Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Faith, reason, and feminist movement: Letter to Boo Su-Lyn

Dear Su-Lyn,

Your sharing about your own faith journey (Why I left the faith, The Malay Mail Online, 7 November 2014) is very much appreciated and I trust that it has helped you to make better sense of this mysterious journey we call life.

I noted at least 6 impressions you have developed about Christianity in your sharing: (1) Believing in God gives no satisfactory explanation for suffering and death, (2) immorality in the Old Testament doesn't make sense, (3) church's teaching on sexual purity is guilt-tripping and seems harmful to the public, (4) we can live without God, (5) atheist has the freedom to think, and (6) the Bible is anti-women. And you mentioned that your biggest relief for leaving the faith is that you don't have to reconcile your idea of women's rights with the sexist notions in Christianity. 

I would like to share some thoughts on these 6 impressions which may or may not be of interest to you. Nonetheless, it's at least a platform to initiate some conversations on the faith with you.

1. Believing in God gives no satisfactory explanation for suffering and death [therefore it is not rational to believe?]
I learned that the existence of suffering, death, and evil is a major stumbling block to Christians. Often believers cannot give a good account for their existence and the hurt that come with them. 

All my grandparents have died, except my maternal grandpa. One day, he will die too. The same goes for my parents, my wife, and my good friends. And eventually each of us will face our own death. So if there is a good and able God, why would such thing be allowed?

As you have mentioned, some think these bad things happen because they are in God's will and his higher ways. Frankly, I don't know. What I do know is that this ignorance has little to say about whether the belief in God is rational or not. 

If you ask me to elaborate, I don't think I'm able to. But Alvin Plantinga seems to have a good way of explaining:
"[A Christian] might want very badly to know why God permits evil in general or some particular evil---the death or suffering of someone close to him, or perhaps his own suffering... [S]uppose that the [Christian] admits he just doesn't know why God permits evil. What follows from that? Very little of interest. Why suppose that if God does have a good reason for permitting evil, the [Christian] would be the first to know? Perhaps God has a good reason, but that reason is too complicated for us to understand. Or perhaps He has not revealed it for some other reason. The fact that the [Christian] doesn't know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the [Christian], but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God."
(Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974], 10.)
He also wrote that we don't really know many things in life yet we have no problem believing in them:
"The [Christian] believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn't know what that reason is. But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational? Take an analogy. I believe that there is connection of some sort between Paul's deciding to mow the lawn and the complex group of bodily movements involved in so doing. But what connection, exactly? Does his decision cause these bodily movements? If so, how? [...] Exactly  what is the relation between his deciding to mow the lawn---which decision does not seem to be a bodily event at all---and his actually doing so? No one, I suspect, knows the answer to these questions. But does it follow that it is irrational or unreasonable to believe that this decision has something to do with that series of motions? Surely not. In the same way the [Christian's] not knowing why God permits evil does not by itself show that he is irrational in thinking that God does indeed have a reason."
(Ibid, 11. Emphasis original.)
I don't know why I (or anyone for that matter) must die. I don't like not knowing. Yet one cannot reasonably conclude from there that therefore the belief in God is irrational. 

In the same way one cannot reasonably conclude that it is irrational to believe that you are reading this right now solely because he/she cannot explain how your decision to read this has caused your eyes and mind to process (agree or disagree) with what is written here.

That said, death is not the end in Christianity. There will be future resurrection. Hence, death though painful to many, is situated within the context of Jesus' victory over it. Death has been conquered.

"The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 15:56-57)

2. Immorality in the Old Testament doesn't make sense.
Indeed, the immorality in the Old Testament is senseless. Immorality whether those recorded in the Old Testament or reported in today's newspapers doesn't make sense. I don't understand how ISIS militants are able to inflict atrocity on another human being.

Neither can I comprehend how the anti-Christianity Fete de la Raison (Festival of Reason) championed by Jacques Hébert, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, and Antoine-Francois Momoro to celebrate "reason", "philosophy", and "truth" could be part of the 'Reign of Terror' that massacred tens of thousands of people, including celebrated feminist activist Olympe de Gouges.  

I remember someone who once taught me that there is a difference between 'descriptive' and 'prescriptive' statement. When we read the Old Testament (or any military history for that matter), we should learn to discern what is descriptive (recorded events that do not instruct us to act) and prescriptive (recorded events that instruct us to act).

To give a New Testament example, Jesus' teaching on loving our neighbors is a clear instruction which is prescriptive. But his walking on water is not an instruction to his followers to walk on water. He didn't instruct them to do that (even Simon Peter's once-off experience was requested by Simon himself and not commanded by Jesus, Matt. 14:28-29).

Recognizing the difference between 'descriptive' and 'prescriptive' would help us to discern stories like Lot's offering of his daughters to be gang-raped is a recorded event which does not instruct us to act. It was merely an event that took place.

Come to think of it, the Old Testament doesn't sugar-coat immorality that humans are capable of. It is not a history written by victors. It doesn't shy away from recording the failure of Israel's most authoritative prophet (Moses' impatience and faithlessness) and most celebrated king (David's adultery, abuse of power, and murder). It captures the worst of humanity as it is. Realism in its starkness.

3.  Church's teaching on sexual purity is guilt-tripping and seems harmful to the public
I have problem with this too! In fact I have problems with the church's teaching on many other things such as the command not to be greedy, covetous, non-forgiving, etc, and the instructions that we must love and help everyone (including those who hurt us), and look after orphans and widows in their distress.

Failing to do all these at all times make me feel that I'm always inadequate, always in the lack, always sub-Christian. Suck big time... 

I think that's what Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin." (Rom. 3:20)

Yet I also remember that Christianity doesn't stop at guilt. Rather, it points to redemption through Jesus Christ. As Paul himself reflected, "[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Rom. 3:23-24)

This is not to say that therefore people can go on sinning (Paul himself thought of this too in Rom. 6:1-4). Neither am I saying that churches are exploiting guilt to point out the importance of redemption.

All I'm saying is this: If Christianity is about God redeeming the whole creation from sin and corruption through Jesus, then it would be deviant for churches to deny this or to teach something else.

4. We can live without God.
Again, I think you are right on this. Many people have been living without any reference to God their whole life. And they do fine. More on this below.

5. Atheist has the freedom to think.
Definitely atheists have the freedom to think. Anyone without mental impairment has such freedom regardless whether they are religious or not. Yet in our modern world, much of what we take for granted does not come from atheists' thinking. Rather, they are the progeny of people who believe in God.

Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton are not atheist but their thought laid a foundation for modern scientific thinking (see John Losee, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science [UK: Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2001], 63-85).

John Locke is not an atheist but his articulation of humans' relationship with each other under God gives rise to the notion of equality and rights. "Many also express admiration for John Locke's seventeenth-century works as a major source for modern democratic theory, seemingly without the slightest awareness that Locke explicitly based his entire thesis on Christian doctrines concerning moral equality." (Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success [USA: Random House, 2005], 76.) As John Dunn elaborates,
"Jesus Christ (and Saint Paul) may not appear in person in the text of [Locke's book] Two Treatises but their presence can hardly be missed when we come upon the normative creaturely equality of all men in virtue of their shared species-membership... In seventeenth-century England, if the gospel could only be forgotten (which it pretty readily was), there were no problems at all about justifying inequality... (As for giving reasons, our social structure will do that for us.) At the biological level the axiom of equality is whole inert socially, and in pre-industrial Western civilization it could hardly be a conclusion of sociological reason. Far from being extrinsic, the theology was the sole possible significant locus for equality."
(John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the Two Treatises of Government [UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969], p.99-100. Emphasis added. See also Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke's Political Thought [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002].)
In fact, the notion of natural rights is grounded in medieval Christian discussion:
"The idea of natural rights grew up---perhaps could only have grown up in the first place---in a religious culture that supplemented rational argumentation about human nature with a faith in which humans were seen as children of a caring God."
(Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001], 343.)
Luc Ferry, an atheist, likewise recognizes Christianity as the ideological impetus which gave rise to modern democracy:
"In direct contradiction [to Greek philosophy], Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity---an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance... At times hostile to the Church, the French Revolution---and, to some extent, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man---owes to Christianity an essential part of its egalitarian message."
(Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe [USA: HarperCollins, 2010], 72, 74.)
Adam Smith is not an atheist but his thinking provides the seed for modern economics (see Paul Oslington, ed., Adam Smith as Theologian [USA: Routledge, 2011]). Max Weber famously pointed out in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that it was Christians' thinking and lifestyle that greatly influenced capitalism.

Ideas such as modern scientific method, egalitarian democratic principles, and economics are forged from the religious concepts derived from Christian scripture and tradition.

This does not mean belief in God has consistently champion equality and human rights. I'm merely saying that the genealogical account for these concepts is one that traces its root to Christian thinking, not one that emerges from atheistic ground.

In fact, it is from the Christians' thought that feminist movement came about, which leads to my next point.

6. The Bible is anti-women [the idea of women's rights doesn't go along well with the sexist notions in Christianity].
No denial that Christians have over the centuries used the Bible to suppress women's rights. This is historical record that no one can dismiss. So I share your disgust over men who exploit the scriptural passages to subdue women.

However, I also know that there is another side to the history of the feminist movement: It was Christianity that enabled concepts such as equality and women emancipation to emerge.

Take for instance the first wave of feminism. It was Mary Wollstonecraft's book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 that initiated modern feminist movement (see Valerie Sanders, 'First Wave Feminism', in The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism, ed. Sarah Gamble [UK: Routledge, 2006], 15-24). In it, Wollstonecraft calls women to cooperate with God if they are to be freed from "tyranny of man":
"In treating... of the manners of women, let us, disregarding sensual arguments, trace what we should endeavor to make them in order to cooperate...with the Supreme Being." (Quoted in Barbara Taylor, 'The religious foundations of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism,' in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 99.) 
At one point, Wollstonecraft boldly asserts, "I build my belief on the perfection of God." This theological conviction contributes significantly to her point on women's rational capability. As Daniel Schierenbeck comments, "This assertion allows Wollstonecraft to build her argument for the improvement of women's rational understanding..." (Daniel Schierenbeck, 'Reason and Romance: Rethinking Romantic-Era Fiction Through Jane West's The Advantages of Education,' in Enlightening Romanticism, Romancing the Enlightenment: British Novels from 1750 to 1832, ed. Miriam L. Wallace [UK: Ashgate, 2009], 75).

To Wollstonecraft, women deserve education because of their ability to attain truth about God. So wrote Natalie Taylor: "Wollstonecraft argues there are innate principles of truth. Not only does she encourage her readers to contemplate God, but she argues that human beings can attain divine wisdom." (Natalie Fuehrer Taylor, The Rights of Woman as Chimera: The Political Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft [UK: Routledge, 2007], 89.)

Barbary Taylor summarizes Wollstonecraft's principal mission in this way: "[T]o liberate women from masculine tyranny not in order that they should become free-floating agents, stripped of all obligatory ties, but in order to bind them more closely to their God." (Barbara Taylor, 'The religious foundations of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism,' in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 116.)

Many women similarly inspired by their belief in God emerged to champion gender equality: Olympe de Gouges, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Hays, the women in the Quakers movement, etc (see the essays in section 7 of Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor, Women, Gender and Enlightenment [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005], 410-518).

Christian activism for women emancipation is not confined to Europe alone. Take modern China as example. It was the Christian missionaries who spearheaded the campaign to abolish foot-binding and so led to the liberation of thousands of Chinese women from this torturous centuries-old social norm. As Kwame Anthony Appiah chronicled:
"The Chinese knew foot-binding produced suffering and debility. Foot-binding was done to young girls, crushing the four smaller toes under the sole and compressing the rear of the anklebone. After months and years the pain diminished, but walking was usually difficult... Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet because that was the normal thing to do.

"The movement that eventually turned the Chinese around began with Christian missionaries in the 1860s. In 1875, the Rev. John Macgowan of the London Missionary Society, who had campaigned for some 15 years against foot-binding, called a meeting of Christian women in Xiamen. He asked them to sign a pledge to abandon foot-binding. Nine women did. Eventually women joined the Quit-Footbinding Society in larger numbers, pledging not to bind the feet of their daughters and some choosing to undergo the often painful process of unbinding themselves. Then they were joined, in 1894, by the Unbound Foot Association, which the Confucian scholar and reformist leader Kang Youwei helped found. It eventually had more than 10,000 members."
Rev. Mcgowan's conviction to abolish foot-binding is deeply rooted in his faith. As he remarked,
"We became more and more convinced that mere human argument had no power to solve it [footbinding]. What was needed was a Divine force to master and control it, and that force was the Lord Jesus Christ. With Him alone lay the great secret of the solution of a problem that neither sage nor saint had ever been able to unravel."
(Quoted in He Qi, 'The Changing Other: Footbinding, China, and the West, 1300-1911,' [Master's thesis, National University of Singapore, 2012], 45.)
In summarizing the impact of Christianity to women's emancipation in China, Fan Hong writes,
"The origin and development of the Chinese women's emancipation movement cannot be understood without first placing it in the context of the changing image of the female body, and this fundamental change in Chinese culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cannot be understood itself without an examination of the influence of the Christian missionaries and their powerful impact on Chinese women's physical education and education."

"It was Christian missionaries, rather than radical critics, who effectively challenged traditional Chinese culture and created the opportunity for women to free themselves, first physically and then mentally."

"In 1895 ten influential Christian women of different nationalities formed a natural-foot society and, in order to request support from Empress Dowager Cixi, drew up a memorial to which 'nearly all foreign ladies in the Far East added their names'. The memorial is believed to have eventually reached the Palan, and it is said that the Empress Dowager finally issued the Anti-footbinding Edict of 1902 'after sustained pressure from foreign women of various nationalities'."
(Fan Hong, Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom: The Liberation of Women's Bodies in Modern China [UK: Frank Cass, 1997], 43, 50, 57. Emphasis added. For other sources, see Kathryn Sikkink, 'Historical Precursors to Modern Campaigns for Women's Human Rights: Campaigns Against Footbinding and Female Circumcision,' in Women's Human Rights: The International and Comparative Law Casebook, ed. Susan Deller Ross [USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008], 482-486 and Alison R. Drucker, 'The Influence of Western Women on the Anti-Footbinding Movement 1840-1911,' Historical Reflections 8.3 [1981]:179-199.)
Women in modern India likewise achieved liberation from sati (widow-burning) due to Christian missionary efforts. In Clare Midgley's account,
"Between 13 February 1829 and 29 March 1830 a total of 15 separate groups of women from around England sent petitions to Parliament calling on it to abolish sati... This step into direct engagement with parliamentary politics was taken not by women who identified as political radicals or supporters of the 'rights of women', but rather by women associated with the evangelical missionary movement. The petitions formed part of a broader campaign against sati that was linked to garnering female support for the foreign missionary enterprise and also led to English women being drawn into organising the dispatch of the first single women to India to provide Christian education for Indian girls and women."
(Clare Midgley, Feminism and Empire: Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790-1865 [UK: Routledge, 2007], 65. Emphasis added.)
In India itself, the missionary William Carey initiated the campaign against sati.
"The Serampore Christian missionaries, headed by William Carey, had started a movement for the abolition of sati in 1799... He prepared a statistical record of widow burning and having witnessed a horrible scene of widow burning was able to present a vivid description of it... In 1802 Carey conducted an inquiry into the practice of sati and gave his recommendations for its abolition. He organized open discussions on the subject and arranged a debate in 1803 at Fort William College."

"The efforts of the Christian missionaries to eradicate social evils in India though did not always achieve immediate success, yet these helped to popularize an ideology that was conducive to the growth of humanitarianism in India."
(B. S. Chandrababu and L. Thilagavathi, Woman: Her History and Her Struggle for Emancipation [India: Bharathi Puthakalayam, 2009], 325, 327. For details, see chapter 10 of Arvind Sharma, Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays [India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988], 57-65.)
In Singapore, there are local Christians who spearhead initiatives to help marginalized women. Two of them are pastor Andrew and his wife Grace Choo. Both of them founded AG Home in 1998 to help troubled teenage girls. Some of them are pregnant and don't know where to turn to. AG Home accepts them and help them to get back on their feet.

In Malaysia, when my very good friend Steven Sim started to get involved in politics, he made gender equality one of his top priorities. Under his leadership, the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) became the first local government that has a gender responsive budgeting (GRB) policy. Now that he is a Member of Parliament, he continues to exert his influence to bring about a more egalitarian society (his writings can be read here, here, and here).

When I ask him what inspires his activism for gender equality, without hesitation he replies that it is the "Jewish prophetic tradition" mirrored through the life of Jesus Christ. In particular, the passage of Micah 6:8, "[W]hat does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Here is someone whose advocacy for equality is based on the Christian tradition.

Yes, the Bible has been used to suppress women. Yet there are two sides to the relationship between the Bible and women in history. As M. Christine Green reckons, "When it comes to the rights of women, Christianity is rife with dualities of subordination and liberation, equality and difference, sacrifice and virtue, creation and redemption." (M. Christine Green, 'Christianity and the rights of women,' in Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction, ed. John Witte, Jr. and Frank S. Alexander [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010], 303.)

Despite this ambivalence, history tells us that the modern feminist movement that upholds gender equality (which you identify with), abolished foot-binding and sati, and promoting humanitarianism around the world is conceived not in an atheistic lab but the womb of Christian discourse. Hence, I think your focus on the Bible being "anti-women" is skewed, not fair to history in all its sides.

Let's go back...
Now, let's go back to the notion that we can live without God. Many women in the past have lived through oppressive patriarchy, torturous social norms such as foot-binding and sati without emancipation. And as history testifies, once God came into the picture, their lives changed. These women discovered their dignity, they are regarded equally. Their emancipation is the result of Christianity working through the faithful in the contingency of history.

Can they live without God? Of course, they can. But I suspect they very much prefer that God came into the picture than not even if they themselves don't personally believe in the faith.

When I started writing, I didn't foresee this letter to be so lengthy. It shows how weighty your reflection is!

Anyway, I don't know if you will read this. If you do, I would like to say that I don't see this letter as the last word on anything. Rather, it's my attempt to join you in exercising our freedom to think.

Best regards,
Joshua Woo