Soon after my arrival at a new parish, a female friend and colleague informed me that I had used "He" to refer to God five times in my sermon. This was in the mid 90s and some were worried that women would be insulted when God was referred to as "He" because his maleness excluded them, and God became part of the oppressive patriarchy. The established orthodoxy was to avoid personal pronouns for God resulting in awkward language. Thankfully we never altered the Lord's prayer to "Our mother in heaven". The problem with this concern was that it attributed gender to God who has no gender because He does not "exist" as human beings exist. God is beyond existence because He is eternal. Thus, political correctness tended to objectify God, and we all know where that leads, the oft drawn conclusion that God does not "exist". In our self-righteousness and overweening concern for the feelings of others, damage was done to a centuries old theological tradition.
While political correctness still hangs around and in some cases is understandable, we are faced with a new crisis in what John McWhorter, calls "Woke Racism" in his book of the same name. Woke Racism has some similarities to political correctness in that it imagines a victim that we need to protect, and we do that by demanding the offender be cancelled. This may occur even though the offender did not intend to offend, but nevertheless, offence was taken.
McWhorter identifies Third Wave anti-racism that ignores the previous two waves. The first wave that battled slavery in the nineteenth century and second wave in the 70s and 80s that taught Americans that racism was a moral flaw. Woke racism insists that even though racism is widely condemned and identified, it is still baked into the white population to such an extent that it is unconscious. To say that one is not racist is to confirm that one is. Woke racism confirms people of colour in the role of victim that becomes for them the overriding identifier and traps them in a doomed scenario of endless opposition to whiteness. For example, coloured students may consider study and punctuality as being white things and hence sabotage their chances at improvement through education.
Examples abound of men and women losing their positions because they have broken unseen rules. One situation has caught my eye that is particularly heartbreaking. An article in Unherd by Kate Clanchy, a teacher and poet, described how her publisher, Picador, withdrew her contract after a professor of English at Liverpool University, Sandeep Parmar accused her of dehumanising and exoticizing her students in an essay for The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. We may see a compassionate and loving teacher working in difficult state schools and using English studies to enable children from impoverished backgrounds, many of them refugees, to find a place in society. Not so, says Parmar, by publishing their poetry and writing about them in a memoir that won the Orwell prize, they were exoticized and dehumanised.
Parmar writes "It is this fixation on exotic images-of their bodies, their clothes, their hair, their eyes-that feels most writerly but also wholly exploitative and reductive, reminiscent of colonial-era pseudo-scientific taxonomies of race."
We may see an affectionate description of these children's selves, but Parmar sees colonial oppression of the coloured races. What Parmar refuses to see is the love of these children for their teacher and her love for them. She would rather them huddled in resentment because the empire that had oppressed their forbears in the past, does so today. This is a trap that ensures their continuing alienation from the society that surrounds them. It is much more satisfying to be curmudgeonly and express that mood in the impenetrable language of literary criticism than to see the lovely relationship between Clanchy and her students.
McWhorter describes people like Parmar as Elites who belong to an irrational religious cult. As in most cults, belief is everything and nothing can be questioned, at the pain of expulsion. His description of woke racism as religious is apt, it reminds me of the Gnostics who were sure that an elite possessed higher, secret/sacred knowledge that would ensure their salvation (Gnosis is Greek for knowledge). But it reminded me more of Puritans, who attempted by censure to make everyone live pure lives. The desire of the individual was at the mercy of the many in the name of righteousness.
If McWhorter had been more theologically informed, he would have had more strings to his bow. The dangerous nonsense of woke racism, political correctness, identity politics, radical feminism and all movements that insist there exists deep chasms within the human family only exist because of the purported death of God, because God, in the past, held the human family together.
The new Puritanism can only exist because as we have lost God, we have lost the understanding that we are all sinners, ie that we cannot cleanse ourselves from the sins of the fathers. To live in the world is to be immersed in sin. Buy a piece of clothing and you support starvation wages in Bangladesh. Buy an Apple product and you support a repressive regime in China. There is no escape. My local bookshop has banned the books of J.K.Rowling because she wrote an essay about transgenderism. The proprietors explained that they wished to create a safe place for transgender people to visit. Harry Potter has never been taken so seriously.
In a theological void there is a place for old theological mistakes to be revived. The new Puritanism "is itching to smoke out heretics and ready on a moment's notice to tar us as moral perverts." That so many publishers and university managers cave in so quickly is testament to that theological void that leaves us floundering. Woke anti-racism is very quick to stir up white guilt, and this rose to a crescendo after the murder of George Floyd, an obscene act played out in the public view. When whites accept guilt for this and the whole history of colonialism, then they have no choice but to accede to the demands of anti-racist groups and their totalitarian morality. We are all called to recognise the violence of the past, but if the past is used as a weapon to entrench division, then we should refuse to take the bait.
The intensification of the idea of the individual in terms of fragile difference has overwhelmed our commonality. Being male or female, colonial or indigenous, of different sexual attraction is more important than our shared humanity. Sexual difference has spawned acronyms by the score as a visit to the LGBYQIA resource centre at UC Davis illustrates. This compendium is offered so that we can negotiate all existing sexual versions of the human so that nobody can be discriminated against or be made to feel "unsafe". We are witnessing the fragmentation of humanity into individual difference because of our desire for acceptance for all, but in the process, because of our totalitarian mode of thought, we have created a nightmare of general oppression. It is assumed that people of difference are terribly sensitive to slight. Helen Garner, in her book The First Stone is amazed that so much was made of an accusation that the master of a university college touched a female student's breast during a college ball. In her day, of first wave feminism, such an event would never have been taken seriously. As it happens, the man in question lost his position even though he was not found guilty of an offence. He found himself unemployable, stained forever by an unproven and trivial accusation.
The Church is the only institution that is equipped to resist this fragmentation of human identity because it has a view of God and humanity as fundamentally a whole, despite individual differences. In the first creation story (Gen.1-2:2) humanity is created in the likeness and image of God, i.e., humanity, like God, is undivided. In the second creation story we hear that the man and the woman become one flesh (Gen 2:24), indeed the man says that the woman will be "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh". Of course, there are differences between male and female, but the overall reality is the humanity they share as creatures created by God. One does not have to be a creationist to understand that we are dealing here with an ontology of the human, stories that elucidate the being of humanity.