6th February 2020
The Folau case: Faith and Pseudo Liberalism
The recent signing of Israel Folau by French Rugby League club Catalans Dragons has sparked much controversy in the sport and the media. This follows his sacking in Australia for making “homophobic” comments on social media. It is easy for both his supporters and opponents to jump into quick quotable comments about this, but in order to understand what is really at stake in the case a much deeper enquiry into the position is required. I shall attempt to examine the issues a little more fully, because they raise important insights into the nature of the underlying problem which most commentators seem eager to avoid.
Astute readers will already have noticed I have put the word “homophobic” in quotes. That’s because this simple term has the effect of reducing the complex dimensions of the issue to a binary polarity. It assumes, by its very coinage, that the motives of the person making a comment are irrational, unjustified, and emotional and therefore invites a response with similar qualities. That is not helpful, as we shall see. It generates, as the well-worn expression goes, more heat than light.
Firstly, in order to understand what has happened it is necessary to understand the remarks in question; it is not enough to accept someone else’s judgement that they fall into a particular category. We need to know what people wrote and what they meant by it.
Folau’s posts are fairly elusive, but I have found two partial quotes on BBC web pages which will show the kinds of misunderstanding between Faith groups and Pseudo Liberals which drive this controversy.
The first was on a web page from 5th April 2018 about an Instagram exchange the previous year. Folau was asked “What was god’s plan for gay people?”
Now straight away, we have a problem and can see why this exchange is unlikely to end well. For although Psuedo Liberals might not notice, the punctuation of this question is aggressively insulting to a Christian. Spelling the name or title of the Divine with a small ‘g’ is guaranteed to cause offence and distress. We cannot know whether the insult is calculated or ignorant but whichever it is it shows an opening cultural gulf between the two protagonists. It could well indicate a malicious intent on the part of the questioner. It certainly shows a lack of awareness of the other person’s sensibilities.
According to the BBC, Folau’s response was “Hell... unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”
Now, leaving aside what might be hidden by the ellipsis, this needs quite a lot of unpacking to understand, because Christian doctrine is not completely straightforward and scholars have debated it for nearly two thousand years. Firstly, Hell is not a clearly defined concept. Some think of it as eternal torture while others regard it as anihilation. Arguments among Christians have gone on and will continue to go on for centuries. Secondly, Christians differ on whom they understand to be destined for that place or state. However, it is fairly standard to understand that full Salvation in Christ depends on repentence and turning to God. So, the Church of England baptism service requires a candidate or the sponsors to give an affirmative answer to three questions:
“Do you renounce evil?”
“Do you repent of your sins?”
“Do you turn to Christ?”
Only after a positive response to these three questions can a person be baptised.
So, Folau has not actually treated “gay people” differently from anyone else in this answer. They, in common with all of us, could be seen as destined for Hell (whatever that means) unless they repent of their sins and turn to God in Christ. Some Christians, of course, might take exception to the idea of Hell as God’s plan, although that’s another point theologians could argue over.
That said, it is possible, even, I suspect, probable Israel Folau would see homosexual behaviour as an indication a person had not repented and turned to God, which brings me to the second quote. In a BBC page dated 15th April 2019 Folau is quoted as posting “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.”
Now, that does not sound like a tactful thing to write. There is too much of a sense of delight in people’s condemnation. It does not read as well-meant. Whether or not it is true (again, Christians would disagree over that) it does seem to gloat over the fate of these people. However, although insensitively expressed, the categories he lists are not his own. Although he has altered the order, the list is essentially not his but St Paul’s. In I Corinthians 5.9-10 the Apostle wrote:
“Do not be misled; neither the promiscuous, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor the soft [usually understood as a male recipient of anal intercourse], nor men who lie with men, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor extortionists shall inherit the Kingdom of God.”
Now, there is room to debate what St Paul meant by that, but it stands as a part of the Christian scripture, understood by many Christians as God’s teaching and to have his full authority. Whilst open to argument, it is not open to denial. The words are there to be interpreted, and for Christians they are integral to faith. It is not reasonable to expect a Christian to disagree with God just because one does not like the message. That would be persecution. Sacking someone for believing what he thinks his faith teaches is persecution. So is requiring someone to lie about their faith when specifically asked what they believe.
For St Paul in his day, the behaviour listed would be seen as a sign of excessive pleasure-seeking. It would not be the specific actions which prevented someone being saved, for one of the main themes of his writing, consistently repeated, is that we are justified by faith, by our attitude to God, rather than by the things we do. So, for St Paul these activities would not have caused condemnation in themselves, but would have been symptomatic of a person living for self and pleasure rather than God. It would be that attititude which would put a person outside their inheritance.
Some would argue our understanding has changed, though it is not clear how much of that understanding is demonstrable from sound research and how much is merely cultural. A proper scientific study of such things would help, but such a study would rely on the freedom to research the area with an open mind, and pseudo-liberalism does not allow that. Any researcher who sought to investigate the field would be targeted by political activists fearful the conclusion might not be what they want.
And this is the problem: the temperature is simply too high. Instead of treating this as a question to be answered, it has been made a cause to which people are required to commit themselves. Instead of being a matter, for the most part, of private preference and quiet consideration, it has been made a key part of a person’s public persona and of their core sense of self. That is the problem of identity politics; it magnifies small aspects of a person’s experience into the core of who and what they are, and demands quasi-tribal loyalty where understanding would be far more useful.
Which is what sets people against each other. Things are done without full regard for the consequences for others.
An example would be the way Parliament in 2013 legalised same-sex marriage. Now, that some sort of provision for same-sex couples desiring civil approval for their condition could be seen to be needed is very arguable. After all, the State, even a notionally faith-based one as England still officially is, should not take sides on matters of conscience. It has a duty to be even-handed and make provision as its citizens expect, and by the second decade of the 21st century such provision was coming to be expected.
The problem comes from the way it was done for, despite the bishop’s protests in the House of Lords, the bulk of parliamentarians simply failed to understand that for Christians (and possibly for followers of other faith paths as well) marriage has real theological significance. Indeed, for Roman Catholics it is a sacrament of the Church and, although Protestants would not use that word, for many it has a high symbolic importance. So a secular government changing its definition is a serious matter. There are two main aspects to this: firstly that marriage is defined in Scripture as arising out of the division of humanity into two sexes and secondly because Jesus taught that it is not under human authority, but God’s. The latter point clarifies why a human government purporting to change its meaning is problematical. It is tantamount to usurping divine authority. That, in turn, could cause a Chrisitan serious qualms of conscience in signing the register. Would that amount to endorsing the government’s blasphemous claim to be above God? What, exactly, does the register record?
Had the government been aware of this problem for Christian consciences they could have made adequate provision. It would simply be a matter of recognising the plurality of society and providing flexibility of definition. Recognising not all understand the nature of marriage to be the same thing and enabling people to record what they understood the nature of their relationship to be would allow everyone to function. For that is what true tolerance does. The definitions need not be so crude as same-sex or opposite-sex. That would clearly be prejudicial and undermine the new provision completely, but there could be different understandings of the nature of the institution – according to this tradition or that tradition. Is marriage about two people expressing love and making a public committment to each other? Then it matters not which sex they are. If it is about the unity of humanity across the gender divide, then it does. Both definitions could live alongside each other so long as a choice were available, and there would be no need to single out any small group of people as markedly different. Other groups might need a clarification of their own. There is no reason not to make such provision. It is not the rôle of the State to define philosophical, moral, or spiritual concepts, but to record legal relationships for legal purposes.
The opportunity was missed, and instead of flexibility, the Church was given leave within the redefined institution, to abstain from treating all people equally, without reference to the theoretical concepts which could make such abstinence morally acceptable. To those within the Christian community, this too feels like persecution, put in a moral position it is hard to explain. It feels like slander.
The Pseudo-Liberal failure to understand or allow the needs of others drives fear, anxiety and, in groups who might be disposed that way, the sort of desperation which drives antagonism and rebellion. It provides a breeding ground for extremists to lash out against whoever they see standing in their way. It can only destabilise society which, in turn, enables the pseudo-liberals to justify clamping down on freedom of expression even more.
But this is the way of madness. It could turn society into an ever-more-dangerous state of fear and hatred. Is that what Pseudo-Liberals seek? I hope not.