Posts tagged ‘Socrates’

Target, Transgenderism, and Bathroom Brouhahas

Target

Two weeks ago, when Target announced it would continue “to stand for inclusivity” by welcoming “transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity,”[1] fuel was added to the fire of what was already a raging debate.  “More than 700,000 pledge to boycott Target over transgender bathroom policy,” a headline in USA Today thundered.  The Daily Beast countered the boycott with its headline: “All the Things You Can No Longer Buy if You’re Really Boycotting Trans-Friendly Businesses.”

It’s a bathroom brouhaha.  So where does this big story leave Christians?

In one way, the fight over bathrooms only serves to mask larger questions about gender and identity.  The transgender movement as a whole seems locked into a form of Platonic dualism.  According to this philosophy, each physical form has a corresponding higher non-corporeal ideal.  So, for instance, a chair here on earth corresponds to a perfect non-corporeal chair in a higher realm.  Key to understanding Plato’s theory of correspondence between the physical and the non-corporeal is that the higher non-corporeal form is always determinative of and better than the lower physical form.  This is why Platonism’s final goal is for a person to escape this realm of lower physical forms and ascend to the realm of higher non-corporeal ideals.  Thus, in Platonism, the non-corporeal is always given preference over the corporeal, even as it pertains to our very bodies.  As Socrates, Plato’s mentor, put it:

The soul is immortal, and ‘tis not possession of thine own, but of Providence; and after the body is wasted away, like a swift horse freed from its traces, it lightly leaps forward and mingles itself with the light air, loathing the spell of harsh and painful servitude which it has endured.[2]

For Socrates, the body is a prison of “harsh and painful servitude” to be loathed.  Why?  Because it is physical.  The soul, however, is non-corporeal.  Therefore, the soul is to be preferred to and determinative of the body.

Many in the transgender movement seem to Platonically privilege non-corporeal inclinations over at least some of the clearer markers of physical biology.  People who come out as transgender are, in essence, declaring, “There is another form of me gender-wise than what my biological sex indicates.  My biological sex has subjected me to a ‘harsh and painful servitude,’ above which I intend to rise.” Jane Clark Scharl, in an article for the National Review, puts it well when she writes:

The … rhetoric used to be about liberating us from the moral and cultural limits on bodies, so that we could do whatever we wanted with them. Presumably that didn’t make us happy, because today, it’s about liberating us from our bodies altogether, by telling us that we can define ourselves however we want regardless of our biology.[3]

Being liberated from the body and its biology is a quintessentially Platonic – and, I would add, theologically problematic – notion.

I do understand that certain biological anomalies – anomalies in the sense that they are statistically rare – can occur in certain individuals.  I am also aware that there are questions over whether there are subtle differences in a transgender person’s brain.  But these questions do not negate the fact that gender dysphoria, the oft-cited trigger of transgenderism, is regularly presented and thought of as a conflict between a person’s physical biology and a person’s non-corporeal gender identity.  To quote the Oxford Dictionary: gender dysphoria is “the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex.”  Notice how, according to this definition, gender dysphoria is rooted in “one’s emotional and psychological identity” being in conflict with one’s biological sex.  In other words, barring a worldview that reduces emotions and psychology to nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain, there is a conflict between the non-corporeal part of a person and the physical part of person who experiences gender dysphoria.  To state the matter simply, there is a conflict between what may be referred to as a person’s soul and one’s body. And many people in the transgender movement assume the soul should win this conflict. But the Bible reminds us that even the non-corporeal parts of us are deeply flawed and should not be blindly trusted.  The prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Jesus notes, “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder” (Mark 7:21).  Is it any wonder that the prophets, when addressing human corruption, say things like, “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13)?  For us to address any anxiety – whether it be in our gender, in our sexuality, or even in some medical ailment – we can’t just deal in the physical.  We must consider – and yes, even confront and be converted in – the non-corporeal.

It should be pointed out that it’s not just people in the transgender movement who assume a Platonic view of the physical.  Many Christians do too.  Ask the average Christian which part of a person is more important – the body or the soul – and he will more than likely respond, “The soul.”  But this is not the case, at least according to Scripture.  The fact that the bodies of those who are dead will be raised on the Last Day reminds us that both bodies and souls are important.  After all, both are created by God. The goal for the Christian, then, is never to somehow rise above the body or to let the non-corporeal determine the physical.  Rather, the hope of the Christian is to be eschatalogically redeemed in the body by the resurrection of all flesh.

It is important for Christians to defend and promote a telic view of the body – that the body is fundamental to who we are and is created with a purpose and point.  A person can either steward the body according to the purpose and point for which it was created or work against the purpose and point for which the body was created.  Working against the purpose and point of the body, however, comes with consequences.  Just ask those who suffer all sorts of health problems because they abuse their bodies with, let’s say, junk food rather than fueling their bodies with a balanced diet.  We should not despise our bodies.

This takes us back to Target’s restrooms.  One of the difficulties in demanding that a person use the restroom that matches his or her sex biologically is that there may be a person who identifies as and looks very much like a male going into a female restroom and person who identifies as and looks very much like a female going into a male restroom.  This is sure to make patrons uncomfortable.  On the other hand, stories have already surfaced of predators who are using policies like Target’s to take advantage of unknowing victims.  Depending on how common these horrifying incidents become, Target could find itself regularly grappling with basic issues of of customer safety.  In other words, no matter what restroom policy Target adopts and enforces, it will probably land the company in some kind of legal, cultural, and public relations battle.  Indeed, it seems like the only way to address the restroom needs of a culture where gender is increasingly presumed to be fluid may be to build banks of private unisex restrooms, which could prove terribly costly for businesses that currently offer larger public restrooms.

Though the debate over bathrooms is interesting, ultimately, as Christians, we are called to concern ourselves with how to love all our neighbors – including those who are transgender.  This is why our first questions in this bathroom battle should not be, “Is this policy good for me?”  Or, “How do I feel about transgender people being able to choose their bathroom?”  Instead, our first questions should be, “Is transgenderism good for people?”  And, “Is it good to deny a created physical order for the sake of what is perceived to be a higher non-corporeal understanding of one’s self?” If the answer to these questions is, “No,” we have more than just bathrooms to worry about.  We have people to worry about.

No matter what laws are enacted pertaining to who can use which bathrooms, there will be problems.  But if we devote ourselves to making a winsome, gentle, and truthful case for how God has lovingly, tenderly, and wisely created humanity as “male and female” (Genesis 1:27) that leads people to rejoice in God’s ordering of sex and gender, that strikes me as a better outcome than any restroom regulations could ever offer.

____________________________

[1]Continuing to Stand for Inclusivity,” A Bullseye View (4.19.2016).

[2] Socrates in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 75.

[3] Jane Clark Scharl, “The New Sexual Ideology Wins Another Skirmish,” National Review (4.22.2016).

May 2, 2016 at 5:15 am 4 comments

A Theological Look At Suicide

It’s never easy to lose a loved one.  Whether it’s an illness when someone is middle aged, a tragedy when someone is young, or even a so-called “natural” passing when someone is old, death brings tears and mourning.  People may sometimes quaintly call a funeral a “celebration,” but if it is, what a strange way to celebrate – with lowered heads and furrowed brows and muffled sobs.  Truth be told, death is sad.  And death is heartbreaking.

Death becomes especially heartbreaking when it is the result of suicide.  We will often speak of “preventable deaths” – those that could have been avoided if only he wouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel when he was drunk, or if only she would have gone to the doctor sooner after feeling a lump.  But suicide seems to be the ultimate example of a “preventable death.”  After all, the person who lost his life is the same person who took his life…voluntarily.  He held in his own hands the power to choose life or the power to choose death.  And he chose the unthinkable.

When suicide strikes, many questions inevitably arise.  People ask everything from, “How could he be so selfish?” to “Is killing oneself the unforgivable sin?”  Because of the many questions connected to suicide, I thought it would be worth it to take a look at suicide broadly from a theological perspective and seek to clear up some of the persistent misperceptions that surround this heartbreaking act.

In order to understand the Bible’s estimation suicide, we must begin a fundamental observation:  suicide is tragic.  Though this may seem self-evident to many, the reason this observation is necessary is because not everyone has believed this, nor does everyone now believe this.

The most famous suicide of the ancient world is that of Socrates.  After being convicted of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens by criticizing the city’s democratic government, the town’s officials sentenced Socrates to death by poisonous hemlock.  Plato, his close friend and pupil, recounts Socrates drinking the lethal cocktail:

[Socrates] took it, and very gently…without trembling or changing color or expression…Said Socrates, “But I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.” With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it.[1]

Notice how nobly, stoically, and even, as Plato says, “cheerfully,” Socrates drinks his poison, more in control of his life – and death – than those who handed down his capital sentence.  It is this stately picture of Socrates’ suicide that gave rise to the opinion of the ancients that it is perfectly acceptable to take one’s own life.  Seneca, a well-known Stoic philosopher, says of suicide, “The best thing which eternal law ever ordained was that it allowed to us one entrance in life, but many exits…This is one reason why we cannot complain of life; it keeps no one against his will….Live, if you so desire; if not, you may return to the place from whence you came.”[2]  More recently, suicide has made headlines because of those who support “Death with Dignity,” a movement which maintains that doctor assisted suicide, in cases of grave and terminal illness, is justified and, yes, even dignified.[3]  For some, suicide is moral and noble.  The Bible, however, paints a starkly different picture of suicide.  Suicide, according to the Bible, is unambiguously proscribed.  Consider the reasons why below.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in death.  Death is deeply evil.  Indeed, the apostle Paul calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26), ultimately to be defeated at Christ’s Second Coming.  Death is so evil because it is utterly incompatible with God’s original creative intent.  As we confess in the Nicene Creed, our God is “the Lord and giver of life.”  God is in the business of life, not death!  However, sin introduced what God never intended.  Therefore, we are to hate death rather than embracing it as suicide does.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in murder.  Most famously, murder is prohibited by the Fifth Commandment:  “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  But long before Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to Israel, murder was outlawed as a heinous ill.  Immediately following the great flood of Noah’s day, God commands, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6).  Notice the general nature of both of these prohibitions.  Moses’ prohibition against murder is a blanket one without so much as a direct object to specify who should not be murdered.  God’s prohibition to Noah does contain a direct object – “man” – but this direct object is a general one, referring to mankind.  The killing of humans by other humans, then, is clearly and consistently forbidden in the Scriptures.  Thus, even the killing of oneself breaks the command of God.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in abuse.  It is difficult to think of a more dire abuse of one’s body than the taking of one’s life.  Because God created our bodies, redeems our bodies through His Son Jesus Christ, and will raise our bodies on the Last Day, our bodies – and what we do with them – matter to God!  As Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Killing one’s body can hardly be considered an honorable way to treat one’s body.

It is important to note that honoring God with one’s body precludes not only suicide, but anything that damages the body.  There are many people who refuse to honor God with their bodies in countless ways and for countless reasons.  Some do not eat well.  Some do not exercise.  Some do not visit their physicians.  When these people sometimes die prematurely, they do so to everyone’s sorrow, but not necessarily to everyone’s shock.  After all, we know that abuse can eventually result in death.  So often, we confine our definition of “suicide” to a one-time act that ends in the loss of life.  But far too many people are willing to commit what I call “slow-motion suicide” by abusing their bodies over months, years, and decades.  This too is prohibited by Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 6.

Though the Bible flatly condemns suicide, even something as seemingly final as the taking of one’s life is not unsalvageable for the Christian.  People will sometimes refer to suicide as “the unforgivable sin.”  The thinking goes like this:  because a person who commits suicide cannot repent of his sin, he cannot be forgiven and will therefore be eternally damned.  This thinking, however, is flawed on two counts.  First, this thinking does not take into account the extenuating circumstances that often accompany suicide, for a person who takes his own life often does so during a moment of deep despair, depression, or even insanity.  This can hardly be considered to be a belligerent and unrepentant sin against God.  Rather, the person who takes his life in this kind of an instance may not even understand what he is doing.  Second, the thinking that calls suicide “unforgivable” assumes repentance is a cognitive act of sorrow that feels remorse over a specific sin and that this remorse is necessary to offset a sin’s damnable effect.  This, however, is not a true picture of biblical repentance.  For if a person had to feel cognitive remorse for every sin specifically, none could be saved, for we all commit sins that we either do not remember or do not even notice in the first place.  This is why the Psalmist pleads with God, “Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression” (Psalm 19:12-13).  Notice that the Psalmist makes a distinction between “hidden faults” and “willful sins.”  The “hidden faults” are those sins unknown to the Psalmist whereas the “willful sins” are those sins which the Psalmist has intentionally and knowingly committed.  The Psalmist believes that God will forgive both types of sins – both his known and unknown sins.

Martin Luther says of repentance, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Repent, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”[4]  Like the Psalmist, Luther believes that repentance is more than just specific remorse over a specific sin; rather, repentance is part and parcel of the posture of a Christian’s heart, for a repentant Christian continually believes that he is a person who continually sins and is thereby continually in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.  Thus, just because a person does not express remorse for committing suicide specifically does not mean that he is not living a life of repentance generally.

Some people may still ask, “But what about Judas?  Didn’t Judas commit suicide and didn’t he go to hell?”  Though it is true that Scripture implies Judas’ ultimate eternal damnation (cf. Acts 1:25), we must understand that Judas did not go to hell because he committed suicide, but because he refused to trust in Jesus to forgive his sin.  Matthew tells us, “When Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse” (Matthew 27:3).  The Greek word for “remorse” is metamelomai. Though there is some semantic overlap, this word is nevertheless distinct from the Greek word for “repentance,” which is metanoia.  Thus, even though Judas seems to experience some level of remorse over his terrible wickedness, he does not seem to repent of his sin and turn to Christ for forgiveness.  Tragically, Judas’ remorse leads only to despair which leads only to his eventual suicide.  The stain of human sin cannot be absolved by feeling bad about oneself through remorse.  It can only be absolved by turning to Jesus in repentance.

Finally, it is important that we support and encourage those who have lost loved ones to suicide and seek immediate help for those who may be considering suicide.  As Christians, we are called to remind everyone that, through faith in Christ, despair and death do not need to have the final say.  God’s plan of eternal, joyous life for us can ultimately prevail.  As the apostle Paul exclaims:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 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 Corinthians 15:51-57)

Despair and death are no match for the victory and life that Jesus brings.  Of this we can be sure!  And in this we can take comfort.


[1] Plato, Phaedo 117b-117c.

[2] Seneca, Epistulae Morales 70.

[3] In 1994, Measure 16 established the state of Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act.”  This allows terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives by means of a doctor-assisted suicide.

[4] Martin Luther, “95 Thesis,” Thesis 1.

August 13, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments


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