17 August 2016

Gender in German: Time to abolish it (or change its name)

After a long hiatus, there was a topic that came up in an online conversation that has inspired me to write about a topic near and dear to me: German grammatical gender. Mind you, I have mastered German pretty well — in fact I can write paragraph after paragraph of flawless German (though for some reason every four or five paragraphs I have one that goes completely all to hell). I also actually think I do get why German has gender — and (hopefully) can show you how it works so that you can appreciate it.

What bugs me is the way grammatical gender is perceived, both inside and outside the German-speaking realm. This is what Mark Twain, in a fit of frustration, wrote about the subject:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. [...] A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female -- tomcats included, of course; a person's mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it -- for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person's nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven't any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.


In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not -- which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds -in, and that stands for Englishwoman -- Engländerin. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: "die Engländerin," -- which means "the she-Englishwoman." I consider that that person is over-described.

So it is easy to make fun of — if you don’t understand what gender is for and what it really is.

Grammatical gender in German actually has nothing — I mean nothing — to do with “gender” in the sexual sense. Zero. De nada. Twain’s observation above that a girl (das Mädchen) and a female (das Weib) are both “neuter”, while a cat is female regardless of its real gender (die Katze), should clue you in on this, but Twain definitely missed the point.

After some 20+ years of speaking the language on a daily basis, I think there is another explanation for the origin and purpose of grammatical gender. If you look at how plurals are formed, they are fairly consistent across each of the three genders. Usually this is taught as “if it is masculine, then it forms the plural like this”. I think that that is actually backwards. It is “masculine” because the plural is formed a certain way, not the other way around.

If a word’s plural adds an umlaut and an -e, like Topf -> Töpfe, then it almost certainly is masculine. Or if it remains unchanged in the plural, then it is also most likely masculine, like der Knochen -> die Knochen or der Knoten -> die Knoten.

If a word’s plural adds an -en or -n, like die Frau -> Frauen or Lampe -> Lampen, then it is almost certainly feminine.

If a word ends in a diminutive (-chen or -lein, such as Mädchen), or adds -er to form the plural, then it is almost certainly neuter. Hence das Mädchen becomes die Mädchen in the plural, or das Kind becomes die Kinder.

In the end, the “gender” is thus a tool for marking words for forming plurals in certain ways. It is nothing to do with sexual gender.

Granted, there are exceptions to these rule above, and Germans reading this will no doubt start posting them in response. The thing is, no language is 100% consistent — English is a particularly sloppy and irregular language. While German is indeed far more regular and systematic than English, that does not mean it is completely consistent. I submit that the plural is the real basis for the so-called “gender”.

So why bother with grammatical gender? Well, it actually helps make the language far more supple and subtle in phrasing and word order. German is able to play with word order in sentences in ways English can not remotely compete with. Consider the following three sentences:

Der Junge gibt dem Hund den Knochen.
Den Knochen gibt der Junge dem Hund.
Dem Hund gibt der Junge den Knochen.

All three nouns in this are “masculine” — der Junge (the boy), der Hund (the dog), and der Knochen (the bone). All three sentences thus mean almost exactly the same thing: The boy gives the dog the bone. The only subtle difference is one of emphasis. Where the first version matter-of-factly says the boy gives the dog the bone, the second emphasizes that the THE BONE was given, and the third emphasizes that THE DOG was given a bone. All this just by swapping word order — something which is impossible in English without adding prepositions. The bone gives the dog the boy means something completely different and only makes sense when we add those prepositions or use passive voice: The bone was given by the boy to the dog.

English had this same system once upon a time, when it was still Anglo-Saxon, before the Norman invasion of 1066. The genders, along with nearly all traces of the cases (dative and accusative), were lost over time as English became the language of simple peasants, while the elite spoke Norman French for some 300 years. We get by without it in English, but I think the language is actually somewhat poorer without it. Yes, it is easier to learn for new speakers, but it is also far less flexible and efficient in expressing complex thoughts.

Seen that way, the “gender” could really just as well have been called the “flavor”, with “der” words being sour words, “die” words being sweet words, and “das” words being salty words. The masculine, feminine, and neuter labels have caused all sorts of misunderstandings — and not just by non-native speakers.

To illustrate this misunderstanding: German and English have diverged dramatically in the way they try to become “gender neutral”. Where English tries to abolish all traces of gender from daily language, such as avoiding the -ess ending and preferring neutral terms instead — flight attendant instead of stewardess, chair instead of chairman, etc. — German has gone the polar opposite way.

German feminists get really offended if you forget the -in feminine ending for a woman’s job position, for example, or forget to use it in the plural. So instead of forming the plural for der Lehrer as die Lehrer to encompass all teachers, whether male or female, they insist on using the plural feminine form of -innenLehrer und Lehrerinnen — or sometimes resorting to the rather clumsy short form of LehrerInnen with a capital I.

This results is some really tortured and clumsy grammar. Where politicians, for example, would address others as a group as liebe Bürger (“dear citizens”), now they resort to liebe Bürgerinnen und Bürger (“dear female and male citizens”).

In our church, this had an even more strange effect — one that I tried to point out at our synod in a debate on the subject, but which unfortunately got nowhere. You see, our church — the Old Catholic Church in Germany — is quite vocal about supporting women’s ordination. Which is fine, I support it, too. But part of the point of women’s ordination, I think, is the notion that a person’s gender should not matter in performing their function as clergy. Otherwise, if there is a difference between the genders, that unwittingly opens up a hole for arguments as to why women should not be ordained.

Either gender matters for the priesthood, or it doesn’t. I happen to think it does not. But if it does…then what? And if it does not, then why insist on it being mentioned?

So ironically, by insisting on saying die Priesterinnen und Priester (“female and male priests”) instead of just die Priester to mean “priests”, the feminists among us are in effect forcing us to note the gender where gender isn’t supposed to be relevant.

This on top of the fact that science is showing us how gender is far more complex than a mere binary of male and female. It just is not the case that a person is solely male or solely female. The two blend into each other, like a continuum. Some people are well on the male side of that continuum, some are well to the female side, but in the middle there is a grey area. What about intersexed or transsexual people in Germany? How are feminists going to label them? Would an intersexed priest — not outside the realm of possibility! — be a Priesterin or a Priester? Would a transsexual teacher be a Lehrer or Lehrerin?

If we simply dump the whole idea of grammatical gender having anything to do with biological or sociological gender, then the whole problem disappears — while maintaining the grammatical flourishes and subtlety that grammatical gender provide.

For those Germans reading this (and I would be happy to translate this into German to make it easier for them to read!), think about it. If you really want German to be an inclusive language, and I hope you do, then let’s stop using “masculine/feminine/neuter” to describe grammatical gender. Or at least stop mixing grammatical gender with gender politics. Because it just makes no sense to do it.

09 March 2015

The myth of Galileo, Copernicanism, and the Catholic Church

The following was posted on Quora in response to the question What are some common misconceptions about the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages?:

One of the worst misconceptions about the Middle Ages is that the Church deliberately tried to limit knowledge and keep people stupid and uneducated. The most common example taken to illustrate this — which was in the Renaissance, but still applied to the Middle Ages — was that of Galileo’s conflict with the Church over heliocentrism.

In reality, the Church actively supported the dissemination of knowledge. The liberal arts were actively supported by the Church throughout the Middle Ages, even celebrated in church architecture. The major universities of the Middle Ages like the Sorbonne, Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg, were generally supported strongly by the Church and used to teach both the sciences and theology as well as the liberal arts in general. The major scientific thinkers of the age were generally priests and/or monks — like Roger Bacon — and the Church strongly supported the copying and dissemination of learned texts to further those ends. Once Greek philosophical texts like Aristotle became generally available in the West starting with the fall of Constantinople — having been lost in the chaos of the fall of the Western Roman Empire — it was the Church that made sure they were copied and passed around.

Which leads us to Galileo. The irony of the modern commonly held perception is that the Church was reluctant to approve Copernicus not so much because they held it to be in conflict with the Bible, but the stronger reason was that they held it to be in conflict with Aristotle and Ptolemy. While they were still mistaken for doing so, the Church leaders were utterly convinced the ancient Greek philosophers must have been right — from their perspective Europe was just recovering from a long night (the word “Renaissance” itself means “rebirth”) and rediscovering the ancient learning that had given the world the glory of Rome. Anything contradicting that was suspect, because how could a modern person, a product of all that decay, possibly be more right than the Romans and Greeks were?

Furthermore, the Church’s initial objection to Galileo was not that he was not right, but that they were concerned about the wider social impact his writings may have and whether Copernicanism was proven without a doubt. They wanted him to publish his works amongst the learned community at the time to let the debate take place in a smaller circle while the Church decided how to adapt to this new learning. Hence the Church, led by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, suggested various compromise positions, like stating the Copernican model was mathematically accurate and useful for predictions while still notionally sticking to Aristotle and Ptolemy. Tycho Brahe was one vocal proponent of this compromise, proposing a hybrid model with the other planets orbiting the Sun, while the Sun and Moon orbited the Earth. Other leading Church figures like Paolo Antonio Foscarini published attempts to reconcile Copernican ideas with Biblical passages that previously had been used to buttress Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Cardinal Bellarmine made this clear by writing, “then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them, than that what is demonstrated is false” — in other words, he did not reject the new ideas out of hand, but wanted to find a way to let the Church adapt to the new knowledge and re-interpret Scripture to match. Again, this was still wrong, but also quite understandable and very different from the idea that the Church wanted Copernicanism banned. The Church also wanted to be absolutely sure that Copernicanism was indeed proven beyond a shadow of a doubt before going public with it and asked various scientists and philosophers for their opinions — in other words, peer review, a hallmark of the scientific method.

Instead, Galileo went public and went out of his way to insult his opponents. In a modern context, it would be like a scientist refusing to publish his works in a peer-reviewed journal and instead put his ideas on Facebook while insulting his colleagues in the process. Even then, he had powerful protectors in the Church, including Pope Paul V, who had been a personal friend; it was only when Galileo insulted the Pope that he lost that protection and was tried for what were really political, not religious reasons (the religious ones were just a convenient excuse). Had Galileo been less bullheaded and gone through the peer review that the Church wanted, things would have gone very differently.

This was picked up by Protestant propagandists, who were only too happy to portray the Catholic Church as being beholden to “superstition” (a word they frequently used to deride Catholic teachings). That meme still goes on today in various guises, but it is still a distortion of what really happened.

I should point out that I’m not Roman Catholic, but Anglican, so it’s not like I take much pleasure in defending Rome. :P

Can gays really be Christians?

The following was posted on Quora as a response to the question, “In the Bible it states, "thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind, it is an abomination", Lev 18:22. Can someone be gay and be a genuine Christian, that is, accepting the Bible as the word of God, or that it contains the word of God, and doing ones best to follow it?”

The thing about such Biblical literalism — aside from the fact that this passage may well not say anything like the English translation you quote, as Lana Fisher correctly points out — is that you have to first understand what the Bible is and how it came to be. That in turn greatly affects how it should be interpreted.

The first question is, did the Bible create the Church of God, or was it the other way around? Did someone sit down and write it, and then we Christians all agreed to follow it as written? Or was it more like the Church already existed and then decided which existing writings were canon?

Any cursory reading of Church history shows that it was plainly the latter. The Bible did not fall from the sky fully formed, but took centuries to find its present form (and even now Christians can’t fully agree on which books belong to it, like the Biblical apocrypha). The various books that make up the Bible — along with many others, like the Gnostic texts — were floating around with varying degrees of acceptance by the early Christian congregations, but no “Bible” existed yet. Various lists circulated in those days containing books considered canon; they generally lined up, but there were sometimes significant differences.

Then the Church got together in a general council and decided on what books should be compiled into the Bible. Not only that, but they picked up on the already existing practice in Judaism (which evolved into modern rabbinical Judaism) of following an established tradition of how to interpret that canon — that is, the interpretations of learned experts approved by the Church took on a kind of canonicity of their own. Joe Shmoe can interpret the Bible any way he likes, but in the eyes of the Church, only that established tradition matters and Joe Shmoe has no authority to claim the Bible says this or that.

Thus the Church began that tradition with what we now call the Church Fathers, learned men (and they were generally men, or at least few writings from the period from women survive) who began to interpret the Bible based on that earlier Jewish tradition. And here is where it gets really interesting for this question.

The Church Fathers generally rejected a strict literalist interpretation of the Bible. Let that sink in a minute and read this quote by Origen of Alexandria, one of those Church Fathers (emphasis mine):

15.  But as if, in all the instances of this covering (i.e., of this history), the logical connection and order of the law had been preserved, we would not certainly believe, when thus possessing the meaning of Scripture in a continuous series, that anything else was contained in it save what was indicated on the surface; so for that reason divine wisdom took care that certain stumbling-blocks, or interruptions, to the historical meaning should take place, by the intro­duction into the midst (of the narrative) of certain impossibilities and incongruities; that in this way the very interruption of the narrative might, as by the interposition of a bolt, present an obstacle to the reader, whereby he might refuse to acknowledge the way which conducts to the ordinary meaning; and being thus excluded and debarred from it, we might be recalled to the beginning of another way, in order that, by entering upon a narrow path, and passing to a loftier and more sublime road, he might lay open the immense breadth of divine wisdom. This, however, must not be unnoted by us, that as the chief object of the Holy Spirit* is to preserve the coherence of the spiritual meaning, either in those things which ought to be done or which have been already performed, if He anywhere finds that those events which, according to the history, took place, can be adapted to a spiritual meaning, He composed a texture of both kinds in one style of narration, always concealing the hidden meaning more deeply; but where the historical narrative could not be made appropriate to the spiritual coherence of the occur­rences, He inserted sometimes certain things which either did not take place or could not take place; sometimes also what might happen, but what did not:  and He does this at one time in a few words, which, taken in their “bodily” meaning, seem inca­pable of containing truth, and at another by the in­sertion of many.  And this we find frequently to be the case in the legislative portions, where there are many things manifestly useful among the “bodily” precepts, but a very great number also in which no principle of utility is at all discernible, and some­times even things which are judged to be impossi­bilities.  Now all this, as we have remarked, was done by the Holy Spirit in order that, seeing those events which lie on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to the investigation of that truth which is more deeply concealed, and to the ascertaining of a meaning worthy of God in those Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by Him.
(Origen of Alexandria, De Principiis IV.15, 3rd century AD — Source: ANF04. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second)

* — What is meant here is that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Church as well as through our individual consciences.

To summarize Origen, we need guidance and understanding in interpreting Scripture, because sometimes the Bible was meant literally, sometimes it wasn’t. Clearly Jesus was being quite literal when He said to love our neighbors and to love God, but the Earth was plainly not created in six calendar days and the Flood didn’t really destroy the whole world. What matters is the spiritual truth contained in the narratives.

He also wrote, with another Church Father, Gregory of Nazianus, supporting him:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.
(Origen of Alexandria, De Principiis IV.16, 3rd century AD — Source: ANF04. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second)

St. Augustine wrote similar things roundly criticizing a literal interpretation.

So…how do we decide? We refer back to earlier precedents in the writings of the Church Fathers, while also allowing for a range of opinion to exist. Only where the Church has definitively spoken in a general council is there any one possible interpretation binding on all Christians. The Church decides, not individuals, and only when it is in consensus. As Vincent of Lérins said in his famous rule of catholicity — i.e. that which is established canon and binding — id teneamus, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est; hoc est etenim vere proprieque catholicum:

[6.] Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally.
St. Vincent of Lérins, Commonitory, 434 AD (Source: NPNF-211. Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian)

Dogma — in other words, something Christians must believe because the Church has decided so — is therefore only that which the Church has proclaimed in general council.

Which brings us to this question of homosexuality in particular. Has there ever been a general council that has defined this text to say what you think it says? Is homosexuality a sin or abomination? Of the seven ecumenical councils (i.e. those recognised by the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, and in theory Anglicans), none say anything about homosexuality. Nothing. De nada. There were regional councils that did condemn “sodomy” at various times, though what they meant by that term changed over time, so we can’t even be sure that they meant homosexuality per se (e.g. a loving long-term relationship, as opposed to just having extramarital sex with people of the same gender or pederasty or beastiality or any of the many other things the term was applied to). But there has never been a definitive dogmatic statement from the whole Church — a statement establishing that this has been believed “everywhere, always, by all” — declaring that homosexuality as we understand it today is in fact a sin and that this passage means what you say it might mean. In fact there is some evidence that same-sex relationships in some forms may have been tolerated, even celebrated (see Adelphopoiesis), particularly in eastern Europe. At times the Roman Catholic Church has actually worked to decriminalize homosexual relations between consenting adults, like by supporting the Wolfenden Report in the UK in the 1960s or the National Federation of Priests' Councils in the USA noting their opposition to “all civil laws which make consensual homosexual acts between adults a crime”. Thus any claim to homosexuality being dogmatically defined as sin fails St. Vincent’s simple test — and thus a range of opinions is perfectly OK.

To answer your question based on the above: Yes, it is entirely possible to be gay and be a faithful Christian, unequivocally. I certainly hope many more do so, and am glad to personally know a great number of gay Christians (both clergy and laypeople) who enrich our church’s life. As for the great pain that many Christians have caused gays by claiming otherwise, I am deeply sorry and hope that their wounds will heal, whatever path they take.

27 February 2015

The not-so-new victim politics

A friend sent this link to me — an interesting (if thoroughly depressing) read. It is an article entitled “Rock, Paper, Scissors of PC Victimology: Muslim > gay, black > female, and everybody > the Jews”. Please do go have a read.

The thought that keeps going through my mind about this is that human beings are intensely social creatures obsessed with hierarchy. As soon as one tool for creating and enforcing such a hierarchy passes away — feudalism, say — we come up with another one to replace it. For all the rhetoric of our modern society claiming to be egalitarian and democratic, we are anything but, and things like this are nothing more than schoolyard bullying in an ongoing struggle for greater social status, whatever the cost.

Thus I don’t see it as a “new” victim politics, but rather something very old indeed, as old as humanity itself. In the 20th century, there were plenty of such examples of people framing others as heterodox and heaping abuse on them, like within Communism (the Cultural Revolution was a major example, as were Stalin’s purges). Contrary to the article’s claim that this is a thing of the left, the right was and is quite capable of the same thing. Witness the outrage you see on Fox News for anything “un-American” or McCarthyism. Going further back, Muslims and Christians were quite happy to denounce each other — Sunni vs. Shia, Catholic vs. Orthodox vs. Protestant, orthodox Christian vs. “heretics” of various stripes — over trivialities. Quite often these denouncements ended in outright mass murder. And as the manifold examples of the 20th century make clear, religion had little to do with it. It is just one label amongst many that can be seized upon to beat up on someone else. Take away religion, people will find something else — anything to make your identity better than someone else’s in the eyes of others.

Take away religion, politics, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, and sports, and people will seize on the color of a dress to beat each other up with.

Maybe we’re not resorting to physical violence as much as we once did (duels, brawls, catfights, wars, genocides), but we’re becoming that much more adept at psychological violence to replace it. Progress of a sort, I suppose, but deep down little if anything has changed.

The final irony is that by framing this phenomenon as something “new” and mocking it as “victim politics”, the author is himself engaging in this very sort of hierarchical power politics without realizing it.

TL;DR — people suck.