This Place is Absurd

Inflation is through the roof; the economy is scarcely recovering from what happens to an economy when a right-winger actually does something; and governments are paying people just to be able to heat their homes. But it’s the gender of God we really need to be focusing on. Oh, and the theology of women ministers.

Northern Ireland is an absurd place. That alone makes it a great location for a writer or a creative to work. Constant inspiration: the commingling of the sublime and ridiculous at all times. It also makes it an impossible place to live, too. The myth of gradual progress probably died a while ago here, maybe around the time Arlene and Michelle brought down power sharing over a crocodile. The widespread consensus now, though, is that we are doomed. Radical unionist politicians have lined up behind the Protocol like religious fanatics clinging to a creed. It’s classic ‘I know who I am because I am not like you’. It’s how we are still doing identity here in NI. It’s our way. It’s made life easy for Sinn Fein. Just stay quiet. Don’t interrupt your enemy when they are making an arse of themselves. Republican politicians are much cleverer than their loyalist counterparts. It’s like a natural law or something, like the way cats always outmanoeuvre the dopey family dog.

Brexit and the resulting political stalemate is just the latest iteration of NI’s absurdity. The only mistake we could make is to get drawn in on the specifics of the current situation and treat it as though it were new. But this week, the insanity of this place broke through to me once again in striking fashion. Two theological stories were debated across the place. The first, the gender of God; the second, the validity of women ministers in the Presbyterian Church.

The initial story is really an English one. The Anglicans on the mainland (or in England) have been exploring the merits of referring to God in gender neutral terms. It cut through here because in NI we are as invested in culture wars as it is possible to be for a place that prides itself on not talking about anything. Arguing over the abstract is preferable to sitting round a table to discuss the benefit of real-life pragmatism. So the gender of a metaphysical reality we can’t ever know exists is a much more pertinent theological issue in NI than the rise of, say, child poverty. By the way, a fifth of children here are raised in poverty. But anyway, back to God’s gender.

The Belfast Telegraph and Radio Ulster both covered the story in Northern Ireland. Rightly so, it is a fascinating idea: the Creator of the universe might well not be a male. That people get angry about this notion highlights just how passionate some residents of NI are about theology and, also — and this may be in some way related — just how illiterate these same people are when it comes to their chosen passion. The genderlessness of God has been a thread running through Christian theology since the opening lines of Genesis implied that God might be better thought of as a ‘they’ than a ‘he’. Let us make humans in our own image, they said. But don’t read it literally, say the literalists!

What worries me is that facts don’t matter. That theological discussion has always included the notion that God is beyond gender and that the maleness of God is sheer anthropomorphism does not seem to matter now. The reason? Theology, like our views on foreign affairs, tax, immigration, coffee and sexuality, have been reduced to thin ideology. There is no room for nuance when all views are traceable to a tribal decision taken for once and for all before any discussion can take place. God is not a man. All Christians agree with this. But to say God is genderless is a step too far. It’s the super-powerful Queer lobby throwing its weight around again. The Anglican Communion are in the pocket of Big Gender, the left-wing equivalent of the NRA.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland was in the headlines this week, too. Their next Moderator seems a little on the anti side when it comes to women in the pulpit. The liberals in the church, the ones not liberal enough to jump ship when the church barred queer people in 2018, are incandescent with rage. How dare they choose a man with such dangerous and backward ideas. It seems to have come as a shock to some Presbyterians. Further evidence, perhaps, that some folks are only capable of caring when something impacts them personally.

All this is to say that Northern Ireland is fertile soil for the culture wars. Every story, foreign or locally sourced, will be divided up along partisan lines. It isn’t good, though, to treat nuance with suspicion. These lines were drawn for us, not by us. The UK and Ireland have imported the culture wars with few checks on the border. And it seems like NI is the place these ideas take root first in these islands. PCI have been regressing at speed, and their jump to the right has coincided with a rapidly declining membership. Evidence, the elect might say, that they are staying true to the gospel. Narrow is the way, after all.

The mistake PCI make, like many churches, is believing that they are in some way separate from the world. In the world but not of the world, is the way Christ reportedly put it. Of course, saying this doesn’t make it true. In reality, the church is very much in and of the world. It helps shape the culture of its setting, either by intentional action, or by passive submission to a dominant worldview. How ironic it is that the church has rolled over to a prevailing ideology, established in America and reverse-Mayflowered back to Ireland.

The contradictions of NI continued to grow exponentially. I think often of the nationalist conservatives who vote DUP because outlawing abortion now matters more than Irish unity. Or the progressive unionists who had to vote Doug Beattie, the party leader who chastises people for ‘whining like a girl.’ The old allegiances and animosities are still there, though, waiting to reemerge as soon as it becomes politically expedient. At the minute, it is culture we care more about than a border. That will change again soon and we will all fall into line when it does. The place is absurd.

One fifth of all children here grow up in poverty.

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