The Politics of Man’s Exaltation

I’ve just guest-posted over on Political Theology Today.

This psalm presents us with an embryonic account of human rule in the creation. Although the dominion of humanity is central to the psalm, it is situated within and established upon the sovereignty of YHWH. Human dominion is one of the Creator’s own mighty works, a means by which he establishes his intended order in his creation. As such, human rule is neither to be despotic nor a law unto itself, but a graciously given status and appointed means of fulfilling YHWH’s own good purpose for his manifold creatures.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Creation, Guest Post, OT, Politics, Psalms, Theological | 2 Comments

Review of Ashley McGuire’s ‘Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female’

My review of Ashley McGuire’s recent book, Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female, has just been published over on The Gospel Coalition website.

McGuire explores numerous fronts of the current assault on the reality of sexual difference: children’s toys and education, cultural discourse around the terms “sex” and “gender,” colleges and their sexual culture, the military, emergency services, the entertainment industry, legal developments, social norms, and the gender identity movement. Each front is presented through a litany of journalistic anecdotes and symptomatic causes célèbres. Together they reveal a society fraught with conflict over one of the most basic human realities—the difference between men and women.

Read the whole thing here.

Some of you might be wondering about the fact that my recent TGC article on artificial wombs has the same title as the book I’ve just reviewed. This was my fault for pitching an idea for that post in the thread devoted to the review of McGuire’s book, the addition of a different TGC editor later in that email thread to deal with the artificial wombs post, and my failure to catch the use of the book’s title in the draft that I was sent of the article (yes, I know!). By the time I caught the error, it was too late to change it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Revolutionary Work of Motherhood

Motherhood and the work of homemaking are accorded considerable sentimental value within Western culture. Every year on Mother’s Day—the second Sunday in May in the US or the fourth Sunday of Lent in the UK—the praises of mothers and their untiring and selfless work for their families are expressed in a myriad of greetings cards, sermons, and articles. In one of the most commercially profitable holidays of the year after Christmas, we acknowledge the emotional significance that our mothers have in our lives with flowers, boxes of chocolates, and syrupy sentiments purchased from Hallmark.

Yet this celebration is not without its measure of uneasiness and guilt. The saccharine sentiments of Mother’s Day may all too often function in part to palliate the dimly perceived injustice of a multitude of thankless impositions and burdens placed upon mothers over the rest of the year. As an inconsiderate husband may praise his ‘long-suffering’ wife, elevating her virtues as a face-saving mask for his own vices, our extravagant cultural celebration of the ‘self-sacrificial’ work of mothers may all too easily cover up the lack of honour in which we hold motherhood more generally. The gushing words and commercial expenditure notwithstanding, there is good reason to doubt whether the ‘sacrifices’ we claim to celebrate on Mother’s Day are truly held in esteem within our society.

Some attempt to highlight the injustice of the way that mothers are treated in our society by talking about such phenomena as the ‘second shift’ or women’s ‘unpaid labour’, casting the work of a mother as if it were a job, speculating how much it would cost to hire an employee to assume all of a mother’s commitments, or otherwise presenting the work of motherhood within the paradigm offered by wage labour. Within such an approach, preparing the family meal, reading the children their bedtime story, and vacuuming the dining room are all to be understood as if analogous with labouring for an employer. Yet there is a presumed deficiency of these acts relative to wage labour, because they are ‘unpaid’. More generally, the earnings gap between the sexes that largely arises from motherhood is lamented as a sign of ‘gender inequality’.

Yet within such a framework of understanding, many of the ‘sacrifices’ of motherhood appear more like costs unjustly imposed, costs that enable their husbands and children to achieve their full potential in the market, but which hold mothers back from achieving their own. This framework, even while it alerts us to the marginalization and devaluation of the labour of mothers in our society, fails to question the fundamental values that give rise to this problem. Presenting mother’s work as if a deficient form of wage labour, a burden unjustly and unequally shouldered by women that prevents them from achieving their value as full economic agents, devalues mother’s work, even as it sensitizes us to our society’s mistreatment of women’s labour. The monetary values of the market remain the dominating and unquestioned frame of reference and mothers are either unjustly oppressed parties or beloved self-sacrificial victims, who give up their own dreams the better to enable the rest of us to achieve our own.

For those operating within such a framework, it will always be difficult to entertain the possibility that the ‘sacrifices’ of motherhood may not merely be costs imposed by injustice or necessity or burdens willingly assumed on account of sentimental bonds. The possibility that such sacrifices might offer a passage by which a woman can establish and enter into a realm of human meaning deeper than that afforded by her individuality isn’t conceived.

It is not entirely surprising that a society such as our own should fail to perceive the true value of motherhood, for the value of motherhood so radically contrasts with the values that shape a society ordered around the neoliberal state and market. Our society is built upon abstraction and alienation, upon the escape from the bonds of the particular or the unique into the realm of autonomous will. Value is measured by the abstraction of currency, by reduction to pure exchange value. More generally, abstraction in conceptuality, technique, politics, production, social organization, and community are how we gain power. The more that we reduce the particularity of the world and humanity to fungible and malleable raw material, subject to the operations of abstract techniques, the more control and ‘freedom’ we possess. This dynamic is seen in everything from technocratic government, to the form of online social media, to the movements in fabrication towards mass production and digital replication, to the operations of algorithms on financial markets.

The mother’s labour is inalienable and cannot truly be abstracted, which renders it incomprehensible to a society ordered around alienation and abstraction. Motherhood involves a sort of labour and yields a sort of possession that is simply incommensurable with those forms of labour and possession that our society focuses upon. The ‘labour’ of the mother occurs within her own body and does not lend itself to being sold on the market. Although you can sell your house, you cannot sell your home on the market.

The logic of abstraction and alienation departicularizes us and cuts loose the bonds that bind us to each other, our labour, and our world. However, the work of the mother is invested not merely in the performance of generic service functions for prospective or current economic agents (which she could in theory pay another to perform for her), but in the creation of the world of the home, a world that is unexchangeable, a world that is uniquely hers, a realm of life of which she herself—in her embodied particularity—is the heart and the source.

While our society seeks power through abstraction and alienation, the power of the mother is in her uniting and integrating. A factory may produce delicious pre-packaged gourmet meals for microwave reheating, yet could never unite a family in the same way as a mother’s gift of home cooking, for instance. The significance of the mother’s labour cannot be reduced to its material outcomes or products, as through her labour the mother is giving her very self.

The labour of the mother in making her home is a labour of love, a type of labour driven by, bound to, and creative of something particular and unique, apart from and distinct from all other things in the world. You can’t mass produce or replicate homes. The mother is the spring of life at the heart of the home. Her very body is the site of union and our very first home. The life that she produces through her maternal labour and love is the life by which her entire household grows. It is also a life that spreads out beyond her household into her wider community and society bringing communion and fruitfulness, as she expresses her distinctively womanly power to make the world into a home.

The woman’s labour, as I have suggested, is a sacrifice and the meaning of the woman’s sacrifice will not be achieved apart from the labours of men and the commitment of society more generally to honour those sacrifices and secure their meaning. In his deeply perceptive discussion of the theme of sacrifice, Moshe Halbertal discusses the open-endedness of the past:

[W]hatever we accomplish in the past is at the mercy of future action. Future events, in other words, will define retroactively the meaning of what it is that we have done… The importance of the institution of the promise becomes clear when set against this condition of the fragility of the past. Think for a moment about a deathbed promise in which a dying author who has completed a magnum opus asks a friend to pledge that he will make an effort to publish it. The retroactive meaning of the author’s past is effectively at stake. He is essentially entrusting his friend with the meaning of the years that are gone.

In failing to perceive the true promise of the sacrifices of motherhood, society has failed truly to honour those sacrifices, or to order itself in a manner that commits itself to defending and securing their meaning.

Society has tended to view the sacrifices of motherhood as sacrifices from which women ought to be unburdened. The weakening of the family over the past centuries has in large measure arisen from the steady outsourcing of traditional family functions to external agencies, leading to its de-condensation:

Marriage traditionally functioned as a socially integrating institution and has been regarded as sacred or holy by many societies as a result, right down to the present. Although the form it took could vary considerably from society to society, it generally served to unite or strengthen the bond between a range of different persons and practices. It bound the generations together. It bound different families together. It related the sexes together. It strengthened communities and cultures as marriages became the bearers of religious and social meaning. It connected sex with procreation. It connected private life with communal life.

The power of marriage and family as an institution arose in large measure from the vast array of functions that were condensed within it: provision, security, welfare, healthcare, education, investment, employment, public representation, community, religious practice, etc., etc. However, over the last few centuries marriage has been radically de-condensed, many of its former functions outsourced to other institutions or drastically reduced through new technologies. Whereas marriage was once a deeply meaningful necessity for people’s physical and social survival, now it is steadily reduced to a realm of sentimental community. Without the force of necessity holding people together, the deeper integrating goods that marriage once represented are harder to perceive and its meaning is drastically diminished. Marriage becomes much weaker as an institution.

Although many of these developments are very positive on balance, relieving women of some of the most onerous work of the household, no other agency or technology can ultimately substitute for the communion-establishing gift of self that the mother could achieve through her labour in her home. By their very character, techniques arising from abstraction and alienation cannot achieve the true integration of personal union and communion.

The mother herself represents a reality that resists the logic of abstraction and alienation. Abstraction and alienation approach reality as generic raw and exchangeable stuff to be broken down by and subjected to abstract technique. The mother, by contrast, represents the original material, yet personal, bond in which we all find our beginnings. It is not accidental that the words ‘matter’ and ‘material’ both derive from the word for mother, and it is significant that they present the reality of the world, not in terms of atomized stuff, but in terms of a primordial relationship and bond. The concept of the Earth as our Mother is also a biblical one: Adam is formed of the adamah. The woman is also particularly paralleled and associated with the earth in Genesis and elsewhere: she is the one from whom life comes and to whom it is bound (see also the parallels between the judgment on the woman and the place of the earth in the judgment on the man in Genesis 3).

Scripture presents the relationship between humanity and the earth as analogous in key respects to the relationship between man and woman. When we get one wrong, we will tend to get the other one wrong too. Without a recovery of the dignity of the mother at the heart of human society, our dysfunctional relationship with the world—our alienation from the world and reduction of the world to raw material for technique and power—will not truly be addressed. Conversely, a recovery of an ecological awareness offers peculiar possibilities for a renewed appreciation of the life-giving and communion-forming power of women.

As I noted earlier, modern society has not truly valued women’s sacrifices, nor committed itself to securing their meaning. A home or a wider realm of shared life in the world is a fragile thing and easily destroyed in a society that wishes to dissolve all bonds and free itself from all particularities in order to maximize power. The market’s drive to maximize production, for instance, has produced the conditions of ‘liquid modernity’ in which old bonds and stable structures are broken down and constant flux is all that remains. Michel Houellebecq comments upon the character of life in such a world:

Children existed [in the past] to inherit a man’s trade, his moral code, and his property. This was taken for granted among the aristocracy, but merchants, craftsmen, and peasants also bought into the idea, so it became the norm at every level of society. That’s all gone now: I work for someone else, I rent my apartment from someone else, there’s nothing for my son to inherit. I have no craft to teach him; I haven’t a clue what he might do when he’s older. By the time he grows up, the rules I lived by will have no value – he will live in another universe. If a man accepts the fact that everything must change, then he accepts that life is reduced to nothing more than the sum of his own experience; the past and future generations mean nothing to him. That’s how we live now. For a man to bring a child into the world now is meaningless.

The individualism of modern society is unsurprising because the horizons of meaning established by women’s labour of home-making and communion-forming are closed by the relentless forces of abstraction and alienation, which increase our autonomous power by weakening the power of all of our bonds. Every generation is a revolutionary break from its predecessor and a decadent parent of its successor. As peoplehood collapses into atomized, anonymous, and fluid society, we know that we will leave the patrimony of our communities and countries to those who will be strangers to us.

In such a society, it takes a peculiar courage and faith for a woman to recognize the daunting powers of liquid modernity arrayed against all of the bonds that she will form and prayerfully to cast the bread of her labours upon those waters nonetheless. The revolutionary character of the sacrifices of committed motherhood should not be underestimated. It is through women’s courageous determination to make such sacrifices and men’s unwavering protection and service of them that the human future is formed.

Yet the guilt that laces our culture’s sentimental celebration of motherhood is amply justified. In idealizing abstraction and alienation, and the maximization of autonomous power we created a world that is fundamentally hostile to the labour of women. As we have sacrificed or weakened our bonds to the particularities of the world—to families and homes, to neighbourhoods and communities, to congregations and churches, to specific ways of life and labour, to our towns, regions, and countries, and to our natural environments—to increase our power and autonomy, the homeliness and hospitality of the world has guttered. To the extent that homes and communities remain, they have retreated into small reservations of sentimental domesticity where we consume things together. Despite the material wealth displayed within them, they are starved of much of the life that once animated them.

If our power is to mean anything, it must be exercised in service of life and community, placing the mother once more at the heart of the world. If we truly honour the mother’s sacrifice, we will commit our own labour and order our society to securing its meaning.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological | 18 Comments

Artificial Wombs and the Abolition of Woman

A post of mine has just been published over on the Gospel Coalition website. Within it I discuss the developing technology of artificial wombs and some of the reasons why we might be concerned about their long term potential.

It’s important both to consider that ectogenesis would represented a critical step in the shift from begetting children to making them, and that we are already some way down this path on account of our cultural acceptance and normalization of contraception, abortion, IVF, and same-sex marriage. With each step, the associated logic carries greater power. For instance, natural sexual relations, conception, and gestation—within the context of a committed relationship—aren’t merely something we do in light of our beliefs about the humanity of the unborn. They are also means by which we perceive that humanity in the first place. The more that embryos are produced outside the intimacy of the woman’s body and outside the context of a loving interpersonal act only indirectly aimed at the end of procreation, the easier it is to view the embryo as mere biological material to be treated accordingly.

As I’ve maintained elsewhere, progressivism is transhumanist in its logic and fundamentally conflicts with nature. As the technology catches up, and its logic further leavens the social imaginary, we should expect progressivist ideology to yield ever more intimate assaults on human nature itself.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, Guest Post, Science, Sex and Sexuality, Society | 9 Comments

Escaping the Prison of Social Sensitivity

Social Sensitivity and its Dangers

It may surprise some people to learn this, but I have an intense aversion to social awkwardness, breach of social etiquette, and to other people’s social discomfort. If someone treads on my toe, I will instinctively apologize for the presence of my foot. I am still autopsying social events from years ago, replaying my actions and people’s responses and wondering how I came across, worried lest I thoughtlessly said something inconsiderate. Watching deeply socially awkward or fraught scenes on TV shows can be like torture for me. I can go to great lengths to smooth over unpleasant social relations and to avoid ‘scenes’.

I might flatter myself that this is about my hatred for seeing people being genuinely emotionally hurt. However, examining myself closer, it is clear to me that this instinctive hatred can be concentrated a lot more on my seeing than on the other’s actual hurting. Rather than a primarily compassionate instinct, this instinct is more about my hatred of a ‘scene’: when people’s troubles are well submerged beneath the tranquil surface of well-managed and pleasant social appearances I probably don’t have the same degree of instinctive concern about them.

Culture always tends to loom large in this sort of area. I am a stereotypical Englishman in many of these respects, with a characteristically acute sense of social propriety, politeness, and submission to social norms, albeit I suspect I feel these cultural instincts more strongly than many people around me. One should not draw unnecessary attention to oneself, one shouldn’t make a scene, one shouldn’t impose upon others, one shouldn’t be ‘loud’, one shouldn’t be impolite, one should avoid social awkwardness at all costs.

Living in a ‘guess culture’, if one needs a favour, for instance, one must undertake a subtle dance, indirectly indicating one’s need in a manner that gives one’s interlocutor plausible deniability of having recognized it, politely declining their offers of help a couple of times until they insist that you accept. People who come from ‘ask cultures’ have a far less delicate social fabric when it comes to many interactions. They can make or turn down requests directly. They can also deal with differences more openly and forthrightly.

While retaining my acute aversion to social awkwardness, I’ve often struggled with the stifling effects of contexts where so many social interactions are deeply awkward or uncomfortable, as the contexts are accommodated to very different personal sensitivities than my own. My favourite contexts are animated, forthright in communication, with lots of mutual interruption, some roughness, and plenty of competition, sparring, and playful teasing. These contexts, have always been liberating for me. They allow for lots of stimulating and robust interaction, with a minimal amount of social awkwardness. They aren’t awkward because one is afforded a lot more freedom in one’s interactions without violating the underlying social rules and damaging the social fabric. For people with low personal sensitivities but high social sensitivities, such contexts can be wonderful. Most differences can generally be dealt with and explored openly in such a setting, without provoking ill-will. This isn’t to say that there aren’t issues that can be socially awkward in such a setting, but they are considerably fewer in number.

As I’ve examined my own social sensitivity, I’ve become less inclined to presume that it is a virtue and more aware of its profound potential for vice. The strong instinct to preserve the social fabric undamaged and strictly observe the norms of comfortable social interactions has often been the very force that has buried unwelcome truth, individual suffering and need, sin and abuse.

Over the years, I’ve also come to be a lot more appreciative of people who are prepared to violate social sensitivities and etiquette on appropriate occasions, especially when they uphold and strengthen the social fabric the rest of the time. There can be a laudable courage in the person who is prepared to provoke social discomfort in themselves and others for the sake of the truth and righteousness, who is willing to tear the social fabric when and where it needs to be torn.

People who do this won’t often be appreciated. They hurt people’s feelings and they make the social environment unpleasant. They can provoke conflict in situations where compromise is an option.


Paul Griffiths and Duke

I was recently caused to think about all of this when following the controversy surrounding Paul Griffiths at Duke Divinity School, a situation which Rod Dreher has catalogued at some length on his blog. Griffiths faced disciplinary procedures following his challenging of a racial equity initiative in the Divinity School.

When Anathea Portier-Young, one of Griffiths’ colleagues, sent an email recommending the two-day course of racial equity training to the faculty (a course, which, incidentally, ran from 8:30am to 5pm on a Saturday and a Sunday), Griffiths sent a general response to the recipients of Portier-Young’s email:

I’m responding to Thea’s exhortation that we should attend the Racial Equity Institute Phase 1 Training scheduled for 4-5 March. In her message she made her ideological commitments clear. I’ll do the same, in the interests of free exchange.

I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.

We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Making apparent reference to Griffiths’ letter, Elaine Heath, the Dean of the Divinity School, wrote:

It is certainly appropriate to use mass emails to share announcements or information that is helpful to the larger community, such as information about the REI training opportunity. It is inappropriate and unprofessional to use mass emails to make disparaging statements—including arguments ad hominem—in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.

This email exchange led to a crisis in which Griffiths was subjected to two disciplinary procedures: one initiated by Heath and another for harassment initiated by Portier-Young (for using racist or sexist speech in a manner that would create a hostile workplace).

Griffiths was not without his supporters. Thomas Pfau observed that the racial equity training programme was merely the latest of many burdensome impositions placed upon the faculty by the administration and that the suggestion that Griffiths’ message could be said to constitute an expression of ‘racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry’ was ‘either gravely imperceptive or as intellectually dishonest.’


Community Concerns

It is important to bear in mind that all of this occurs within a context of heightened sensitivities surrounding race in Duke University and Divinity School. The following video is from the Dean of Trinity College at Duke University, Valerie Ashby:

In an open letter to Rod Dreher, Daniel LaVenture also writes:

…as a member of the DDS community myself, I am not automatically aware of all sides of the issue, but my membership forces me to be open to them. I have seen firsthand the issues in the Office of Black Church Studies which led to the policies now being discussed. I have seen the impact the loss of Black faculty has had on my fellow seminarians, especially those of color. And I cannot ignore their plight. I’ve seen the nuanced rationales for these policies, and I cannot deny them. Whether or not I support the decisions of DDS administration is indifferent; by virtue of being a part of the DDS community, I am able to assent or dissent to them with a personal kind of knowledge that someone from without simply cannot have.

This, of course, opens up into a wider set of implications. The present issues at DDS are far more than a debate over liberal and conservative principles of policy. They are about navigating the complex life of a community, and a particularly diverse one at that. And because this is not merely a political battle, an episode in the greater so-called culture war, your commentary really doesn’t help us in the slightest. Bringing in the opinions of the American Conservosphere only serves to further polarize an already polarized situation that doesn’t really concern them. This is an issue not simply of politics, but of two ancient Christian principles: koinonia and oikonomia—communal life and “household management.”

Such concerns are by no means baseless or unreasonable. I discussed the issue of social sensitivity above. However, I didn’t sufficiently highlight what can be at stake in social sensitivity. While it may often merely be a matter of minimizing people’s discomfort in potentially awkward situations or interactions, there are many times when we are struggling to shore up a group of people’s precarious sense of belonging within our community. Our practice or non-practice of sensitivity can serve to draw the lines of community, with people on the margins either being placed inside or out by our behaviour. In many such cases, insensitivity can fracture the group, causing some people to feel like outsiders. Navigating such fraught communal relationships can be jeopardized when people without the community interject themselves into its struggles.


Communities and their Missions

Diverse communities are often extremely fragile, and unable to sustain the same sort of pressures and stresses that less diverse communities can. For instance, the more diverse a community is, the weaker it may be when it comes to the task of rigorous stress-testing of ideas or enquiry. The fragility of the social bonds can mean that many subjects must be avoided and many punches must be pulled. Diversity can exact heavy costs and, indeed, in many instances communities and societies may need to place limits upon diversity, for the sake of their missions or other ends. The notion that diversity is an unalloyed good in itself is a dangerous error, no matter how attractive this claim can be in situations where diversity is simply a fact on the ground to which we must accommodate ourselves.

In this area, we will often face direct trade-offs between the diverse community as an end in itself and the other ends towards which such a community may be ordered, trade-offs about which we should be more honest. It should be noted that this is an issue underlying much contemporary discourse about the university and free speech. There is a conflict between those whose interest is primarily the maintenance of vulnerable people’s precarious sense of belonging in the fragile diverse community of the university and those whose interest is primarily the university’s serving of its academic ends as a realm and agency of free, open, and challenging enquiry.

As universities have become more diverse places, they have often been at risk of subordinating their academic ends to their increasingly demanding communal ends. We should notice the way that values of community and belonging are at the heart of so many of the protests against controversial speakers on campuses, for instance. The social fabric is fragile and so the open expression of sharp conflicts of belief can’t easily be sustained.

‘Political correctness’ is the diverse society’s regime of politeness, which prevents people from being hurt and alienated from the community, but which also prevents certain truths, often profoundly necessary truths, from being spoken (one such truth being that diversity has many costly trade-offs and that there may be many occasions when it is more a regrettable necessity than a healthy ideal).

Political correctness is typically maligned by conservatives, but it is important to recognize both the fundamentally well-intentioned instincts from which it often arises and the many wilful violations of the social fabric that it prevents. It is also important to recognize the way that many purposefully provocative movements against political correctness ‘burn the commons’ of society, rather than seeking to create a healthier and more robust society with a more sustainable commons.


Preference Falsification, Exit Masks and Voice Masks

Sustaining diverse communities and the political correctness that tends to accompany them isn’t easy. They can place a heavy burden of ‘preference falsification’, as Sarah Perry has discussed: people must disguise their private preferences if they want to enjoy status, belonging, and security. Political correctness is the ‘sacredness’ that preserves the current social order. A politically correct position, such as the goodness of same-sex marriage, is sacred, something that is ‘so important that we agree not to examine it too closely, and to only speak of it in respectful, ideologically correct terms.’ Over time, preference falsification can have the effect of ‘preference husbandry’, as people’s interior beliefs are slowly conformed to the sacred public ones.

Venkatesh Rao explores these dynamics further, introducing the concepts of ‘voice masks’ and ‘exit masks’. He describes them as follows:

Consider first the difference between two masks: putting on a brave face (say when you’re in adult trapped in a dangerous situation with a child, where you cannot admit you’re scared or worried) and political correctness (say you’re at an office party where you cannot be completely candid). Both are voice masks; masks you put on when you have to pretend to agree with a sentiment you actively disagree with. You relieve the strain of voice masks by moving to a social context where you can speak more freely, and express your real emotions more completely. In the former case, it would be nice to have another adult around—making it a larger group—to share fears and anxieties with after the child goes to bed. In the latter case, it would be nice to retreat for drinks with a couple of trusted friends—a smaller group—to have a more candid chat about current workplace politics.

Now consider two other kinds of masks: pretending to enjoy yourself (say at a family gathering or a graduation ceremony where people who care a lot more are deeply immersed in the proceedings) and pretending to be interested (such as when listening to a boring but influential person drone on in a situation where leaving would cause offense and repercussions). These are exit masks: masks you put on when you have to pretend to care. You relieve the strain by moving to a social context where you don’t have to speak or fake an emotional intensity you don’t feel. Again, in the first case, you might relieve the stress by moving to a larger group that affords greater anonymity (such as a big city) and in the former case by retreating to a smaller group (perhaps going for a walk alone to unwind and get the bullshit out of your head).

These are opposed drives: moving in social space to speak and emote more versus moving in social space to speak and emote less. Of the two, exit masks are more basic: it is only hard to pretend to agree when you care. If you don’t care to begin with, pretending to agree adds no additional strain. You’ll nod along to whatever. Pretending to care is emotional bullshitting. Pretending to agree is emotional lying.

Societies that depend upon extensive preference falsification can put a lot of strain on their members, a strain that is intensified where contexts within which we can remove our masks are denied us.

Freddie deBoer’s recent post on the ‘backchannel’ highlights some of this problem. Official ideology, the stifling effect of diverse and/or dense society, and the imperative of the cause leads people to falsify their opinions in public, when many of them voice different opinions in those private settings where they are safe to remove their masks. The high social sensitivity of the public group prevents criticism from being voiced there: people must wear ‘voice masks’. However, the pressure of wearing a voice mask leads people to seek private outlets where they can be relieved of the burden of their masks and speak their minds on issues they care about. What becomes apparent as a result is that the public orthodoxy owes much of its strength to preference falsification, to the fact that it is protected from challenge on account of its sacredness, or the sacredness of those advancing it.


Diversity and Politeness as Ideology

In discussing the Duke Divinity School situation, Dreher quotes at great length from Václav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” essay on the issue of conformity, ideology, and power. Havel explores the way in which ideology sustains and advances the interests of power, causing people to conform and step in line through the fear, paranoia, and mutual policing that subscription to the official ideology enables people to dissemble.

This is definitely a powerful analogy to the way that ‘social justice’ ideology functions in society today, and is an analogy that I myself have recently drawn. However, there are differences to which we should also attend here. The strength of Havel’s totalitarian society is chiefly operative on a vertical plane, from the rulers of society downwards. This contrasts with our society, where its strength is primarily in horizontal relations, in the power of the group to reward those who conform and discipline those who don’t with social sanctions of ostracization or acceptance and inclusion.

The growth of social justice ideology arises in no small measure from the fact that it is an advanced and highly developed system of etiquette for diverse society. People want to conform to it in order both to feel like good and decent people and to belong to the in-group, defined by its high cultivation of manners. Diversity conveys legitimacy and political correctness and social justice ideology are mechanisms by which this is sustained. In turn, political correctness upholds diversity itself as a great ideal to be pursued. However, the socially enforced etiquette is a powerful vehicle of ideological oppression, pressing people into a conformity that can squeeze out truth and genuine difference.

This whole situation is intensified by the Internet, which collapses groups into poorly differentiated yet diverse and socially saturated contexts. In such large and diverse contexts, the horizontal mechanisms of social conformity are greatly empowered. The increased diversity and social saturation produces a more intense policing of ourselves and others when it comes to socially discomforting speech. I want to speak my mind openly, yet I know that several of the people who follow me on Twitter or elsewhere would be hurt by my expression of my beliefs: do I keep silent, or do I speak my mind? Likewise, whenever I speak, other people will be mindful of vulnerable and highly sensitive people they know who could be hurt by my words and might strike out against me in defence of the social fabric.

Those with generally high personal sensitivity or with specific sensitivities are always near at hand, and we must always be on our guard lest we offend them. It is no longer so possible to shield them from exposure to unsettling conversations, ensuring both the protection of the vulnerable and the possibility of pursuing challenging conversations. We must choose one or the other. Our own social sensitivity and that of others around us will make discussion of challenging issues difficult, and make it increasingly likely that such discussions will be either smothered or devolve into conflict.


Modes of Society and Sensibilities

I have already suggested that social sensibility operates differently in different kinds of society. There are rougher, more open, and less intimate communities where the burden of preference falsification is relatively low and there isn’t the same expectation to wear voice and exit masks. These are the sort of communities that advocates of free speech tend to value. Within these communities you can speak your mind, without having to worry so much about other people’s feelings. The strength of such communities often derives from the shared sense of liberation that those within them feel when relieved of the preference falsifications and masks of polite society in their common activity of acting and speaking openly with each other.

On the other hand, there are other sorts of communities, which are either much more socially saturated, intimate, and personal, or considerably more diverse. In both such cases, high personal sensitivities produce a situation where the burden of preference falsifications and masks can be quite intense. In the first case, the social fabric is so closely woven that there isn’t much room for movement without tearing it. In such contexts, disagreement swiftly devolves into personal attacks and consolidations of the social fabric (for an example of this, see the recent Tuvel controversy). In the second case, the social fabric is so weak that one can’t easily challenge others without tearing it. Once again, disagreement can be highly personal in such an environment, albeit for slightly different reasons. In both of these environments persons tend to eclipse issues: the reception of what you say is radically dependent upon who you are.

I’ve commented on these dynamics before in relation to the sexes: more female-typical society tends to be considerably more dense than more male-typical society and much less accommodating of difference and disagreement. Within such a context, the need to maintain a tight knit social fabric tends to require that conflict be handled indirectly. In many (not all) respects, such a context may also be much more demanding of preference falsification and mask-wearing (and of corresponding highly intimate private contexts where the masks can be removed with a very close friend).

A great many of our arguments today are about the conflicts of interest between societies with either very weak or dense social fabrics and societies with loose and accommodating social fabrics. As our contexts become less segregated by gender and more diverse, open and challenging speech is increasingly experienced as an assault upon the social fabric itself. For instance, it is incredibly difficult to have a theological argument with a woman on social media as a man (and often even as a woman too), as the social fabric cannot easily sustain it: the woman may feel personally attacked and men may rush to her defence and the defence of the social fabric. While the defence of the social fabric may protect and enhance the woman’s sense of belonging, it doesn’t do much for the service of the truth.

We must recognize the degree to which diversity and inclusion have been engines for the propagation of error within the Church and society over the last few decades. Our not inappropriate social sensitivity towards precarious members of society and towards women has led us to exempt such persons and their ideas from much of the challenging stress-testing to which we expose ideas voiced by men. Unfortunately, where the generally healthy social norm of not treating women as combatants and protecting them from conflict has held sway, all sorts of pernicious falsehoods have been allowed to develop unchecked in the academy and Church.

Polite men who are unpersuaded by feminist ideology, for instance, just keep their mouths shut so as not to make women feel threatened. Other men with a strong sense of duty towards women will rush to their aid against the supposed misogynist men who challenge them. Patently erroneous feminist and queer ideologies have been greatly protected by the way that decent and socially sensitive men are trained to act towards women. In Christian contexts, certain women, protected from direct and forceful challenge by social etiquette and a ‘palace guard’ of men who will rush to their defence if they appear to be attacked, have been able to advance error while smearing those who would challenge them as misogynists.


Weaponized Sensitivity

People with high personal sensitivity can gain a great deal of social control on account of the many people with high social sensitivity, who are deeply concerned for the protection and strengthening of the social fabric. This creates a dangerous incentive, however. If one gains power through high personal sensitivity, becoming more sensitive is the route to more power. Vulnerability and weakness can be weaponized to get one’s way in society.

While a healthy society might steadily push people towards the development of thicker skins, encouraging growth in strength, a society with powerful etiquette and intense social sensitivity is easily held hostage by those who are the quickest to take offence, be emotionally wounded, or make a scene. This problem is heightened by our glorification of inclusion and diversity, which can all too easily prevent us from exercising the necessary discrimination in forming communities that are apt for the pursuit of truth and genuine justice. This discrimination may not be a binary choice between inclusion and exclusion, but may be more a matter of forming differentiated and diversified communities, where conflict occurs in more clearly defined and protected contexts, for instance, contexts set apart from other contexts where different social norms prevail.



Returning to the Duke Divinity situation, some have argued that Griffiths was exceedingly rude in the way he handled things. I don’t think this claim should be dismissed: he was rude. He violated etiquette, openly and forcefully challenged a female colleague before other faculty members, created conflict in a situation where compromise was relatively easy, struck the sacred cow of race theory, and generally made himself unpleasant.

However, where I differ from Griffiths’ critics is in my conviction that such rudeness may be increasingly necessary in some situations. The power of the new illiberalism often isn’t fear of direct coercion so much as our fear of the stick of social ostracization or judgment and our deep desire for the carrot of being considered ‘nice’ people. It is the power of social sensitivity, a power which social media has considerably amplified.

Griffiths broke with etiquette by forcefully and openly challenging a female colleague in a way that made her feel harassed. As I’ve already suggested, male and female groups tend to handle conflict differently. Griffiths broke with general social norms by initiating a conflictual situation with a woman, treating her in the sort of way that men are more likely to treat each other when they have strong disagreements. He was arguably a bit of an asshole.

Likewise, Griffiths attacked the sacred cow of race equity ideology. Once again this is an area where a great deal of falsehood has been sheltered by our healthy concern not to appear racist or to side with forces of oppression and to ensure that people of colour are treated with justice and fairness. Prevailing race equity ideology is a sacred ideology that establishes the form of preference falsification that undergirds diverse society.

Decent and socially sensitive people know better than to question the discourses around race, even when we can see glaring holes in them. We quietly go along with things, not raising objections, attending the training programmes, rightly not wanting people of colour to feel that they are in a hostile environment. However, we are increasingly seeing the discourses surrounding race and sexuality making ever more unreasonable demands upon us and our society (for instance, in calling the faculty of a divinity school to spend the entirety of their Sunday attending a racial equity course, rather than prioritizing worship). The ideology of anti-racism, gender equality, and LGBT rights have become sacred ideologies, and, in many quarters, tantamount to an idol. We don’t feel able to resist: we don’t want to be perceived as racists, misogynists, or homophobes. Yet the masks are weighing heavily upon us.

The problem is that when the oppressive and destructive power of the ideologies being advanced is, to a very significant degree, employing the vehicle of politeness, niceness, etiquette, due process and procedure, considerateness, collegiality, etc., we will need to be prepared to act in rude and impolite ways if we are to push back against it. Social sensitivity has become pathological in a great many contexts. It is almost impossible to present any serious challenge to the ideology without stepping on toes, breaking social norms, moving out of your own lane, disregarding proper procedure, or coming across as rude and inconsiderate. We will probably need to develop a greater tolerance for other people’s discomfort and for our own discomfort at the breaking of social etiquette.

Without people who are prepared to be rude and tear the social fabric on appropriate occasions, the preference falsifications expand beyond all control and force us to double down on socially obliging falsehoods to keep the social peace. People who are prepared to be rude or impolite on appropriate occasions, without just being obnoxious in character or for the sake of it, can perform a crucial cultural role in protecting us from the pathologies of politeness, forcing us to face up to the dysfunctions of ‘polite society’.

The person who is capable of being prudently rude and unpleasant has a gift that we need, but seldom adequately appreciate. We are increasingly in need of people with the nerve and the wisdom to violate norms of politeness when they have become pathological, without simply rejecting politeness altogether. People who are the slaves of politeness irrespective of whether it is functioning in a healthy or unhealthy fashion lack an important ability.


Moving Forward

While rudeness has its appropriate occasions, it doesn’t really provide a sustainable solution to the problems that now face us. Rudeness can all too easily attack the oppressive preference falsifications that bind us, while failing to address itself to the task of securing social cohesion, the task that, however imperfectly, the preference falsifications currently serve. Rudeness is primarily a destructive force. It can tear the social fabric at points where it needs to be torn, but it cannot provide a healthier social fabric in its place.

It seems to me that the alternative requires considerable prudence, but should fundamentally be pursued along three lines:

First, we need to push people towards the cultivation of strength and beware of incentivizing or facilitating the weaponizing of high sensitivity.

Second, on the other hand, we must recognize the often healthy intent of social sensitivity and be considerably more mindful of the integrity of the social fabric when pursuing the good of open and challenging speech in service of the truth. Protecting, strengthening, and wisely ordering the social fabric is essential to the task of pursuing free and open discourse. A well-ordered social fabric sustains and empowers speech and persuasion. No genuine solution to our problems can be arrived at by pitting the one against the other.

Third, we need to create diversified societies and social institutions, which preserve heterogeneous forms of sociality, while being ordered towards the pursuit of truth in community. Different people will find different niches within such societies and communities, rather than being treated interchangeably. Such societies will require structures of representation and advocacy. They will also require well-defined realms and social norms applicable to them. Upholding the boundaries between realms of discourse will be necessary, so that no form of discourse overruns others. Undifferentiated inclusion of all parties in all realms should be resisted—we must give space to each other. However, we must also encourage consistent intervolvement between groups within our communities.

All of this requires a movement beyond the reactive struggle between the political correctness pursued by the highly socially sensitive and the free speech pursued by those with much lower personal and social sensitivity. The task facing us is less of a culture war than a social construction project. Within this project we should seek to collaborate to the degree that we can, aiming to produce a society that works for everyone.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, In the News, Society | 30 Comments

The Politics of the Stumbling Stone

Earlier today a reflection of mine on the subject of 1 Peter 2:2-10 was published over on Political Theology Today.

In three interwoven scriptural allusions, 1 Peter 2:4-10 presents us with a striking image. While undertaking a great construction project, a team of builders reject a stone. However, this stone is later placed as the chief cornerstone of a new divinely established building, a vast new temple constructed by the Spirit, formed of ‘living’ stones.

This stone which God has laid becomes a cause of division. On the one hand, people come to this stone in order to be built upon it. On the other hand, those who continue to reject it consistently find it to be an obstacle in their way and stumble over it to their destruction.

The imagery explored in this passage was deeply embedded in the consciousness of the early Church. The passages to which Peter alludes—Isaiah 28:16-19, Psalm 118, and Isaiah 8:11-15—are referenced in numerous other places in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 21:42-44; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17-18; John 12:13; Acts 4:11; Romans 9:32-33; 10:11; Ephesians 2:20).

The significance of the imagery of this passage arises from the fact that the construction work described is not a general building project, but the establishment of the eschatological Temple itself. The stone that God lays is placed in Zion, where the Temple itself was located. Hence the imagery explored in this passage involves a searching interrogation of core scriptural symbols, and is not merely a random metaphor deployed only for a limited purpose.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in 1 Peter, Bible, Ethics, NT, NT Theology, Politics, The Church, Theological | 17 Comments

The Internet, Blogging, Authority, and the Sexes

The subject of women’s online platforms has been a live one over the last few weeks. A couple of days ago, Christianity Today published an article by Tish Harrison Warren, which provoked considerable controversy, many believing that women were being unfairly singled out by the piece and their voices delegitimized. I wrote a post addressing many of the issues Warren highlights in November, suggesting that many of our problems relate to a fundamental crisis of trust in evangelical circles. That is probably the first place to go for my thoughts on this issue.

The following are a few loosely connected further thoughts.



We need to beware of blaming individual agents for what is in large measure a structural problem. As I have argued at length in the past, the very structure of the currently existing Internet encourages dysfunctional discourse and modes of ‘community’. Many of the barriers to speech that the Internet has removed were necessary protective barriers. Ironically, the removal of these barriers has often not led to liberation, but to the loss of freedoms that healthy boundaries can give us.

The Internet causes problems by bringing us all too close together, in ways that encourage confusion, conflict, impulsivity, and reactivity. It also obscures the healthy social functioning of authority, by making such things as age, context, community, and office invisible and by obscuring the reality of sexual difference. On the Internet we all have egalitarian ‘accounts’, we are not bound to any particular community, and are caught up in a spectacle of our own virtual identities that makes virtue- and identity-signalling practically unavoidable. Again, this is not something that we choose to do (or can simply choose not to do), it is just the way that the Internet is and how it shapes us.



Many, probably most, of us who have online ‘platforms’—for want of a better word—never set out with the aim of creating them. My blogging grew out of participation in online theology forum discussions, which itself grew out of participation in offline theology discussion groups I started with friends. The primary driving force throughout has always been the fact that I think out loud and in conversation and greatly value sharpening interaction with others and sharing ideas.

There have been a great many ways that I could have increased my platform by pursuing publication on more prestigious or popular sites or by tailoring my work for a wider audience. However, when these possibilities have been in tension with my fundamental aim in blogging, I have generally declined or refrained from them. Much of my blogging has started its life in comment threads, private email discussion lists or forums, Twitter, or personal conversation. The majority of my writing isn’t published and that which is published on my blog is seldom very polished. My blog has been a way of exploring trains of thought that outgrew their initial media. Even Mere Fidelity has been determinedly amateur in its guiding principles: we are four guys recording unrehearsed, unedited, and unplanned conversations that are much the same as those we have in private. In fact, I increasingly find myself retreating from the more open online contexts, because I can no longer have the same sort of conversations that I once enjoyed on them.

However, although I have never pursued a platform, I have ended up with one. Over 50,000 people have read certain posts on this blog. Thousands of people visit my blog or read my writings every day. A number of publishers have asked me to write for them. Many people I admire with considerable influence or authority have shared or recommended my writings.

Having a largely unsought platform can be both a blessing and an irritation. Whereas I may blog in pursuit of stimulating conversation and to articulate ideas that have excited or interested me, a lot of people may treat me as a teacher. This places responsibilities upon me that I did not have when I was just a random blogging theology nerd. However, even in recognizing those responsibilities, this situation has never been one with which I am entirely comfortable. I would much prefer writing for a considerably more targeted audience.



I am not ordained. I hold no official or teaching position in my church. I am not an employee or official representative of any Christian organization, although I have worked for several. Although I have a doctoral degree in theology, it is from a secular university. The pastoral oversight to which I am subject is rather limited as just a regular congregant in a Church of England church. No one in my church context is going to be reading or listening to my material before it gets published. Even if they had the time in which to do so—theologically assessing upwards of 3,000 words daily is not a task anyone would sign up for! And few would really be qualified to do so.

Although I have definitely not purposefully avoided accountability and have welcomed it where I have found it (primarily in communities of trained theologians, where I have smart and godly people who will disagree and argue with me when necessary; I also run much of my writing by my girlfriend before publishing it), once again there is a structural problem here. No party really exists that could provide effective ecclesial oversight.

Offline, it is quite possible to distinguish between the informal and institutional discourses of academic and amateur theologians, communities of lay Christian conversation, and the authoritative teaching of the Church. One can more easily tell the authority and authorization with which someone speaks. Unfortunately, online media make drawing such distinctions increasingly difficult. It flattens out conversations and contexts in ways that lead to disorder.

In such situations, the problem may not be so much one of people speaking without authority or authorization, as the fact that the difference between such people and those who do have specific forms of authority and authorization has been rendered unclear by the media. Where structures of authority are clearly visible, the appropriate boundaries are also a lot more visible, and it is easier to uphold the boundaries without needing closely to police any of the actual conversations taking place. Without the clarity of structures of authority and boundaries, however, church leaders risk being officious in their policing of lay conversations and lay conversations risk blinding their participants to pastoral and other modes of authority or authorization or undermining pastoral authority.

These problems aren’t exclusive to the Church. Companies increasingly feel the need to clamp down on their employees’ use of social media, lest it be thought that their opinions are being expressed as a representative of their company or organization. Social media has blurred the boundaries between public and private, authorized and unauthorized, publicized and obscure, etc. As I have often argued, this leads to many conflicts and confusions as the norms, meaning, and contexts of discourse become ambiguous. The loss of differentiation in social discourse is damaging in many ways, one of the most important being the way in which it presses different groups and contexts into conflict with each other, as, without clear distinctions each group trespasses upon the rightful place of others.



Evangelicalism has always had populist, democratic, anti-hierarchical, and egalitarian instincts within it. However, these instincts have typically existed alongside many other instincts that served to correct, counterbalance, or check them. The rise of modern media, especially the Internet, has removed many of the limits to these instincts, radically empowering egalitarian and anti-hierarchical instincts over others.

The Internet weakens the pull of locality and the power of context more generally, while empowering movements that are dislodged from physical context and reality, more fully congruent with its tendencies. This radically shifts the balance of power between parachurch or non-ecclesial agencies and those of the local church. Evangelicalism was always going to be in trouble when the means of self-publication were spread to the masses and the general monopoly of the pulpit upon the public dispensing of theological opinion started to crumble. At least as long as the pulpit held sway, some general standards of theological training could—rather unevenly—be maintained as prerequisites for access to it and there was more hope of a mature conversation. The publishing industry would also primarily discover potential writers among trained pastors and academics, rather than among people who had obtained prominence largely independent of such institutions online.



Institutional and familial commitments can tend to pull people away from the world of Internet, meaning that the world of online discourse is dominated by relatively unseasoned youngsters. A disproportionate number of us were born in the 80s and 90s. The structure of our cultural discourse increasingly prematurely propels younger persons to positions of front line influence, without first submitting them as apprentices to older, wiser elders or, for that matter, to any institution at all. It would be very interesting to trace the generational development of the average age of popular Christian authors.

I have written in the past about the rise of the ‘first person industrial complex’, the proliferation of memoirs written by Christians in their twenties and younger thirties. The influence of such ‘super-peers’ has often replaced the guidance of ‘dis-temporaries’, members of an older generation, and the relationship between the generations in evangelicalism has increasingly been characterized by distrust and detachment. With this shift in generational and intergenerational dynamics has come a shift in the functioning of authority, a movement from the authority of wise elders to the influence of savvy and charismatic peers.



It is difficult to understand the crisis of authority in the evangelical church without also taking into account the degree to which people have been betrayed by a generation of abusive leadership. Despotic and sexually abusive leaders have scarred much of a generation and produced a deep suspicion and distrust in old modes of leadership. These leaders may still enjoy office and power, but the legitimacy of their authority is no longer acknowledged.



Putting the question of authority to one side, there are many other reasons to be concerned about the character of Christian discourse in the Internet age. I wonder whether people lamenting the lack of authority may often be confusing the absence of clear authority with the absence or non-functioning of realities that were formerly proximate or related to it.

For instance, I have frequently discussed problems with the standard of writing and reading online. Once again, this problem is as much structural as it is individual: the Internet tends to destroy context, democratizes conversations, produces distracted readers, weakens the connection between opinion and action, encourages reactive writing over reflective writing, etc., etc. Old authority structures and the control of the means of publication by publishers with editorial staff established some degree of quality control for discourse, disproportionately favouring the most learned, experienced, and mature voices in public conversation. The glaring lack of such quality control online is not straightforwardly a result of a lack of authority, as it is a result of the democratizing of the means of publication. The limits that ensured the higher quality of discourse were not simply limits of authority, but things such as the costliness of publication, the difficulty and lengthiness of the process of writing for publication, the typical distinction between the author and the publisher, and the role of editors.

That more authority isn’t the answer is also suggested by the fact that authoritative figures often embarrass themselves online, just like the rest of us. The speed of Internet discourse can make authority figures reactive too. Its excessive intimacy and democracy leads them to forget their station. They also get caught up in the spectacle and can allow their online persona, which is projected to be seen by others, to eclipse their actual self.



A friend of mine observed that Warren’s article equivocated in its use of the term ‘authority’. This, it seems to me, is one of the chief problems in this debate, and in the debates about women and authority more generally.

‘Authority’ is a term that carries various senses, a point that I have made recently in writing about debates concerning the ‘eternal subordination of the Son.’ Divine authority, for instance, is singular, yet modally differentiated by the three persons. Authority comes from the Father: the Father is the one who authorizes. The Father gives all authority to the Son, who is the powerful expression of God’s authority, the authoritative Word or Image of God. The Spirit is the one in whom divine authority is realized, rendered fruitful, and carried through to its completion. There is only one divine authority, yet this divine authority is ‘appropriated’ differently by the three persons.

Distinctions between forms or modes of authority are especially important when we consider relations between the sexes as debates about the authority of men and women commonly muddle together senses of authority that ought to be distinguished from each other. The following is a very rough, heuristic taxonomy of three key modes of authority.

‘Authority’ can sometimes be used in the sense of ‘authorization’. ‘Authorization’ is formal authority that can be vested in someone by a person or institution, typically in order that the authorized person should represent and effect the institution’s authority.

‘Authority’ is a term that has close associations with notions of powerful agency. In this sense, the person with authority is the pre-eminent person in a group, the person whose agency is most strong and developed. The authoritative person is the person who has pronounced, forceful, and confident agency by which they can put themselves to the fore.

‘Authority’ can also refer to the moral, social, and affective authority enjoyed by people who are effective at gathering others around them, people who are charismatic, loved, and who are gifted at galvanizing communities and getting others to act on their behalf.

The first mode of authority tends to be imaged and represented by the second mode of authority: the authority of our institutions is typically represented and effected by persons who naturally possess very strong agency. Such persons are able to act and speak powerfully in combative situations. In this manner, these persons protect and uphold our institutions and their values.

The first mode of authority can also legitimize, support, recognize, and give place to the third mode of authority and is itself given flesh by this third mode of authority. However, this sort of relationship is different from that which exists with the second mode of authority. While the robust agency of the second mode of authority effectively images and establishes the first mode of authority that authorizes it, the third mode of authority requires both the authorization of the first mode and the empowering support and protection of the second mode for its effective operation.

The second mode is authorized by the first mode and then filled out and glorified by the third mode of authority, without which it can be forceful but, as it lacks the centripetal gathering force of the third mode of authority, unfruitful.



Perhaps the problem at the heart of all this is that the second mode of authority is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) male and the third mode of authority is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) female. The third (and greatly underappreciated) mode of authority is powerfully on display online in the realm of social media. Women gather communities around them in ways that men cannot, they seek authorization and petition others to act forcefully on their behalf. Women tend to possess and represent the heart of any community, irrespective of the forcefulness of the agency of the men in the community, or whether or not they have authorization. Just as men can be unmindful of the sort of power that we possess and the advantages it gives us, I don’t believe many women fully appreciate the sort of authority they can wield, not least because it is less direct in its operation and expression.

The second mode of authority can also be seen in the way that men can fairly effortlessly dominate many situations and contexts they find themselves in through their more forceful agency. Male groups produce and foster strong agency and direct power. Men routinely engage in ritual combat over values, ideas, communities, etc., encouraging robustness, vigour, mastery, and strength. Men are fairly naturally suited to function as the guardians of groups and, through robustly imaging the authority of the groups that authorize them, strengthen and uphold the authorizing authority. These differences between men and women are very clearly visible online, to any who are paying attention.

It should be noticed that women’s appeals for ‘authority’ are typically appeals for the first and second modes of authority to operate on their behalf: they want to be ‘authorized’ and they want to be ‘empowered’. This is very important. The authority that they express and assert in these appeals is generally their moral and social authority, their capacity powerfully to gather others around them and get others to act for them.

It should also be noticed that these appeals for ‘authority’ are often also appeals to be given offices commonly associated with the second mode of authority, offices that image and establish the authorizing authority of the first mode. Problems arise here, because empowerment requires an empowering authority: it depends upon the support, protection, and service of the second mode of authority. However, women’s quest for authority in the church and society increasingly takes the form of a conflict between the second and the third modes of authority. As this conflict occurs, men’s strength becomes an obstacle.

The resulting conflict can take many forms. If the first mode of authority supports women in their appeal, more typical male authority can be delegitimized and its offices increasingly occupied by women and men who downplay their natural tendencies and capacities. The result of this can be institutional weakness and inability to engage effectively in strengthening conflict. Men can abdicate their strength and responsibility and display a sort of unmanliness, afraid of asserting themselves lest they silence or marginalize the women. Alternatively, men can dissemble the differences between the sexes in these areas, while consistently rushing to the defence of women when they face challenge. While well-meaning, this can become deeply dysfunctional as it has the tendency of replacing the robust imaging and effecting of the fundamentally authorizing authority with an ordering of the community around the protection of the exposed vulnerability of women. Such communities will also often become smothering and forcefully close down agency and challenge (especially of men), as everything is reordered around the vulnerability and potential victimhood of women.

On the other hand, if the first mode of authority supports the more forceful male authority, women can be marginalized, silenced, or crushed. Or, as we see in many evangelical contexts, the male ‘heads’ may remain strongly rooted in their place, while the women whom they have mistreated increasingly powerfully draw the heart of the movement away from them.

What is required is a healthy interaction of modes of authority, so that the Church and society are neither overwhelmingly ordered around men nor ordered in a dysfunctional manner in a misguided attempt to empower women. Rather, men must exercise their authority in ways that are authorized and in ways that are empowering of women, that serve, protect, and give strength to their work and underwrite their modes of authority.

In turn, women should recognize and honour men who image the authorizing authority of church and society righteously, exercising their own distinctive moral and social authority in authorized ways to render that authority effective.

All of this is a fairly rudimentary and abstract sketch of some complex and subtle social dynamics. However, while there is a great deal of detail that needs to be filled out, the important point is that ‘authority’ is heterogeneous. Women’s voices should be heeded and carry weight in the life of the Church, not merely as a matter of permission, but as a necessity for the well-being of the community. We haven’t gotten this right, not by a long shot. Yet talking about ‘authority’ in a univocal manner, inattentive to differences between the sexes in this area, is a recipe for problems and dysfunction. God created us as male and female, not as gender neutral individuals, and the differences between the sexes really do make a difference.

Posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, On the web, Sex and Sexuality, Society, The Blogosphere, Theological | 56 Comments