Relationships: More Than Just Morality; Ice Is Also Water

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You will learn a bit about my context, and my bias, in the people I reference and the areas of my focus. I say that knowing I have blind spots and I am open to listening and learning more. I attempt to draw thought from many sources, a variety of people and tell myself that I should continue to be reforming as said, better than I ever could, by Chuck DeGroat in his article What in the world does it mean to be “Reformed”?

I think hearing how others process matters will be helpful and healthy as we discuss challenging topics and I would welcome hearing about who you are reading and listening to while wrestling with these challenging topics.

Morality is a set of principles concerning the distinction of what is right and wrong; good and bad behavior. Thoughts and convictions about morality guide our relationships and are connected to one’s context and personality; different people perceive the importance and meaning of morality differently. We would do well to keep this in mind when having difficult discussions, trying to hear and understand others, in our faith community and beyond.

In a recent presentation by Dr. Heather Looy, she explained that in Biblical OT times, sin was often tied to uncleanliness and sexual sin got strongly associated with the emotion of disgust. This view of sexual difference, as a morality issue, can lead to dehumanizing those whom others are disgusted with because they are not the same. The moral foundation became purity but God has repeatedly said ‘I got this’ you don’t have to sacrifice animals, you don’t have to give penance, I love you sacrificially and that is enough! My grace is sufficient for you and you don’t have to hold others to the judgement of perceived sin and morality.

I’ve spent a couple of decades of my life as a biologist and I cannot square my observance of God’s great diversity in creation, the vast mystery of the universe; from the small of microbes that we cannot see to the massive expanse of solar systems that continue to grow… with the smallness of categories of sex and gender to a binary male and female.

Ursula Franklin, a physicist and public speaker, draws a distinction between prescriptive and holistic systematics. The first is what we use to describe and categorize things when we break them up into smaller, individualized pieces. Holistic is a way of describing things in connective, multifaceted, and multidisciplinary ways.

Franklin sees the influence of prescriptive technology on the development of systems such as the sciences. Science started with observation, whole systems analysis and natural history but as technology developed, it got broken up into smaller pieces to study specialized topics. Research, disciplines, and ideas became more reductive, which has been helpful in some ways, but has not meant that it is the only way. The lens of the microscope only tells us so much, while the wide lens of a telescope is just as important, as is the connectedness of everything in between.

The scientist part of me gets it, we want to know everything, but that is one of the beauties of science and faith walking hand in hand. Faith can tell the scientist it’s ok; we can survive the not knowing… there is peace and beauty in the mystery.

Science might get lost in the complexity sometimes but, like in so many other disciplines, this only leads to more questions, more exploration, learning, and wonder. Very rarely, if ever, in religion, the arts, humanities or sciences do we arrive at simple single or dualist absolutes. Mary Catherine Bateson says the commonality to the Abrahamic religions is the sense of wonder that leads to praise. Natural variance is one of the wondrous beauties that we see reflected in creation and in our own different ways of being human.

Poet and theologian, Padraig O’Tuama, has an artistic take on relational being, reflecting on a poem by Kei Miller called Book of Genesis. He asks; can we focus on one word of the creation story? Let. Can we continue saying “and let, and let and let…” My apprehension is that focusing on rules about literal binary categories will do the opposite of “let.” Our worship and church structures should reflect the diversity of creation, the complexity of fellowship around a table. Relational justice is about hospitality, equality, inclusiveness, not the boundaries we make to put people into categories and social constructs. Imagine the great Creator expressing it beautifully to us through the song Crowded Table, by The Highwomen.

In my attempt to piece some of it together, I think relational justice would be better served if we could humbly say, we might be wrong; we can’t impart final judgement, so how can we instead love unconditionally? Thomas Merton describes (No Man Is An Island.  NY: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1955, 168) relational love this way, “The beginning of this love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

If we want relational justice to flow like water, and not have our discipleship and pastoral care come across as cold as ice, we need to find deeper inclusion of diversity and better ways to embrace both/and.

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Thanks for sharing this, Jesse! I think our binary and dualistic way of thinking and perceiving things and people as either right or wrong, in or out, good or bad, etc. has contributed greatly to countless divisions and conflicts within the church. Especially on the subject of sexual orientation and gender identity, I think we need and would benefit from practicing a lot more humility and compassion along with a much less judgment.