Weak Thought and the Mystery

Earlier this week, Rachel Held Evans commented on the response writer and activist Glennon Doyle Melton got when she revealed that she is now dating a woman:

This is what a sexist double standard looks like…Christians all scandalized over ‘s girlfriend while shrugging off Trump’s unrepentant adultery, sexual assault, misogyny….Former is described as threat to virtuous womanhood; latter is “just how guys talk.”

There’s a ton to unpack here: The hypocrisy of the religious right getting behind Trump. The sexism that often goes hand in hand with elevating sexual morality above all other kinds of morality. Evans has talked a lot about those things on her Twitter feed and in her work. But what’s been on my mind this week is not about any of those, it’s about the tenor of the “scandal” that people like Melton and Evans–among many, many others–get from rank and file evangelicals when they say things unpopular with the religious right.

I’m not even talking about the critique from those who have some sort of official voice–other bloggers, writers, etc. The interesting stuff is from a subset of their fans–people who follow them on Facebook or Twitter. In many of those responses, you see an undercurrent of bewildered betrayal. They seem to say, I thought you were one of us! Play by the rules! How can you say you are a person of faith and not believe exactly the same things in exactly the way I’ve been led to believe you must? You’re breaking the rules! For many, when someone is breaking the rules–particularly someone influential–the whole game is threatened. (Never mind that Melton says she “didn’t even ask to play.”)

This insistence on “the rules” made me think about the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. Well, first I thought about the 90s self-help book on snagging a husband, THEN I thought of Vattimo. I first read Vattimo when working on my dissertation, and his ideas have been coming back to me this year. As I understand it, Vattimo is known for regarding the history of Being as a history of weakening.

13606783_1099123000155360_2958006802321059215_nWeakening sounds bad. “Ma’am, I’m afraid your house’s foundation has cracked and is weakening.” Or, “His muscles have weakened from confinement–it’ll take lots of therapy for him to walk again.” But Vattimo’s weakening isn’t necessarily bad; he sees weakening as moving away from what has typically been considered “strong”–namely structures associated with violence. Put another way: we started with really tough, hard, punishing concepts of authority–The Rules, if you will–and throughout history, we have become less attached to those concepts; their hold on us has been weakening.

This applies to religious thought, too. Vattimo wrote a whole book about it (Belief, 1999) where he more or less argues that everybody should stop freaking out about secularization. Understood through the lens of weakening, the secular is not necessarily a movement away from religious thought, but a continuation of religious thought.

He maps the weakening trend over the history of Christianity and argues that “secularization—the progressive dissolution of the natural sacred—is the very essence of Christianity.

Say what? Vattimo sees the New Testament as a surprising countermeasure against the violent and authoritarian history of the sacred.

I love this.  It’s confusing, but it also somehow comes close to describing the central mystery of faith to me.

You’ve got this strong, almighty, powerful God who smites and floods and destroys and has six-hundred-odd laws you’re supposed to be working on. The Rules are strong with this one. This strong God of The Rules sees humans forever breaking The Rules and does not kick them out of the game. Instead, this God appears in human form, weakening itself in service to God’s self and to humanity. That’s the beauty of incarnation. That’s the good news of the gospel. Weakening.

If the incarnation alone weren’t enough, on top of that, Jesus spends most of his time on Earth verbally dismantling authoritarian strength, “winners,” and the very religious people most obsessed with The Rules. Jesus must have seemed awfully secular. Jesus must have seemed weak. He definitely seemed like a rule breaker. 

If we follow Vattimo’s line a little further, we can perhaps imagine a different response to a whole bunch of stuff that often causes various religious folks to freak out today: Declining church membership and the rise of the “nones.” Glennon Doyle Melton’s girlfriend. If you’re at my sort of traditional mainline church, the very notion of a screen with hymn lyrics projected on it.

All this rule breaking, all this weakening is not to be seen as the absence of God or faith, but rather the continued, corrective weakening of The Rules into simple truth: Love God and love each other. To put it more complexly, as we can count on philosophers to do, Vattimo says:

…the dissolution of the sacral structures of Christian society, the transition to an ethics of autonomy, to a lay state, to a more flexible literalism in the interpretation of dogmas and precepts, should be understood not as the failure of or departure from Christianity, but as a fuller realization of its truth.

Translation: Chill out. Weaken. Love.

So why do we have The Rules in the first place? Why are some people loath to weaken or to allow others to do so? Well, one reason is obviously because this makes no sense! It’s crazy talk! And yet, I think it’s true. More soon.




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