As Questioning Christian notes, Brokeback Mountain reveals that, by and large, the American public will become tolerant of homosexuality. They will note merely that homosexuality happens, and that it has no intrinsic moral content, and that homosexual activity will have little effect upon heterosexuals. The popular belief will be that people are made that way, and there is little evidence for social or physical harm between consenting adults.
This does not bode well for those for whom homosexual acts are an accurate litmus test for right praise. Those who are theologically orthodox, but desire a broader cultural reach will not to preach about homosexuality, except obliquely as a way of shoring up marriage generally. Institutions that insist that homosexual activity become curtailed will become the sorts of places that attract individuals who have a peculiar animosity towards homosexual persons. The latter will be ill-equipped to evangelize well, for no matter how well they explain that they are simply passing down the traditions handed down by the saints, the public will understand them as a group that has cruel expectations of GLBT people.
Some argue that accommodations to American libertines exemplifies the weakness of a culture-bound Christianity. A Christianity, it is argued, that succumbs to the worldly mores ceases to become Christianity. Christianity that accepts homosexual behavior as possibly good is rejecting its own inheritance. There is some truth to this statement, in that there are some values in the world that are held in tension with the requirements of Jesus. But to present culture and Christianity as completely opposite supposes a flawed understanding of what constitutes “culture” and a very idealistic understanding of Christian practices.
The first objection is fairly simple, if controversial. A “Culture” is an inaccurate way of describing the rituals, symbols and social acts we practice. Instead, we have to talk about “cultures,” for each one of us lives in different societies: work, school, church, ethnicity, class, and gender, may constitute separate, although intermingling, cultures. We also have to talk about “Christianities:” Pentecostal Christianity is much different than 1950’s Christianity, which is much different than 15th century Irish Christianity. Some practice multiple kinds of Christianity that also intermingle. People may go to a conservative interdenominational church for the music, but have friends who are gay and in life-long relationships. But Christian and non-Christian cultures mix and inform each other, clarifying each other’s contours. ECUSA is one kind of Christian culture that represents certain slices of the broader culture. We are different then Pentecostals.
Second, although the reading of scripture may be transformative, but the culture also transforms the readers of scripture. The world asks scripture questions: we read with attention to our own questions. Paul did not ask questions of the Torah that we are: for him the answer was settled. And we do not merely ask Torah; we are asking Paul; and we are asking each other. Why does scripture say “no” and under what conditions may it say, “yes”?
Reasserters have a point. We are only Christian – or a biblical tradition, if we make an effort to discern from our common religious resources – especially scripture, but also the church fathers, canon law, and the fellowship of the saints – the place of any coherent ethic. But it is the effort which is crucial.
They ignore, however, that scripture itself redefines scripture. There is movement within texts – from Amos to Ecclesiastes to Ezra; from Ezekiel to Daniel to Revelation; from Leviticus to the Sermon on the Mount; from Exodus to the Magnificat. We are constantly in the process of affirming, reconsidering, ignoring and discarding. It does not mean that everything goes; but it does mean that some things, practically, do go, and that plenty stays.
The consequence is that liberals do have the burden, for homosexual acts are clearly forbidden in scripture, in part as a consequence of gender essentialism. Reasserters may set, however, the bar far too high [and I doubt if they know exactly what the bar is] and, because there are also political issues at stake, would ignore the insights upon which progressives Christians hang their hat. For reasserters, any discussion means the end of marriage, although progressives are not interested in blessing any relationship, but those that require an intention and promise.
Progressive Christians may have the following assumptions.
We are skeptical that the political interests of the scribes can be neatly divorced from the written words that ground the Word. This requires that our hermeneutic be much more sophisticated.
Biblical culture can be distinguished from the Word of God, although the Word of God is only known through culture. 1st century Israelite culture is impossible to replicate, nor would it necessarily be desirable. Such a culture would be unfathomable to most Western Christians. This does not argue that our world is better or worse. But it is different, and deeply so. Although human desires are the same, the consequence of desire may be different.
Third, scientific discoveries change the way use language. In our discussion, science is the quiet conversation partner. Its knowledge has influenced our understanding of creation.
Evolution, if it is true, utterly changes how we understand God’s creative urge. More particularly, evolution reveals that although, gender essentialism, for example, is necessary for procreation, it is not the totality of sexual behavior. Evolution expands what we might consider normative. Scientific language, in my view, renders biblical language figurative, and has become the more reliable etiology of our world because it presents a consistent categorization of physical reality.
The primary justification for discerning whether a text is figurative or literal is comprehensibility. When I say “Fred is in heaven” and look up at the sky, I am not saying, “Fred is in heaven, which is in the sky.” But in 1st century Palestine, I may have been. The inclination towards figurative or literal is human bias. God’s work depends on how any interpretation inclines us toward the Kingdom of God.
So what we are encountering is the plain truth that – as science [and technology and capitalism] has changed our culture, our reading of scripture changes as well. More accurately, even though scripture changes who we are, it may bear no intrinsically hostile witness to the sorts of homosexual relationships that a local congregation may consider blessing, for the local readers of scripture are those who have inerpretive authority. To be sure, scripture still bears witness to relationships that are cruel, humiliating, or greedy.
So what is troubling? It might be the feeling that nothing can be settled. It is a legitimate fear, but one that forces us to consider how we do argue, what does get argued, and the process for arguing. The most important aspect of what we do, or what we say, is how we say it. Are we listening to each other? Are we willing to step back? Are we willing to reconsider our views? Can we pray together? Can we say that “we don’t know, but it is in God’s hands”?
So then the task of the church is not particularly theological in that it circumscribes totalizing statements that makes propositions into human idols. It is to define the territory and the time; present the outline for discussion; instruct as to how the conversation will be conducted. We’ve said that tradition, scripture and reason are the territory; and the time is when we gather prayerfully; the method is in the rubrics.
It is not imposed from above, but made through invitation and love. Finally, the work of humanity – to respond to sort through God’s word here – making our work of describing tour rubrics accurately, so his Life and World might be comprehensible and shared with the world.