Wilcox writes: "The last four decades have seen marked declines in marriage rates and religious attendance in urban America. Nevertheless, since the 1990s, religious attendance, out-of-wedlock childbearing rates, and child poverty rates in the United States have generally stabilized or even improved. In the last decade the percentage of African American children born out of wedlock fell slightly, from 70 percent in 1994 to 68 percent in 2002. This moment could represent a golden opportunity for religious congregations and other faith-based organizations seeking to turn a corner on family and religious decline in their communities. Now is the time to take stock of current trends in family life and to pursue a range of pastoral initiatives to strengthen marriage and family relationships in urban America. Importantly, such initiatives would also likely help strengthen their own congregational vitality. Overall, religious initiatives that seek to strengthen family relationshipsand that work in partnership with other private and public initiativeswill serve the welfare of countless children and communities who depend upon strong and healthy families to survive and thrive".
In the October issue of First Things, I took note of Mary Eberstadt's argument that family commitment makes for religious commitment. Wilcox works from religious commitment to family commitment. This only appears to be a chicken or egg puzzle. We need not choose between them. At least we need not if we understand that grace builds on nature, and nature, rightly directed, aspires to grace. A purely instrumental view of religion is blasphemous; the denial of the instrumental value of religion is blind.
In the pages of First Things, I'll be coming back to Gerald McDermott new book, God's Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? (InterVarsity). Meanwhile, a comment on an appendix to the book in which he explains why he uses the masculine pronoun in referring to God. This, as you know, is a very big issue with some feminist or "womanist" theologians. Some of them simply switch genders, using "she" and "her, or using them alternately with "he" and "him," but that results only in highlighting the gender-specificity that they want to overcome.
As McDermott notes, others prefer expressions such as "Godself," but this undermines the understanding that God is a person. "It is particularly important," he writes, "to highlight God's personhood when discussing religions that deny it. Philosophical Hindus and Buddhists, for example, insist there is no personal God because there is finally no distinction between God and the cosmos."
The Christian God is not "an amorphous essence" but the Father whose Son died on the cross. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "[These] are not human constructions in response to ineffable religious experiences, but names for God given to humans by God himself. The very names encapsulate the entire story of the triune God." The names are not our "metaphors" but God's self-revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. The names must be understood in the context of the narrative. There is this fine quote from Garrett Green:
This God does not jealously hoard his power. As husband he does not beat his unfaithful wife but cries out with the pain of a jilted lover and redoubles his efforts to win her back. As Father he does not spare his own son but gave him up for us all. As Son he did not claim the prerogatives of power and lord it over his subjects but emptied himself, taking the form a servantand humbled himself on a shameful cross. As Spirit he incorporates us into the mystical body of Christ, in whom there is neither slave nor free, male nor female. As king he does not isolate himself in heavenly splendor but wills to dwell with his people, to wipe away every tear from their eyes and to deliver them from all that oppresses them, even death itself.
Then McDermott quotes theologian Ellen Charry, who writes: "If men have identified manliness with an understanding of divine fatherhood and sonship that reinforces their own proclivities to control, subjugate, or wreak violence upon others to bolster their own feelings of power, they have [hijacked] the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the reason for the incarnation, the power of the cross, and the hope of resurrection." This is in no way to deny that the Bible itself uses feminine imagery, especially that of motherly concern, in describing God's relationship with his people. (See, for example, Numbers 11; Psalms 22, 71, 139; Isaiah 49; and Matthew 23.) But to speak of "Godself" or God as "she" is to be well on the way to embracing a religion other than Christianity, which is the narrative of God's self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Here's an instructive exchange in Commonweal between Luke Timothy Johnson and Eve Tushnet. Johnson is a New Testament scholar at Emory University, and Tushnet is a writer living in Washington, D.C., who is a recent convert to Catholicism and identifies herself as a lesbian. In "Homosexuality & the Church," Johnson describes how he came to his position through the experience of a lesbian daughter. "I trusted God was at work in the life she shares with her partnera long-standing and fruitful marriage dedicated to the care of others, and one that has borne fruit in a wonderful little girl who is among my and my wife's dear grandchildren."
Trust your experience, says Johnson. "When read within the perspective of a Scripture that speaks everywhere of a God disclosing Godself through human experience, our stories become the medium of God's very revelation." What does this mean for the authority of Scripture and the Church's teaching? Johnson does not flinch:
I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.
To which Tushnet responds:
I'm not convinced this is how human love stories relate to the divine love story. Loving one another can be an echo of the love we receive from God; it can be the child of that love; it can be preparation for our own awestruck love of God. (I would argue that my erotic and romantic love of women has been all three of those things, at different times.) But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the Church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture.
Tushnet also says this:
So it's tempting to conclude that prohibitions against homosexuality are culture-bound, no more universally binding than the requirement that women cover their heads in church. It's true that culture conditions how we read Scripture, and that as Christians we need to be open to the countercultural implications of the gospel. But this fact argues far more strongly against Johnson's position than against the Church's.
If we seek to overcome any aspects of our culture that conflict with the gospel, I'm not sure why we would expect the gay liberation movementslightly over a hundred years old, and largely Western in characterto be less culture-bound, and therefore a better guide to the countercultural aspects of the gospel, than the Catholic Church. The Church is bigger and older than you, me, or the very concept of the homosexual person. (The view that sexual orientation is intrinsic and constitutive of a person's deepest identity comes from a school of psychology that owes very little to the gospel, and a great deal to anti-Christian forms of philosophical materialism.)
Tushnet is impressed by the "theology of the body" as set forth by John Paul II and the richness of the Catholic tradition on the meaning of friendship, "helping me to express my love of women both sacrificially and chastely. . . . Every week or so I discover yet another hidden treasure of the Church that speaks to me in exactly the way I need in order to deal specifically with my struggles, resentments, longings, and strengths as a woman and a lesbian. We can make the Church's teaching believable by becoming more Catholicwhich is, not incidentally, what we should be doing anyway."