Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Unique Male Perspective on Faith

I sometimes read the Washington Post's "On Faith" panels. The format of these panels is for writers from various spiritual backgrounds to write brief posts addressing various religious, moral, spiritual, or political topics from their unique perspectives. Although the idea is sort of like the set-up of a joke: A Wiccan, a Jew, and a Christian walk into a blog... it is interesting to read these perspectives, especially those of non-dominant spiritual writers, given the extent to which Christians monopolize moral discussions in the US.

Because of the Christian wannabe-dominion over morality in the US, those with any familiarity with "culture war" discussions are already familiar with different Christian perspectives on issues like abortion, marriage, homosexuality, and pluralism. That said, panelist John Mark Reynolds, writing from a Christian background as a philosopher, is sort of what you might expect.

My annoyance with his articles isn't so much that I disagree with what he writes (although I often do), but that it is packaged in that over-confident Christian male voice that takes it as a given that the male experience is universal, more meaningful and spiritually charged, than the female experience in life. Because of the nature of their male-centric faith, Christian men in a Christian society have the privilege of presenting and subsequently convincing masses of people that their unverifiable man-made claims about life, god, faith, truth, gender relations, and oh just about anything else that matters in life, are Absolute Truth.

Observe, in his article about inter-religious marriage, Reynolds writes:

"Nobody has a right to marry any individual, the beloved has to share your affection for starters, but anybody with an ounce of romance in his body hopes love works out for everybody. Breathes there a man with a soul so dead that his default position is not to root for love?"

To answer his silly rhetorical question, yes.

Many a man (oh, and woman) not only choose not to root for love with respect to some relationships, they indeed devote their entire lives and internet presences to exterminating certain types of love from the world. While it's a perhaps romantic bit of folksy folks common sense to claim that all "men" root for love, they don't, actually.

A bit further on down, the dudely theme continues when we learn that erotic love is male, and that only men are erotic lovers:

"Plato has a character in one of his dialogues claim that Eros is a great god. Eros was the personification of romance for the Greeks and his name is at the root of our English word 'erotic.' The sanction of Eros, the burning desire to be one, makes a man long for his beloved."

It's always jarring when those who believe that one man and one woman are absolutely essential to marriage simultaneously find men so much more essential-er to the human experience that all of their deep philosophical musings are in male-gendered terms only. Indeed, while it's not clear whether Reynolds is using the "generic masculine" to refer to both men and women or whether his argumentum ad Plato indicates an ancient-Greece-like tendency to frame men as subjects of erotic desire (while taking it as a given that those with inferior and demeaning statuses- including women- were objects of erotic desire).

While such a male-centric view of eroticism suggests to the logical reader that Reynolds might be advocating man-on-man erotic activity, we learn a bit later that, oh, women are important to this love and marriage stuff too. Because of their wombs, natch:

"Marriage is hard school for souls. A man and a woman, different from body to soul, come together in an explosive union so powerful that it always has the potential to create new human life."

A few things are happening here with the introduction of Woman into the human experience. First, notice how the word "always" is included in that second sentence. So strongly are women associated with reproduction, Reynolds seems unable to conceive of male-female sexual "unions" that are not procreative. Yet, it is a fact of nature that the "explosive union" between a man and a woman does not "always" have procreative potential.

Two, why is it that once women are in the picture, Reynolds beings to wax violently? Heterosexual sex is "explosive." It's "powerful." Ker-pow!

Three, men and women have different "souls"? Really? That's a provable thing?

The icky weird thing is, I agree with Reynolds' main contention within this article. Namely, that a successful marriage requires more than just erotic love. It's hardly a groundbreaking revelation, but it is a statement I do agree with. But, why the need to convey that point by adopting a silly, affective, pseudo-romantic-yet-actually-alienating voice that assumes all "anybodies" are men?

I don't have that start-with-vastly-different-premises-to-reach-the-same-conclusion problem, however, with his article entitled "Wicked Faith." There, I pretty much disagree with the lot of it. For instance, don't you just sort of automatically subtract a few points from any argument that uses the word "wicked" in it? It's an admittedly prejudicial thing to do but, well, Salem called and they want their witchcraft trial back.

Nonetheless, the crux of his argument in this bizarre piece is that it is worse to worship a false or wicked religion than it is to be an atheist. He then constructs pro-choice feminism as a religion and calls it a wicked one at that. Now, the idea that it is worse to worship a false or wicked religion than to worship no religion is a proposition that may be true (or not) but, of course, it begs the very important question of how do human beings objectively distinguish between false, wicked, and true religions? Is there a litmus test I can buy on Amazon?

He doesn't answer this question. Instead, he writes around it:

"The atheist is wrong about devils, but at least isn't worshipping them. That a man has faith may be good, but it may also be worse than having no faith: it depends on how his faith was achieved and the object of his belief....There are, in practice, three kinds of religion: false religions, wicked religions, and true religions."

Now, I've obviously made much ado about Reynold's alienating and annoying use of the oxymoronic "generic masculine" to refer to all human beings. I do so because (a) it's sloppy, unclear writing, (b) it's 2010 and women should linguistically be acknowledged as part of humanity as well, and (c) when folks tend to use "he" to refer to both men and women, it by definition hides the female perspective to at least some degree.

Just as "marriage defenders" ironically use the "generic masculine" when telling us how so very important both men and women are to the world, using the "generic masculine" in any argument about abortion is similarly ironic. For, it is not men, usually, who have bodies in which fetuses thrive. It is women. Yet, Reynolds implies that it is men, men, men who are most intimately involved in the abortion issue:

"Their wicked [pro-choice] faith is damning them and not saving them. It would be better if they were an atheist with respect for life, than a spiritual man who kills the innocent."

Reynolds has literally eradicated the female viewpoint from the abortion debate.

While many of the other "On Faith" abortion panelists at least acknowledged that babies grow in a woman's body and concede that she might have some interest in what happens within her body, Reynold's philosphizes as though all of this "innocent life" hatches forth into the world entirely of its own volition and with no assistance from any other body. You will notice, of course, that he wrote an article about abortion and the only time he used the word "woman" or "female" was in reference to a fetus, so strongly does the male identify with an unborn human than with a living human woman. Were an alien reading this article, zie would likely assume that these things called fetuses are perhaps incubating in cabbage patches and that monsters called Wicked Pro-Choice Feminists come and pluck them from the ground for no reason at all!

This utter lack of consideration for the female woman's perspective enables him to cockily categorize pro-choice feminism as a "wicked" religion and his anti-abortion opinions, the opinions of a man who completely ignores the female perspective in his philosophical pontifications, as True Faith.

At this point, the answer to the big question Reynolds has begged at the beginning becomes a bit more clear.

The religions that "spiritual men" create are either true or false, depending on which men have created them. (We can speculate where Reynolds stands on which are true and which are false). As for which religions are wicked, things get decidedly more simple. Any so-called religion that de-centers the male perspective and instead views women as fully human as men, possessing bodies and vantage points of their own, is a wicked one.

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