So I have a ... friend who is a very attractive, bright (linguistics and piano performance), Sri Lankan. Like most of my Subcontinental friends, homosexuality just doesn't make much sense. I'll leave it at that.
Now, she is trying very hard to be both "tolerant" and affirm her own sense that there is something wrong with homosexuality. She has decided that no, homosexuals are not going to hell. And no, they are not like drunkards. She has also not said that homosexuality is a "sin."
Instead, she said, "gay people are like the obese. There is nothing wrong with it. But there is no reason to affirm it."
I was, of course, speechless. I thought that maybe the church would find a new cause: refraining from consecrating the corpulent. For clearly, being obese is an indication of gluttony, a lack of self-control. Self=control is clearly one of the episcopal virtues.
So I guess I should tell you that I've begun a body building routine. Please humor the stereotype, but I admit, every gay man I know has a great body. I will do this in solidarity with them.
I take these as small victories: at least she isn't comparing them to destroyers of western civilization or murderers. I'm not one for PC puritanism - I'm looking for small steps at improvement. If you were once a racist and have not learned to undo all your sterotypes, well, I'm with you. Just try to do good by people and be humble about your worldview.
My Lutheran colleague is very conservative, but we've become friends. We disagree about many things (he calls my hermenutic about property, and sex foreign to scripture), but we are fighting remarkably similar battles in our parishes - especially the challenges of materialism and affluence. I think we recognize that our battles are a bit more concrete than the theologies we discuss, so honest fellowship is what keeps us talking.
I'm not much of a PC person - and I work hard to understand other people's perspectives. But what is most important to me is not ideas, but lives. And that includes both my conservative colleague, and the gay couple in my parish. Its more important for me to encourage people in their call than to worry about their final state with God.
What happens to the Word as our culture becomes more of a visual culture, or as people don't read? Why must we prioritize the written word and its "texts" above visual representations? And what is at risk when we do so?
Leander Harding directs us to Polanyi, although after reading the article I continue to wonder if the reasserters truly understand the reappraising position. Why not PaulFeyerabend? Levinas? Charles Peirce? Rauschenbusch? Are Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher, truly nihilisitic? Isn't Zizek dealing with these sorts of questions? And has anyone read BernardWilliam's article "The Truth in Relativism"? Sadly, no. I, for one, gave up on post-modern thought several years ago because I think the issues are still about Marx, Smith and Keynes. And to some extent, Melanie Klein.
Harding demonstrates, alas, that there are few people who have philosophical skill in the reasserting camp but, perhaps, it is because there are so few among the reappraisers, who do not use the slow steady logic necessary to render the various controversies comprehensible.
The other day I was watching a Bollywood film. It was delightful, if sentimental: beautiful blind girl diva falls in love with a handsome tourist guide rogue. It’s the idealized story about men and women.
Reasserters - those who elevate the 1st century view about the primary utility of genital sex – make a few assumptions about romance and attraction, I think. I’d like to examine a few.
A theology that emphasizes genital difference or prioritizes it as crucial to human nature is not distinctively Christian. Paganism places fertility, fecundity, and gendered sexuality as central to the human, and earthly, experience. Isis and Osiris, Sati and Shiva, Hera and Zeus – not to mention those of Babylonian origin – all demonstrate that genital difference is easily divinized.
Attraction and desire are not necessarily holy. If anything, Christians should steer clear of elevating the experience of attraction as being particularly holy. Romance, however, is easily elevated in the culture, and can be found in the way straight people spend on weddings. But a Christian marriage, if it is to be accurate, admits that “attraction” cannot be the crucial part of a marriage. Important? Perhaps. But not all important things are distinctively Christian.
Of course, once we argue that attraction is not crucial to marriage, we further undermine the genitalization of sexuality, because the reason why we intuitively know that particular men and women “fit” is because they are, largely, attracted to each other. Otherwise we would say that any man could marry any woman and it would be holy. Such a belief would be wrong because it undermines the particularity by which God is involved in any relationship.
What should we judge a “Christian” relationship on? Not attraction. Attraction is great: it is stimulating, electrifying, enlivening. But we judge the relationship based on the ability of a couple to live into a promise – to embody a covenant analogous to the relationship we have with God.
What makes a Christian marriage different than other kinds of relationships may be that it is fundamentally based on friendship. But it cannot be romance. Romance you can get without Christ, and without God.
God works through politics. It is sometimes painful, aggravating and challenging, but he is there. Churches should be more political, rather than less.
For this reason, process is crucial to any organization. Process should be understood by all participating.
The work of Jesus is comprehensible first by understanding his process: parable, story, and revelation. His process of interpreting scripture must be our process. This is one example of "following Jesus:" recognizing the the beauty to which scripture directs us. As sinners, we will always be arguing over some form of content: but it is the process that allows us to work through our divisions.
It follows that Scripture does not exhaust human experience. The dualisms, for example, in Galatians [Jew nor Greek, etc], are not the complete taxonomy of all binary systems. It instead points to the direction Jesus works in our lives - as someone who forces us to reexamine the yes/no stance we are inclined to take. Abundance, Joy and Freedom are affirmed because the chains of our habits have been revealed; our anxieties are redeemed not through an exhausted ideology, but through the Word, the communication of God, as represented by the cooperative engagement with other brothers and sisters clothed in Christ.
For theologians: the October 2005 issue [Vol 85, #4] of the Journal of Religion has a very insightful issue on Frei's use of Midrash against the idea of modern hermeneutics. This might provide some ideas about what we mean when talking about the "plain sense" of scripture.
It is by according priority to the literal sense, and in light of the identity of Jesus Christ that tentatively emerges from our readings, that our own self-understanding and our place in the world can be grasped and articulated, if always in a partial, opaque and humble manner. [p619]
... The contrast with Midrash thus clarifies the distinctive shape of the Christian literal reading, which, in its ascription, is a form of discipleship. The Christian pattern of reading is distinctive because it follows, at a distance, the practice of reading ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel narrative itself. While we cannot describe this pattern exhaustively, several central features can be stated. First, and obviously, it is a practice the typologically reads scripture in ascriptive relation to Jesus Christ, as presented within the Gospel narrative. Second, such ascription requires that the reader lay down her own general, conceptual understanding of salvation, redemption, or the "meaning" of human life, as all such conceptual understandings founder before Jesus's unsubstitutable, narrative identity. Third, one receives new interpretive life in and through narrative ascription. The literal sense, one could say, is the crucifixion and resurrection of hermeneutics, in light of Christ's unique identity. [p629]
... The purality of interpretations in Midrash may thus model the hospitality created by the literal sense as a feature of what "reconstitutes" the Christian community in its distinctiveness and its unity.... One could say that the contingent, pluralistic unity of the literal sense embodies, and makes room for, a contingent, pluralistic unity within the church. [p632]
Brian McLaren writes for the Leadership Blog on pastorally answering people's questions about homosexuality. I like Brian a lot - he's pastoral, intelligent, brave, modern and orthodox. He writes, as a pastor:
Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about
homosexuality. We've heard all sides but no position has yet won our
confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and
us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who
seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced
that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat
gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than
our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate
context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical
arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications
are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be
drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are
You would think this was a gentle, sensitive, accurate discription of what it is like to be a pastor. But one of the 50 most influential Christian Leaders, Marc Driscoll, responds dramatically. He says,
For me, the concern started when McLaren in the February 7, 2005 issue
of Time Magazine said, “Asked at a conference last spring what he
thought about gay marriage, Brian McLaren replied, ‘You know what, the
thing that breaks my heart is that there's no way I can answer it
without hurting someone on either side.’” Sadly, by failing to answer,
McLaren was unwilling to say what the Bible says and in so doing really
hurt God’s feelings and broke his heart.
"hurt God's feelings and broke his heart"?! Let me translate:
"McLaren was unwilling to say what the Bible says and in so doing really hurt my feelings and broke my heart." This is far more accurate. If Marc can get a tape recorder someday, however, I'd be willing to change my mind. And it can't be in his own voice. Perhaps Salma's. That's Salma Hayek.
Marc Driscoll is a very entertaining preacher. I wish to God I could preach like that and not get faced with blank stares. But I really enjoy listening to him speak. If anything, he is a model for me in his preaching.
But not his thinking.
His ability to entertain doesn't lend much clarity to the problem. He demonstrates that, in fact, he really doesn't understand the pastoral issue. First he brings people in with his seductive, witty [well, witty in a 10th grade kind of way], "hey - I'm a male Lesbian," although this simply raises two questions.
First: Does his wife know she's married to a lesbian in the wrong body? Maybe they can do something about that. Second: Why not say that gay men are women who are built like men? Or Lesbians are in fact men who in women's bodies. What if he fantasizes about men while he's givin' his wife some lovin'?
He may be funny. But it is clearly confused.
Driscoll focuses on a request that Brian makes in his very soft-spoken way. McLaren asks new Christians to step back; Let's think about this; let's pray about what is happening; let's listen to the Holy Spirit. It's a silly request in a world held by the powers, but in the community of Christians, perfectly reasonable. But Driscoll says, Nope, can't do that. we simply can't wait. Where Brian says, Let's not judge, Driscoll simply responds, you're breaking my heart. I mean, God's heart.
Driscoll then offers his slam dunk: Just this week - he opens, for he has direct confirmation of what the problem is - some Christian - he could have put it in quotes - he wants anal sex for the orgasms. I guess that's a problem in Mars Hill, but it wasn't, really, what Brian was talking about. Any liberal can see how sexual greed is destructive. That's a no brainer. Marc, you'll get cheers from both sides of the aisle if that's what's bringing down the end of your world. But we're addressing something different: We're talking about two older men, or two women, holding hands, in love, claiming Christ as God.
And this is where we probably differ from most "biblical" churches, if you want to call them that. Where Driscoll gets his info from gay pron magazines, we're finding men and women who want to build a life together. All Mark has done is prove to us that most people don't understand homosexuality.
In fact, I doubt if they understand sexuality either: the insistance on genitalizing sexual relationships and relationships seems closer to pron than fidelity. And for us progressives, marriage is about a relationship that creates abundance. Its the quality of the relationships Christians should care about. So lets talk about how to create loving, faithful, joyful relationships that give glory to God. That seems very relevant.
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
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
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
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.
Arthur Cohen writes, The only instrument of creation, dephysicalized - the breath of being - is speech. The divine being speaks and creates. So much for the creation.... The divine speech-grille, or rules of divine language, is not be taken as only a metaphor for the anthropomorphism of divine speech.... Logos and speech are signs that direct us to aspects of God that may offer a way out of the dlemma of the absolute and necessary existent who is God and the miraculous fiat of creatio ex nihilo, by using the image of speech to desribe a movement within God that occurs in his eternal instant and in our time for everlasting.
I think there is merit it reflectiong upon how we speak to each other, as essential to what we can say about God. Much of the misrepresentation and miscommunication in our current conversation happens because we want to say, with certainty, God says "x" or God says "y." But can we say "certain" things about God without resorting to our own pride? How fundamental is certainty to holiness, and what sorts of certainty, subjective or objective, are credible?
But we can, perhaps, talk about how God speaks to us and how we are to speak to each other. We speak using words - and words that include the self-giving of God in the community of the trinity. We speak using the words of the Nicene Creed. In some sense, our theology is one that is based on the rubrics.
There are rules, but a theology of communication would we consider how we refer to rules, and what the rules are for. They give shape to conflict; they permit agreement; they allow for separation and unity. To some exent, who makes the rules of conduct, who sets the tone of speech, is as important as the speech itself. The urge to finish a conversation, to establish something eternal is commendable, but impossible. It merely propels us forward.
The bishop in this case does something very simple: he makes sure that the rules of communication are followed. he allows for priests and congregations to live out doctrine. He encourages unity and invites participation. This is best exemplified by his participation in the liturgy, where he represents the conversation that individual churches have with the church at large.
He cannot say, for example, "Jesus is not the Word" because such a statement is incomprehensible to a Christian. Jesus is how God's speech lives in the world. Lives that follow him, in obedience to the Lord of All, are Godly lives. And if he were to say this in the liturgy he would be miscommunicating, he would utter gibberish, and undermine his own power to proclaim God in speech.
"God brings people into fullness and joy." This is a true statement that we can communicate with credibility. But equally important is who is saying these things: who determines language? To whom must our language be directed? And how?
Language like, "God hates gay sex" seems incomprehensible as it says little about how God speaks, and what God speaks about. Does God speak to us about souls, and spirit? Or does he talk about genital activity? "God loves orgies" would be equally strange. Such speech might as well be Cantonese to me. I cannot tell, because it makes no sense.
Until we examine the rules of our own speech, we will not understand each other.