I’ve had this post sitting in draft for a few days as I pondered whether or not to post it. Obviously I decided to press that button.
A long time ago I announced that I was going to write a series of articles on the various New Testament passages tied up in the issue of the role of women in the church, specifically when it comes to ordination and preaching. Shortly thereafter the blog fell relatively silent. Plenty of people have been accessing the material that’s already here, which is great to see, but my output is negligible.
I won’t go into all the reasons this happened, because my life is my own (well, it’s God’s and self-ownership is a lie so I suppose I mean that some parts of my life are private) and I don’t intend to share it all. But one of the main reasons this series was not forthcoming is the same as one of the reasons why my writing output here plummeted. This blog post, which will hopefully signal the start of a bit more activity here, is about as close to a window on my psyche as you’re likely to get in writing. It’s partially a vent, and certainly not designed to persuade you of anything, nor is it an invitation to argue about whether or not what I say here is true. Here’s the reason:
Human beings are terrible.
That may sound a little dramatic, but that’s the headspace I’ve been in when it comes to investing time and genuine effort to present the way that I’ve pored over evidence. (People tend to be less terrible in person. Much less terrible, in fact.) In particular, we lie to ourselves persistently, relentlessly, and wantonly. We think that we’re interested in the truth, but we aren’t. We’re interested in the conclusion that does the right thing. That thing might be reassuring us that we’re already right, reassuring us that we’ve chosen the right group, reassuring us that our views are not offensive, reassuring us that the truth won’t clash with what we want, removing obstacles to the fulfilment of our desire, or it might be something else. We don’t use arguments to reach the truth, we use them to help ourselves in these or other ways, and then we tell ourselves and others that we can have confidence that our views are right because we got there via argument. We didn’t.
Nietzsche was right about us. “There are no facts, only interpretations,” and we are free to select the interpretation that suits our end. I don’t think Nietzsche was right about there being no facts, but he was right in saying that this is how we operate. “Why does man not see things?” Nietzsche asked. The answer: “He is himself standing in the way: He conceals things.” We get in the way of finding the truth, even (and perhaps especially) the truth about ourselves and what really motivates us. We say we’re interested in truth, but really we want power in its varied manifestations. Nietzsche notoriously, but I think very wrongly, identified truth as being that which heightens our feeling of power. He was wrong about truth, but right about what we’re doing when we allege that we’re driven by the desire for truth.
What, then, is the point in my investing significant time and effort to honestly dig through the evidence, use the expertise I’ve gained in doing so, and carefully writing up those findings as well as I can, being absolutely assured in advance that those who are already committed to the rejection of whatever conclusions I present will continue to reject them literally no matter what I write? It’s a pretty unrewarding prospect. On this issue more than most, partisanship is seemingly beyond repair. Looking around at the way people write and speak about this issue, the way they handle the evidence, the way they represent and treat the work of those who don’t share their beliefs, all I can honestly respond with is despair. Some people won’t like me saying it, but I think this is more true of progressives than conservatives.
A lot of us don’t take biblical authority seriously. We take our own authority seriously.
The question is sometimes raised as to whether or not “egalitarians” (how I dislike that gratuitously self-serving label) take biblical authority seriously. They don’t. Go ahead, get offended. See if I care. They do not take biblical authority seriously. They. Do. Not. Don’t get me wrong though, this isn’t just an issue for egalitarians! A lot of us don’t take biblical authority seriously. We take our own authority seriously, and we go looking for ways to read the bible that submits to our authority. We know what we want to find, and we want it for all sorts of reasons: Because it’s a reading that conforms to a tradition with which we identify, because it’s a reading that we think is less offensive to the world, because it’s a reading that means we were right all these years we’ve believed a particular doctrine, because it’s a reading that means we can pursue our desires without Scripture standing in our way, because it’s a reading that sits more comfortably with the ideal we’ve constructed of what it means for people to be equal (or loving, kind , etc). There are myriad reasons why we favour different understandings of the biblical material and “because it’s what the text really means” is what we tell ourselves after the fact. That Scripture could teach something that you think is offensive seems like a possibility never considered. This applies to conservative evangelicals as much as to progressives.
As far as I’m concerned, progressive re-readings of the passages that the Church has historically interpreted to reserve the roles of elders, priests or bishops for men are about as plausible as progressive re-readings of passages that the Church has historically interpreted to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman and passages that prohibit sex between men. I think the arguments in favour of both views on a biblical basis are truly terrible, not just mistaken. I think that if progressives weren’t emotionally invested in egalitarian conclusions, they would see this with virtually no difficulty. I’m sure there are people who will say “But I started to be persuaded away from the historic Christian reading of these passages in spite of myself, when I didn’t want them to be true, and now I’m fully persuaded.” As though we are in a position to objectively analyse our own motivations, surely a ridiculous proposal under any realistic view of human nature. We want out motivations to be nothing but the best – we are the last person whose opinion on that matter should be listened to! But more importantly than my assessment of the evidence – I just don’t think people are willing to be on the other side of this issue, and as a result, surprise surprise, the evidence doesn’t move them.
The more effectively they present the truth … the faster we rush to our keyboards and the more urgently we feel the need to respond!
We have to virtually beat ourselves into submission on a daily basis to get ourselves to actually care about the truth. We don’t naturally do it. We generally don’t want to do it. We sometimes even get angry when people present the truth effectively and it doesn’t sit well with us. The more effectively they present the truth, you might think the more likely we are to be persuaded, but no – the faster we rush to our keyboards and the more urgently we feel the need to respond! Indeed, we know that the amygdala – that part of the brain that triggers the “fight or flight” response – reacts to ideas that we are hostile to in much the same way that it reacts to a physical threat. The right way, I’ve decided, to get as close to the truth as possible is to settle on the proper authority and submit to it. For Christians, that’s Christ. For Catholics more specifically, that’s Christ’s representative, the Church and the papacy in particular. But for those who say they submit to the papacy and those who say they submit to Christ and those who say they submit to Scripture (like those who allege that they submit to reason), the problem pursues them. They want Christ, the Church, Scripture etc to say what they want, not what it really says. So they make sure that it does.
So why write to persuade at all? Never mind contentious issues where people’s desires and social pressure will make people virtually determined to reject the evidence, as in the issue of women in ministry – why write in defense (or critique) of any position at all? People don’t care about the truth, so I may as well just post a statement of position instead of a careful blog post: “This position is true, let’s hear a hooray from those who agree!” That’s what so many bloggers are doing anyway, however much they think they aren’t.
This is (partly) where I have been in my thinking, and it has not been much of a motivator to write. Writing the sort of thing that has appeared at this blog over the last decade is actually work – I can’t just offer some off-the-cuff cliché. I’m not a megachurch millionaire and I’m not a “former fundy” turned atheist where zingers pass for arguments. I can’t get away with that, nor would I wish to. Doing what I have sometimes done here involves preparation, careful writing, re-writing for fairness and clarity, considering alternative views, reading what others say and trying (usually, I hope) to be charitable. Writing rigorously and trying to be reasonable and fair about it is harder than it looks. And to what end? When I’ve shared these thoughts elsewhere I’ve had some very nice comments about how people have benefited from what I’ve written here, which is always encouraging. Were they people who strongly disagreed with whatever I was saying beforehand? Probably not. Perhaps rather than falling silent I could have just embraced the banal and written with no intention of persuading, a sort of soft, meditative mush that some churches are awash with as they seek to offend neither seeker nor traditionalist. I can’t do that.
So here I have sat, with plenty of things that have occurred to me as interesting things to write about, but with this same internal response every time I start thinking about actually doing so: What do I expect to happen if I write this? People – contrary to their own view of themselves – don’t really care about the truth, and this is probably true in politics and in theology more than elsewhere. So why bother? I don’t know how other writers do it. Although I did it too, so obviously I can. As I said, this is not the only reason for a lack of blogging output. But the more I reflect on our condition, the more I appreciate the truth of those who say that arguing about things doesn’t change minds. Of course it does change minds and those people are often just anti-intellectual. But it does incline me away from trying to change minds and towards simply telling the truth as I see it. Maybe I’ll mix in some satire to lighten it up a little (for me, not for you).
We’ll see how my return to writing goes. But now you know something of what has been slowing me down. I’ve found it psychologically difficult to get back into it. If this view of people and the reality of our conversations can be called wisdom – and I think to an extent it can – then Qoheleth was so right to say that “in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
PS, also at some time in the next couple of months I’ll be changing my webhost, and I’m looking for a good mobile-friendly theme to use. New look, new mindset. Hopefully.