Thursday, 22 October 2009

Why Theology Matters (even if you don't understand it)

I was in a seminar recently, sat next to a guy who worked for a missionary organisation that did work out in Africa. The seminar was pretty academic, and there was plenty of jargon in there about 'discourse' and 'hermeneutics of suspicion.' At the end, we were asked (slightly weirdly, I thought), to talk in small groups about what we'd thought, and the missionary man said something like this: 'Oh, it was all over my head. I'm too simple for all that. But I just can't see what all this has to do with the lives of ordinary people.'

James K A Smith recently published a collection of essays called The Devil Reads Derrida. The title article, which I think is the same as this one, addresses the question of why Christians should engage with secular philosophy. He uses an example from the film The Devil Wears Prada:
In a key scene, Miranda (played so devilishly by Meryl Streep) is presiding over her entourage, trying to select just the right belt to accessorize the cover ensemble for next month's magazine. They are passionately deliberating between two belts, which, to the untrained eye, look almost identical. Her fashion-averse assistant Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) stumbles into the gathering. Growing impatient, and with a flippant disdain for fashion, she refers to the rack of designs merely as "stuff." Miranda, in that calm, satanic stare that Streep nailed so well, pauses and quietly says:

"'Stuff'? Oh, OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue. It's not turquoise. It's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room ... from a pile of 'stuff.'"

Smith uses this example to talk about the way that culture is shaped by the thinking that goes on in the sort of academic contexts that most of us look at and say "Wuh?" Derrida, Foucault, Zizek, Lacan, Kristeva: you may not even have heard of these people, and if you can understand everything they say, you're a smarter cookie than I, but these are (some of) the thinkers who shape what we think now and what we will think in the future. Pretty much everything we do, think, want and feel is affected by the discussions that experts have in language that 99% of us find totally impenetrable. I'm typing this in a blog application, on a computer, using the internet and I have no idea how it works. And you know what? That's ok. I don't need to know binary, or even html, to get the benefits of computers. You don't need to understand couture to get dressed in the morning. You don't need to understand John Milbank to have your life transformed by Jesus. But just don't say this: 'I just can't see what all this has to do with the lives of ordinary people.' This has everything to do with the lives of ordinary people.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Totem and Taboo Three

We've established, then, that Freud thinks that 'primitive' societies can tell us something about the evolution of all human societies, and found out about the totem system which regulates who you are and aren't allowed to sleep with, and has a whole complicated set of rules for how to relate to your totem animal: when you can and can't kill it, how to appease it if you make it angry, all that stuff.

This is where the psychoanalysis kicks in. Freud thinks that children and 'savages' relate to the world and particularly to animals in very similar ways: both see animals as equals, rather than as lower beings. The things we learn from the psychoanalysis of children can be read back into the psychology of 'primitive' societies. Freud has found that children sometimes develop phobias of animals, which have some similarities to the ways that totem societies relate to animals, trying to avoid seeing or touching the animals. Because kids are kids, it's not always possible to work out where the phobia came from, but that doesn't stop Freud deducing this: childrens' fear of animals is always a displacement of an underlying fear of the child's father. It's the Oedipus complex, stupid: Freud thinks that all small boys fancy their mums, and as a result want to kill their fathers. But because daddy is big and strong, the boys are afraid that they will lose out in the battle for their mothers' love, and that their father will castrate them. Eventually, they resolve this fear by identifying with their father and giving up their desire for their mother which eventually resurfaces as the desire for other women: that's why men marry women like their mothers.

Still with me? This is Freud's argument: that the totem animal on which tribal systems are based is a substitute for the figure of the father. His theory about the origins of human society goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time, most humans lived in small hordes, each dominated by a powerful man, who was the absolute ruler of the horde, with unrestricted power and exclusive access to the women. Any sons who were born into the horde had a rough time: if they did anything to make their father jealous, they were killed, castrated, or driven out, in which case they had to make their own way, robbing wives for themselves from other hordes until they could be the ruler of their own horde. Eventually, the expelled brothers banded together to kill their father and, as was the done thing at the time, ate him, raw (nom nom). Primitive men's attitude to their father was the same as the attitude of children in our society: on the one hand they hated and feared him, but on the other, they honoured him as a model and wanted to take his place, and cannibalism was a way of identifying with him.

Once they'd killed the father, the brothers realised that they needed to cooperate or have to keep killing each other until there was only one of them left, so they agreed to form the first societies, creating laws which forbade them from sleeping with each others' wives and forced them to share. This is the origin of all morality, justice and society, all of which arise from the primal guilt resulting from the murder of the father, and the desire to atone for this original sin. The brothers chose an animal to represent their father, and displaced their ambivalent attitude to the father onto the totem animal, which on the one hand was seen as the clan's blood ancestor and protective spirit, and on the other was regularly and ritually killed in the clan's festivals, and, like the father, eaten.

As religion evolved, the totem gradually evolved into a god with a human form, and this allowed the animal sacrifice to return, eventually, to human sacrifice, which we see in Christianity, the most highly evolved of all the religions. Christ sacrificed his life to atone for the guilt arising from the murder of the Father, but even here we see some of the ambivalence to the father: in the same act which pays for the murder of the father, Christ achieves what primal man wanted to achieve, and replaces the father, becoming a god himself: the religion of the son replaces the religion of the father, and instead of eating the body of the father, it is Christ's body and blood which are consumed in religious ritual.

Communion, anyone?
Photo credit: Oedipus and Antigone, litmuse on Flickr

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Theology and ecology

I'm afraid you'll have to wait a little longer for Freud Part III: I was all set to write it up but then I gave blood, and now I'm too woozy and nauseous to think about anything, least of all incest and cannibalism. But! It turns out that today is Blog Action Day, which means that bloggers the world over are writing about climate change. Handily, I've already co-written something, whilst working for the Jubilee Centre ages ago, so I thought it would be an appropriate occasion to share it with y'all. It was published in an Orange Paper by WorldVision in 2007, and goes along with a book I helped research and edit (I'm in the footnotes and acknowledgements!) Enjoy the article, and I'll be back next week, just as soon as I've replaced enough blood to take on Freud.

Why Christians should care for the environment
Marika Rose and Jason Fletcher

Genesis tells us that when God created the world he didn't make it instantly, with the snap of a finger or a single word; but he crafted it bit by bit, declaring it ‘good' at every stage of its development. This good creation was abundant and diverse, with plants, trees, birds, fish, and animals ‘of every kind'.

God cares for his creation
But this initial careful work of God was not the end of his intimate involvement. Throughout the Bible, he is depicted as sustaining his creation at every moment. He knows about every sparrow that falls to the ground; [1] everything holds together in him. [2] Psalm 65 says of God, ‘You care for the land and water it, you enrich it abundantly… You drench its furrows , and level its ridges; you soften it with showers, and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.' The picture is of God lavishing his goodness on his creation; and the response from the earth is one of praise: ‘The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with corn; they shout for joy and sing.'

The Bible paints creation not as a passive, lifeless collection of rocks and earth, but as an entity that is full of life, praise and God's glory, revealing his character and inspiring us to worship him. As Psalm 19 says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech, and night after night they display knowledge.
'God's attitude to creation indicates that it is precious and wonderful independent of any utility it possesses for us. To love God and to be like him is to care for the things that he cares for. This alone ought to be enough to motivate us to take responsibility for the world around us.

Our interconnection with the earth
In Genesis 2, there is no one to till the ground, so God forms man (adam) from the ground (adamah) and asks him to till and to keep it. This Hebrew wordplay (adam/adamah) expresses our solidarity with the earth; we are connected to it and utterly dependent upon it for life. For this reason Psalm 139:13–15 can parallel the ‘depths of the earth' with ‘a mother's womb'. Humans are both physical and spiritual and the two ought not to be separated. To care for creation, then, is to care for a system that we are part of: in caring for the earth, we care for ourselves.

The original harmony between humans and the earth was ruptured by the fall. But even here, the interconnection between ‘adam' and ‘adamah' is reiterated. The earth becomes difficult to farm, cursed because of human disobedience. We suffer when creation suffers, and it is our sin that causes creation's suffering. [3] Most dramatically, God announces that humanity will revert to the earth upon death, a tragic reversal of the original act of creation: ‘For dust you are, and to dust you will return.' [4]

This interconnection can be seen throughout history – over and again societies have undermined their own welfare by abusing the land that they depend on for life – and can be seen today, but with a difference. Habits of consumption and energy production in the West threaten to destroy not so much our own homes and livelihoods (at least not in the short term), but those of the world's poorest people.

Servant Kingship
However, when God breathes life into Adam this sets him apart from the earth. The contrast between God making plants and animals ‘according to their kinds' with the creation of humans ‘in our image, in our likeness' implies a unique, intimate relationship between God and this part of his creation. Genesis 1:28 says that God blessed humankind and said: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule… over every living thing'. Genesis 2 says that God created humans ‘to work it [the earth] and take care of it'. But what does this mean in practice?
The language of ‘rule' over the earth is sometimes (mis)taken as licence to treat the earth however we want, but a careful reading of the Bible rules this out. First, this language of ‘dominion' is balanced by the language of Genesis 2:15, where humans are put on the earth to work it (‘to till, serve') and care for (‘to guard, protect') it.

Second, while the language of ‘dominion' does imply some degree of power or authority, it begs the question of how that power and authority should be exercised. Our rule, as his image bearers, is to be modelled after God's rule. Not only does he delight in his creation, but he takes care of the meek and does justice for the orphan and the oppressed. He is the shepherd King who promises, ‘I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.' [5] Moreover, we ought also to remember Paul's exhortation: ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but make himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant'. [6] To rule over the earth in a way that reflects God's character, then, demands of us service and humility, not exploitation and selfishness.

God's promises for the future
Our attitude to the earth is affected not only by the way we view God's original intentions in creation, but also by our view of God's promises for the future and for the ultimate redemption of our sin-ridden world.

One popular view of Christianity is that this means escape from the world into a purely spiritual heaven, but this is far from the biblical picture of ‘the end'. As in the creation narratives we saw that care for creation is also care for ourselves as inescapably physical creatures, so in the promise of redemption we see that some form of ongoing bodily existence is integral to what we will be.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul discusses at length the importance of physical resurrection, and we see a picture of the similarity and difference that will mark our resurrection bodies.

Similarly, the promises of the Bible point to a ‘new heaven and new earth' [7] – a renewal and transformation of this creation. Romans 8 says that creation waits ‘with eager expectation' for the time when it will be ‘liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God'. At that time the desert and the wilderness will blossom and praise God; [8] rivers and streams will flow in the desert; [9]all creation will rejoice. [10]
In Jesus' ministry we see God's promised future breaking into the present as Jesus heals and feeds people as well as forgiving their sins. The good news that Jesus proclaims is for all creation, and his promise is of the redemption of all things.

Right relationships
Jesus summarises God's will like this: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind' and ‘love your neighbour as yourself'. [11] In other words, the sum of the will of God for us is that we would have perfect relationships with God and with others. A concern for getting our relationships right is the essence of Christianity.

As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, having right relationships with our ‘neighbours' means we must take care of their bodies as well as their souls, and in order to do this we must take care of the earth. Environmental destruction has consequences for people around the world and down the generations; the call to love our neighbour extends to our children and grandchildren, and beyond.

This focus on the concerns of others is also captured in the biblical concept of justice (Hebrew: mishpat). Far from being some abstract concept of fairness, mishpat is all about the way we conduct each and every relationship. It highlights our duties and responsibilities towards others, and is particularly invoked in the Bible in the context of oppression of the poor and vulnerable. Are we meeting our obligations to the poor? Or do we need to re-examine our habits of consumption?

Failure to care for creation is a failure to conduct our relationships in the way God wants us to; it is a failure of justice and of love.

Implications for climate change
Many of the things we do as a society which damage the earth have their roots in broken relationships or a failure to prioritise relationships over things.

We travel further to work than ever before, and increasingly do so alone in our own cars. This affects not only the climate, but also our relationships with those around us. American sociologist Robert Putnam estimates that for every ten minutes of additional commuting time, there is a corresponding ten per cent decrease in our social interactions. A concern for relationships challenges the hypermobility of our society.

Carbon emissions from home energy use have risen most significantly because of the increase in single-occupancy homes. For a wide variety of reasons, for which we all as a society are responsible, people increasingly live alone. What does this tell us about the quality of our relationships as a society? What could be done to strengthen relationships in families and communities?

The most significant proportion of our household carbon emissions in the West comes from consumption, which in many areas (e.g. communication, recreation, clothing and footwear) has tripled over the past few decades. Jesus says that ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil', and we see this too in our society. Our lives become more about owning ‘stuff', as we buy into the belief that more things will make us happier, that we can forge our identity by the things we buy; and our desire to acquire not only distracts us from the most important thing – investing in our relationships – it also all too often overrides our desire for justice for the poor, or any consideration of the effect of our lifestyles on the environment.

All of these relational and environmental problems are challenged by the holistic message of the gospel. For example, the biblical images of the Sabbath and Jubilee proclaim the equal value of all people, the importance of limitations upon the accumulation of wealth and spirals of debt, the importance of rootedness in place, the importance of family and community relationships, as well as the importance of rest for all people and for the earth. The gospel paints a vision of a society that is relationally and environmentally sustainable.

If we are to take the gospel seriously, we must recognise its demands over every area of life and over every relationship. It requires of us an integrated understanding of mission that neither neglects evangelism and the need for repentance and faith in Christ, nor the need for radical action to address the problem of climate change, nor the need for social reform to address the underlying structural factors that make it more difficult for us to live the life God intends for us.
But the message of the gospel is, above all, good news. Contemporary accounts of climate change often offer serious cause for concern and little hope. Christian hope for the future is not an excuse for apathy, but ought instead to provide us with the motivation to engage positively with our communities, in the expectation that God will be faithful to his promise to one day ‘reconcile to himself all things' [12] and that, in the meantime, he delights to use his people as the agents of his redemptive activity.

[1] Matt. 10:29
[2] Col. 1:16–17
[3] Rom. 8:19–20
[4] Gen. 3:19
[5] Ezek. 34:16
[6] Phil. 2:5–7
[7] Rev. 21:1
[8] Isa. 35:1–7
[9] Isa. 41:17–20
[10] Isa. 55:12
[11] Matthew 22:37-39
[12] Col. 1:120

Monday, 12 October 2009

Totem and Taboo Two

We've established, then, that Freud thinks that by looking at 'primitive' tribes we can gain important insights about the origins of human culture. In particular, he's interested in societies which are structured by systems of totem because he thinks that these societies are the most primitive and exemplify a stage of culture which all other societies have gone through at some point. Within totemic societies, the rule tends to be that you can't marry anyone within your own tribe. This is particularly interesting to Freud, because the 'prohibition on incest' (The rule that says you can't sleep with your mum/sister/brother/dad/cousin' etc.) is one of the most universal human laws: different societies have different ideas about who you can and can't sleep with, but they all have some sort of prohibition on incest.

It's easy to assume that societies ban incest because it's fundamentally wrong and icky, but Freud points out the problem with this line of reasoning: if it's so essentially repugnant to people, why have laws against it, and punishments for it? Societies make laws against the things that people want to do: killing people, taking their stuff; not so much about doing things that no one would want to do in the first place: find me the society that severely sanctions those people who eat their own poo or refuse to go to sleep, and I shall be surprised, to say the least.

Anyway, totems. In totemic societies, people belong to tribes which each have a 'totem', their tribal symbol. It's usually an animal, but sometimes a plant or a force of nature, like the wind. Here are twelve characteristics of totemic societies:
  1. The totem animal is usually not allowed to be killed or eaten, but tribal members will rear and look after animals of the totem species.

  2. Totem animals that die accidentally are mourned and buried as though they were a member of the tribe.

  3. The prohibition on eating sometimes refers only to a certain part of the animal.

  4. If it’s necessary to kill one of the totem animals, there's usually a ritual in which excuses are made to the animal (we're sorry, we were really hungry, we just really like bacon), and attempts are made to try and avoid the punishment which is the inevitable consequence of violating the taboo (look, you're not really dead; I didn't kill you - he did; hey, look, a unicorn!)

  5. If the animal is ritually sacrificed, it is solemnly mourned.

  6. At specified social occasions, people wear the skins of totem animals.

  7. Tribes and individuals assume the names of totem animals.

  8. Many tribes use pictures of animals as coats of arms, or have tattooes of them.

  9. If the totem is a dangerous animal, it’s assumed that it will spare the members of the tribe named after it. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't always quite work out like this, but if someone's killed by a totem animal, it's just assumed that they had done something naughty and Deserved It.

  10. The totem animal protects and warns tribal members (Lassie, anyone?)

  11. The totem animal foretells the future to those faithful to it and serves as their leader.

  12. The members of a totem tribe often believe they’re connected with the totem animal by the bond of common origin: that is to say, the totem animal is the father of the tribe whose totem it is.
Coming soon: what this all means for the origin of human society, religion, and the concept of God.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Totem and Taboo

Sigmund Freud isn’t a theologian, but he profoundly shaped the way that twentieth-and-twenty-first-century Westerners think about the world, and although scientists tend not to take him very seriously (how would you set up an experiment to test whether all men fancy their mothers?), he’s been incredibly influential on continental philosophy, which in turn is incredibly influential on a lot of modern theology.

Totem and Taboo isn't, as you might expect, just about psychoanalysis. Instead, it's an attempt to use the findings of psychoanalysis to gain insight into the origins of human society as it is about psychoanalysis. Freud is writing at a time when there was an explosion of interest in the tribal societies which European colonialists were encountering and trying to civilise all over the world. J G Frazer had written his book The Golden Bough, intended to be a universal theory of human mythology, which described the myths, magic, religion and social practices of some of these newly discovered cultures. The disciplines of anthropology and sociology were just beginning, and anthropologists in particular were studying tribes in the Australias, the Americas, and all sorts of other places which looked, to them, to be pretty primitive. They thought that by studying these tribes they could find out things about the origins of human society. These are the sorts of discussions that Totem and Taboo engages with. It’s pretty racist, with lots of comments about 'backward and wretched' savage and primitive races, and has plenty of questionable assumptions, but I think that's basically what you get when you read Freud, or indeed almost anyone else from that era.

These are his basic ideas:
  • All societies evolved in basically the same way: the only real difference between European culture and, say Australian aborigines, is that European culture is more evolved.
  • By looking at ‘primitive’ tribes, we can work out what sort of societies we evolved from. These tribes are basically the equivalent of archaeological finds: just as the pots and burial mounds we dig up tell us about the past, by looking at these primitive tribes we can find out how our ancestors lived.
  • We’re not so different from the ‘savage’ races as we think. Crucially, by using the insights of the psychoanalytical study of mentally ill people and children, we can draw conclusions about the way that primitive societies developed some of their key ideas and social structures.
Coming soon: Freud’s theory of the origin of human culture. And yes, it does involve sex.
Photo credit: Carla216 on Flickr