Friday, July 31, 2015

The Grain of Reality

US nuclear test (DoE)
In my last post, I drew attention to the way that  "in the Pope's vision, the Genesis account acknowledges but also limits the scope of human dominion, and therefore does not license arbitrary exercise of power; only that which works with the grain of reality."

This reflects language from Laudato si like the following
Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.
Before moving on to chapter 4, I want to worry a bit about a problem with this kind of language.  Who gets to decide, and on what basis, what counts as "respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves"?  This is the space which in traditional Catholic theology is occupied by the doctrine of natural law.

For example, the  Pope has cited the development of nuclear weapons as an example of a failure to recognize the order of creation.  Yet this insight is not one which could be gained by the scientific study of nuclear physics: the processes that power the hydrogen bomb are the same as those by which the sun gives its light, the light which according to Genesis is set in motion by the creative word of God.   Instead, this insight is derived from reflection, in the context of revelation, on the conditions for human flourishing: “The true custody of creation does not have anything to do with the ideologies that consider man like an accident, like a problem to eliminate.”

But a claim to know the real place of humanity in the world can be deployed in numerous ways, some revolutionary and some repressive.  This same line of reasoning, for example, has led the Pope to condemn "gender theory, which does not respect the order of creation".

Lui Akira Francesco Matsuo, a transgender Japanese Catholic from the Nagasaki area, has said that Francis' apparent analogy between "gender theory" and nuclear weapons has caused him to lose trust.   Nevertheless, he hopes to meet with the Pope on his visit to the US and to ask him to "extend his hand openly, especially to the transgender community".

Matsuo and our other transgender friends and family members are not instances of a depraved "theory" that opposes creational order.  Rather, I believe, they have determined to respect the order of their own creation - sometimes at great personal cost.  I have come to see society's enforcement of the traditional gender binary, by authority, shame, and often violence, as the real "confrontational relationship" here.

The Pope, it seems, might not agree - and maybe you would not agree either.  Perhaps, though, we can agree that language about the "order of creation" is powerful, for good or ill.  That it can be abused does not mean that it is useless.  But we do need to be careful when we apply such language  to the social and environmental issues identified in the first chapter of the Pope's encyclical.  It's all too easy for me to limit my perceptions by what is familiar and comfortable to me - so that I may end up thinking of my own privilege as being somehow part of "the grain of reality".

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