It doesn’t take long to recognize the internal inconsistency between these two narratives. The first depends on maleness and femaleness being something real, for a binary must exist for it to be transgressed or transcended. The second questions reality altogether, falling for a radical skepticism that reimagines the world in terms of linguistic power plays.
One of the most remarkable women in history, Joan of Arc, has long been at the center of various conversations and controversies because, while no one can deny her significance, the meaning of her words and actions eludes easy explanation.
Was she, as Shakespeare cast her, a witch? Were her visions heretical, as church leaders at the time concluded, or was she the saint the later Catholic Church canonized? What do we make of her commitment to a shining chastity and her insistence on her physical virginity? How should we interpret the rationale for wearing men’s clothing while leading armies into battle? Was she a reluctant warrior who wished for an ordinary life or an ambitious girl who desired the spotlight? What do we learn from her martyrdom?
In First Things, Dan Hitchens reflects on recent attempts to enlist Joan of Arc for the LGBT+ cause. Many today want to reimagine her as a nonconforming, prototransgender revolutionary. Hitchens reclaims Joan for a conservative and biblical understanding of sex and gender, as opposed to the cultural trend that makes her a founder of trans identity.
The questions about Joan of Arc’s life and legacy fascinate me, but they go beyond my purpose here. Instead, I want to lean on Hitchens’s description of the most important yet often unnoticed contradictions at the heart of today’s transgender theories. He believes one of the transgender movement’s most remarkable achievements has been to conceal the internal division at the heart of gender theory. “There is no single trans narrative,” he says. There are two, “wholly incompatible and mutually destructive, which have somehow been fused into a single, all-conquering cause.”
“Wrong Body” Narrative
Here’s how Hitchens describes the first narrative:
The first narrative holds that there are two realities, maleness and femaleness, and that some people are tragically exiled from their true states. Jan Morris, in the opening lines of the only trans memoir written by an acknowledged master of English prose, puts it like this: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.” This kind of story is compelling at an emotional level: It speaks to the universal feeling of dislocation, of alienation, of longing for completeness, and at the same time resonates with the hope of the oppressed for justice, with the sorrows of every human being denied true flourishing by prejudice and fear.
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By Carl R. Trueman — 6 months ago
Written by Carl R. Trueman |
Tuesday, August 29, 2023
The death of church and pub can only further fuel the modern scourges of loneliness and isolation. And these evils cannot be solved directly by public policy or government initiatives because such things trade in abstractions. Nobody is ever lonely or isolated in the abstract. Loneliness only ever affects people—real, individual people in real, particular circumstances. And it can only be solved by real community. This is where the church actually has a tremendous opportunity.
My annual trip to my home village in England is typically a week when I enter the land that time forgot. Nothing much changes. The shop still sells newspapers and houses the local post office. The view across the valley from my mother’s cottage still reveals nothing—not even a street light or a power cable—that would indicate it has a point of origin in the last century and a half. And the Baptist chapel bell still strikes the hour ten minutes late. But even in this land where nothing seems to change, some things do bear the unmistakable marks of late modernity. There are now more cars than houses, turning the narrow country lanes into parking lots. And most striking, the parish church has closed and is now for sale, with planning permission for it to be turned into a residence.
Closure of churches is nothing new. Over twenty years ago in Aberdeen, I noticed that a number of places of worship I remembered from my postgraduate days had turned into nightclubs. And the old Free Church College was now a bar. The College, its entrance flanked somewhat incongruously by historic plaques commemorating its earlier distinguished denizens: the theologian David Cairns and the Semitic scholar William Robertson Smith. Given the importance of the ownership of space for the social imagination, nothing perhaps indicates the change of Western culture more than the replacement of the seriously religious by the merely entertaining.
My village had two churches, the Anglican parish church and the Baptist chapel. In the nineteenth century, both were central to village life. The current primary (elementary) school was founded by the Baptists in the nineteenth century when their children were effectively excluded from the Anglican school because of their theological beliefs. Religion may have created a fault line, but it was also a deep source of identity and community. It motivated people to act in ways that supported each other, that manifested concern for the future, that gave them a hierarchy of goods that framed communal action. It spoke of belonging, and it gave corporate life a context and a significance. Today, the chapel is marginal, the church has closed, and people increasingly question what the village community is, what it is for.
There is a parallel in the fate of the English village pub.
By Cole Newton — 5 months ago
We must be prepared to contend for God as our Creator and all that it entails. We are not cosmic accidents that must build our own meaning in life; we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are wonderfully made because of the special attention that the Creator placed in making humanity. We are fearfully made because of the responsibility and accountability that He has also placed upon us. Neither are we the products of an impersonal god. Our greatest hope is not to align ourselves more fully with the universe but to know our Creator and be known by Him. Such a task is rightly both wonderful and fearful.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV
Albert Einstein once wrote:
I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past places such vast power in the hands of priests… The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.
Although Einstein conceded the probable existence of an impersonal, transcendent deity, his emphasis upon striving only toward rational knowledge rather than “blind faith” is the materialistic philosophy that has governed modern thinking since the Enlightenment. Interestingly, Einstein did admit that not everything could be rationalized; indeed, he “considered the comprehensibility of the world to be a miracle, an eternal mystery, which atheist have no hope of explaining.” Of course, if the world did come into existence purely by chance, then we have no reason whatsoever to expect it to be comprehensible and to adhere to laws of reason. Yet here it is. Somehow. Making every discovery, as Einstein says, a miracle.
Recognizing many of the inconsistencies of the materialistic worldview, it is increasingly popular to openly profess faith in the kind of impersonal deity that Einstein somewhat believed in. Taking a cue from Hinduism and Buddhism, that deity is often simply called the universe or perhaps Mother Earth, as environmentalism increasingly reveals its own religiosity. And its popularity can be seen in current trends such as the resurgence of manifesting on TikTok, which was an idea that became popular in the 2000s through The Secret. Sadly, the word of faith movement baptized manifesting and called it Christian.
Despite what some claim, there is no lack of faith today; rather, there is a great deal of it. of course, the real question is what kind of faith, and, more importantly, faith in what?
As we begin Hebrew’s magisterial chapter on faith, let us pray for the Spirit’s enlightenment to behold true faith, that by it we may behold our God.
What Is Faith? // Verse 1
So far in the sermon-letter called Hebrews, we have concluded the very great explanation at the heart of the epistle on the superior priesthood of Jesus. From that extended and essential teaching, the author gave us three commands: draw near to God, hold fast our confession, and stir up one another to love and good works. He then proceeded to stir us up first with a stern and sober warning followed by a rousing word of comfort and encouragement. In that word, the author sought to strengthen his readers for endurance in the faith by setting their eyes backward onto their previous faithfulness under affliction and forward onto the blessed hope of Christ’s return to “save those who eagerly wait for him” (9:28). Our previous text concluded with a citation from Habakkuk 2:3-4, which spoke of God’s righteous ones who live by faith and also those who shrink back in fear and are destroyed. The final verse rings like a coach’s speech before a big game: “But we are not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (10:39).
That great rallying cry flows directly into chapter 11, which is one of the most beloved passages of Scripture. Often called the Hall of Faith, the author will take us through several examples of Old Testament saints who did not shrink back from the task that God set before them; rather, they had faith and preserved their souls. They each held fast to God’s great promise, even they did not receive those promises in their lifetimes. They drew near to God by faith and walked in obedience to Him, despite the unbelief of the world around them. Yet these great examples of persevering faith properly begin in verse 4. Here in these first three verses, the author establishes for us what faith is (v. 1), why it is vital (v. 2), and where it must begin (v. 3).
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
This first verse is often set forth as the biblical definition of faith, and it certainly is. However, we should take care to note that this is not an exhaustive definition of faith. The author is not giving us a dictionary definition; he is giving us a definition in motion with the flow of his argument. A more exhaustive definition of faith might be what we read in Question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is true faith?
A. It is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also an hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
The verse before certainly matches that definition, yet notice that the author of Hebrews clearly desires to emphasize that faith is what is not yet present or visible. Indeed, there are two clauses in this verse that both flow from the opening words ‘Now faith is…” Thus, we are meant to understand this verse as saying to us: “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and faith is the conviction of things not seen.” The first is temporal faith, and the second is spatial faith.
Things hoped for are future realities that are not yet present. Things not seen are present realities that are invisible to us. Both require faith since they cannot be touched or seen, and the author has revealed to us that the promises of God fit into both categories.
The author has repeatedly emphasized the unseen reality of Christ’s present rule over all creation at the right hand of the Father until His enemies are made a footstool for His feet. Although Stephen and John were privileged to be given a supernatural vision of the reigning Christ, they are as exceptional as Enoch was with death, and none of us should expect to receive such a sight. Instead, it is a present reality that is as invisible to us as the angels that are undoubtedly worshiping alongside us this morning.
As the Heidelberg noted, the forgiveness of our sins must also be received by faith. Although there are outward fruits of having such a faith and baptism is a visible symbol of our forgiveness in Christ, our salvation fundamentally comes through hearing the word of the gospel and trusting truly in Christ’s once for all sacrifice to pay the debt of our sins. The gospel must be heard, not seen.
As we noted last week, the return of Christ is the most essential thing for which we hope. Faith is required to place our assurance in that glorious Day that will arrive at a time known only to God. Yet upon that Day, we also have a multitude of hopes attached. We have hope in the resurrection of our physical bodies yet in a glorified state that will be incapable of sinning any longer. We have hope in God’s judgment of the wicked, of His execution of vengeance upon all who continued in their rebellion against Him. We have hope in the creation of a new heavens and a new earth, in which God Himself will dwell forevermore in visible midst of His people. Indeed, we have hope in the beatific vision, that we will see our Lord face to face, and, in that sight, all sad things will come untrue.
Both future promises and present invisibilities require faith since they lie beyond the material realm. However, notice that the author’s point is most certainly not that faith is a blind leap into the dark. As Hughes writes, “True faith is neither brainless nor a sentimental feeling. It is a solid conviction resting on God’s words that makes the future present and the invisible seen.” Indeed, faith is the instrument by which we latch ourselves onto truths that are larger than our own empirical experience. As Dennis Johnson notes:
Most translations present this verse as describing the subjective experience of faith as “assurance” and “conviction.” The Greek terms chosen by our author focus instead on the objective reality of faith and could perhaps be translated, “Faith is the reality [substance] of things hoped for, the evidence that proves things unseen” (cff. KJV, NKJV)… Here he has chosen “reality/substance” and paired it with a term that refers to a legal argument substantiated by evidence (elenchos; Job 13:6; 16:21; 23:7 LXX). Faith goes beyond our internal attitudes to put us in touch with realities that are “not seen” (because they are still future; 11:7; cf. Rom. 8:24).
By Louise Perry — 5 months ago
Given the widespread practice of both abortion and infanticide, even in Christian cultures, it’s apparent that people struggle to abide by a moral principle that causes huge practical problems. Christianity only ever blended with paganism, rather than fully replacing it, because Christian teachings do cause huge practical problems for followers of the faith. It is difficult to be a good Christian; it is supposed to be. The legal status of abortion is at the center of the contemporary culture war because it represents the bleeding edge of dechristianization.
There’s a very short and very brutal poem by the Scottish poet Hollie McNish, written in 2019 and titled “Conversation with an archaeologist”:
he said they’d found a brothel
on the dig he did last night
I asked him how they know
a pit of babies’ bones
a pit of newborn babies’ bones was how to spot a brothel
“It’s true, you know,” said the writer and lawyer Helen Dale when we had lunch in London last year and I mentioned this poem, which I chose as one of the epigraphs to my book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. Helen was a classicist before she was a lawyer, and as a younger woman she had taken part in archaeological excavations of ancient Roman sites. “First you find the erotic statuary,” she went on, “and then you dig a bit more and you find the male infant skeletons.” Male, of course, because the males were of no use to the keepers of Roman brothels, whereas the female infants born to prostituted women were raised into prostitution themselves.
I realize that this is not a nice thing to think about. Personally, I find that if I let my mind rest for more than a moment on these tiny extinguished lives, and on the cruelty of the society that regarded their suffering as an acceptable consequence of the need to satiate male lust, I experience a painful, squeezing, swooping sensation in my chest that I’ve discovered only since I became a mother myself—an involuntary physical response that I felt for the first time during my third trimester when I read an article on abortion that included a graphic description of what the procedure actually involves. I recalled that moment as I spoke to Helen, and it occurred to me that I had no idea what modern abortion clinics do with fetal remains. The answer, I’ve since discovered, is that the remains are usually burned, along with other “clinical waste.” There will be no infant skeletons for archaeologists of the future to find.
To mention abortion and infanticide in the same breath is a provocation. A majority of voters in Britain and America regard abortion as permissible in some circumstances, whereas very few are willing to say the same of infanticide (with some notable exceptions, as we will see). But this distinction has not been made by all peoples at all times. The anthropologist David F. Lancy describes the “far more common pattern”:
Among the ancient Greeks and Romans sickly, unattractive, or unwanted infants were “exposed” or otherwise eliminated; the Chinese and Hindus of India have, since time immemorial, destroyed daughters at birth, to open the way for a new pregnancy and a more desirable male offspring; the Japanese likened infanticide to thinning the rice plants in their paddies; among foragers such as the Inuit or the Jivaro, unwanted babies were left to nature to claim.
Modern technologies such as ultrasound allow us to identify undesirable characteristics (for instance, female sex or Down syndrome) earlier than our ancestors could, but the most common reasons given by women seeking abortions today—poverty, fetal disability, and simple unwantedness—were the same reasons given by mothers and fathers who killed their newborn infants in other times and places. Historical and anthropological accuracy therefore demands that we plot the acts of abortion and infanticide on a chronological continuum, since they have typically been performed for the same reasons and have been permitted in accordance with the same moral calculus.
It was the arrival of Christianity that disrupted the Romans’ favored methods of keeping reproduction in check, with laws against infanticide, and then abortion, imposed by Christian emperors from the late fourth century. Christians have always been unusually vehement in their disapproval of the killing of infants, whether born or unborn, and their legal regime prevailed until the mid-twentieth century when we experienced a religious shift that will probably be understood by future historians as a Second Reformation. Christians are no longer in charge, and their prohibition of abortion—unlike their prohibition of infanticide, at least so far—is regarded by most pro-choice secularists as archaic, illogical, and misogynist.
I am uneasily agnostic on this issue, and I use the word “agnostic” advisedly. I’m emotionally and intellectually drawn to Christianity, and—like everyone else—I was raised in a culture suffused with fading Christian morality and symbolism. But I don’t believe, not really. And that lack of sincere belief means that my position on abortion law is not bound by any religious framework. I do not wish to see abortion per se criminalized, not only because of the effect criminalization would certainly have on desperate women, but also because—if I am entirely honest with myself—there is a very limited number of circumstances in which I would want an abortion for myself, and I would want it to be legal.
But like most voters, even in our rapidly dechristianizing era, I don’t consider abortion morally trivial. Abortion is not just “healthcare”; it is not at all like getting a tooth or a tonsil removed. I am repulsed by the grandstanding of pro-choice activists who insist that all abortions are good abortions, and who have rejected the Clinton-era slogan “safe, legal, and rare” on the grounds that it promotes “stigma.” The slogan resonated because it roughly expressed the view of the modal American voter: that abortion is sometimes a necessity, but always sad.
Uneasy agnosticism on both abortion and infanticide has probably been the norm in Christian societies, even during periods when the church was far more powerful than it is today. Laura Gowing, for instance, writes of the reluctance of witnesses and neighbors to condemn women suspected of infanticide in seventeenth-century England: instead, they would present the accused as “confused and anxious, heartbroken and manipulated by her fear of naming the father.” Although a 1624 statute demanded that women found guilty of infanticide be hanged, courts were unlikely to hand down such a sentence. This reluctance persists still, as Helen Dale writes:
An echo of humanity’s infanticidal past is still found in jury rooms throughout the common law world: the reason we do not refer to infant-killing as “murder” is because in 1922, it was reclassified and re-named with passage of the Infanticide Act. This was done because juries refused to convict—even before 1920, when they were all male and the Crown case was overwhelming—and had been refusing to convict for some time. The only crime for which fewer convictions were recorded was abortion. In Scotland, there hadn’t been a successful abortion prosecution for 50 years. To this day, infanticide convictions are astonishingly rare.
“Juries,” as Helen put it to me, “are pagan.” Increasingly, we all are.
In 1939 T. S. Eliot gave a series of lectures at the University of Cambridge in which he described a fork in the road. Western Civilization might continue along the Christian path, he predicted, or it might adopt “modern paganism.” Eliot, a Christian convert, hoped for the former, but he feared that we were already hell-bent on the latter.
Eliot’s binary is the basis of a 2018 book by the legal historian Steven Smith titled Pagans and Christians in the City. One might reasonably ask why our choices should be limited to these two options, to be pagans or to be Christians. If we fully abandon Christianity, so say the secular reformers, shouldn’t that clear the way for some newer and better guiding philosophy?
No, says Smith, because paganism never really went away, which makes its return all the easier. Forget the account of history offered in, for instance, Gustave Doré’s painting The Triumph of Christianity Over Paganism, in which Christ and his sword-wielding angels descend from the sky and scatter the old gods. Even after the Christian emperors began to persecute pagans in earnest, Smith argues,
Paganism lingered on both in the countryside and in enclaves like Athens for decades, even centuries. . . . paganism endured as a powerful, evocative, shaping force in the historical memory and imagination of the West. It persisted both in a positive form—in wistful memories of (and attempts to recapture) the beauty and freedom that had ostensibly been lost with the suppression of paganism—and in the more negative form of a lingering anger or resentment toward the force that had supposedly defeated and suppressed it—namely, Christianity.
Smith and Eliot do not define paganism narrowly as an interest in entrails or in praying to Jupiter. Rather, they understand it as a fundamentally different outlook on the world, and on the sacred.
In theological terms, pagans are oriented toward the immanent. The pagan gods, in all their beauty and terror, are elements of this world, in contrast to the transcendent God of the Abrahamic faiths. To be sure, Christianity incorporated immanent elements over time. The ancient sacralization of sites such as wells and stones persisted, but with heathen deities replaced by Christian hermits or martyrs. Pagan festivals became entwined with the Christian calendar. The pantheon of deities was replaced by an ever-growing host of saints. Christianity flourished when it permitted followers to incorporate religious practices that were found, not only in Greek and Roman religion, but in many other religions—practices that seem, in fact, to be instinctive in human beings, particularly the veneration of nature and of ancestors.