often offers interesting insights into historical theology as Barth sees it).  The method being used is clearly very different from that of the conservative evangelical 'systematic theology', which tends to begin each major point with a section, or multiple sections, of Scripture.  Barth's text flows with ideas, and when it stops to add argumentation it feels like an excursus.  Does this mean he is less 'Biblical'?  For those who have been taught to consider him a holder of a very dubious doctrine of Scripture, this could be the logical conclusion.

In fact, Barth is thoroughly Biblical.  But he is a theologian.  He is working at one remove from the Biblical text, or if you like at a point between the Biblical text and the contemporary world, or perhaps more accurately at a point in the contemporary world where the Biblical text and its message can be heard.  He is not trying to present 'what the Bible says', in the manner of a systematic theologian; he is trying to present what he has heard the Bible say - and that is different.  And that is connected to Barth's insistence on theologia viatorum - theology always on the way, never having within its possession divine truth, but only human echoes of divine truth.  Theologia viatorum is theology liberated not to try to say divine things, but to say the human things which God demands.  And therefore it is theology than can improve on itself, that can listen again, and can try to say again what it must say in response to what it has heard.

Of course there are others beside Barth who pursue this method, but I first really saw it in him, and I love that about him.