The End of Relationship

I’ve seen some version of this Tweet making the rounds in the last few years:


I don’t blame to author here. And there is a lot to appreciate in this tweet. It is not the job of women to fix broken, warped, or malformed men. To correct their misogyny, to bear their violence in hopes that doing so will show them the evil of their ways, to even train men on how to be civilized.

And yet, this tweet is also reflective of something I have seen a lot of in the last few year — an abandonment of relationship, that we have things to teach each other, and things to learn from each other too.

Once, long ago, when I was just learning how to be Muslim, I found that when I asked “how do I pray?” Or “what does this mean?” that some well meaning Muslim would hand me a book. “Read this,” he’d say, “this will teach you all you need to know.”

I tried, and I learned some things from books. But most of what I learned, I learned from Muslims willing to take time and effort and teach me. Like the Saudis at Ohio State, who asked me about this one day, and one of them remarked:

That’s now how any of us learned. We were taught, by people who took time and interest.

We form each other. We teach each other. There is no choice. It n 30 years of being together, Jennifer has taught me how to love Jennifer. And in doing so, she made a better, kinder, gentler, more patient man who, I think, understands women better.

I don’t think I was a badly raised man. But I was incomplete, lesser — as we all are — because what I needed to learn I could only learn in a relationship.

In various places online, I have seen queer, black, and transgender people express the same concerns — It is not my job to teach you what it is like to be me. There are books for that, which should be read first.

I get the frustration. It is difficult to be someone so many find imponderable (one reason I wrote the memoir I did) and incomprehensible. I know it is frustrating having to walk someone though what it means to be me on a regular basis, to know that I’m having to do this because I’m the misfit who doesn’t conform to the standard specifications. (And I’ve paid for it too.) It’s tiring, this work, and not always fulfilling. And not always successful, either. (My own mother doesn’t really get me…) It would be nice to be able to hand someone a book and say, “here, read this, then we’ll talk.”

And I actually have that book! But … it didn’t help me much, at least not with the church.

At any rate, I get the frustration. I would like it if people just “got” me too.

But there’s a big problem as well with the approach the blogger takes, the demand that so many have when they foist books off on people — they deny obligation and responsibility, and the power of relationships to form and change people.

In effect, we (in America, I cannot speak for the rest of the world) are reaching a point where we are increasingly demanding people already be formed before they come into our midst. There are no more others, just demands for ideological conformity, and ideological understanding. We are not allowed to be changed by human relationships, to be confronted with our own power and responsibility in the face of the difference of others. In fact, this is nothing less than a demand that others as the other cease to exist. Everyone becomes an abstract feature on a map, explained by a key, so there’s no need to actually get to know them. The shorthand tags of their identity tell us we need to know because those shorthand tags are already explained ideologically.

This is what it means to be pre-formed. It is each individual’s responsibility to get with the program, to understand and work within the key. The consequences are dire otherwise.

The question then becomes — what is to happen to the blogger’s badly raised men? I fear that our society has become one in which we determine they are to be discarded as threats, as too broken to fix, as people in need solely of professional help and management. “Go away by yourself for a while and then come back when you are fixed.” Not a helpful recommendation when the problem is … relational.

And may need relationship — love and belonging — to repair and heal what is broken.

Have we gotten so frightened of each other that we are incapable of learning from each other, unwilling to teach each other, and unable to bear each other if we don’t already conform to our ever-tightening expectations and demands? I fear we will find out.

I fear we are already finding out.

Not Quite Your Best Life Now

I have, as part of my devotional life these days, been reading Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, a 250-year-old book telling the stories of various early, medieval, and relatively late (canonized by the early 18th century) Roman Catholic saints. It is, like most books, a product of its time and its prejudices (Butler was an English Catholic priest writing in 1750s, at a time when England was still paranoid about Catholics, what with a Stuart pretender still out there lurking in the shadows somewhere).

Still, it’s valuable to read and hear such stories.

Today — Friday, June 1 — is the day that marks the martyrdom of St. Justin the Philosopher. He lived in the second century A.D., died around 167, and is said to have gone looking for God by means of philosophy, eventually he was led to the teachings of Christ:

“When I heard the Christians traduced and reproached,” says he, “yet saw them fearless and rushing on death, and on all things that are accounted most dreadful to human nature, I concluded with myself that it was impossible those men should wallow in vice, and be carried away with the love of lust and pleasure.”

None of these Christians are asking for $54 million private airplanes, apparently.

Justin was martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius by a vigilant Roman official ever on the lookout for impiety and atheism, and was one of a number of Christians put to death on that occasion because they failed to sacrifice to the gods of Rome:

The martyrs were forthwith led to the place where criminals were executed, and there, amidst the praises and thanksgivings which they did not cease to pour forth to God, were first scourged, and afterwards beheaded.

Not quite “we’re tired of being stepped on.”

There is something tawdry about the way both progressive and conservative Christians are battling it out for influence and control over the public square, trying to write out opponents as sinners beyond the pale whose sins endanger the well-being of the whole community by bringing down upon us the wrath of God. Granted, Butler wrote in Christendom and of Christendom (and in opposition), but so far, no one I have read in the last two months or so of saints days became a saint for how they governed (even if they were king of someplace medieval, and there are more than a few of those, along with a couple of cooks and a few hermits), but for how they lived. Granted, there are a few things common to all these lives — kindness, mercy and liberality to the poor, and continence (Butler’s good old fashioned word for celibacy) — and in ages where people could not live out their piety in democratic politics (a piety I find both increasingly hollow and cloyingly self-righteous), they could find a rough equality in kindness, mercy, and abstinence.

The more I read of the saints, especially those moved to found churches and convents and monasteries (apparently a frequent happening in late antiquity through the middle ages; you didn’t wait upon the institution, you started something, and then either appealed to the institution to recognize you or simply got too big and too influential to ignore), the more I want to do just that, to disappear from the world (also a frequent desire) and devote my life to worshiping God.