Financial Ethics

In a conversation with a professional colleague recently, I was discussing what might happen to ethics when sex with machines becomes common.  That statement might seem a little bizarre out of context, so let me widen the net a bit.  We were discussing the Bible and sexual ethics.  This led to the question of how those who apply the Bible straight from antiquity might apply their beliefs to a world vastly different than first century Palestine.  In biblical times, in other words, sexual options were limited and people didn’t understand the whole issue of human sperm and eggs, neither of which can be seen without a microscope.  Applying their outlook directly to today is problematic, and so how do we apply a book without outdated views to a world vastly more complicated?

Someone recently paid me a small debt via PayPal.  If sex is complicated, then let’s not even get started on Bitcoin or Apple Pay—for some of us money is money and even getting paid electronically is somewhat suspicious.  I sometimes buy things online with PayPal.  It goes straight onto one of my credit cards and then I write an old-fashioned check to pay for it.  So I had to approach the altar of PayPal itself to figure out what it meant to have money in my account.  What am I to do with it?  Then I found the FAQ—TFIA (The Future Is Acronyms).  One of the questions: “What is PayPal’s policy on transactions that involve sexually oriented goods and services?”  Now, here’s a question of biblical proportions.

Paying for sexual “goods and services” goes all the way back to the book of Genesis when none other than the ancestor of David and later progeny did so.  This is nothing new.  But the question of ethics now looms extra large.  For those who pay for such things, a new layer of complexity has apparently been added—can you pay with PayPal?  My transaction had to do with tickets purchased for a concert online, where we wanted seats together so someone had to do the buying for everyone.  What if the purchase had involved a somewhat more intimate setting?  Who needs paper or plastic when a string of 16-digits, or even a username and password, will do?  That’s to say nothing regarding the ethics of the transaction—this is, as it were, purely mechanical.  What would Moses say?  Surely this is a question of appropriate tips, for Tamar veiling herself by the side of the road had the moral high ground over her father-in-law who was simply looking for a good time.  A staff and seal, however, were no less complicated that paying for goods and services online.


Two Outlooks

SexInTheBibleThe word polymath used to be applied more easily. In these days of highly specialized training, it is difficult to have expert knowledge in more than a couple of areas. The two areas, sexuality and scripture, dealt with in J. Harold Ellens’s Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, are such zones of specialization. Students of the Bible have recently begun an intensive exploration of how sex fit into the ancient worldview. Ellens’s book surveys all of the biblical legislation about sexual matters and a fair number of the stories involving the same, with the sensitivity of a professional counselor. Indeed, his practical knowledge of human sexual development and psychological needs based on it should inform society’s understanding of scripture. The Bible is no pristine book. Neither is it a romance novel. Still, ancient people were not as shy about sex as post-Victorians tend to be. The Bible is often frank on the subject.

The main danger of a project like this is trying to decide where to take the Bible literally and where not. Ellens, while he has some training as a biblical scholar, falls into a familiar trap. He assumes, as parts of the Bible do, that Israel’s neighbors were sexually depraved. Not only did they condone things like bestiality, according to Ellens, but they incorporated sexual deviancy into their worship. Ancient records, readily available for decades, give the lie to that outlook. Ellens makes the case that biblical writers had no way of knowing, however, that homosexuality, for example, is a biological predisposition that can’t be changed at will. Other sexual practices that are now considered normal and healthy were perversions in the biblical period. Medical science should inform our understanding of Holy Writ.

This is an argument Ellens can’t win. Passionate though he may be about how all of this just makes sense from a scientifically informed point of view, the fact can’t be changed that the Bible does condemn some sex acts outright. Even more damaging, in my opinion, is that the Bible clearly views women as the sexual property of men, and men regulate the sexuality of their females. Anyone arguing that the Bible is a moral guidebook in regard to sexual mores must face this issue head on. There’s no tip-toeing around it, even with verified psychological pedigree. The Bible is the product of a patriarchal structure that did not tolerate sexual practice outside prescribed limits. We now understand the same behaviors from a scientific point of view, but the written text doesn’t change. It is just that dilemma that makes it very difficult to be an expert on two fields so diverse as sexuality and biblical studies.


Geneva Conventions

As an alumnus of Grove City College, I generally don’t have the chance to consider other colleges as unreasonably conservative. College taught me, after all, that education involves thinking things through, and that, of all things, doctrine is one of the many human constructs that wilts under close examination. Both religious and political doctrine fall under this rubric. So when an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education fingered Grove City’s near neighbor, Geneva College, I was both relieved and not really surprised. Grove City was strict, but Geneva, located down the road in Beaver Falls, was even more Reformed. Tales at the Grove said that even off-campus dancing was an infringement of the student code there, and that even a legal sip of beer with dinner, off campus, could get you expelled. You know how students talk. In any case, both cut from Presbyterian fabric, Grove City and Geneva Colleges hold out against the world and its multiple evils. So why did humble Geneva merit notice in the exalted Chronicle?

Geneva College recently sued for exemption of the contraception-coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act. You see, in many conservative religious traditions pre-marital sex is not only from the Devil, it practically never happens among true Christians. If it doesn’t happen, why should you be forced to pay for its treatment? Denial runs profoundly through these conservative colleges. While at Grove City, in a first-floor dorm room, my roomie and I were awakened one night by a group of pretty obviously drunken frat boys from the third floor. Cursing loudly, one of them rammed his fist through our window, showering the floor with glass before stomping loudly up the stairs. When I went to the housing office the next morning, they wondered about my story. Students at Grove City, drunk? It simply did not happen. In all likelihood, I’d broken the window and made up the story so I wouldn’t have to pay. I pointed out that campus security had noted the glass was inside the room and my roommate and I were both there at the time. Reluctantly, while still withholding judgment about the drunken part, I was believed.

Conservative Christian colleges often face the specter of reality. College kids were killed driving drunk. Girls, gasp!, did get pregnant and did not always decide to keep the baby. Real world issues declared anathema by a magisterium with its hands firmly over its eyes. No matter one’s view of morality, singling women out for punishment of sexual sins is just plain unfair. The issue here is health care, not the consequences of a decision made in the heat of passion. How often the anonymous male gets to scamper off, his health fully covered. The co-ed, however, is treated like Eve holding a newly bitten apple. Students attend Christian colleges for a wide variety of reasons, and the education, apart from the theology, can actually be excellent. It is the ethical obligation of the schools to cover all the human needs of emerging adults, not just those based on a morality still mired in the Middle Ages.

Time for a Reformation?  Photo credit: Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons

Time for a Reformation? Photo credit: Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons


How God Became Male

GodsDoodleWhat is gender? Okay, we all know about the mechanics of the thing, but gender is more than just sex. Indeed, it is a psycho-social construct that is difficult to pin down. Sexual reproduction is very common in nature, but we don’t really speak of gender among our fellow animals. Perhaps the decisive factor, in the human realm, is religion. Clearly religion is not the only element, but I often wonder if gender-based commandments didn’t lead many cultures into their current arrangements. The thought occurred to me as I read Tom Hickman’s God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. As I informed students in my classes, religion has always shown an interest in sexuality, particularly on providing limitations for it. A recent issue of Christian Century has a cover story about marriage, noting that the widespread prohibitions about homosexual matrimony come from a religion that forbids it. When your stakes are eternal, many people won’t argue.

But I wonder if it goes deeper than that. Gender roles have traditionally been regulated by societies, often on the basis of their religious outlook. Meanwhile, biology, as Hickman reminds his readers, is somewhat more ambiguous. The line between the genders is somewhat of a line in the sand, easily erased. Humans come in a continuum of orientations and biological equipage. Those who don’t match the defined parameters have difficult questions to ponder with a male deity who could think of only two genders. What is a male without a female? Can a male deity exist without a goddess? What, otherwise, is the purpose of a deity’s gender? Wouldn’t a inter-sexual creator may more sense?

Male social behavior has often drawn its entitlement from a bad theology. When feminists first began to raise questions, the orthodox were quick to point out that Jesus was clearly male. As Hickman notes, however, representing him naked on the cross (as crucifixions were historically done) is still rare. Sounds like an effort at keeping the status quo tipped in the favor of one gender that doesn’t want to admit that it slowly morphs into another. We all begin life female, as biologists now understand. Some retain their original gender while males evolve into something different. And with that evolution they tend to make many unsubstantiated claims about the right to make decisions for the other half of the human race. Gender is a lot more complex than many religions would have us believe. Until we learn to treat all people as people, we will still have to ask, and will never adequately answer, how God became male.


Biblical Outlooks and Science Fiction

Alumni magazines depress me. Between my wife and I, we receive a half-dozen every month. I thumb through and see the cheery faces of classmates, most of whom I don’t know, who’ve gone on to great things – writing books, world travel, scientific breakthroughs. They’re not on the couch Saturday afternoons in New Jersey watching 1950’s sci-fi and wandering what went wrong. Especially bad is Bostonia, since I attended Boston University with many noteworthy individuals. Being forced from academia early in my career because of petty religious differences, I just want to bury my head and grab the remote. An article in this month’s BU shame-fest, however, pictured a professor, younger than myself, who joined the school of theology after I left. The title of the piece is “Biblical Sexuality.” Well, the connection with this blog couldn’t be more obvious.

Dr. Jennifer Knust is a professor of Christian Scriptures at BU who has written a couple of books on sexuality and the Bible. I’ve read widely on this topic in the Hebrew Bible, and was curious as to what the post-Jesus crowd was saying these days. The article specifically addresses homosexuality, but I did applaud one of Dr. Knust’s statements: “My main argument is that biblical texts do not speak with one voice.” Amen. Bravo. Goal! Our society is so imbued with the bibliolatry of the Religious Right that it is difficult for most Americans to understand that the Bible was written by many people over a few centuries and these people did not always share the same outlook. The Bible is an exercise in multiple voice-overs. Specific religions, as many denominations of Christianity testify, have harmonized these divergent voices into a coherent, if biblically untrue, theology. Some voices must be stifled so that others may dominate.

We live in a religiously plural world. There are about as many religions as there are believing people. We experience the world through our own lenses and within our own gray-matter. Our perspectives are uniquely our own. And yet religious leaders bend, worry, and force views closer to their own so that they might have a theological quorum, a consensus that one viewpoint is right. They silence the Bible’s divergent voices and claim they do not exist. I wish Dr. Knust well. She’s got the right perspective, in the opinion of my own weary gray-matter. And speaking of gray, where did I put the remote?