Committed to the Details

One commitment that pretty much has to be particular…

So, as mentioned in my previous post, I had the pleasure of spending last weekend at a graduate conference put on by the Berkeley Institute. The conversations and content were quite rich, and so I imagine that this will be the first post of several on the topic. The theme of the conference was “What is good work?” However, the question that held strongest sway in the panels, talks, and conversations was a bit more specific; namely, “What does it mean to undertake academic work when you have antecedent value commitments?” The vast majority of attendees and presenters at the conference were Christian, but it remained an open point of discussion how much the conference wanted to speak of this question of “antecedent value commitments” in religious—and specifically Christian—terms.  The overall milieu of the conference could perhaps be best described as crypto-Christian.

I greatly respect the Institute’s decision to sustain the tension between Commitment, conceived abstractly, and commitments, the nitty-gritty details of each individual’s particular convictions. After all, the Berkeley Institute aims to serve the larger Berkeley community by creating a space for dialogue and by attempting to broaden academe’s conceptions of what “counts” as knowledge. The conference attendees also represented a broad swath of Christianity, including the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions, though the distinctive nature of these traditions figured somewhat less into the conversations at the conference. I imagine that this was because most of us worked in departments where we were one of the few—or the only—active religious practitioners; as a result, merely being around folks who were in the same boat as us felt like discovering we weren’t the last dodo. At the same time, there’s no doubt that our particular religious traditions affected the precise nature of our commitments and, as a result, the nature of the work that we were pursuing.

One of us, one of us…

But at what point in a conversation is it useful to start saying things like “As a Christian,” “As a Catholic,” or “In my tradition”? At what point does it become necessary to acknowledge differences as well as similarities? Perhaps most importantly, what’s the cost of this type of acknowledgement or its absence? Part of the value of a tradition is that it generates a sort of “thick” culture to incubate art, thought, and experience—which necessarily loses some of that thickness as it becomes more diverse and pluralistic. At the same time, the fact that nearly all of the conference attendees worked within secular academia—a de facto rejection of the academic “Benedict Option” provided by religious educational institutions—suggested that we all found benefits in the broader conversations that could occur within the “thin” but rigorous disciplinary structures of our respective fields.

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“That’s the point of the gospel…”

So long as I’m on the topic of “purity culture” and its truly unholy rhetoric about women and sexuality, here’s a must-share video that relates a particularly horrifying iteration of the “damaged goods” narrative and shows how far that narrative is from the gospel’s claim that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”:

I can’t help but wonder if the growing prevalence of this type of destructive rhetoric isn’t, ironically, a result of the increasing absence of a notion of original sin from much of Christian culture. After all, the purity culture rhetoric depends on the assumption that some of us are—and always have been—”pure” while some of us are—and presumably always will be—”dirty.” In many ways, it’s just another version of our making people into “monsters” to convince ourselves of our own inherent goodness. 

Sex, Shame, and Purity Culture

English: see Purity ring

Purity Ring

For most of my life, I’ve felt like I had two choices when it came to expressing my sexuality: I could be a dirty (as in sinful, impure, unwanted) girl or I could be a dirty (as in sexy, desirable, objectified) girl. Some choice, huh? It seemed no matter what way I turned, sex and shame were linked together.

There was a pervasive assumption in the Evangelical culture in which I grew up—one that still, unfortunately, persists in some areas—that women didn’t really have sexual desires, only men did. I even remember reading in some book from my parents’ bookshelf (the title is long forgotten) that “Women give sex for love. Men give love for sex.” But something must  have been wrong with me because once I turned 15, I discovered that pesky “desire” that I wasn’t supposed to have—and it wasn’t just for “love,” it was most definitely for sex. Of course, this wasn’t what women were supposed to want, this was what men were supposed to want and were constantly on the prowl to coerce, cheat, or force out of women. But I wanted it—and the girl who “wants it” is dirty. Furthermore, because of my upbringing, sexual desire just wasn’t thinkable for me outside of the male gaze (which might explain why the only model of desire that I could really find to explain how I felt was that of gay men).

The outworking of these two ideas—the “dirty” girl and the lascivious man—in my adolescent and adult life wasn’t very pretty. Some of my earliest fantasies were rape fantasies because in them my sexual desire could be mediated through the figure of the violent, desiring man and I could feel a little less guilty about my desires (since I “had no control”) though the feeling of dirtiness remained. By the time I’d hit adulthood, the association between sex and shame was so strong that—unable to escape the pleasure I felt in sex—I simply began to masochistically associate shame with pleasure. Eventually, I could only be with men who fully objectified and humiliated me: they had to be in control because sexual desire ultimately “belonged” to them—I couldn’t think my sexuality outside of my role as sexual object for male consumption—and I’d grown perversely attached to the idea of being “dirty,” a coping mechanism that developed when I realized that I’d never be one of the “pure.” Continue reading

Why Bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 9.46.01 PMNo one wants the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased Boston Marathon bomber. While a funeral director has agreed to bury him, no cemeteries will take the body. Even though some individuals have offered their own burial plots, cities have put the breaks on the body being placed within their limits. It doesn’t even appear that his homeland is willing to receive the body. Some of the concerns are pragmatic: cemeteries fear that the grave will be vandalized and are concerned about protests and boycotts that could harm their business. But there is, I think, something deeper at work: we don’t like the idea of Tamerlan being like one of us, one of the great crowd of humanity that lies underneath the ground or which will one day come to rest there. We don’t want him near our loved ones or near our own future resting places because we don’t want to admit that he shares anything in common with us.

However, one of the corporeal works of mercy in Catholicism is the burying of the dead—not just the “good” dead, but the dead, period. But why? Because burial is not—at heart—about a recognition of the deceased’s “goodness.” Funerals and memorial services may often focus on this, but it’s not the real point. We bury the dead out of recognition of the basic dignity of human life and death. Every human life and death—no exceptions. But this recognition can be difficult precisely because it is so tempting to try and exclude from the idea of the “human” those who do things that we rightly recognize as  “inhuman.”

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Who is my neighbor?

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In the wake of the tragic bombings in Boston, I was moved, as were so many others, by the outpouring of support that fellow Bostonians, MA residents, and visitors offered to each other. From those who immediately ran towards the carnage to help the wounded to those who offered their homes as a space of refuge to the displaced and hurting, the best side of humanity emerged in the wake of the violent exhibition of its worst side.

I’d been debating about whether to go up to the daily mass on my campus and then I received an email informing the community that the mass would be focused around praying for those harmed in Boston. Well, that settles it, I thought, I’m going to go. Right below the email about the mass time, however, was a forwarded email from a friend who had just learned that the academic job he’d interviewed for had been given to someone else. With the higher ed market as it was, this might well spell the end of a career in academe. Now, obviously, there’s no comparison here: losing your life or your child or your legs to a bomb is infinitely worse than not getting the job you want. Apples to oranges, mountains to molehills. At the same time, I knew that my friend was hurting and that I could give him something that I couldn’t give to those in Boston (which is relatively far from where I live): direct, personal support. Should I go to mass or should I call and comfort him?

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