Is “Normal” Really Just a Setting on the Washing Machine?
Or, another way of asking it is “Is ‘normal’ just a town in Illinois?” I have heard it said both ways—that “normal” is just a setting on the washing machine (or drying machine) and that “normal” is just a town in Illinois.
Going deeper—these clichés seem to represent, express, a common attitude growing even among Christians (especially young ones). I certainly see it being represented in popular culture.
I write here as a theist—a believer in a personal, creator God—and as an evangelical Christian. (I have explained here many times that, for me, “evangelical” has nothing to do with American politics even though many people, including many evangelicals, think it does. It is a historical-spiritual-theological ethos. Part of that ethos is believing that the Bible is God’s Word written and inspired by God.)
My concern here is that popular secular thinking common in American culture is seeping into, invading Christian thinking—even among some who consider themselves evangelical Christians.
In my humble opinion, this can only happen due to lack of discernment or lack of commitment to historic, biblically-based Christianity.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
A common message being communicated in many ways in American culture is that “normal” is a word associated with power and privilege. Anyone who identifies something as “normal” is automatically assumed to be possibly attempting, however unconsciously, to oppress people by marginalizing them.
I do not at all deny that that is sometimes the case.
But I wonder if we really should discard the whole idea of “normal?” Should we as Christians consider “normal” nothing more than a setting on the washing machine (to continue using the figure of speech)?
What I’m talking about (in case anyone doesn’t know) is the social world of human beings and their relationships. Is labeling something “normal” automatically evidence of power and privilege being used to marginalize others and thereby oppress them?
I can certainly see why secularists might say so, although I am not at all sure they can be consistent with that. I suspect everyone thinks some forms of human life and relationships are normal and others are not normal. What those things are may differ greatly, but I doubt that anyone can discard the idea of “normal” entirely from their thinking. (Again, here, now, I’m talking about forms of human living and relating to each other.)
My question is whether it is really possible to consider that no social order is “normal” compared with others. Or, putting it another way, whether it is possible not to consider some social orders “abnormal,” “out of order,” “disordered.” Is labeling something in human life “not normal” always evidence of power and privilege?
But, as I said, my main concern here is with Christians. It seems to me that this idea that “normal” applied to human relationships can be rooted in revelation and not automatically be an expression of power and privilege is basic to Christianity. And it seems to me that to suggest that it is always an expression of power and privilege, is to raise some serious questions about God as our creator. Did God, does God, have no intentions about how human life should be lived? No real Christian I know would say that. However, how far does that extend?
Let’s take the case study of marriage. Is marriage, for the Christian, especially, a human creation endlessly flexible and its “normalcy” only a fiction agreed on by societies? Again, I don’t know any Christian who would say so. But if marriage is not a divine “order of creation,” then that view of marriage becomes almost irresistible.
It seems to me that the common opinion, being promoted by many secularists in our American society (to say nothing of other societies), that there is no “normal” with regard to marriage and family, cannot be reconciled with belief in a personal, creator God who has intentions, a will, for human life on the earth, before the arrival of the new heaven and new earth.
Let’s follow that thinking a bit further. Does not denial of “normal” with regard to marriage and family inexorably open the door to having to normalize, say, polygamy?
Now, all kinds of objections immediately arise—from both secular and religious people. What about the Bible? Doesn’t it normalize polygamy? The vast majority of Christians have said that polygamy was never God’s ideal but a concession to human frailty. The vast majority of secular people say that polygamy is never normal because it automatically, always involves oppression of the wives. But is that necessarily the case? Is that not to say that adult women cannot know what they are doing when they enter into plural marriage? Is it not to treat them as children?
Clearly, polygamy or plural marriage does not have to be oppressive; it could be one woman and several men! Admittedly that’s not traditional or common, but who is to say it couldn’t be the case? What if it were the case? Would that expression of polygamy be “not normal?” By what standard?
Note that here, in this conversation, “normal” clearly does not mean merely “what isn’t usually the case.” We are talking about “normal” here as something more than just “What is outside the realm of the usual.” Nobody, nobody!, has any problem with that meaning of “normal.” Objections arise only when someone labels a particular form of human life, such as monogamous, heterosexual marriage “normal” and means it is the norm departures from which are to be considered less than ideal.
So, it seems to me, setting aside that common, not philosophical or theological definition of “normal,” there are only two possible meanings of “normal”—in terms of evaluating forms of human life and relationships.
One is the growing secular consensus—at least in the Western world—that “normal” is only what a particular society has agreed on “for now.” It can never be absolutized because there is no one and nothing transcendent to humanity, human society, social contract, to appeal to for normalcy. The problem with this view, of course, is that with it anything becomes thinkable. Nothing is then beyond thinking as possibly normal.
The other possible meaning of “normal”—in terms of evaluating forms of human life and relationships—is to believe there is something or someone transcendent to human beings and our social orders which/who forms the criteria for what counts as “normal” and what counts as “abnormal” in human life and relationships. The problem with that view, of course, is that certain powerful people can and do often appeal to some private access to that transcendent reality and then use their power and privilege to enforce their opinion on everyone.
Both meanings of “normal” (as I am using it here) are common; both have huge problems. Which one has the problems we can live with?
Back to Christians. It seems to me that Christians, insofar as they are really Christians in their thinking, must adopt the second meaning above and then struggle to keep people with power and privilege from merely enforcing their private (or idiocyncratic collective) view on everyone else. But, at the same time, Christians must, I think, believe there is a transcendent standard of “normalcy” and keep struggling also to understand it without enforcing it, if discovered and embraced, on others. In other words, absolutize it (within our own communities) without totalizing it. That is what the Catholic Church does. Unfortunately, in my opinion, many Protestants (and some Catholics) seem to be overly influenced by the secular, postmodern idea that there is no “normal” in human relationships and that what is ideal in them is never really settled, even in our own minds and communities. We relinquish that right to “settle the ideal for now” to secular sociologists and those influenced by them. This is, in my humble opinion, simply secularizing Christianity (often unintentionally).
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