True to Nature

A friend recently sent me an article on Jack London from smithsonian.com. As the article by Kenneth Brandt makes clear, London is an author for our times. Someone who might truly be called a populist, London, like many of us born in the working class, had an epiphany. Perhaps his came earlier than many, but at the age of 18, while working laboring jobs, he noted that he “was scared into thinking.” He decided, before the idea of sending all kids to college had caught on, that he should acquire an education. In the words quoted by Brandt, he wanted to become a “brain merchant.” Certainly London’s works need no introduction from a guy like me. Robust and masculine, his stories are those of man pitted against a nature that is often out to crush, freeze, or starve him. Today we need to loosen up those pronouns a bit. Women, who’ve arguably had it tougher than men for all of biological history, have had to struggle for survival too. In the current political climate we all need to remind those who substitute testosterone for brains that we all share human rights.

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The Religious Right, or “alt-right” as they seem to prefer these days, wasn’t always a fetus farm. It has been historically documented that it was Francis Schaeffer, erstwhile hippie and free thinker, who when he got abortion stuck in his craw, decided that men had to protect the unborn from women. He seemed to have forgotten whose gonads planted that seed in the first place. Prior to Schaeffer Christian saints tried to avoid sex all together. Among the original “abstinence only” crowd, some of the more zealous put their money where their testicles were and castrated themselves. Ah, men were real men in those days. Today masculinity means ganging up on women and grabbing them by the Call of the Wild, apparently.

Like London, I think we all need to be scared into thinking. We’ve let a wildly distorted view of humanity—one-sided and with dangling evidence of gender loyalty—to steal the White House from the woman who thoroughly won it from the vox populi. Where is Buck when we need him? London knew, as evolution repeatedly teaches, in Brandt’s words, “abusive alpha males never win out in the end.” I say that “swing states” should look carefully at that hanging chad. In the meantime, while the fat cats bicker and argue over the best way to suppress females to make themselves look bigger, I think we should all read again about what happens when Spitz meets Buck. If you haven’t read The Call of the Wild before, it’s time to do so now.

Rule Book

gamespeopleplayMirrors can be such deceptive things. In my head I’m a much younger man than the one I see staring at me. And I have to remind myself that other people see what the mirror sees, and not what I really am. Things age. A friend who aged so much that she’s no longer alive recommended to me years ago Games People Play, by Eric Berne. Of course I’d heard of it before—I wasn’t born yesterday. I do enjoy reading psychological books. Psychology like having a window in someone’s forehead. If you could really master it you’d understand so much of what seems a mystery to people like me. But it is an old book. When Berne casually cites the year he was writing it as the year I was born, I began to suspect that some of the data might be outdated. The guy in the mirror certainly seems to be.

We still play games, though. The hope Berne expresses in the last chapter is that we might get beyond this endless game playing to true awareness, spontaneity, and intimacy—the things psychological games are meant to mask. I also have to confess to recognizing myself at several points and then reading that games are played by disturbed people. “So that’s why I x, y, or z,” I found myself thinking. Disturbing thought. And these ideas are as old as I am. Probably older.

Reading this book from ‘60s, I noticed a strong sense of certainty that is now lacking. I can’t imagine too many psychiatrists or psychologists making quite so many declarative statements these days. I know it’s a classic in the field, and I know there are some valuable insights here, but we don’t call people “squares” any more, and a good deal of the analyses point to assumed gender roles that we now know are as much fabrications as the games themselves. I was looking for a game that my departed friend had pointed out to me. We both knew a man who was apparently picking fights because he wanted to leave his job but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “Stamp collecting,” she called it. She may have been right, and I have to wonder if many of us really know why we do the things we do. Maybe I could use a window into my own forehead. Of course, I would need the mirror to see it. It’s a little game I play.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

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Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.

Galileo’s Tool

GalileoMiddleEarly in my academic career I got into trouble not because a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data, but because I had pointed out that a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data. You see, I was a naive realist. I believed academics were objective, factual sorts who looked for the truth no matter how uncomfortable it was. My honesty didn’t earn me many friends, and I still can’t mention this professor by name because I have seen grown men melt into tears at his name, due to their overwhelming loyalty. By contrast, a fellow Edinburgh student once told me that he disagreed with our mutual dissertation adviser, “on principle.” As the old saying goes, nullius in verba, take nobody’s word for it. Reading Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science drove home a number of important points, one of the most memorable being that academics take real risks when they won’t fudge the facts to fit the establishment’s expectations.

Although this autobiographically revealing book is about as honest as a writer can be, it deals largely with issues of social justice in the context of those who “don’t fit.” Intersex individuals, especially, are treated before they can give consent and live their lives based on other people’s expectations of what their gender “should be.” Like most people I was raised thinking there were only two genders. Science has consistently demonstrated that “gender” is a construct that occurs along a continuum. Some species change gender in their lives. Some have such complicated reproductive techniques that far more than two genders are postulated to make sense of it all. And yet, when it comes to humans, we suppose that we’re either female or male. And religions consistently claim that any sex outside those parameters is evil. We are so naive.

Dreger focuses her attention much more widely in this important book. She shows how universities, constantly becoming more corporate, often don’t support research that challenges their investments, or “branding.” She demonstrates first-hand the character-assassination that academic snipers use so well on those who follow the evidence. She is living proof that education and activism should go together. Intricate and with bizarre loops and twists thrown in, her account of what some people will do to silence others, and get it peer reviewed, saddens me. I’ve always believed that education is the surest way to solve social ills. Education, however, is increasingly being purchased by special-interest groups that protect the establishment. The establishment may no longer be the church, but we need another Galileo, and soon.

Our Gods, Ourselves

The near-death experience, made popular by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, has hit the cultural mainstream with movies like Heaven Is Real. The now-familiar scenario of going through the tunnel toward the light and meeting something like God is so widespread that mention of “staying away from the light” can be a metaphor for remaining alive. Although experts (one of which I’m decidedly not) disagree on interpretations, nobody doubts that the dying often report such things. Some say it is the impression left on an oxygen-starved brain about to implode, while others postulate a soul has made an actual bid for freedom only to be returned to sender. No matter what you believe, it’s hard not to be intrigued. Not all the experiences are identical, however. A friend recently sent me a story from World News Daily Report that headlines “Catholic Priest Who Died for 48 Minutes Claims that God Is a Woman.” The story by Barbara Johnson, which ran earlier this month, is an interesting variation on the standard. Often the “being of light” met at the end of the tunnel is kind of asexual. After all, there are no physical bodies there.

This story has me thinking. Traditional Christian, indeed, Judeo-Christian thought posits that God is neither male nor female. Of course, given human experience, many people find that difficult to conceive. It does occur in intersex persons, and it is actually pretty widespread in nature where some animals change gender over their lifespans. Still, when it comes to the Almighty, people want to know with whom they’re dealing. Think about it. When you walk into a doctor’s office and meet a physician for the first time, your response will differ depending on their gender. The same is true of going into a car dealership, or a daycare facility. We use gender to give us the first hint on how to respond. A genderless God, let’s admit, is somewhat disquieting. What is the message you want to send to a person without knowing their gender? Or maybe like me you’ve read a book and discovered halfway through that you had the gender of the author wrong. Doesn’t it impact how you read the rest? So, what if God is a woman?

Interestingly, the case of Father John O’neal comes from a Catholic context. Along with Evangelical Christians, Catholics are among the most likely to hold a residual maleness to God’s identity. Theology of the Trinity, always beginning with “the Father” makes it hard to escape. Perhaps what Fr. O’neal unexpectedly encountered was a God-concept without judgment. That would certainly be disorienting to a faith that has a multi-layered afterlife including limbo and purgatory as well as heaven and hell. A deity who decides the fate of souls must be a judge, and although Judge Judy rules daytime television, the church still has a traditional mensch on the bench. What if Fr. O’neal really did get to heaven? What if he found God really was female? Could human religions ever recover? I, for one, am intrigued. Still, I’m content to wait another few decades before finding out. And maybe for the time we have down here we should all start practicing by realizing that gender is always far less important than the personhood that we all share.

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Mother’s Night

It wouldn’t be Christmas, in the Christian tradition, without Mary. Still, apart from her later enhanced role in Roman Catholicism, Mary’s part beyond Christmas is minor in the church. She seldom features in biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. It is easy to forget the female role that was so much a part of winter solstice celebrations that coalesced into our modern twelve days (really only one, for work purposes). That’s why I was glad that a friend sent me a link to a site about Mödraniht, or Mother’s Night. Honestly, I had never heard of this holiday before. Given the Germanic penchant for dramatic festivities, it comes as no surprise that Yule involved a night celebrating the feminine aspects of the season. Apart from the occasional references to Mary, we tend to think of this as the time a male son of a male God came to save mankind. What of the women without whom none of this would have been possible?

As Carolyn Emerick notes on her page, we know little about this sacred day because Christianity managed to wipe out most of the pagan traditions of northern Europe. Some, of course, survived and worked their way into Christmas. Modern holidays, being primarily days off work rather than deeply felt celebration (for we live in a world with no need for religion), have gravitated toward what had once been the male preserve of earning a living. Watching movies of Dickensian times, it is clear the women continued to work—likely even more than usual—to bring off a holiday celebration. It was the male prerogative to be the recipient of largess.

Photo credit: "Urban" WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: “Urban” WikiMedia Commons

My concern is that gender equality may sometimes be confused with gender stereotyping, or even with patronization. How is it possibly to build equality into a system put into place by generations of men? Is civilization truly civilizing when half of the race and only a very small portion of the planet benefits? The Christmas season, even now rapidly slipping away, is a time for considering equality. Every year modern non-believers and humanists ask for equality—a dream always held at arm’s length, since the holiday earns record profits as it is, and the financial year revolves around it like a Pole Star. It is the time of year when we see if we’ve turned a healthy profit. The rules in the system were set long ago. Even with Mary in the manger, she blends into the background while shepherds, wise men, and other interested males plan to make a holiday of it.

Welcoming the Stranger

Profiling is alive and well. In our post-9/11 state, we are even more suspicious than those who are different than we were before. After the Ferguson decision, profiling once again led to unrest. If we didn’t do it so much, cases like this wouldn’t be necessary. If we didn’t shoot first and ask questions later, how much more would we understand? It happens, unfortunately, at all levels. I have no desire to trivialize the tragedy that continues to unfold over race relations, but divisions of those perceived potentially to cause trouble occur at even smaller, less significant levels. We tell ourselves that it is possible to gauge a person’s potential for violence based on a number of factors which happen to fall along lines of gender and race. Your typical airport screening is an example.

As my readers know, I object to the millimeter wave scanners in use in many airports. In general, I object to being treated as a criminal when I have been a pacifist since high school. (And likely before.) I am treated like a law-abiding citizen everywhere except the airport. Flying home from San Diego, I noticed that at check-in men traveling alone were separated out and sent through the scanner. The side on which I had to pull off my shoes and belt and coat, empty my laptop from my bag, and stand on the chilly floor awaiting an opt-out, was very masculine indeed. The woman in front of me, who looked far more frazzled than I did, was sent to the metal detector, along with her stroller. No threat there. Being male, however, is always a threat. Two priests stood before me in line. They didn’t go for the pat-down.

Potential terrorists, all.

Potential terrorists, all.

On the plane, many passengers began to talk about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting. After all, about half the passengers had just come from the conference. For me, I was ready for some quiet. Some time to center myself after playing the extrovert and talking to people I don’t know for four long days. As debates about religion broke out on the Boeing 737, I began to understand why religious folk are often profiled as potential threats. Their convictions, public and firmly held, are more likely to remain constant in the face of contrary evidence than are most opinions. I wonder if airport security couldn’t save us all some time, money, and embarrassment. Couldn’t they just ask passengers to declare their faith? Of course, we’d need to find some other employment for government officials whose duties involving feeling strangers with latex gloves before wishing them a pleasant trip. While high above the planet riots are breaking out down below because we distrust those who are different.