Is The Thickness of Two Short Planks A Forgotten Divine Attribute?
May 19, 2010
None of the systematic theologies I own include `being as thick as two short planks' in their treatments of the divine attributes; but it appears that there is a trend today to rectify this neglected aspect of God's being. Bear with me while I explain.
I remember while at Cambridge in the mid-80s, a cartoon appeared in the university student newspaper depicting weirdy-beardy students from the Sidgwick Site (the home of the Arts faculties), with the caption `The world is text; we move from sign to sign.' The point was twofold: first, to poke fun at the pretentious jargon of those for whom every other word was `semiotic' or one of its cognates. Such were apparently spending their time at college in an effort to learn how to state the obvious using language that completely obscured pretty simple ideas, and to do so in tones such that even the most banal statement might sound like a profound and ground-breaking insight. Most have, presumably, gone on either to teach in university Arts faculties, where their inability to communicate would be considered a strength and not a weakness; or to write those easy-to-follow manuals for IKEA flatpack furniture and eastern European digital cameras.
The second point of the cartoon was to ridicule the notion that life could be reduced to language, a very trendy position at the time and one which is taking a terribly long time to die. Without going in to the ins and outs of the theory, I have often wondered, for example, exactly how helpful it is to think of the Holocaust as `text' or a `linguistic construct.' It may be we need words to talk and write about such a thing; but instinct seems to indicate that there has to be more to it than that.
Words are interesting and powerful, no-one denies that. And one of the ways in which this is made clear is the way in which there are so many struggles about words and how they are used. Indeed, `political correctness' is, if nothing else, a movement about language: the disabled become `differently abled'; various racial epithets are outlawed, if not by the state then at least by the bounds of acceptable taste and convention; and, indeed, in striking a blow for that despised group, the middle aged male bald guy, I might suggest we replace `baldy', `chrome dome', `Mekon' (hey, that last one will test your knowledge of post-War British pop culture) and `helmet head' with `follicly challenged', `alternatively thatched', and the increasingly popular self-designation `Mature, intelligent male with youthful outlook and GSOH seeks lady (20-25) for friendship and perhaps more.'
There is, however, another aspect to the changing of language which is driven not so much by a desire to avoid hurting others but rather by the attempt to hide the full horror of certain situations. We are all aware of how this can be done. Sometimes it is done with reference to things that are not necessarily evil but which are not exactly good news: to close a loss-making factory might be `to rationalize resources;' to put a sick dog out of its misery might be `to put it to sleep.' Other times it can be clearly utilized to blunt or even invert the moral dimensions of an action: to argue for abortion is to be `pro-choice;' to kill off the elderly and the infirm is `euthanasia' or `mercy killing' or `death with dignity' (however one dies, I suspect the departure of life from a body can never be dignified, just more or less awful).
Well, so much for the way in which language has been used in general public discourse; what is really worrying is that some of this spin is now firmly established within the church. Two recent examples come to mind. First, there is the notorious case of Ergun Caner, of Liberty Theological Seminary. Caner allegedly invented whole swathes of his past in order to enhance his public profile and career. Most normal people would regard a cock and bull story concocted about growing up in Turkey and having a background in jihadi culture, if not actually true, then as being a pack of lies put forward for personal gain by playing on American evangelical fears about Islam. Not so, according to Elmer Towns, Dean of Liberty's School of Religion in a statement to Christianity Today: if Caner's story is not true, then it is just a case of the kind of `theological leverage' in which the school typically allows its faculty to engage.
So telling lies has now become theological leverage, and is acceptable once one has reached a certain rank in the Christian firmament? "What?" you say "Next thing you know, they'll be inventing new and trendy terms for adultery which blunt the moral force of that sin too, presumably not an ethical matter either, providing one is high enough up the evangelical hierarchy to be accountable to no-one." Well, funny you should mention that...... recently, I happened to come across someone talking about a new sin with which I was not familiar, the sin of relational mobility. Hmmm, I thought, sounds interesting. I wonder if that's what it's called when I roll over at night and accidentally whack my wife on the head with a flailing arm as I fight off some imagined sea serpent that has invaded my dreams? Or perhaps it's a cute way of referring to the typical husband's capacity for vanishing off the face of the earth when his wife wants to go the shops to choose some new wallpaper?
Wrong on both counts. As I investigated the conversation, the crime in question seemed to be nothing less than divorce based on adultery; to be blunt, the shattering of a marriage by illicit and explicit genital intercourse between two people outside the bonds of the marriage vows that had been taken. That's what the sin of 'relational mobility' apparently is. Nice way of putting it, nest'ce pas?
There are a number of things to notice about these two incidents. First, they typify the trendy obfuscation that has increasingly dogged our societies for twenty years or more. It reminds me of another Cambridge cartoon, depicting a scientist telling a friend that his dog had just died, or, to quote his words exactly, `entered a permanent mode of negative functionality.' Thus it is with pompous flannel: to call the telling of lies `theological leverage' or to describe the straightforward destruction of a marriage by the sexual betrayal of a spouse as `relational mobility' is a good, if obviously gutless and sleazy, way of hiding exactly what it is that has been done.
Secondly, as regards `relational mobility', it is interesting that the language itself was spouting from the lips of someone who seemed to need to cast everything from God to garbage disposal systems in `relational categories.' Yet, while the language used the word `relational', it actually served to depersonalize, derelationalize the whole thing. Tell me you've committed adultery, and I know you have had sex with someone you shouldn't, and thereby permanently damaged your relationship with your spouse, the one you promised to love, come hell or highwater, because, like some sexually incontinent rabbit, you couldn't keep it in your trousers. Tell me you've committed the sin of relational mobility, and as far as I am concerned, you might simply have hit the neighbour's fence post while parallel parking. Adultery carries long established weight which highlights exactly the sexually explicit nature of the betrayal of a loved one; 'relational mobility' is vacuous, self-serving, sleazy flannel.
Third, and not to put too fine a point on its, it's so utterly dishonest and completely bonkers, worthy of inclusion in the Encyclopedia Dissemblica under the entry for `Pretentious Jargon Used By the Sleazy to Avoid the Consequences of their Actions.' I cannot wait to see the new, evangelical translation of Mt. 5:27 for the emerging market: `I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with mobile intent has already committed relational mobility in his heart.' That certainly packs a punch over against older translations. And we'll need to add a clause to the Ninth Commandment to the effect that it only applies to those who don't hold positions of responsibility in the church or won't profit by their perjury - sorry, their `theological leverage.'
What is so jawdropping in all this is the clear belief of the people who use this language that the rest of us are complete idiots. If I built my career on telling people that I had grown up in the jungles of Borneo as the devoted worshipper of the Snake God and, after years of eating missionaries had finally been converted through the ministry of one, I would be guilty of lying, not theological leverage, and everyone would know that that was the case. And if I have had sex with a woman who is not the lady listed on my marriage certificate, I have committed adultery. My next door neighbours know what adultery means; the mailman knows what adultery means; and quite possibly the man who stands at the local bus-stop and talks to the fire hydrant, convinced it is his long-lost brother, might still have enough about him to know what adultery means. They can tell the difference between self-serving, dishonest flannel, and the truth. Am I alone in finding it offensive that these people who lay claim to being leaders in the church think that the rest of us are so stupid that we cannot see this for the patronizing dishonesty that it is?
Worse still, of course, are the theological implications: to think that I am an idiot is one thing. Many have done that; it's not unusual and, sadly, I am sure there is plenty of evidence to suggest that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But these people seem to think they can fool God with their slick talk and soundbites. Yes, believe it or not, they apparently regard themselves as cleverer than their maker. Like Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves together in the Garden, they believe that, if they use the right words, He just won't notice the reality that lies behind their thin veil of semantic scamology. In fact, they have squeezed God into a box that is so small he barely has the divine equivalent of two brain cells to rub together. Their apriori theological system has led them to assume God is as thick as two short planks, and that a bit of obfuscatory language and the odd specious euphemism will prevent him from holding them accountable for their lies and the filth of their personal lives.
To consider other human beings to be so stupid as not to see through flannel about `theological leverage' and `sins of relational mobility' is patronizing and offensive; but to assume God is moron, as thick as a brick, is, frankly, dangerous. Make no mistake: unlike the evangelical and emergent dupes out there, God is not mocked.