I do not have his erudition or his expertise. I have read far less than he has and do not write as well. I am merely a parish priest in a small, suburban church in White Plains, NY.
Professor Witt refers to his Southern Baptist inheritance as formational. Clearly this frames his relationship with God, and his appreciation of scripture. I come from a family very different that Professor Witt’s. My mother from a prosperous interfaith Indian family, and my father from Yankee scientists. They met in a doctoral program. My mother went to the Anglican church next to a prominent Music Conservatory; my father, the neighboring Unitarian assembly one block away.
So my instinct is charity towards other faiths. I am grounded in skepticism of any sort of easy, reductionistic, foundationalism articulation of faith. I also have been deeply inculcated with the ideas that science and empiricism are powerful methods of discerning truth, although I have some sympathy for the philosophical anarchism in epistemology, that allows for Christianity to hold some ground against science.
But I digress.
My own faith journey included, as with professor Witt, encounters with very holy men of generosity and magnanimity. For me, the person was The Rev. Canon Cyril V. Roberts, the chaplain to the Eastman School of Music. And, to be perfectly honest, music was my entry into the church. I am convinced that if Jesus were music, he would be, could be, a Bach fugue. This was before I heard Ray Barretto’s Acid or Tito Puente’s Hong Kong Mambo.
Roberts embodied a free openness that represented, for me, the hallmark of being an Anglican. Even though my own parents were secure and generous, Roberts was also joyful. So let me confess that in every way my first experience of Christianity was Joy – the joy that is almost impossible to resist when listening to Bach, as exemplified when being greeted by a man of profound, inexplicable happiness.
I was also never told that homosexuality was anti-Christian or unchristian or Christian. My mother did reflect some upon her instinctive homophobia, but as she was a poet, there we had many people at our dinner table who were gay. Admittedly, I don’t really care much about homosexuality, nor do I have any particular love for the category. And honestly, I spend far lest time thinking about sexuality than economics. So when I have read scripture, the codes against homosexuality seem quaint and mythological. The words of Christ Jesus, and the lives of the apostles still commanded my attention and inspired my faith.
So Witt and I come from different worlds, and I think this matters. I do read scripture, but with a much different intent than he does. Recently, as I was feeling a bit discouraged, I began reading the psalms; I then read a few chapters of Isaiah. And I felt a deep affection around me. I didn’t read the genealogies; nor did I read the Levitical codes. I was being selective: I read the scripture that reminded me of the Joy and security that God has promised through Christ.
So this is from where I begin reading his essay. I read scripture for my own edification and encouragement. But I’m also not the sort who places science in a subordinate role easily. I would not have thought to read scripture to determine if homosexuality is disordered or not. For me, it is almost like asking scripture to figure out how cars are made.
William Witt’s begins by saying, "It is only within the last generation
that affluent Christians have suggested that same-sex sexual activity
may be morally permissible.” The implicit connection between an
economic state and its moral judgment is provocative and potentially
illuminating. RR Reno, actually, carries this a bit further in a more
interesting paper about the restaurants in Babylon, which are pretty
good, and I think Witt knows that they are pretty good also. The
implicit condemnation of the Episcopal Church as a boutique church is a
far more interesting accusation than the conversations about
homosexuality, which are typically riddled with misunderstandings and
ignorance. I wonder if this has anything to do with the
anti-intellectualism I sense among those who affirm the bible’s
anti-homosexuality stance. It seems to imply that the educated are
generally agnostic about homosexuality: thus education must be
intrinsically wrong. Or the quality of education can be judged, for example, on the basis of asserting that God holds homosexual actions abominable.
Then there is the elevation of common, peasant wisdom implicit in the critiques others make of seminary education. So I understand Witt’s critique of affluence, although I don’t think its connotations are helpful, and I don’t think he follows through on what the connection between affluence and homosexuality is. In the end, he will have to critique the foundations of affluence itself, our capitalist state – for it is capitalism that allows us to put a price on gendered sex and has liberated us from the economic bonds of family.
Witt uses the term “selectivist” to describe the practice of choosing foundational texts to orient Christian ethics. I tend to see scripture through a series of lenses: the strange assertion that nothing can separate us from the love of God may trump, in this case, a prior demand for repentance. I have both, but when the two conflict, I choose one. So I probably look a lot like a “moderate selectivist” to most total traditionalists. This is not too far than what Jesus does when asserting the use of the Sabbath, which was a deeply radical claim for him to make, given the severity of the prohibitions against working on the Sabbath. Did Jesus reject the Sabbath? No. He just offered a lens.
What I would like to do is present some conceptual responses to Witt and then outline what I think a stronger, and more reasonable response to the arguments that the “total traditionalists” make. By “total traditionalists” I describe people who imply two things: it’s either all or nothing; and we’ve done it for two thousand years, so it must be true. These assertions are often made in different forms.
I will describe, I think what I call the “reasonable religion,” after Paul’s encouragement in Romans 12:1-2. I follow Hans Dieter Betz that this verse organizes the central way Paul conceptually manages the many challenges to the Christian community in Rome. After Paul’s initial description, he then offers a general sermon outlining the proper Christian ethic.
Rather than “reappraiser” or “revisionist” I will use the abbreviation “RR” to describe those of us who think that we have to use our god-given reason to balance the way we will practice our faith balancing our minds, the spirit and the culture. Traditionalists understand that “reappraisers” and “revisionists” are succumbing to some monolithic monster called, “the culture.” But I don’t think the term “the culture” makes any sense in a world where there are multiple cultures, and cultures within cultures. Rather, I think we are encouraged to be strong within the culture so that we do not conform, but we do so in a way that allows us to be transformed (Rom 12:2) by the Justice of God (Romans 1:17).
Witt makes the following observation. “Moderate Selectivism suggests that the Bible should be seen as a “foundational document” or a “religious classic” rather than a normative authority. The Bible sets the basic agenda for Christianity because of its relation to Christian origins.”
He is correct, although the best defense of this is actually David Tracy. And it is probably an accurate description of how scripture is actually read. Witt assumes that there is a qualia about scripture that makes it more than a “classic.” The Word must be something much, much more. I understand his sentiment. How do we attest to this? The Word must surely, however, be at least a classic. It cannot be less. I’m not sure what is point is here, but he assumes, I think, that this “classic” position isn’t really tenable. He doesn’t really argue why (Personally, I prefer the description of scripture as a “friend”).
Witt then says, “The first step is an identification of elements in the biblical text that can no longer be considered authoritative. Thus, it might be argued that the Bible reflects the cultural background and social values of the time during which it was written….
In the second step, it is argued that there are countervailing positive themes that compensate for these undesirable limitations found in Scripture, and it is these themes that provide the legitimation for the Church’s approval of same-sex activity. For example, it is argued that themes of liberation from oppressive structures are an important part of the biblical message. The Bible calls us to embrace whatever leads to liberation and self-fulfillment. Affirmation of same-sex activity can be endorsed as part of this liberating agenda.”
I would have found it helpful if Witt had said
“No, the bible does not reflect the cultural background” or
“No, that the bible reflects the cultural background does not matter.” Or
“Yes, the bible reflects the cultural background of the writers and it is better than our culture.” Or
“The bible is not a classic, but has a qualia that is substantially different for the following reasons.”
The reasonable position may be that yes,
1) the bible reflects a culture or several cultures, sometimes in conflict
2) our culture is crucially different than these cultures.
3) one difference is especially represented by our affluence
I have a couple quibbles. If modernists insisted that “liberation” means “anything goes” they would be wrong. But the power of God has liberated us from the elements of oppression, (a particular phenomenology: secrecy – God knows secrets; violence – blessed are the peacemakers). Witt then slips in the word “self-fulfillment” as if this describes the general thrust of Episcopal thinking. This link is crucial for his argument as representing the intrinsic degradation of Episcopal thinking.
Just as we expect to think of the bible as having a context for liberation 2,000 years ago, we have a context for what liberation means now. The caricature is that we think everything goes – but at the most recent panel of sexuality I was on in a Unitarian church, we all were wrestling with the problems of popular sexual images. But Witt doesn’t see us that way. To him, we look more like a modern hip-hop video.
But the word “self-fulfillment” is one that irks me as much as it irks him. Undoubtedly, the less philosophical of the progressives will use language like this. Those of us who are skittish around language of authenticity generally will want to take a scalpel and uncover what is underneath such language. But self-fulfillment is a part of our national consciousness and is probably more linked to our affluence than liberation theology – which affirms that freedom is only understood in the context of a faithful community, and unlike what most Americans understand as “freedom.”
Several gay activists have critiqued the Episcopalian position by saying that it actually inhibits sexual liberation. Marriage, for them, is a prison. For others, promiscuity is a prison. Christians choose the latter view. The gay Christian seems not to desire liberation, but to be bound by the Christian institution of marriage.
“No church that hopes to keep the average worshiper in the pew can do so by embracing the arguments either that the Bible is a document of oppression or that it cannot be trusted in its moral assertions.”
If this is what the rationalist side, then Witt is right. I would probably not want to be in such a church. But I don’t think that this is, in fact, what happens on the ground in most Episcopal churches. What is more likely happening is that we say scripture prioritizes scripture. Thus we agree with Akiva and Jesus about the primacy of the summary of the law. And most people keep coming back because we read this first every Sunday.
One only needs to let the bible speak for itself to reveal some of the moral problems that arise from its stories. What do we make of Abraham trying to sacrifice his son, his only (?!) son (aside from Ishmael, that is)? Is this a story about why we need therapy? The cruelty of God?
I also sense that this is an insinuation that people in the pews are stupid. I did a 5 week bible study on women in scripture with twelve eighty year olds and we had some lively discussions about their questionable (and possibly immoral) actions. They didn’t stop coming to church after reading scripture freely. They still read their inspirational booklets and ask me to lead them in prayer. They still trust Jesus Christ in spite of their liberal hermeneutic. I never said, of course, that the bible was an “agent of oppression” because if we really believed it, we wouldn’t use it.
Witt then dismisses the “shellfish” argument like so:
“Such an observation ought to be inexcusable for Anglicans who should be aware of Article 7 of the 39 Articles, which distinguishes between those precepts of the Mosaic Law that refer to rites, ceremonies, and civil law, and those precepts that are moral.”
I think I understand the sentiment here. The thirty-nine articles are helpful for anchoring the direction of an Anglican discussion. Anglicans should be familiar with article seven, but I think Professor Witt is missing the reasons this distinction was made. The reason why we distinguish between the two is because of the sensibility that rites and ceremonies are superstitious and implicitly affirm the corrupt authority of the Catholic Church. But to make a hard distinction between rite and deed seems to violate the consequences of prayer and liturgy. After all, the Eucharist is a crucial representation, memory and offering of Charity from God to us. It seems to me that there are deep moral consequences that we inculcate through the practice of praise that we offer through these rites. The rite is the way we enact our existential and moral place in the world.
The marriage ritual, for example, has implicit cosmological and ethical content that reasserts the reasserting position – I would hesitate to divorce them completely. And at the beginning of Rite One, I include the summary of the law every Sunday. Our liturgy includes implicit claims that prioritize and frames the message we speak every Sunday.
In short, this distinction between rite and ethics, or liturgy and human activity, while convenient, is flawed. When we change the liturgy, we are changing our understanding about the nature of God.
Now is this distinction important for Anglican “identity?” Well, as Witt later alludes, the language of identity – but this time as a description of gay people - can obscure equally as much as it allows us to act. I’m much more interested in what a “Christian” identity looks like than the “Anglican” identity, although for purely contingent reasons I find Anglicanism and efficient, beautiful and compelling representation of the faith. But I wonder if necessity of such a thing as an “Anglican identity” (or even Christian?) should be suspect, unless used in an amusing way, with lyrics adapted to showtunes.
Witt then replies to the system of biblical reasoning offered by the diocese of New York.
“The conclusion drawn by the document is that the Church has the authority to set aside either positive biblical commandments or negative prohibitions that it considers no longer binding.”
Well, this would be the wrong conclusion. People generally do whatever they can as long as they can get away with it, church or no church (unlike most reappraisers, I don’t have an enlightened view of human nature). I suppose that if a young woman came to my church and wanted to know what I thought about premarital sex, I would give her the party line. But no one asks me for advice. A cursory glance at the success / failure of teen abstinence movements demonstrates the falsity of blaming the liberal church for a decline in moral values. And my Unitarian colleague is often fond of quoting statistics comparing the sexual morality of Unitarians with Southern Baptists. Guess who seems to be more successful? The church isn’t setting aside anything. It’s simply asking what works?
My irritation is not that I don’t share Witt’s frustration. Perhaps, if the church really had a backbone, it would do something about birth control, divorce, and women in the workforce. But to lay fault at the feet of ECUSA is to divert attention to the more powerful agents of change, which have more to do with the economic and technological institutions that have loosed the ties that bind individuals to doctrine.
Language is the most convenient analogy I can think of that describes the method of cultural accommodation in our church. Preaching to someone in China in English won’t do me much good. I have to learn Chinese. Similarly, the cultural cues in our country require interpretation and translation; and the cues change. The church may or may not influence that change. More closely, ECUSA is responding to cultural changes in a particular way; just as usury became especially irrelevant, teaching on homosexuality will soon become as irrelevant as its traditional teaching on masturbation. It only got up and decided that usury was wrong many years after people were practicing it. Practically speaking, the church follows the culture here.
Witt asks, “Would the local church be free to set aside non-moral principles as well, e.g., the Nicene affirmation that the Son is homoousios with the Father? Could a national church or local diocese decide to add contemporary materials to the canon? Or omit material from the canon that did not conform to contemporary sensibilities? Is it logically possible that the Scriptures could continue to be morally binding in anything they teach, since the local church is free to absolve itself of having to obey any moral commands that conflict with the values of contemporary culture?”
I don’t know the answer to this question. First of all, I’m wondering if anyone in my congregation, or most of the clergy – protestant, evangelical or even Catholic, could give me a correct definition of Homoousios. I can imagine them saying that two genders, however, are enough, or that I’m taking evolution too far. Second, the church does resist: even now the church resists the culture’s militarism and violent inclination.
There is a fear here: the fear that it’s all or nothing; that there is a slippery slope; and that anything goes. I can’t assuage Witt’s fears, but I don’t share them. But if he wonders when do we say “enough?” I suppose I can understand his sentiment. I think that all the time when I drive three blocks away and I see someone tear down one mansion and build another one twice the size. But even that one person, building his second mansion may scoff at the person who is building a castle next door. Or he might envy it. Human nature is vast.
So what are the “values of contemporary culture?” It seems to me there are conflicting values within contemporary culture even apart from the church. Does he mean contemporary Cuban culture in Miami? Lesbian Cuban culture in Chicago? Or Puerto Rican culture in East Harlem? Does he mean the desire for Adidas shoes in the South Bronx? Or does he mean our love of athletic competition? Is there one culture? Is there a single culture in scripture? Was there any difference between the cultures of Esther and Josiah and Amos? It would be helpful for this conversation if everyone was very specific.
For when someone says “homosexual culture” some think of bathhouses, and others think of show tunes, and still others think of football games, where men showing manly forms of affection.
I recognize that this evades the question, which is one of authority. Yes, I recognize that Chesterton said that tradition is the democracy of the dead. But the answer will not be settled by people voting up or down on prayers or doctrines. What will happen is that local churches will make decisions that represent the life of Jesus in those communities. The criteria is simple: what works. Latin Masses? Maybe. Perhaps U2 psalms.
Baptized Gay Christians will be blessing each other, inviting Christian friends, and creating ceremonies with prayers to Jesus Christ in the name of the Trinity. Witt will not be able to stop a gay Christian culture from forming.
I would also note that Witt has “contemporary sensibilities.” We all do, for we are… contemporaries. My 27 year old brother enjoys Bach, Ella Fitzgerald and Mos Def and Wilco. He’ll take in a Latin service or a Unitarian one. At St. Mark’s in Seattle, punkers share in a 20 minute chanted compline where the cathedral is completely dark. We live in a contemporary world. It’s impossible for us to live in any other. And the desire for the idyllic past (say, “the faith once delivered”) is a sensibility that will always be very… contemporary. It is possibly the most persistent, and most dangerous, of all contemporary ideologies.
He continues, “The context of the biblical narratives of God’s creation of the world and humanity, his election of Israel, and God’s redemption of sinful humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
I admit that here I am in agreement with Witt, but I submit that this assertion could be as equally vacuous without any reference to real lives. Is our assent to the narrative an intellectual assent, (“to say, yes, it happened.”) or is it one that has relevance to the way we inhabit the current territory (because of the resurrection I am free to live, or it is revealed that I am free to live, in the context of God’s love)? What does “the context of the biblical narrative” mean when the material conditions, the concrete terms, are irreparably divergent between an affluent culture and the biblical one? What is a contemporary Christian to do when the biblical context is incomprehensible?
When I hear the statement “homosexual acts are sinful” it is not “homosexual acts” that become revealed for what they are, but instead “sin” instead becomes incomprehensible, lacking the elements that usually define the term. In order for “homosexual acts” to be “sinful” we have to construct what the elements are and address the context. For I normally don’t think of sin as used to apply to people who are deeply in love.
“The goal of Christian baptism is not to be inclusive, but to follow Jesus, and the way of Jesus is the narrow way, not the inclusivist way.”
I wonder if Witt is saying we have a lot of hard work. Or we have to give everything up. Well, as a good Calvinist, or Augustinian, I think we probably have to give up much more than Witt thinks we have to. In fact, we should probably give up our heterosexual marriages as well. We should probably give everything we have to God. The narrow way, as Jesus – rather than the church – understands it is far more demanding than a single prohibition against gay people. Witt, and most of the reasserters, should be a little more humble before noting the axe above our necks, for it will also be coming down upon theirs as well.
I admit I find making Baptism consist of a “goal” very distasteful. So in this sense, I miss any sense of grace or mercy in Witt. I tire of the assertion that this has to be a matter of winning or losing. Why not simply say that baptism is God’s gift to us because he loves us? Why add the heresy of perfectionism?
“Arguments for physical or psychological determination of human actions are not scientific, but philosophical or theological. Science is incompetent to provide guidance on what is at heart a metaphysical question.”
I think this is a very telling assertion. It assumes that only theology or philosophy can provide a credible description of scientific concepts. This raises many problems. But he is clearly wrong: science can test some metaphysical assertions and render them incredible or worse, irrelevant. Science is merely unable to address God’s radical freedom. But given that the reasserters can’t conceive of a God free of scripture, neither can they.
So what is the purpose of sexuality? Evolutionary biologists have been addressing this for some time. There is some convergence between recent thinking in science and scriptural studies. One purpose is peace. Sex helps instill peace between the sexes. Paul’s exegesis in the bonds of matrimony and the duties between the couples affirms this. The reason he accepts less than perfect holiness for heterosexuals is to reduce anxiety and offer better peace, internally, and between couples.
Unfortunately, what Witt lacks is clear criteria – that scripture has – for understanding sexuality. We know about blessings because blessings are efficacious; We judge the prophets on if the prophesy is true. Paul affirms that a rule for life must be beneficial for the community.
It seems also that sex and sexuality, as Witt notes, have a link to affluence and abundance that is hard to miss. And if anything, scripture does assume that sex and abundance are tightly linked.
We of the reasonable religion see the dichotomy differently. There is secrecy, or revelation. There is deceit, or there is truth. There is grace or eternal punishment. We are accepted as fallen; or we must be perfect. As pastors, we began to see that secrecy was destroying the church; that self-deception is one step from cruelty; that openness was also a gift from God; and that our brokenness was where God begins. These are the traditions that orient our minds, and transform them in the spirit.
I want to add a couple clarifications given the rhetoric.
First, I believe that if people want to pray together, they can. An “RR” bishop should be able to serve a “TT” priest and vice versa. Our inability to be generous, to extend charity, to suspend judgment indicates our own presence or lack of faith more than it represents the perfection of our own piety. But I don’t expect much by asserting this. I think, in general, we are enjoying our self-righteousness, the sense of being victimized, and the enthralling nature of a war. War gives us meaning, just like reconciliation. This is all foretold in scripture, of course. But to assume that we are merely God’s puppets in this drama is just an easy way of assuming we haven’t had any part in breaking up our relationships. To me the test is easy. Are there any liberals who won’t, on principle, break bread with Duncan? Shame on them. In my view, if we have a choice between the people around us, and our ideology, we choose the people. And that is what Jesus would do. And if it is between Jesus and someone else, Jesus would give up his life. And that is what he did. He gave up his life, so that we could love one another. His death is what made it possible. That we cannot come to the table merely attests to our own utter faithlessness.
Those of us who are agnostic about homosexuality have been called relativists. I find this amusing and disconcerting. Those who assert that the bible is the gold standard invite accusations of relativism because they are unable to translate their convictions in ways that are comprehensible by the stranger, sinner or the skeptical. My own response is to say, “right back at ya!” when someone calls me a “relativist.” Are people relativists? Yes, there are some. Is relativism true? There is some truth in relativism, but it is not absolutely true. What is true is that people believe in self-referential, closed systems of thought. Like many Christians.
But we progressives, modernists, reappraisers, or “RR”s may be relational thinkers. This does mean that we probably don’t think of the bible as a “gold standard.” It is the currency – the resurrection is the gold. In our world, the value and meaning of scripture may float. Perhaps then reappraisers insist that we must keep to a gold standard, whereas I see Gold as just a form of idolatry. And where I understand scripture as the currency of the Christian faith, reasserters think that this will just unmoor the world.
So where do we begin? Well, I think that we have some clues. The first gift that Jesus gives to his disciples is the gift of peace. The resurrected life has a distinct relationship with peace; and this is illustrated by the description most people have of “mystical experiences.” The resurrected life reveals, not that our human boundaries are worthless, but that they are human in the first place, boundaries we need, for ourselves.
So why do we have boundaries? As Paul noted, while all things are lawful, not everything is beneficial. Monogamy democratizes sex; is ensures social stability. Polygamy makes consistent sexual relations the realm of the monied and powerful. Sex between the genders brings peace, where war is often the general state. We have boundaries between animals and humans, the child and the elderly, so that we can ensure peace.
Witt and I may see very different worlds. Let me tell you what I see.
The spiritual emptiness of our system, with its convenience and instant gratification, is creating people who are fundamentally … joyless. I live in a world where greed and avarice are justified as the work of every day business. I am, myself, every evening tempted by the television by food and fancy cars. I wonder if Witt, and others, spent more time on critiquing affluence than Christianity if we would have a more accurate understanding of the person of Jesus and what he was telling us about God. I suspect Jesus said, “where your treasure is…” as a fact in the world, not merely as a testament to the sacrifice he would make.
But that is where Witt and I would have to recognize that we are both condemned. The reasserters have decided not to distinguish abundance from affluence, becoming comfortable in the world. But that would lead them to challenge the idols of their own loyalties, which, I suspect, are caught up in the politics of the age. So be it.
There are some who align themselves with William Witt who accuse us of discarding the “true Gospel.” Unfortunately, this merely exacerbates and reaffirms divisions rather than describes our beliefs accurately. I’m pretty clear about what I think the Gospel is: that the cross has revealed God’s love. I think some virtues follow: courage in the fear of death; joy in the work of this life; and a belief that there is always a future, among other things. In practice, retelling the story, evangelizing, is what creates more people like Jesus Christ.
I’m not sure how this is much different than what an evangelical preaches, but I guess it is.
Fellow liberals, please refrain from using the word ”inclusivity” and replace with “charity,” and affirm that our “transformation of our minds” is for the “justice of God.” We should remind our brothers and sisters that we are not relativists, but relational in our thinking. As far as being “revisionist” goes, I take it as a compliment. For when things change, I change my mind.