Monday, June 25, 2012

Margaret Farley's "Just Love": Vatican objections made it a best-seller, quickly

Author: Sister Margaret A. Farley

Title: “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Publication: New York: Continuum International, 2006.  ISBN 978-0-8264-2924-7, 322 pages, paperback; indexed; Preface and seven chapters.

Amazon link

By now, many readers know that this book created a flap with the Vatican denounced the book and apparently asked the author, Sister Margaret Farley, to revise it. The New York Times has an account by Laura Goodstein and Rachel Donadio here. Wikipedia gives more background here.  As a result of the public controversy, the book shot up to the top in sales, and I had to wait about three weeks for more stock to get it from Amazon Prime.  The Vatican “never learns”.

Farley starts her account by discussing major philosophical history, including especially Michael Foucault and his “The Historical Constitution of Desire”.  This work emphasized that sexuality builds on other aspects of the human condition, including culture and the need to feel important -- ego.  She also discusses Sartre and existentialism.

There follows a history of the way civilizations have implemented institutions of marriage and family, and the different purposes that they ascribed to these.  Some cultures have recognized a place for homosexual interest among men, particularly the ancient Greeks, when they saw men as referentially “superior”.  Others, such as some native American cultures, have created priestly places for those who don’t fit neatly into two opposite genders.  But generally, cultures have tended to see the family as a basic tool for political and social control.  Often, aided by religious doctrines, they have seen the family and marriage as a way to engage the individual in maintaining a connection to “the common good”.  In some cultures there are elaborate rules about extended family responsibilities that connect to the legal and political system.  Muslim culture, particularly, evolved in a low-tech society of small isolated tribes – and “no one can survive alone in the desert”.  Therefore, every person had to connect himself or herself to building local community.   Of course, procreation and generation-raising were viewed as responsibilities shared by everyone in tribes that needed population to survive.  In many societies, polygyny (as a form of polygamy) developed, abetted by external or environmental circumstances and then rationalized within religion, and tending to create power battles for control.

Christianity was “different” at first with its preoccupation with an afterlife, which was thought to be imminent.  In time, Christianity added to the notion of the family a bridge to the notion that responsibility exists to larger community as well as to immediate and even extended family.  I think this can be read into the Gospels (there really was no possibility for individualism as we experience it today in most ancient societies, and “altruism” (as in Wilson’s book about eusociality, May 1 here) referred specifically to getting beyond immediate family obligations. Much of the notion about extended altruism developed with the Protestant Reformation. Christianity had been preoccupied by sexual desire as inherently sinful and egotistical. On p. 258 she writes:
 “Sex could not be ‘justified’  by procreation or anything else, but only forgiven; and the context of forgiveness was heterosexual marriage. The cure for unruly desire was to be its domestication, its taming through the burdens of maintaining a household and the rearing of children.”
There is a bifurcation, then, even in socially conservative thought.  Is marriage an end in itself?  Is social altruism?  This is certainly a critical question from the viewpoint of a gay man like me who is “different” and monitors his world at a distance.  It appears that Vatican-style social conservatism, or Santorum’s idea of common good, views personality development as a self-generating cycle that needs momentum to work, rather like a storm.  You need some interest in others as a child to develop the ability to have stable intimacy as an adult, which further feeds altruism.  Some people never catch the train.
In the last chapters, she develops her own modern framework for sexual ethics, which invoke notions like commitment, fruitfulness, and particularly social justice.  She tends to become abstract and wordy.  It was her spelling this out on her own and contradicting literal Church teaching that made the Vatican mad.  Here ideas are a bit like those of Paul Rosenfels when it comes to ethics within a relationship, although she never mentions the concept of "polarity" specifically.  (See April 12, 2006 on this blog for the Rosenfels book review).  
Her ideas to incorporate the possibility of committed same-sex relationships (she doesn’t get into the legalities of gay marriage but does mention the end of the military gay ban and the dissolution of the idea that social cohesion need be so delicate and vulnerable).  Toward the end, she refers to John Boswell, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century” (University of Chicago Press, 1980).  She points out that the gay community's depending on "immutability" (perhaps genetically based) arguments is a somewhat intellectually unsatisfying strategy. 

She discusses the idea of self-giving love in marriage, and the paradox that this must not eclipse the individual identity.

I can come at this debate from different directions.  Why, earlier in my life, was so much made of my homosexuality, resulting in a college expulsion, in 1961, when I wasn’t “harming anyone”?  Why was so much made of delving into what made me tick? 

Although this is not the history of all gay men, I grew up with a lack of ability to compete well according to my gender.  So I tended to develop the process of “upward affiliation”, and the idea that another person was not worthy of my potential intimate attention unless he “had it all”.  Personal merit (including attractiveness) became equated with intrinsic moral virtue.  This sort of reaction happens in the heterosexual world too – how often have we heard the phrase (in evaluation a man’s female date), “is she the best he can do?”  She doesn’t get directly into the problem of upward affiliation, as George Gilder did in his 1986 book “Men and Marriage”.  (The antithesis is "aesthetic realism", a buzzword sometimes heard in the 70s.)  But it’s apparent (or at least plausible) that if the process is seen as acceptable, social deterioration can occur and a society, under the guise of enforcing “personal responsibility”, can start turning out its less fortunate or “weaker” citizens, perhaps tending toward eventual fascism.

In fact, the “ego” issue – the desire earlier in life to become a musician and composer – for which I do and did have some legitimate talent – raised as deeper issue – of attracting attention (particularly in public) without actually having a personal stake in (or responsibility for) others – a concept that other social scientists call “generativity”.  She does deal with this somewhat in her discussion of “fruitfulness”, and her somewhat general analysis of the way childless relationships (including homosexual ones) can contribute to future social capital. It's important that people without children are often expected to contribute to family life in other ways, such as with eldercare (recently becoming a bigger issue with lower birth rates) and sometimes helping raise siblings' or other relatives' children.  Family responsibility goes way beyond accountability for what happens "in the bedroom".  The capacity to form and keep "real relationships" related to actual need and maybe complementarity becomes itself a moral matter, just as its occurrence helps give others areas in which they not remain "competitive" all the time. 

Here is a YouTube video from Yale Divinity School of Farley’s lecture “Desires, Loves and Reasons”.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Puzzle books: a new experience for me, at least

Today, a puzzle author at a local church was selling a self-published puzzle book that looked like an exercise in encryption.

There are about fifty pages with letters, numbers or characters in different fonts. The characters are to be collected into eighteen questions by “font”, and then certain worksheets are to be filled in that lead one to solve a puzzle.  It sort of reminded me of the progressive clues of a Clive Cussler novel (like the Dirk Pitt novel “Atlantis Found” (1999), or maybe “Sahara”, which became a movie).

The formal title of the book is “Trinity Presbyterian Church: Puzzle Book 2012”, with ISBN 978-1475286144. The author is Doug Gardner. The proceeds from sale of the book are intended to help fund a mission trip to Belize  (Central America) soon this summer (link).  Someone who solves the puzzle can win a quilt.

The website supporting the puzzle is “Octo-Puzzle”.  The email prefix is “info” for contact. I hope the author puts is on Amazon.  That's one way to sell.  

As for Cussler, I read the “Atlantis” book in 2000.  At writer’s conferences, in Minneapolis, where I was living then, there was debate over whether new authors offering “thriller” or “espionage” novels had the luxury of offering introductions set in the distant past and a long slow build-up of mystery.  Conventional wisdom is that the unproven fiction writer has to introduce an existential crisis on the first page to keep the reader turning pages.  I disagree!

Pictures (mine): The National Security Agency, NE of Laurel MD (yes, you can take outdoor pictures); inside the museum of cryptography. The NSA will build a new center in Utah to spy on all of us.  

Friday, June 08, 2012

NatGeo publishes major article (and warning) on solar superstorms; also, a book on spectacular scenic drives

I’ve noted on a couple other blogs the disturbing June 2012 issue of National Geographic, with its cover story “Solar Super Storms: How they could impact our high-tech world”, on p. 38, by Timothy Ferris.

The writer explains how stars are made of plasma, another phase of matter, and explains the mechanics of sunspots and solar storms, leading to coronal mass ejections.

It appears that electric utilities have so far done little to ground their infrastructure from the possible effects of a really big storm, the last of which occurred in 1859, came in two waves, and squashed the Earth’s magnetosphere to one-tenth its normal depth.  The other large events occurred in 1989 (Quebec) and 1921.

However, experts can detect the likelihood of major CME’s about four days in advance.  If a massive and long-lasting power grid outage is going to occur (especially in more polar latitudes), how will politicians tell the populace to prepare?  Will they even try.  Or will a president say, "prepare yourselves: you're past way of life will end forever in 72 hours"?

Attention to space weather sounds as critical a public policy issue as climate change. 

Very large CME’s could even disable electronics in some cars and computers, even if disconnected.  (But probably not as much as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, from a high altitude nuclear blast, or possibly from ground microwave weapons supposedly possessed only by the military.

National Geographic is also selling a $10 book “The World’s Most Scenic Drives: 101 Spectacular Trips”, Barbara A. Noe as Senior Editor, 128 pages. Locally, the Blue Ridge Parkway made the list.  The inside front cover has a photo of a bizarre tunnel in Taiwan.  Look for this in your supermarket. 

Related: Book by Lawrence E. Joseph, reviewed here Nov. 9, 2010. 

Friday, June 01, 2012

Sarkisian, Gerstel: "Nuclear Family Values, Extended Family Values"

Authors: Natalia Sarkisian, and Naomi Gerstel

Title: “Nuclear Family Values, Extended Family Values: The Power of Race, Class and Gender

Publication: Routledge, 2012: ISBN 978-0-415-80841-5, paper, 74 pages, indexed, six chapters

This booklet is part of the publisher’s  and University Readers’ “Social Issues Collection”.  It is like a sociology class primer, with each chapter posing discussing questions.

The authors (from Boston College and the University of Massachusetts) advance a theory that our debate on “family values” has become bifurcated.
There has developed a tendency among liberals and conservatives (for different ideological reasons) to promote the idea of (usually heterosexual) marriage and the social approbation for it, while often neglecting the role of extended family and kinkeeping.

But in fact, the “natural family” movement emphasizes the importance of kinship groups sharing common values. 

The authors note that in many social groups, unmarried people often do more of the caregiving for the elderly.  In lower income and racial or ethnic minorities, this may happen more out of “need and reciprocity”.  The authors also write that “social policies that focus on nuclear families and overlook extended family obligations may introduce, reproduce, or even increase gender, racial/ethnic, and class inequalities.”

There is an implication of another moral debate, of the individual, when he or she is responsible for others.  It involves a lot more than just engaging in acts that can produce children.  What, then, is “marriage” really for?  Is it a culmination of a socialization process that really applies to everyone anyway?