Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Representing God

In C.S.Lewis’ article ‘Priestesses in the Church’, Lewis presents an argument where he picks an analogy of Church and uses it as an example of his opposition to women’s ministry. His analogy is the conversation in Pride and Prejudice:

‘I should like Balls infinitely better,’ said Caroline Bingley, "if they were carried on in a different manner ... It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day."

‘Much more rational, I dare say,’ replied her brother, ‘but it would not be near so much like a Ball.’"

Lewis then argues that this argument translates to the situation in the church, that if women priests were allowed, it may be more rational but it wouldn't be near so much like a church any more.

A Ball by definition is about dancing, so if you remove the dancing it is no longer a Ball. The question is: what is the definition of a church, without which, it would not be church any more. I do not accept, as Lewis accepts, that church is defined by a man standing in front of the congregation, representing God to us. For me, a church is about God Himself, and the worship of Him by the whole congregation. It is that worship which, if removed, stops church from being church. Not the gender of the person presiding over the worship.

Defining marriage: description or prescription?

Marriage has never had a precise universal definition. It has never needed one. It has also never been possible to create one. This is because there is no such thing as a universal form or type of marriage. Marriage and people’s understanding of it changes across culture and across time. In its broadest sense, it is a social contract between people that establishes rights and obligations between them. Within such a broad definition it is almost unrecognisable, indistinct from any other social contract, yet attempts to narrow it to something we recognise as our own excludes partnerships which have historically and culturally been recognised as valid marriages, often within the pages of scripture itself.

Is marriage a ceremonial act? There have been common-law marriages that preclude ceremony. Is marriage between adults? The definition of ‘adult’ varies.  Is marriage about mutually consenting partners? Many marriages have been conducted without female consent. Is marriage the basis for a family? There have been marriages that have been infertile. Is marriage somehow about the legitimisation of sex? There have been many marriages with disabled or impotent partners which do not involve the sexual act. Is marriage between two people? Solomon had hundreds of spouses. Which one was his valid wife? Is marriage between a man and a woman? Again, we can easily find examples of marriages in other cultures that have not had this quality.

What then can we say about marriage universally? Almost nothing. Yet does that preclude us from saying what we can about our own society, our own cultural understanding of marriage? Of course not. But we have to recognise that we are not defining a universal object, but a cultural subject. Our dictionaries do not prescribe the definition of words, they look at how words are commonly used and describe them, as they are. The dictionary is updated regularly, because as society changes, our use of words changes.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Equal (and opposite) rights

Lincoln is a superb film, Spielberg’s historical masterpiece. And Daniel Day-Lewis proves, if more proof was needed, that he is one of the greatest actors of our time. But is Lincoln just a finely crafted work of entertainment? I think rather that, like the very best art, it contains principles which resonate with us today.

As Abraham Lincoln sits with the vice President of the Confederacy, the VP complains about the 13th amendment, crying that “all our traditions will be obliterated. We won't know ourselves anymore.” Nowadays it is de rigeur to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery much at all, but about states’ rights. But this obscures the fact that those states’ rights under discussion included the right to enslave others.

Spielberg’s film cuts to the heart of this matter. For many at the time, the ability of white people to oppress and enslave black people was not only tradition, law, and economic necessity, but a natural law instituted by God, a fundamental human right, and constitutionally protected.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls...

As the opening music of the movie 50/50 introduces us to Adam we see him running the streets of his city. Safety conscious, he jogs on the spot, waiting at an empty crossing, refusing to follow a fellow runner who jogs across the road without stopping. He waits diligently for the green hand to show and only then crosses the empty junction.

In a wry exchange with his counsellor after his diagnosis of cancer Adam explains that he doesn’t drive, because it is the third leading cause of death in America. Then comments ironically, ‘behind cancer though’.

For this is a film that shows us we cannot control our lives, however hard we try. If we do all the right things, and follow the rules to the letter, we can still be struck down out of nowhere. Death, in this case cancer, is random; it can strike anyone, anywhere.