Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sleeping on the red-eye flight

I am not a child
but in your arms
I am a baby still
and sleepy

When I cry out
from my dreams
I know you
will be here
to wake me

Catholicism's "deep puzzle" (Part 1)

"Why sex plays such a large role in Catholic doctrine is a deep puzzle."
(Richard Posner, "Contraception and Catholicism")
Posner makes this comment in a blog posting that deals with Catholic policy & doctrine regarding contraception, and which treats the Catholic church as a "corporation" with "customers." In his essay, he remarks on several aspects of Catholic policy of sex: prohibition of contraception; belief that procreation is the primary reason for sex; requirement of abstinence for priests, nuns and monks; prohibition of "unnatural sex." He analyzes the development of Catholic doctrine as having evolved purely out of economic pressures, i.e., pressures to compete, attract and retain "customers," etc.

Posner's take is an interesting way of looking at it. But from my perspective as a Christian, it ignores the central fact that motivates Christian doctrine: the reality of God and of His revelation to humankind. Of course, the other dimension to my perspective as a Protestant Christian is that it seems totally plausible to me that many of the areas where Catholic doctrine diverges from my own beliefs have human/economic motivations behind them.

That said, I'd like to address the comment that I quoted at the start of this post, in which Posner makes the following claims:
  • Sex plays "a large role" in Catholic doctrine.
  • This large doctrinal role of sex is "a deep puzzle."
I find both of these claims a bit mystifying. First off, does sex really play a remarkably large role in Catholic doctrine? Secondly, if sex does play a large role in doctrine, is that really puzzling at all?

One way to look at the first question is to reframe it as: Is the role of sex in Catholic doctrine unusually great? So Catholics have many constraints around sex. Protestants do too! (The conservative ones, at least.) Jews do too! Hey, if we're going to complain about the Catholic endorsement of the "rhythm method" of contraception (avoid pregnancy by only having sex on infertile days of the month), what are we going to say about Orthodox Jewish laws about "family purity"? Would Posner say, "Why sex plays such a large role in orthodox Jewish doctrine is a deep puzzle?" I have no idea. Moreover, Muslims also have a great deal of doctrine related to sex. Ahem: Does Catholicism promise 40 virgins to the martyr in Paradise?? If we're talking about larger-than-average doctrinal roles for sex, don't you think that using sex as a motivation for martyrdom and entry into heaven is more remarkable than putting sharp constraints around the implementation of sex during life on earth? It seems far from clear to me that the role of sex is greater in Catholic doctrine than in other religions. (Which is not to say that the religions I just listed are a representative sample. They are the religions I am most familiar with. Feel free to comment on the role of sex in the doctrines of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Scientology, etc!)

In fact, the one standpoint from which it seems most clear to me that Catholicism's doctrines of sex would seem notably important, and surprisingly so, is the perspective of modern secularism. This is the perspective from which any doctrine pertaining to sex seems strange, intrusive, a relic of another era. This is the perspective in which sex between consensual adults is no one else's business. This is the perspective in which sex is all about personal pleasure and fulfillment--by which I do *not* mean that sex in this perspective is only about the physical; the pleasure and fulfillment could also be about emotional and social experience. The point I mean to make is that modern secularism provides the perspective in which sex is dramatically divorced from the family and from God, and thus the perspective from which sex seems irrelevant to religious doctrine.

[I wrote this all yesterday and then didn't post because I hadn't dealt with the 2nd issue: of whether it is "puzzling" for sex to play a large role in Catholic (or really, in any) doctrine. But I'm going to just post this now and write up the rest of my thoughts in a separate post.]

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dreams [Question of the Day]

From the Questions blog:
Do you sometimes dream about your own death, or about facing life-threatening situations? What deadly perils turn up most often in your dreams? Do these dream perils overlap with your daytime worries, or do your dreams have their own special dangers that don't occur in the dayworld?
YES. All the freaking time. Scary people are constantly chasing me in my dreams, and I don't appreciate it!

Last night's dreams weren't nightmares per se, but there were definitely some nightmarish bits. For instance, I and some other people were being taken into the bowels of an aquarium because some friend who worked needed us to help him out with some unspecified thing. So we were walking through dark corridors, and passing through exhibits, and then we came to the exhibit for a giant spider. Why the aquarium had a giant spider, I have no idea. But there was the huge room for it, filled with a web made of ropes, thick black cables, and it was all dark, and we all just walked in.

The spider never actually made an appearance, but we stood around there for quite a while, and everyone else was totally nonchalant about it, but I shifting nervously, peering around but seeing nothing in the darkness, starting whenever the air moved.

And then we walked out without closing the enclosure behind us, and I encountered a magic lamp thing and a bunch of ink that had to go in it, and an eye-dropper, and a strange guy in a top hat who was associated with the lamp somehow, and it turned out that one of my companions was pretending to be someone she wasn't, and ...

So yes, that's how my dreams go. The perils in them are decidedly dream-dangers, though they never fail to convince me of their terrible reality.

It makes waking up a pleasant surprise, anyway.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rhetoric, in global politics and in Paradise Lost

"Part of the problem is that as countries go their own way, they are each arguing that they are acting for the greater global good." (From the NYT, "Challenges Await U.S. at Group of 20 Meeting")
Isn't that what we always do? We need to claim we are doing the right thing to draw others to our cause; we need to claim to be doing the right thing even to fully believe in our own cause. Justification is the foundation for any rhetoric, isn't it? Today in my English class, we were looking at the first book of Milton's Paradise Lost, in which Satan is rallying the fallen angels to "awake, arise" from the burning lake, and he announces his purpose to never do any good, only evil. My professor pointed out that in using the pre-established language--English, in Milton's poem--Satan can't help undermining his own argument. The language reflects the position (the reality) that God is good and Satan is choosing evil instead. Satan would be more insidious if he camouflaged his goals. Deceptive idealism is more potent than honest evil, methinks.

There's another issue with Satan's rhetoric, too. Satan says he is choosing to be always "contrary." This undermines his authority: if your identity and decisions rest on doing the opposite of what the other side does, then you are effectively still passive. This is an idea I've thought about quite a bit on my own, so it was great to hear it articulated by a professor in connection with literature! (I believe I've made the point before on this blog, with regard to stereotypes. If I refuse to do something purely on the grounds that it fulfills a stereotype about women, then I am still being controlled by sexism.)

Aaaand I have to go back to working on my thesis and reading the newspaper and buying groceries so I will conclude this rambling commentary.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cameras [Question of the Day]

The question at the Ten Thousand Questions blog today asks about your attitude toward being photographed. Funny they should ask that today, because this weekend I was photographed in a rather unusual way.

To clarify: it wasn't an unusual way for a photographer to take a picture; it was an unusual way for me to have my picture taken. You see, my darling sister is taking a photography class, and I was visiting her this weekend.

"Can I take photos of you?" she asked me.
"Sure!" I said.
At which point she added, "--naked?"

As it turned out, "naked" meant 'shirtless but covered with a shawl.' So it wasn't the scandal she initially phrased it as. My innocent little sister, talking about naked photos and asking her subject if she was ready to strip...

We were in the studio at 10pm on a Saturday, after watching an artsy and quite lovely show on campus ("Dead Man's Cellphone"). The little college was quiet, and the first door we tried for the arts building was locked. When we did get inside, S. flicked on lights as we walked between walls covered in photographs, paintings, prints. In the studio, she turned on the lamps like giant flowers, unrolled a black backdrop, attached the camera to the tripod. Shirt off, scarf on; door latched, overhead lights off. It was cold, the air on my bare back. The black scarf was softer than I expected, and it draped nicely. I couldn't see too clearly with my glasses off, and perhaps oddly, this half-blindness made me feel more naked than my half-dressedness.

So I clutched the scarf, and peered around, watching my sister fiddle with the camera, and not quite being able to see what she was doing. Click, click, click. "Turn... Can you... Oh, right there." Click. Click. The studio and the set-up were foreign, but my sister with a camera? Entirely familiar. So, shirtless and scarf-wrapped, a camera capturing my naked back, in the winter studio, I was still at home. S. was taking pictures, and I was just the subject. The photographs would not be about me, but about the pictures they portrayed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


I have a passion for God and a passion for what God is doing with the small group(s) I'm leading/guiding and a passion for God to save the people I talk to. God has been leading me in new ways, and I have been listening in new ways. I just came back from a great weekend where God was so clearly present and working through Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, through the body of Christ gathered together, learning together, worshiping together.

And yet it is so hard for me to have faith in my chapter of Intervarsity. It is so hard for me to expect that I can receive or give anything at the large group gatherings. Why do I go to them? Is is routine? others' expectations? a sense of higher obligation? I can't say. Surely it's some combination of those, and other factors I can't really pin down. But as I have been freed, subtly and gradually, from the crushing sense of duty that circumscribes my actions so often, I have come to see how little I believe in the large group meetings. The fact is, I don't trust them. I don't trust that I will meet God there, I don't trust that the teaching there will be sound, I don't trust that I will even have meaningful interactions with people there.

I persist in believing and proclaiming that it is good to go there, and yet I can't say what I am so sure is good about it. Going to IV large group is an obligation for me. It is the Law: fellowship and corporate worship are good. But the Law is a burden, producing fatigue and resentment. I am not under the Law but under the Spirit, and yet the Spirit certainly has not transformed my attitudes and feelings in this area.

I used to feel that large group was good and enjoyable and that I learned things there. Now I am disenchanted with it and I can't really pin down why. I am afraid of the crowd of people, afraid of not knowing my place, afraid of judgment. And so I am afraid to give, lest everything be taken from me, and I don't even want to pray for God's blessing on the fellowship because I can't find it in myself to believe that He is present there.

Yet I know God is present, and I know He works there. I can't find it in myself, but all things are found in God. Help Thou my unbelief. Lord, teach us to pray.