The public intellectual Andrew Sullivan, in a recent piece for New York magazine, wrote about what some believe are excesses in the #MeToo movement. And there appear to be some excesses, cases like that of Aziz Ansari, where morning after regret can morph into the public pillory, or that of James Franco, where there was no force or power involved, just general sleaziness and a man making promises he didn’t intend to keep. Do we really need to tell young people that seducers lie? They should even be able to figure that out even with their faces down to their smartphones.
In his article, Sullivan described his own experience with hormone replacement therapy and the very real emotional and physical effects of testosterone washing though his body. The piece, titled “#MeToo and the Taboo Topic of Nature” in no way challenges the right of women to be free from assault, harassment, and even pressure. The things that have been in the news have been both breathtaking and really not at all surprising. As we watched the Met simulcast of Tosca yesterday, I mentioned to Dr. Garfield that the operatic villain Scarpia looks relatively mild compared to Harvey Weinstein.
Sullivan’s article took on an issue bigger than the right of women to be safe. He asked if we are at risk of making maleness itself, with all of the hormone-driven sexual desire and assertiveness, a disordered condition, a question many have asked in recent decades as being a boy in school became a clinical diagnosis that requires pharmaceuticals.
In our binary world of enemies or allies and the cesspool of the comments section, Sullivan has no doubt been pilloried for even asking the question, has probably been labeled a misogynist, as were French female intellectuals and public figures who recently published a piece that pushed back at what feels like a new and inverted Salem Witch Hunt, with masculinity rather then femininity seen as problematic, for it was femininity that was on trial in the Massachusetts colony. I’m likely to be tarred with the same brush as Sullivan, with feathers to follow, for daring to mention the article and the line of thinking, for suggesting that the world isn’t always black and white.
Biology and observation teach us that gender is not a strict binary, not all Jacks and Jills, and countless individuals are born each year with ambiguous anatomy and/or ambiguous hormones. Even so, most of us get the standard package, and we do God and science both a disservice when we try to pretend there are no differences between boys and girls. Anatomy and chemistry are no longer chains that must bind us, but neither are they fictions, mere social constructs in the words of some.
If we are in danger of erasing maleness from our cultural maps today, for eon after eon maleness was the only cultural map that existed. Even the understanding of childbirth was essentially a narrative about the male, for the ancients believed the male planted a complete human seed in the female, who was no more than a vessel, but a flawed vessel for sure should she fail to produce an heir, for all blame fell on her. None of the credit, all of the blame.
This notion that the woman was no more than a container combined with a mistranslation of Isaiah and a lingering theology of familial sin to necessitate a virgin birth. When we began to understand biology, the Roman church had to double down and declare that Mary, too, was without sin.
Birth, heirs, especially male heirs, family and blessing, these are at the heart of the Hebrew narrative, sibling rivalry and miracle babies. So when Jesus starts talking about birth, people sit up and listen. Except that once again, Jesus is speaking nonsense, words that are strange, that don’t mean what people think they mean. And here is Nicodemus. He is pretty certain that Jesus has it wrong when it comes to making babies. You can’t be born twice.
Jesus is speaking poetry. Nicodemus is speaking law. These are not the same language, even if they contain the same ingredients. Law is about controlling. Poetry is about loosening. Law is a chain. Poetry is a pointer.
This is one more place where we see the tension playing out between legalism and the gospel that Jesus has come to preach, the good news of the in-breaking kingdom, the opt-in nature of salvation. The scribes and Pharisees are all about rules and words and control. Jesus is all about heart and grace and love.
Given the choice between the law and compassion, Jesus chooses compassion every time, something we will see week after week as we read our way through John, choosing compassion like the faithful Christians who are being arrested every week for feeding the homeless or placing water in the desert, who choose what is right and compassionate over what is legal and authorized.
Word-smithing matters when it comes to law, as little old Maine reminded the nation a year ago with a case that turned on the Oxford comma. This is the comma used after the penultimate item in a list. Here is an example: you might write of a choice between three fruit, say apples-comma-bananas-comma-or-oranges. Some would leave out the second comma, between “bananas or oranges,” assuming the word “or” serves as a separator. It is not sufficient, at least as a point of law, for while it is obvious that bananas and oranges are not the same thing, it is not as clear that “packing for shipment or distribution” means packing for shipment as one item and distribution as a completely separate activity.
So in the case of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, the federal court decided that the law in question, designed to allow Maine dairies to demand overtime work without overtime pay, did not cover the five drivers who brought the suit. If it had read “packing for shipment-comma- or distributing,” then voila, no overtime pay. But as written, packing appears to be the activity in question, and shipment or distribution serve to modify packing.
Of course, there is the bigger issue, a question of greed, which is what this case was all about, the greed of the corporation, but also my greed at not wanting to pay more for my milk. The Hebrew scriptures are pretty clear about worker justice, and Jesus says choose compassion over legalism, so maybe rather than spend all that money in court, the dairy should just pay for overtime or stop asking for it. Maybe they need to raise the price by a couple of cents a gallon, which is all it comes down to in the end.
So yeah, sometimes words and even punctuation matter. As the t-shirt notes, there is a world of difference between “let’s-eat-comma-grandma” and “let’s-eat-grandma,” the latter involving cannibalism. But words and punctuation often become stumbling blocks when it comes to the transcendent. We may refer to the divine as Logos, with implied reason, but maybe not human reason.
The Vienna Circle was a gathering of scientists and philosophers that met between the world wars. I’ve mentioned them before. Only a couple of the participants would be familiar, and then only to serious philosophy and math nerds. It was sort of the last gasp of the great Enlightenment project that believed we humans would figure everything out.
The Vienna group’s approach is sometimes called “logical positivism,” the belief that only things that can be tested and verified are cognitively meaningful. This approach would eventually be abandoned by one member of the group, the brilliant but mentally unstable mathematician Kurt Gödel. The entire approach fails to account for love and art, neither of which can be shackled to its experimentation. But it turns out that logical positivism doesn’t even work for science.
A January 13th article in “The Economist” describes a series of massive and massively expensive experiments in physics that are coming up with a big bunch of nothing. These experiments are looking for evidence to support any of the many variations on a “grand unified theory,” GUTS. These theories exist because what we think we know about physics makes no sense, contains more fudge factors than anyone can accept, so we need whole new ways of understanding. Each new theory leads to new experiments. And so far, the results of these big experiments has been a great big nada. No sparticles, no dark matter, no decay into lighter sub-atomic particles.
The GUTS theories are all elaborate mathematical constructs based on the assumption that the answers to life, the universe, and everything, Oxford comma included, must be mathematically elegant, and apparently not 42, the answer provided by the late British author Douglas Adams. I don’t know what qualifies as mathematical elegance, but maybe it doesn’t matter, as a growing number of theoretical physicists are considering that the answer might not be mathematically elegant in the way humans define elegance after all.
Of course they still don’t have answers, are still knee-deep in impossibility.
The human genome was finally mapped 18 years ago, that sequence of four nucleotides, represented by the four letters A, C, G, and T, that provide the instruction manual for life. The book of us is made up of three billion base pairs of these nucleotides. Francis Collins, who served as the director of the International Human Genome Project, points out that if the base pairs that make up a human were printed in a normal font on standard paper, the pile would be as tall as the Washington Monument.
Scientists have been pretty committed to the idea that only 2% of that genome actually codes proteins, and therefore, matters. The thing is, it is looking increasingly like something really important is going on in all of that junk DNA, even though it looks like nonsense to us, meaningless repetition and chaos. Every time we think we have things figured out, we find out that divine creativity does not obey our rules.
I am not proposing what is called in theological circles an argumentum ex ignorantia, a failed form of Christian apologetics condemned by the theologian Paul Tillich that defends faith based on the unknown. Using what we don’t know as a defense for God can never work, for we are constantly learning more, so you are always moving the goal posts, retrenching. What I am suggesting instead is that the divine is working in ways that don’t fit neatly inside of our humanness, our ability to conceptualize and categorize, and will always work in ways that are beyond us, are transcendent. The work of the divine simply doesn’t fit into our human boxes. We can’t even get other humans to stay in boxes. What makes us think we can do it with God?
We can parse words and solve equations until we are blue in the face, word-smith and insert and delete Oxford commas, but maybe, just maybe, God is not a formula, is not a book of rules and a complex legal code, which is just as well, for I would not want a God who was an accountant or a lawyer. I mean, we need lawyers and accountants, but they are not at the center of my worship.
We do not find God in our rule books. God is better sought in a freestyle riff, in jazz and poetry slams, for the language of God is a genome and we only understand 2% but 100% is “The Language of God,” as Collins asserts in his book of the same name. Divine creativity may look nothing like Robert’s Rules of Order and a whole lot like Thelonious Monk burning up the keyboard, less CSPAN, more “Round Midnight.”
And here is Nicodemus, and his heart is good, it really is. We’ll see him twice more, once as he helps bury Jesus. But he is having problems with the words Jesus is speaking. Born again? You can’t go back into your mother’s womb. What do you mean “be born from above?”
Jesus at the poetry slam, Peter beatboxing, “born again” is the language of God, Monk’s keys and Whitman’s barbaric yawp, and Vincent’s mad brush strokes. You can’t hear God if you are worrying about the words. You can’t hear God if you are trying to control the conversation, because then God can never speak anything that you haven’t already thought. If you are in charge of the conversation, then God can’t be.
No, no, Nicodemus. We are not suggesting a baby-seed be re-planted in the soil of a woman’s body. We are not suggesting a return to the womb. Jesus is talking about becoming new in more ways than that, new in spirit. Just as Jesus is inviting the people of God into an opt-in kingdom, so he is inviting us into a new experience of self, and it does not come with a book of instructions and law. You can’t codify love, nor can you call the question on compassion, which needs no second. No one can word-smith quite like a Congregationalist, with the possible exception of a Unitarian Universalist, but there ain’t no jazz, no poetry, to be found in the tedium and minutia of the average church business meeting. I know. I’ve sat through plenty, as have most of you. It takes effort to find God there, but we must find God there, which means we must find Jesus in one another, for there we see the face of God.
Funny enough, the sisters and brothers who best understand what it means to be born again into a new self are those that are so often unwelcome and uncomfortable in churches, like folks in recovery, or members of the LGBTQ community, who become new selves when they finally accept themselves, come out to themselves, then have to go through that pain and re-birth in the eyes of others again and again, each and every time they dare to be their authentic and whole selves, that mystery contained in billions of divine and mysterious base pairs, in a world that often does not affirm them.
The only time we find Jesus in a courtroom in scripture is when he is the one on trial, when love and compassion are put on trial by religion and empire.
Jesus is at the poetry slam, Peter beatboxing, Thelonious Monk burning up the keyboard, Vincent’s swirling stars, Whitman’s yawp, and a giant Pride parade of people dancing out into the world an expression of the authentic selves God made them to be, which doesn’t fit into any code, because God does not fit into any code. Love does not fit into any code. Every new discovery just leads to more mystery. Ain’t it grand? The scared animal in you wants answers. The spirit in you rides the wave into the deep and off into the cosmos.
Despite the scribes and the Pharisees and the neat stories, the Hebrew trajectory was always really just a little bit of poetic madness on the edge of existence, a tribe that should have disappeared a thousand times, swallowed up by conquerors and the sands of time. No one should understand being born again better than the Jews, for despite their own efforts to contain holy mystery in a rule book and a Temple, despite the efforts of one oppressor after another to wipe them off the face of the earth, despite pogroms and the Holocaust, they have been born again, and again.
And so have we, and so must we be. Nicodemus, here is your good news: God so loved the world that divine mystery first spoke us into being, a Big Bang, mutation and evolution and divine improvisation and then, when we had tried to bury God in words and rules, God came to us in love, broke all the rules, spoke words that were nonsense, and taught us the hip-hop of love. He taught you Nicodemus. And you did not understand. And yet you could not keep away. And neither can we.