Many years ago now, as a member of the Sexuality Task Group of the Diocese of Nova Scotia — perhaps at the time when I was Chairperson of the group, I do not now remember — and a supporter of liberalising the church’s traditional views of sexuality, especially as gay and lesbian persons were concerned, I sat with an older priest who was strongly opposed to the acceptance of homosexuals, and to any change in the church’s moral tradition concerning sexuality. After discussing the issue for some time, and realising that, on this point at least we were never likely to come to any agreement, I turned to him and said,
Can’t you see that there is room in the church for both of us?
And then he, staring me straight in the eyes, his patience clearly stretched to its farthest limit, said, sharply,
And that was the end of our conversation. That was simply a change too far, and an assault upon the integrity of the faith as he understood it. For me that “No!” was almost as devastating. It was as if I had been punched in the stomach; for I had been told that, so long as I held the views that I had expressed to him, there was no possibility of fellowship between us, and that he could not even consider me an Anglican, let alone a Christian.
Looking back on that moment, I have often thought that it was, perhaps, my first step away from the church. By that single word I had been excluded from a shared community, and I recognised, over the coming years, as my theology, such as it was, became more and more revisionist, that I was separating myself more and more from the community that had sustained me for so many years.
But I also recognised another thing — which I have expressed recently in a post about love making all the difference — that achieving the independence of mind that had been growing year by year depended, in no small measure, upon the close, almost fused relationship, that I had been privileged to have with my wife Elizabeth. The relationship itself was transformative. After years of trying to find some kind of firm basis in belief on which to build a life, I realised that lives are not fashioned from convictions or certainties — which must, of their very nature, be rooted in the past – but only by allowing life to unfold into an open future full of possibilities. Christians often speak of their relationship with Jesus as being transformative, but, to tell the truth, I have never been able to understand what this could be. Jesus was always dead for me, and talk of resurrection had less and less meaning as time went on. Perhaps, for lack of anything better, people flee to what they call a personal relationship with Jesus, but I have never seen any evidence that that relationship is anything but a fantasy, an ignis fatuus of the mind, a factitious something created to keep people in thrall to an idea that sucks the very marrow out of life.
As I consider the hypersensitivity of so many Muslims to offences against their religion, and especially against the purely imaginary, culturally constructed, persona of the prophet they believe they follow, and on whose imagined life they try to fashion their own, it occurs to me that the vehemence and turbulence of their response, the almost hair-trigger mechanism that elicits an almost robotic surge of rage and violence from some of them, is due to the sheer emptiness of their personal lives. And a lot of that emptiness is due to the fact that for them women are not really people with whom they could be in a mutually sustaining relationship. Women on Cairo streets, even covered from head to foot, with only their eyes visible, and scarcely visible at that behind a mesh screen, are harassed and molested by men who can think of them only as sexual objects, not as real people, with feelings, thoughts, hopes, fears, plans or projects of their own. They exist as things to be used, and being used, as Kant would tell you, is simply to be abused, and so they are groped and fondled, however unwillingly, by men who are mere shadows of the full human beings that they might have been.
Really listen to Catholic bishops speak sometime. There is an emptiness about them, a lack of depth, as though they were cardboard cutouts. I remember when I acted as a chaplain at Sea Cadet summer camps, how one-dimensional Roman Catholic priests (all but one of them) tended to be, and how they so desperately wanted the warmth of human relationship. And yet I never heard so many “dirty” stories in my life! They were hollow men. I recall a priest who sat in my study and broke down in tears because he was so lonely. He couldn’t have a close relationship with a woman, because he would be suspected of having an improper relationship with her. And he couldn’t be close friends with a man, because people might think he was gay. Of most celibate clergy that I have known, however, it was their sheer lack of human depth that struck me, their inability to imagine what it would be like to have a living relationship with another person.
Their lack of human sensitivity should not surprise us. That they cannot see what sexual abuse does to a child should not bewilder us, since they do not really know what it is to live in a world that it is not all show, a cardboard cutout world in which their deepest yearnings and longings are suppressed and denied. We should not wonder that their emotional development, often cut off in their teens, can never grow beyond that infantile state, when they were boys who could kneel in all the sincerity of youthful enthusiasm before the statue of a sexless woman, mother and virgin, and offer her their all, their hopes and dreams, their very manhood itself, and place it all upon the altar of her pretended virginity. Why should anyone wonder when lives so stunted become heartlessly opportunistic when the realisation dawns that, after all, they cannot do without the consolations that they had so heedlessly placed upon the altar years before?
Of course, it is woman’s sexuality that they fear, or her omnisexuality, as Fatna A. Sabbah puts it in her book Woman in the Muslim Unconscious. Christianity is as guilty of this as Islam. They drink from the same spring. The Curé d’Ars, St. Jean Vianney, for instance, celebrated for his pastoral work, would never meet his mother face to face. If she came to visit, they would sit, at his demand, looking away from each other, at opposite ends of a bench. He never looked upon her face. And the Islamist suicide bombers, as Anderson Thompson tells us, make sure that their genitals are not harmed by the blast, so that they will be available to them in the afterlife. And whether the promised Houris of the afterlife are the women of their imaginations — who remain chaste, even though they repeatedly couple with the honoured Shahid – or simply rare sticky white raisins, the point is that, whether raisins or Houris, they lack normal sexuality, and human consciousness; they are reduced to sexual function for the male alone. Think of the Virgin Mary to which popes pay such extravagant tribute, the perpetual virgin of the religious imagination, an arid complement to their own (perhaps only attempted) sexlessness.
Fatna Sabbah speaks of the
eclipsing of the psychic dimension of this creature, the annihilation of the ego [which is] carried out by the simple omnipresence of the physical dimension. 
Either virgin or whore, there is no in between. And we see here the source of the most potent of male fantasies, the chaste woman who is all repressed sexuality, which can only be taken by force, but, once taken is, to use Sabbah’s words, nothing but a “voracious crack.” It is this dehumanisation that is characteristic of the religious mind, because, for religion, life is not here, it is always otherwhere. Given the obvious problems that even communities of unbelievers seem to have with sexuality, this dehumanisation of the woman may take some time to eradicate, but when men come to the defence of the myth of the omnisexual woman, thus justifying their misogyny and boorishness, if it is not simply the result of the asymmetry between male and female sexuality, they are really regurgitating lore that is deeply embedded in religion in practically every culture. I think it may be chiefly religious in origin, but I do not know. That it is destructive of living community is evident wherever you look.
Think about this in relation to the ideological divide which has split American society wide open, so that the possibility of bi-partisan cooperation seems almost to be a thing of the past. It is, I think, largely the dehumanisation of women that has led to this impasse. Refusing to see women as much more than functional opposites of male sexuality, but with little humanity of their own, means that they cannot in fact see civil society as more than a theatre of the absurd. So it is thought, without apparent concern, that women and women’s issues can be turned into political capital, and scrapped over like dogs with a bone. (Which should remind you of Hobbes:
Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the
money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a
Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man.
I doubt that Hobbes had the male sex particularly in mind here, though it is indeed apt in this context.) In fact, as Nicholas Kristof points out in a New York Times op-ed this morning (“How Romney would treat women“), what is wrong with this picture is supposing that women’s issues are of concern to women alone, as though men had no relation with their mothers, wives, daughters and other women whose lives matter to them.
If Mitt Romney seems to have no personal substance, it is largely due to the fact that he can chop and change at will, opportunistically, over what his stance towards women will be, whether they will be mere pawns in a political game or real people with real life plans or projects, hopes and fears. So he can suggest both that there is no intention of overturning Rowe v. Wade, on the one hand, and, on the other, that he does not entertain abortion even in the case of rape, and will cut funding to Planned Parenthood, even though this organisation offers many different services which are vital to women. Having chosen Paul Ryan as a running mate, he could scarcely adopt the first position and turn it into an election promise, so he spins about in the opportunistic wind, a cardboard cutout of a man. One is not surprised to find that, faced with a pregnant woman considering abortion (see Ophelia’s “Meet the Bishop“), he did not think of her as a person, but merely as a vessel for the production of new life. Her thoughts, her fears, her plans, her future never entered into it. Of course, abortion was out of the question. This is typical, I’m afraid, of the religious idealisation of women, which amounts to their dehumanisation. They can’t be sexual, because for the religious male to think of their mothers as sexual is distasteful. On the other hand, though, they can’t be equal, because they are so unqualifiedly sexual. It is obvious who is the loser in this vacillating dance.