Culture At Large

What both sides in the Women and Gay culture wars might want to consider

Paul Vander Klay

Two of the hottest fights in the Christian church revolve around the participation of women and gays in the life of the church. One argument in this conflict is that possible change in these areas is essentially cultural contamination of the church. Support for this is sought in Old Testament stories where worship of Canaanite deities led the children of Israel astray and that in order to avoid this dynamic the purity of the church is best maintained through isolation.

The "Christ and Culture" conversation is obviously a significant, ongoing one that no 600 word blog post can hope to treat, yet I think those who are on the conservative side of these issues might want to look recognize that the motivation for re-examination of these two areas in fact represents a victory for Christian cultural influence and those who foment against Christianity on the basis of these issues might reflect on where they would be without the long term impact of Christianity upon the cultural values they espouse.

Tim Keller's in his book "The Reason for God" cite's historian C John Sommerville's thought experiment involving shame-based cultures and a Christian charity based culture. Motivation for NOT picking on the weak in a shame-based culture was that it would not be a positive action towards the image of one's self. Picking on the weak violates the powerful person's pride; they don't want to be that kind of person. A charity culture acts with generosity towards the weak because of the cultural value of loving the weak because of their situation. Sommerville noted that the vast majority of his students embraced the charity based ethic regardless of their feelings about Christianity as a religion. This finding exhibits the deep impact that Christianity has had on Western culture in a way that most on the liberal end of the spectrum would consider as positive in direct contradiction to their complaint that Christianity is antithetical to loving one's neighbor well.

This reality hosts a number of ironies in these debates. American Evangelicals who tend to be highly motivated to publicly protect the Christian brand complain about the Christian seeded charity ethic that in some ways has born Christian fruit in the movements that are appealing for change on the grounds of regard for the others. At the same time other voices in the culture foment against the Christian brand on the basis of an ethic whose roots are in fact Christian.

It is also interesting to watch many who are demanding public change in these areas who are employing the older pride/shame ethic and attempting to establish the changes they desire based a denial of weakness ("How dare you state that women and gays occupy the position of 'the weak'!") while using the political practice of majority dominance. Nicholas Woltersdorff published a speech asking whether our entire Western tradition of human rights can be maintained without its Christian underpinnings. Romantic notions that pursuing a pre-Christian polytheistic world would somehow result in a more egalitarian community where women and gays could somehow ascend to their rightful place not bothered by heterosexual male harassment seems to run against the evidence of history. Shame based cultures where the freedom of a market based/natural selection political process reigns would likely once again favor the strong which has nearly universally favored heterosexual males using or abusing the other demographic groups to their own advantage. Want evidence? Why are the male/female populations of India and China increasingly out of whack? Here's my naked religious assertion: genocide is hard wired into our nature and will persist unless a new resurrected nature takes its place.

What does this mean for these two debates? Christian traditionalists don't necessarily need to abandon their positions but should think through more carefully the tact they take in withholding the charity requested and what the request is premised upon. Those demanding change on the other side of the debates might also want to reconsider the source of their value assertions and ponder how much Christian influence they're really like to cleanse the culture of.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith