A Modern “Cost of Discipleship”
“It’s ironic that they buried Machiavelli here but won’t let Rhiannon’s knees in”
While my friend Greta’s remark on Santa Cruce was a joke, there is a certain pithiness to it. She captures modern discontent with organised religion and its supposed justification of well-established patriarchal norms like policing women’s bodies. To read Christ as encouraging this sort of exclusion, I argue, is a hermeneutical error, and one which threatens Christian Theology as a human aim of comprehending the divine God. When humans, for Christian religion, willingly accept a “non-total perspective” on the world, (R Williams, 2000), they ought to accept, written into the cost of discipleship, that their norms and mechanisms for understanding the world are “non total”: the power of policy is subject to the mission of enhancing common understanding, rather than using one contextual perspective to present religion as inhospitable to those with differing “perspectives”.
One Biblical example given by the Church of Jesus Christ to underpin “decency in dress” is 1 Corinthians 6:19–20:
19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (NIV).
In this section of the New Testament, a newly converted Paul (formerly Saul, a persecutor of Christians) is writing to the Corinthians and instructing them on how to organise Christian religion in society. There are, undoubtedly, ties in this chapter of Corinthians between sexual immorality and presentation of the body to God. The wider theme is that lawsuits and non-divine judgement are never enough to morally justify people in a meaningful (divine) way: this refers to things which are immoral but perhaps legal grey areas, “disputes” which we have among ourselves. Paul himself is self-aware as a writer to the Corinthians: in his life, he experiences “disputes” within his own religion and the throes of sexual desire, which he sees as sinful. He recognises the cost Christ bears for this “dispute”: this resolves these tensions in ways which, Christians accept, Paul necessarily cannot comprehend until the final days of judgement. It is a mistake, then, to focus in on the specifics of the “sexual immorality” in the letter, as these examples are transient and ways for that society to understand the greater point of salvation for an imperfect humanity. Perhaps a modern letter to the Corinthians would use other kinds of “disputes” among humans which are understood to be disrespectful. The upshot is that the specific example used by Paul is bound to its context in time and should be read as such. Coming from a background in Semitic law and promising a new order, it is unsurprising that the example of “sexual immorality” is used, but the example is idiomatic and does not carry the weight of divine judgement within its use; divine ideals of justice are beyond perspective, and, crucially, beyond human assumptions of understanding.
This being established, my (and hundreds of other women’s) experience in Italian basilicas begins to come unstuck from the foundations of religion which these policies present themselves as respecting. In its defence, Catholicism’s hermeneutical order for reading scripture encourages deference to the magisterium, or the tradition of established Catholicism. Papal infallibility is an example of the more than non-total perspective which, if such a pope interpreted Corinthians as supporting the covering up of knees, would be seen as binding regardless of context. Since Vatican II, Popes have had the mission of attempting to tailor their writings and interpretations to the modernising context: this helps them to carry on the Christian mission of building God’s Kingdom on Earth (evangelising the Gospel with the Church).
These two realities conflict heavily in the context of my knees, then. The modern context (at the time of the knee incident) is 37 degree heat, and a general context of women feeling their bodies to be biological and their own rather than inherently sexual markers to others. In a large proportion, men support us on this, even if regressive policies worldwide suggest otherwise. It is true that Corinthians can be interpreted as advocating that I cover my knees: modesty for many religions is a virtue. But, in the interests of Vatican II and the endurance of religion, my refusal to cover my knees and pay for a cloth dress out of feminist principles conflicts with the mission of Christian Theology. And it doesn’t have to! Just because one interpretation of humbling yourself before God is tied down to modesty and sexual immorality, does not mean that this is the best, or indeed the ultimate, interpretation. For the first thing, viewing my knees as sexual objects which distract men from praying alienates 50% of potential recipients of salvation. Instead of being joints which transport me to a place of worship, they are parts of a being whose identity as a sexual distraction outweighs my identity as a potential recipient of salvation alongside these easily distracted men. If these men, now that we come to it, can lapse in devotion to God by seeing knees, then the organised Church really is in trouble. I say men, because it was noticeable in each church that rejected knees that the signage indicated women, and policy allowed men in shorts to enter freely.
As I see it, we return to the humility advocated by Williams, in the cost of discipleship being a necessary acceptance of “Non total perspective”. This understanding of scripture and self-presentation before God seems to clash with other tenets of Christian theology and Christ. If one idiomatic example used in a far off context has the authority to inform modern Church practice, then the example is too infallible for its own good. To assume that patriarchal traditions are such is to misunderstand what scripture is: it is not infallible, but rather acts as an intermediate link in understanding from us to God. This is subject to contextual update and reinterpretation insofar as this protects the Church’s role in society, and, in turn, its eternal significance. If our bodies are temples, then Christian Theology requires the humility of one worshipping at a temple, not the use of my body to alienate me from its temple.