This man enjoys math (anag.)

Why are we so obsessed with gender?

It might not be overstating things to say that we find ourselves at a turning point in Western history. History is moving forwards at a considerable pace, and some people find themselves on the right side, others on the wrong side. And as the past gives way to the future, the transition seems to be hinging on one issue in particular: gender.

In the past, men and women lived much of their lives in separate spheres. Over the past century or so, we in the West have been breaking down those boundaries, so that men and women now largely occupy the same space. Over the past few years, we’ve all (suddenly) woken up to the fact that whether a man loves a woman or another man is immaterial. And we’re now beginning to wake up to the fact that gender itself is self-determined and insignificant. At least, that’s how the story goes.

But why is this such a big deal in our culture?

That question is worth pondering. If aliens landed, they might be somewhat puzzled by what they found. Why, they might ask, with so many tangible problems — violent conflicts, looming environmental crises, extreme inequality — are these earthlings getting so worked up about such obscure matters?

Asking this kind of question can give us a glimpse into the heart of a culture, and we need to give it some serious attention.

If you want to know my hunch, I think it boils down to a long-standing battle between nature and freedom.

Over the past 500 years or so, we in the West have been struggling to live with two apparent opposites. On the one hand, we think of ourselves in terms of nature. Our behaviour is determined by our genes and by the laws of nature. We study science, and try to uncover the laws that govern us. But on the other hand, we also think of ourselves in terms of freedom. We have free will, and we’re free to choose what we want. We cultivate our sense of imagination, and creatively shape the world around us.

(I would want to question whether nature and freedom are really the best ways of thinking about ourselves in the first place, but maybe that’s for another time.)

Our inability to fit nature and freedom together is reflected in all sorts of ways. It’s reflected in the nature-nurture debate. It’s reflected in the mind-body problem. It’s reflected in the division of our universities into sciences (BSc) and arts (BA). It’s reflected in our wranglings between the state and the individual. And it’s reflected in the way that, at different times, attempts have been made to assert the absolute superiority of one over the other. So, in our day, it is freedom that has the upper hand, and our lives may be described as a quest to assert our own absolute freedom from nature.

But what does gender have to do with this?

The biggest determining factor in a person’s life, apart from the place and time of their birth, is whether they were conceived with XX or XY chromosomes.

If we are to be truly free — if freedom is to triumph over nature — then my identity — who I consider myself to be, and how I expect society to treat me — cannot and must not be determined by my chromosomes.

So we cannot allow for our place and role in society to be influenced by our biological sex. We cannot let it continue to be the case that our future is determined from birth on the basis of our chromosomes. Gender (if we need the concept at all) must be set free from biological sex. “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals,” as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson put it last year.

I’m not trying to say whether this account of things is right or wrong.

But I do think it goes some way towards explaining why we are so obsessed with gender.

I'm not a person of faith

There are two types of people: normal people, and everyone else.

How you unpack that depends on what you think of as normal.

So there are Brits and foreigners. Or Jews and Gentiles. Or (ancient) Greeks and barbarians. Or Muslims and non-Muslims. Or Christians and non-Christians.

The important thing to note is that people in the ‘everyone else’ category never identify themselves by that label. No one would say, simply, ‘I’m a foreigner,’ except to say, ‘From the perspective of a Brit, I’m a foreigner.’

So what about ‘person of faith’?

This is the term for everyone else, if to be normal is to be secular, or ‘non-religious’ (put in quotes, because ‘religious’ is itself another of those ‘everyone else’ terms).

So there are two types of people: normal, secular people, and people of faith.

From the perspective of a secular, ‘non-religious’ person, I’m a person of faith.

But, from my own perspective, I’m not a person of faith. I’m a Christian.

Faith at the ballot box: Greens

Over on Thomas Creedy’s blog there has been a series of posts, in which Christians from various political parties answer a set of questions. I took part, as a Christian member of the Green Party, and my responses have been posted on the blog, and also incorporated into an eBook, Faith at the Ballot Box. Here’s how it begins…

-{ How would you describe your party’s political vision in one sentence? }-

The Green Party’s strapline is, “for the common good”, reflecting a vision for a sustainable and much more equal society, globally, achieved through a shift of power away from the elite few and towards a real grassroots democracy.

-{ What myth/accusation/misunderstanding about your party most frustrates you? }-

Often the Green Party is portrayed as being crazy. It isn’t crazy, but it is certainly calling for a radical shift away from our current systems of global consumerism and corporate power.

Read more or get the free eBook…

Coding for Christ?

There was a post of mine on the Faith in Scholarship blog a couple of days ago. It begins as follows…

While I was an academic astronomer, I probably spent most of my time not peering through a telescope, but typing away at a computer, wondering why my code didn’t work. Now, computer software wasn’t my area of research, so I didn’t give much attention to it from a Christian perspective. But is there a Christian approach to writing computer software? Should we be “coding for Christ”?

In preparation for this post, I read an excellent little book on this topic: Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology by Derek C. Schuurman, who is Professor of Computer Science at Redeemer University College, Ontario, Canada. Schuurman begins by posing the question, “What does my faith have to do with my work as an electrical engineer?” The rest of the book attempts to sketch out an answer, and it contains plenty of helpful insights for those of us who spend our time writing computer code. I’d like to share a few of them here.

Read more…

General election Bible study

I cobbled this Bible study together at the weekend. It is unrefined and untested, but I post it here in case it might be useful. The main inspiration is Votewise 2015 (Guy Brandon), along with an associated talk. The latter used the excellent idea of focussing on one topic per major party (roughly speaking), and I’ve followed that approach below. One emphasis from the book was the implications of these issues for ordinary everyday life, as well as for politicians. It’s so easy to assume it’s entirely their responsibility (and hence their fault).

I don’t expect anyone will follow this study and end up knowing who to vote for (at least, I hope they won’t). But it might help people to approach the topic in a slightly better way.

  1. Government
    1. Read 1 Peter 2:13-17. What should our attitude be towards the government?
    2. Read Deuteronomy 17:18-20. What limits does this place on the power of the king?
    3. Read 1 Samuel 13:11-14. What does God think about people trying to have unlimited power?
    4. How can we make sure governments don’t get too much power? (Think about mass surveillance as an example.)
    5. How can we make sure corporations don’t get too much power?
  2. Economy
    1. Read Matthew 6:24. How can the economy become our master?
    2. Read Matthew 22:37-40. What matters to God is our relationship with him and our relationship with each other. How do you use your money to strengthen those relationships?
    3. We might use the word “shalom” to describe a society with strong relationships and with everyone able to flourish. How can we make sure the economy is not our master, but is used for “shalom”?
    4. Read Proverbs 22:7. Why should we get out of debt?
    5. How can we help each other to get out of debt, and to stay out of debt?
    6. How should the government get itself out of debt?
  3. Immigration
    1. Read Matthew 28:18-20. What should our attitude be to “the nations”?
    2. Read Zechariah 7:10 and Leviticus 19:34. The Hebrew word for “alien” is “ger”. How were these “immigrants” treated?
    3. Read Deuteronomy 23:19-20. The word for “foreigner” is “nokri”. They were temporary visitors to Israel who were economically independent. How were these “immigrants” treated?
    4. How do you think we should treat people who want to settle permanently, such as refugees, economic migrants, and others?
    5. How do you think we should treat people who are here temporarily, such as international students, or people here for work or business?
  4. Health
    1. Read Mark 5:24-34. How does Jesus heal this woman’s body?
    2. How does Jesus heal this woman’s state of mind?
    3. How does Jesus restore this woman’s place in her society?
    4. The World Health Organisation states, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. What can we do, as individuals, families and churches, to promote people’s well-being?
    5. What should the government do to promote people’s well-being?
  5. Environment
    1. Read Genesis 1:28 and 2:15. What should our attitude be towards creation?
    2. Read Hosea 4:3. What happens when we don’t take good care of the land?
    3. What can we do, as individuals, families and churches, to make sure the world is cared for?
    4. What should the government be doing to make sure the world is cared for?

Trident dilemma

What if... North Korea has nuked London. Trident is ready. You are in charge. Pyongyang will be destroyed. 2.5 million people will die. Do you press the button?
Poll Maker

Leave your reasons in the comments below...

On the (social capital) deficit

Robert D. Putnam: Bowling AloneAny who are concerned about the sharp decline in “social capital” over recent decades would do well to read Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s 2000 classic, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. I’ll attempt to give you a flavour of the book here…

After the introduction, Section II surveys an extraordinary amount of evidence covering a remarkably diverse set of trends:

Civic disengagement appears to be an equal opportunity affliction. The sharp, steady declines in club meetings, visits with friends, committee service, church attendance, philanthropic generosity, card games, and electoral turnout have hit virtually all sectors of American society over the last several decades and in roughly equal measure (p. 185).

Section III asks, “Why?” What are the causes of this civic decline? Pressures of time and money? This might account for perhaps 10%. Mobility and sprawl? Again, another 10%. Technology and mass media? This might account for 25%, particularly as a result of television. This is partly because “Television privatizes leisure time” (p. 236), but also because “Another probable effect of television (not just programming, but also the associated advertising) is its encouragement of materialist values” (p. 245). But the biggest cause of civic decline, Putnam argues, is generational change, as one generation dies off and another takes its place.

But what could explain such a difference between the generations? Strikingly, but not particularly surprisingly, the answer seems to be World War II, which served as a strong stimulus to civic and social engagement.

In speculating about explanations for this sharp generational discontinuity, I am led to the conclusion that the dynamics of civil engagement in the last several decades have been shaped in part by social habits and values influenced in turn by the great mid-century global cataclysm (p. 275).

Section IV asks, “So What?” Does it actually matter that social capital has been in decline? Putnam reviews evidence that “shows that in measurable ways it matters that social capital and civic engagement have decined in America over the last several decades” (p. 295). This evidence is largely based on comparing various criteria with a “Social Capital Index” for each of the states of the USA. He finds a strong connection between low social capital and poor standards of education, children’s welfare, safe neighbourhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic participation.

So what is to be done? This is the subject of Section V. To answer this, Putnam turns to history. There is a fascinating chapter on the transition America faced during the “Gilded Age” (1870-1900) and the “Progressive Era” (1900-1915).

During the last third of the nineteenth century technological, economic, and social changes transformed American life. Between roughly 1870 and 1900 America evolved rapidly from a rural, localized, traditional society to a modern, industrialized, urban nation (p. 368).

But America survived. Why? It survived because of a prolonged and concerted investment in new forms of social capital.

It must have been tempting in 1890 to say, “Life was much nicer back in the village. Everybody back to the farm.” They resisted that temptation to reverse the tide, choosing instead the harder but surer path of social innovation. Similarly, among those concerned about the social-capital deficit today, it would be tempting to say, “Life was much nicer back in the fifties. Would all women please report to the kitchen, and turn off the TV on the way?” Social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia.

On the contrary, my message is that we desperately need an era of civic inventiveness to create a renewed set of institutions and channels for a reinvigorated civic life that will fit the way we have come to live (p. 401).

But how will this come about? Putnam himself has been active in seeking a resurgence of civic and social engagement through various initiatives (such as BetterTogether), and there are signs that the tide is turning, at least among affluent young white people. But I was struck by some comments in the final chapter about the role of religion.

Faith-based communities remain such a crucial reservoir of social capital in America that it is hard to see how we could redress the erosion of the last several decades without a major religious contribution (p. 408-9).

This is based on history, since “it is undeniable that religion has played a major role in every period of civic revival in American history” (p. 409), particularly around the turn of the twentieth century. Putnam’s response is to “challenge America’s clergy, lay leaders, theologians, and ordinary worshipers” to “spur a new … ‘great awakening’” as a response to our crisis in social capital.

Those of us who see these “great awakenings” as a work of the Spirit of God will readily turn Putnam’s “challenge” into a prayer…

Christianity and the Green Party

A little flurry of online activity on this topic over the past few days.

First, there was Gillan Scott’s post on Archbishop Cranmer, entitled Green Party: Christians welcome, but only if you ignore your faith. His post was based on a narrow focus and anecdotal evidence (which is quite out of character for Gillan), and concluded as follows:

Those who keep a close eye on party politics will be fully aware of the Green Party’s narrow-minded approach to inclusion. But for those who are disillusioned with the mainstream parties and looking for a fresh political vision, going Green on May 7th would be a profound delusion.

This provoked numerous responses from Christian members of the Green Party in the comments section, giving alternative anecdotal evidence, and a broader perspective. (Warning: there are well over 500 comments on the post, of varying quality, but it is not hard to skim through looking for the sensible ones.)

Two blog posts have appeared in response. One was by Rachel Collinson, who is the Green Party parliamentary candidate for West Ham. In her post, Jesus and the Greens, she wrote:

The more I discovered about the Green Party, the more I realised that I might finally have found a political home for my theological conclusions. A party that has dared to paint a picture of world where our economy isn’t based on crippling personal debt; where the creation of money is democratised; where true economic equality is feasible; where the playing field for all people is level. I think I’d call it – not the American Dream, but the Mosaic Dream.

Another response came from active Green Party member Stephen Gray, with a post called Faith and the Green Party DO mix. He discusses three issues on which he sees the Green Party as providing a good fit for his Christian beliefs: creation care, poverty, and immigration, and concludes:

So I’ve outlined three issues that are (or at least should be) massively important to British politics in 2015 where I think that the Green Party is more in line with a genuinely Christian approach than the other mainstream political parties. In all three cases, my faith leads me to support the Green Party approach above those of other parties. Given that all three are far more salient to today’s politics than abortion, same-sex marriage, or euthanasia, Gillan’s assertion that Christians should leave our faith at the door before joining or voting for the Green Party looks a little bit silly.

Finally, and unrelated, KLICE published the sixth of their Ethics in Brief election series, as part of their 2015 election coverage. This was a paper by Tim Cooper and Colin Bell on A Greener Faith: Christianity and the Green Party. It makes fascinating reading, as they trace the history of the Green Party, and the points of connection and tension with the Christian faith. Here’s the final paragraph:

The Church of England was for many years described as the Tory Party at prayer. In future, might the Christian church, Anglican or otherwise, be portrayed as the Green Party at prayer? Time will tell. Striving for peace, justice and sustainability while challenging undue concentrations of power and excessive materialism, the Christian church and the Green Party are logical allies. A good proportion of Christians will consider supporting the Greens in the coming election, many for the first time. Is there empathy in both directions? The Green Party certainly needs support from sympathisers within the church, which environmental scientist Sir John Houghton refers to as ‘the nation’s largest NGO’. The Party seeks a renewed and transformed society in which people seek ‘the common good’; many Christians will rightly share their vision.

A Christian guide to the General Election: Votewise 2015

Guy Brandon: Votewise 2015If you’re a Christian thinking about how to vote (or whether to vote) in the 2015 General Election, and if you read just one short book on the topic, then make it this one. I doubt anyone else will publish something more helpful, in terms of being brief and to the point, covering a wide range of issues (rather than just a couple of headline ‘Christian’ issues), and in terms of bridging the gap between the Bible and the political questions facing us today.

Votewise 2015 is the third of the Jubilee Centre’s ‘Votewise’ books, with previous editions published prior to the 2005 and 2010 General Elections. Each book has been written afresh, and this time the author is Guy Brandon, part-time researcher for the Jubilee Centre, but with contributions from others at the end.

The book faces the reality that many Christians will be inclined to disengage from politics, whether that’s by doing no more than voting (‘to place a cross on our ballot sheet and to use this as an excuse to disengage from politics for the next five years’, p.13), or by not voting at all. But there are many important issues at stake, and we have a responsibility to use our votes in the best way.

Ten issues are tackled in the book: marriage and family, the economy, debt, welfare, Europe, immigration, the environment, crime, education, and health. Each is tackled in the same way: the issue is presented, then we delve under the surface (e.g., what is the economy for? what is education for? what is health?), then we look to the Bible for insight, and finally there is an attempt to draw out some implications for policy.

One recurring theme is the importance of relationships. (This will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the Jubilee Centre.) In all of the areas covered, there is an enormous relational deficit. But the laws given in the Old Testament were all about maintaining and strengthening relationships: within extended families, within the nation, with the land, and with the surrounding nations. A Christian approach to politics will give attention to the place of relationships, in every area of policy.

The final two chapters form something of an anticlimax, it has to be said. The chapter on relationships seems unnecessary, given the way relationships have featured throughout the book. Then the final chapter (before the conclusion) features contributions from members of each of the five main UK parties. These have no connection with the material in the rest of the book, and say very little at all about the points of contact between the Christian faith and the visions of each party. Instead, they descend into bog-standard party-political broadcasts. Much better would have been either to give the contributors a simple questionnaire, or for Guy Brandon to have written those parts himself. (An idea for next time, perhaps?)

So, leaving those chapters to one side, that’s just 85 pages. What are you waiting for?

Keep it in the ground

Major new campaign from the Guardian, in partnership with 350.org. We’re heading for disaster if we burn the vast quantity of known fossil fuel reserves. We need to keep it in the ground.

Here’s the introductory video and description:

We need to reduce emissions to keep our planet safe for future generations - the science is clear. However, it can be quite hard to get your head around how to do that. Here’s a very simple idea from writer and climate campaigner, Bill McKibben: keep fossil fuels in the ground. If we were to burn all the fossil fuel reserves we currently know about, experts forecast the Earth’s temperature would warm by more than 2C and have catastrophic effects. Guardian journalists explain the ‘keep it in the ground’ theory in easy to understand terms.