I was extremely provoked by a comment made last night be Phyllis Tickle about the ‘Emergence of the Church.’ Admittedly I do not have any substantive experience with the “Emergent Church,” nor do I know if the two are interrelated. She spoke very briefly at the Transforming Theology conference last night at the Claremont School of Theology, the first campus I visited in my summer o’ wandering, so that is why I mention it here as opposed to my regular blog. What she said is that about every 500 years or so, the Chruch goes thru an “emergence” of thought and belief. I have also heard about this in New Monastic circles, pertaining to monastic movements and shifts within the praxis of the Church.
More specifically, these foundational shifts force the Church (and coincidentally, the world) to consider practically everything in light of new and profoundly revelatory understandings. Call these “wine skin revolutions” if it makes more sense, I believe them all to be the same. Of course, we must consider where the wine ends and the skin begins; which orthodoxies are sound and which must be revised. After all, as my dear friend Chris Haw looks at it, “We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water.”
What Phyllis Tickle had said is that in our particular emergence the question we face is quite significant indeed. Facing recent developments and understandings, the question is nothing less than “what is it to be human?” She mentioned this in light of the debate surrounding the tragic circumstances around Terry Schiavo. This might seem a bit irrelevant at first glance, but if you think about it, it demands a very special and critical discernment for our modern era. Descartes believed that if we think, then we ‘are,’ but how are we to understand one’s self-awareness when we cannot ascertain cognitive responsiveness (if we can’t tell you’re thinking, does that mean you “aren’t”)? Of course this challenges not only our grasp of the scientific understanding of life itself, but also philosophical assumptions such as Descartes’.
This has incredibly far-reaching implications especially for theology and ethics, which is why I found it so compelling to consider. A proper and consistent response to the question of the ultimate foundation of consciousness would be applicable most significantly to our pro-life ethic in the Church. It would address when life begins (conception, first breath, or even the age of reason), as well as when it should end (how would it affect our treatment of mentally handicapped, sufferers of Alzheimer’s, etc.). Indeed, we face a most profound challenge in considering what it is to be human.
Furthermore, pouring from the previous thesis, we face a second very important question, given the latest developments in sexual ethics and identity, which is “what is it to be a man or a woman?” I actually believe that this question has been wrestled with before in our history (both in the Church and the world), but we have yet failed to resolve the issue sustainably or consistently. In my very brief experience in college so far, I have been exposed (quite refreshingly) to a plethora of orientations as well as biological realities. To think that the question of sexuality is restricted to deliberations between man or woman or homo v. hetero is to neglect the full spectrum of sexual identities. Especially in Hawaii, I have been able to catch a glimpse of the multiplicity of varying sexualities and struggles (consider a biological male born with varying degrees of each genital system who is attracted to other biological males, or a transgender individual who considers themselves bisexual, to think of just a couple realities).
The notion of “traditional” gender roles and realities must also be faced in this new emergence of the church. To be a “man” or a “woman” is not at all to necessarily embody many of our expectations of masculinity or femininity. We are coming to the point of realization that gender is not wedded to one’s biology, nor, perhaps, should it be (consider the idea of a ‘petite’ Joan of Arc, or a ‘manly’ Francis of Assisi). This is coming from a man who was thought effeminate (to use more appropriate terminology) by his peers in the Army for not having had sex until after the second decade of his life.
We must deliberate that pivotal question (what it is to be human, to physically and spiritually embody life itself) right alongside the other (what it is to be man or woman, to physically and spiritually embody gender), or face arriving at a disjointed understanding of either or both. It is entirely too late in our collective social being to hide behind the excuse of ignorance. Especially the Church, with its penchant for the rejected and outcast, must courageously and confidently discern a theologically consistent ethic of sexuality. To consider heterosexuality (as bound to biological realities) as normative will not stand the test of time. This does not merely challenge our understanding of our own realities of life here on Earth, but of the very One who endowed us with both life and sexuality.