Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Transgender and Genesis

"So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27

A Text of Terror

While this verse is for many Christians a foundational declaration of human equality and sacred dignity, I imagine that for many transgender (and intersex) persons it has served as a "text of terror," to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. Many Christians oppose transgender persons on the basis that they are rejecting their God-given biological identity. As a recent Southern Baptist resolution puts it, 
"God’s good design [is] that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception..."
The way this issue is framed by the SBC is representative of the way I've heard many people discuss it. (And by the way, the only reason I am picking on the SBC is because my own church, the UMC, strangely enough, doesn't even have one line in the Book of Discipline about transgender persons. Which may actually be a good thing.) On this account, being a transgender person is about letting your own psychological self-perception take precedent over biological sex, and that is dishonoring to God who created you to clearly be a male or a female person. 

Biology vs. Psychology?

This way of framing the issue, though, is problematic. While it is popular to say that "gender" (masculine and feminine) is a fluid psychological concept largely determined by culture, and "sex" (male or female) is a purely biological concept that is fixed by nature, this overlooks the fact while "sex" is a biological category, how we go about determining a person's sex is far from a biological given. Just ask Olympic's officials, who have engaged in several controversial decisions based on differences of opinion on what makes for a male or a female person. Is it chromosomes that matter? (But some intersex persons do not have the "normal" XX or XY patterns.) Is it internal reproductive anatomy that matters the most? External reproductive anatomy? Neurological structures? Hormone levels? 

"Sex" is a biological category, yes, in that it depends on biological factors, but how the decisions are made as to what really counts to determine this category is a philosophical process, not a mere biological given. Biology alone cannot tell you what biological factors count the most for what "sex" a person really is.

Why do many people assume, without argument, that chromosomal make-up and/or reproductive anatomy is more indicative of a person's "true sex" than their neurological and hormonal features? While the origins of transgender identity are not clearly understood, it seems that most would agree that it is largely shaped (if not completely determined) by mostly neurological and hormonal factors. This means it is dangerously misleading to contrast, as the SBC resolution does, one's "biological sex" with "psychological self-perception," precisely because one's psychological self-perception is largely rooted in biological factors such as hormone levels and brain structure. Transgender identity, then, isn't simply about psychology versus biology. It's about a tension or discord between different biological factors that go into sexual identity (hormones and brain structures may not match up with chromosomes and/or reproductive anatomy).

"Male and Female"

Now to the issue of how to read Genesis 1:27. Contrary to modern myths about the inevitable and ongoing conflict of science and religion (propagated by both religious and atheist fundamentalists), there is a long tradition in the church of trying to integrate scientific understanding and biblical interpretation. This means most Christian bodies have found ways to interpret the significance of Genesis for us that do not deny what science has clearly revealed, such as the fact that the earth, contrary to the assumptions of Genesis, is not a flat disc in a geocentric universe covered by a solid dome holding back waters from the heavens (Gen 1:6-8; Psalm 148:4). 

I would suggest that the new scientific information we have about transgender and intersex persons be treated in the same way as the new scientific information we have about the cosmos. How we interpret "God created them male and female" needs to accord with the best scientific understanding we have available to us. Just as the author of Genesis assumed limited and mistaken views of the cosmos (and yet God accommodated to that mistaken world view to reveal important truths), he also mistakenly assumed that biological sex determined both a heterosexual orientation and a certain gender expression. There are solid scientific reasons to now question these assumptions, and as Christians we should feel no more threatened by this than we do by Copernican cosmology. It turns out that understanding what is within us is just as difficult, if not more so, than understanding what is above us and beyond us. 

The Traditional View?

We should also be aware of how historically contingent and recent our own "traditional" views probably are on what "male and female" mean. We often take that to mean an absolute polarity, an ontological distinction, a total difference in kind. Historian Thomas Laqueur, though, in his book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, shows that much of Western intellectual history assumed a "one-sex model" of humanity, meaning that there is basically one sex with different bodily expressions. Basically, the male is the perfect form of the human sex, and the female is an imperfect form (surprise surprise!), and her anatomy and physiology were construed accordingly: the vagina is seen as an interior penis, the womb as a scrotum, the ovaries as testicles. Women were basically understood as having inverted male anatomy. 

Sex, then, was not seen as an absolute dichotomy as many of us tend to see it, but as a spectrum of variation. This, at a minimum, should cause us to think about how on the "traditional" reading we might be importing modern cultural understandings of sex and gender into the Genesis text without even realizing it. 

Why This Is More Important Than the Universe

While I compared changes to our understanding of sex and gender to our changing understanding of the cosmos, there is one big difference. You can believe that the earth is flat, 6000 years old, the center of the universe, and all that, and you probably will not do anyone any harm (unless you have kids and make them believe that too). But if you believe that transgender or intersex people are inherently deficient because of what you think Genesis teaches, you will do a good number of people harm, either directly or, more likely, indirectly. 

You may not bully or beat up a transgender person, but you will help contribute to a culture that stigmatizes such persons, making them more susceptible to violence of various kinds. While violence against transgender people can't be blamed solely on Christian teaching, it also can't be denied that our teachings on this matter have often functioned as the soil in which seeds of hatred and violence have grown.

In short, we have a long history of adapting biblical understanding to scientific discovery. There is no reason to stop it now, and 226 reasons from this past year to keep it moving forward. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Parts Don’t Fit: Robert Gagnon and Anatomical Complementarity

Robert Gagnon's 2001 work The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics has become the standard for the conservative Christian case against same-sex marriage, and rightly so. Dr. Gagnon has more research and publication in this area than anybody else I am aware of, and his work is more heavily documented and cited than most that write on this subject. Also, his logic is often fairly tight (though not always, as I will argue) and his responses to several of the standard pro-gay arguments are incisive. 

Most significantly, I think Gagnon is right to challenge the frequently made argument from progressive Christians that the moral debate really comes down to the issue of the new information we have about sexual orientation. In Paul's day, it is argued, they didn't know about how some people were innately inclined to be attracted to people of the same sex. Instead, they attributed homosexual desire to excessive heterosexual lust. In other words, because you had an insatiable lust for sex, people of the opposite sex get boring and so you start having sex with people of your own sex. 

That account of the origins of homosexual desire was probably the dominant understanding in Paul's day. However, as Gagnon and others have pointed out from various ancient literary references, there was also some awareness that, for some people at least, same-sex desire was congenital and exclusive. In other words, there was some kind of ancient recognition of what we refer to as a sexual orientation. (This point is also made by several gay affirming scholars. Gagnon has good references to these.) The fact that some people are innately and exclusively attracted to people of the same sex was probably not totally unfamiliar to Paul. Granted, there are important differences between ancient and modern understandings of the origins of sexual orientation, these are not clearly and obviously morally significant differences.

I think that it is pretty clear that, as an historical judgment, the apostle Paul would likely have disapproved of any and every type of same-sex relationship. I think this much should be granted to the conservative case. This is why I think some of the incessant wrangling over exactly what malakoi and arsenakoitai meant are irrelevant to the larger issue (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). Even if, as liberal Christians argue, in using these terms Paul probably only explicitly condemned specific types of same-sex behaviors that were most prominent in his day (such as prostitution, sex with slaves, or sex with prostitutes), that doesn't mean therefore that he would have approved of non-exploitative or non-coercive forms of same-sex behavior. We have no record of any ancient Jew approving of such relationships, or any reason to think Paul would have differed from them in this regard.

I don't think the crux of this debate should center on the orientation question, as important as that issue is in some ways. I think the debate needs to focus on, regardless of Paul's understanding of the origin of same-sex desires, exactly why Paul would have condemned same-sex relationships and if that moral reasoning is still applicable to Christians today

That he would have condemned all same-sex relationships seems clear to me.
Why he would have condemned them is the important question.

Before going any further, I know some Christians would react here by saying that once you have figured out what Paul said, you need go no further. What Paul said is what God inspired him to say, so case closed. You don’t need to figure out his moral reasoning and test whether it still applies to Christians. He taught it, therefore God taught it.

In response, it is important to note that such Christians who would make this response likely do so inconsistently. Take slavery, for example. We know exactly what Paul taught. He taught, at a general level, that slaves should be submissive to masters, although in some particular situations, he encouraged slaves to seek freedom if they could (of course, who wouldn’t encourage that). But why did he teach a general ethic of submission? Is it because God ordained the institution of slavery, or is it because he had to work within the cultural context in which he lived? Most Christians would now go with the latter, and argue that his moral reasoning that slaves should submit is not universal and timeless, but was bound to a culture in which there was no reasonable chance of overturning the institution of slavery, but instead of just having to work to spread the gospel within it.

Gagnon himself acknowledges that not of all Paul’s moral reasoning is universally applicable, such as Paul’s argument that it is unnatural and degrading for a man to have long hair (1 Cor. 11:14). He affirms that, “the inferences Paul draws from nature have to be evaluated on a case by case basis.” (BHP, 378) So, the idea of examining Paul’s moral reasoning to see if it is timeless and universal, or if it is bound by objectionable cultural assumptions, is one that is endorsed by Gagnon himself, and is in practice employed by most Christians today.

According to Gagnon, two of the probable reasons that Paul (and other first century moralists, particularly late Stoics and Hellenistic Jews) would have condemned all same sex relationships as "unnatural" are because they are inherently non-procreative and because they violate the natural gender hierarchy.  

Regarding the procreative norm, many of the Greek and Jewish intellectuals of Paul’s day made procreation central to their sexual ethics. The rational way to live is in accordance with nature, and nature teaches (so they taught) that the only rational purpose of intercourse is procreation. It isn’t that sexual pleasure was necessarily condemned as inherently bad, but it was bad to seek mere sexual pleasure, that is, sexual pleasure outside of procreative possibility/intent.

Regarding the “natural” gender hierarchy, in the ancient world, it was generally considered natural for men to be superior/active and women to be inferior/passive, and these stratified gender roles were reinforced in the sexual relationship. The man was to be on top, literally and figuratively. Same-sex relationships, therefore, were unnatural in that they did not conform to this natural hierarchy, specifically by degrading a man by lowering him to the status of a "receptive/passive" woman. 

While Gagnon thinks these two reasons probably played some role in Paul's negative ethical view of same-sex relationships, he is clear that he does not think that Paul's case against same-sex relationships rests primarily, and certainly not exclusively, on these two reasons. He acknowledges that the anti-woman views expressed in ancient denunciations of male same-sex behavior are offensive, and that procreative ability need not be considered necessary for a legitimate marriage in today's world (BHP, p.181). 

So while these factors played a role, you can disagree with patriarchy and procreationism (as many Christians today do, even many of those who do not affirm same-sex relationships), and still have a solid reason for rejecting same-sex relationships, a reason which actually forms the heart and soul of Paul's rejection of all same-sex relationships. What is this reason?

Gagnon refers to it as "anatomical complementarity,” which refers to the “fittedness of the male penis and the female vagina” (BHP, p.181). The idea of anatomical complementarity is the thread that runs throughout all of Gagnon’s work, and it is the moral reasoning he believes was ultimately behind Paul’s condemnation of all same-sex relationships.  It is why Christians today should still condemn such relationships. It is God’s clue in nature for all to see that men and women, and only men and women, were made to go together sexually.

Was this really Paul’s moral reasoning though? Gagnon argues in two ways that it was. First, he argues that this moral reasoning was prevalent throughout Judaism in Paul’s time. Here is where things get really interesting, though. In the chapter of his book where he discusses the context of early Judaism (Chapter 2), he has a section entitled “Gender Discomplementarity” (p.169-176). This section, however, really encompasses two distinct kinds of gender discomplementarity: that which refers to the violation of the naturally established hierarchy of gender and that which refers to the violation of anatomical complementarity.

He cites several ancient Jewish texts in this section that are intended to support his claim that ancient Jewish moralists believed same-sex relationships are wrong because they both socially degrade a man (reducing him to the status of a woman) and because they rebel against the anatomical complimentarity that God intends for the sexes. Yet, none of the texts that Gagnon actually cites have anything to do with a supposed concern with anatomical complementarity. They all emphasize the wrongness of the “effeminizing” effect of male same-sex relationships on the “passive” partner. Anyone can read this section and see that he fails to provide one example of an ancient Jewish writer who focused on the shapes of penises and vaginas.

This omission is very important, since it is at the heart of his case. (On this point, see James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 243). Interestingly, Gagnon prefaces some of these ancient Jewish quotations in this section by saying that the authors are “alluding in general to the blatant transgression of male-female anatomical complementarity, and in particular to the feminization of the male gender that occurs in the case of the passive partner.” (p. 171, italics mine) While the latter is obvious, the former “allusions” are not apparent at all. Gagnon at several points (see, for example, 364, 367) asserts that a concern for anatomical complementarity is “behind” the arguments from transgressing the gender hierarchy, but, again, provides no examples. He has a penchant for almost always bringing any discussion of ancient arguments back to anatomical complimentarity, even when there is no apparent reference to such moral reasoning at all in the texts under discussion.

This is crucial, because Gagnon will take what he sees here in these ancient Jewish writers and that let that influence how he interprets Paul’s moral reasoning. As Gagnon writes in summing up this section, “The consistent return of the arguments of the anatomical and procreative complementarity of male and female will be especially important for assessing what Paul meant when he asserted that same-sex intercourse was ‘contrary to nature,’ and for our interpretation of his words.” (BHP, 183) I don’t understand how he can refer to the “consistent return” of anatomical complimentarity arguments when he hasn’t even offered one clear example where an ancient Jewish moralist refers to it.

Here is where Gagnon needs to make a distinction and an acknowledgement. He needs to make a clear distinction between anatomical complimentarity and procreative complementarity (he often lumps them together with the unhelpful phrase “anatomical and procreative complementarity”). This distinction is needed, because there is no doubt that ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman moralists appealed to procreative complimentarity in arguing that same-sex relationships are against nature. But none of the texts he cites appeal to the anatomical genital structures, the “fittedness of the male penis and the female vagina” in the way that he does, and he needs to acknowledge that. For the ancient writers he cites, the emphasis is on procreation particularly, not complimentary genital “fittedness” in general. The reason such ancient moralists would have argued the sexes are “fitted” for one another is because they made procreation central, and only a penis ejaculating in a vagina can lead to procreation. Anatomical complimentarity as a form of moral logic ultimately collapses into procreative complimentarity for ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman moralists.

Although Gagnon uses this questionable analysis of the Jewish background to argue for an influence on Paul’s thinking about anatomical complimentarity, he also makes the argument exegetically from Romans 1, insisting that Paul’s appeal to nature was an appeal to the visible structures of creation, which include the fittedness of the penis and the vagina. But, as James Brownson has argued (BGS, p.241), what the text actually says is that knowledge of God from what is visible has been suppressed, not knowledge of human things, like the shapes of penises and vaginas. The suppression of that knowledge led to idolatry, which in turn led to various forms of sexual immorality. (In ancient Jewish thinking, idolatry always leads straight to sexual immorality. Compare Romans 1 with Wisdom of Solomon 13-15).

Where does this leave us? In my view, Gagnon has not established that anatomical complimentarity was the ultimate moral logic behind Paul’s statements. Paul’s primary forms of moral reasoning for condemning same-sex relationships were, in all probability, related to first century Hellenistic Jewish assumptions about procreation as the only natural end of sex, and the natural hierarchy of genders.

It could be objected (and Gagnon has argued along these lines) that Paul recognizes the value of marital intercourse beyond procreation (in fact, he never mentions procreation in his discussions of marriage, probably because of his belief in the imminent return of Christ, making such concerns pointless), and he also appeared to have a somewhat more positive view of women than at least many of his contemporaries. But the fact remains that when Paul describes same-sex relationships as “unnatural” he was drawing on a term, not from the Old Testament, but from Greek philosophical discourse where the term always carried connotations, in sexual ethics, of the violation of patriarchal and procreative norms. Had Paul not intended to communicate those norms at least to some degree, he would have probably chosen a different word than “unnatural.”

Paul’s moral vision concerning sexuality, while certainly containing revelatory insight, was also limited by his cultural assumptions about what makes for “natural” sex. As we have seen, most Christians acknowledge that Paul’s assumptions about what nature teaches elsewhere concerning the expression of gender roles (1 Cor 11) is no longer binding, because there are always lots of cultural assumptions made in describing what appears to be “natural.” That also, arguably, is the case in his understanding of same-sex relationships. If we are willing to acknowledge that Paul had some limited cultural understandings about gender roles, how could he also not have some limited cultural understandings about the meaning of sexuality?

That said, I think it might be interesting, for the sake of the argument, to go with Gagnon’s claims about anatomical complementarity. Again, he argues that the fittedness of the penis and the vagina was central to Paul’s moral reasoning in Romans 1. On his interpretation, same-sex relationships represent the most egregious suppression of truth on the human level. When we turn away from God, we then blind ourselves to obvious truths that should be apparent to all, such as the obvious complimentarity of the penis and the vagina. These material structures point to God’s design in nature for sexual expression, and it is to only be between a man and a woman.

Concerning what can be inferred from the natural law reasoning of ancient Jews, Gagnon writes, "Neither the male anal cavity (the orifice for expelling excrement) nor the mouth (the orifice for taking in food) are likely candidates for what God intended as a receptacle for the male penis." (BHP, 181)

It’s interesting that in drawing together his conclusions he only addresses male same-sex intercourse (which is the focus of most of his writings), and that he specified a male anal cavity but didn't specify a male mouth, although I suspect that is what he had in mind in this sentence. In personal correspondence on the issue of Paul’s likely view of non-coital heterosexual intercourse, Gagnon wrote, “I doubt that Paul would have had a serious problem with oral sex.” But then, one wonders, why gender would even matter at all if his point is that those orifices are intended for other functions. (On that note, several body parts certainly seem intended for more than one function. That he seems to assume only one intended function seems odd.)

Here is where Gagnon has not been very clear, nor has he sufficiently seen the problem with this line of reasoning: if consistently applied, it would also condemn all heterosexual non-coital acts as well as homosexual ones. In fact, through much of church history the term “sodomy” was applied to all such inherently non-procreative sex, not just same-sex intercourse. Gagnon denies this implication, but does so very briefly and without much argument. He simply asserts that the objection “misses the point” because what can be drawn from anatomical complementarity is not that all sex must always involve penile-vaginal penetration, but that this aspect of nature simply reveals that sex is to be ordered for opposite-sex couples, not same-sex couples (BHP, 365).

This is a highly selective and tendentious reading of the principle of anatomical complementarity. It certainly isn’t the way the principle has been articulated throughout most of church history. Any sex that is not open to procreative potential has traditionally been condemned by this logic, and still is by the Roman Catholic Church. (To be precise, Roman Catholic teaching doesn’t necessarily forbid all non-coital sex in marriage, but it stipulates that the consummation of the sex act-for the man- must take place through coital sex.)

So, it seems that if one were to accept the moral logic of anatomical complementarity in a thoroughly consistent way, one would be led to adopt the Roman Catholic teaching regarding heterosexual relationships as well. There is no non-arbitrary way to use the principle of anatomical complementarity to condemn all same-sex intercourse, while at the same time not using it to condemn all intentionally and inherently non-procreative intercourse in heterosexual relationships. While the Roman Catholic teaching on this matter is wrong, I believe, at least it is consistently wrong. The teaching of Gagnon (and most conservative Protestants) on this point strikes me as both wrong and inconsistent. The parts of the argument simply do not fit together.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sodom and Onan: A Biblical Rorschach Test

A Rorschach test is a psychological test designed to help psychotherapists interpret certain attitudes or emotional patterns in their patients. What a patient sees says much more about them than it does about the actual picture. It reveals more about what is deep within them than it does about what is in the inchoate splashes of paint. If you see a butterfly, you are good to go, while if you see splattered blood, you might need a few more sessions.

The Bible quite often functions as a kind of Rorschach test. Sometimes what we see in a text says more about us than it does about the actual text. A clear example of this would be what we "see" in the stories of Sodom and Onan from the book of Genesis. Most people are familiar with the first, but many have probably not heard of the second. That in and of itself is significant.

Traditionally, Christians have interpreted God's raining down fire on Sodom as a judgment on every kind of same-sex relationship. Homosexuality is so bad that it warrants death.

Traditionally, Christians have interpreted God's slaying of Onan as a judgment on every form of intentionally and inherently non-procreative sex, including masturbation. Preventing the procreative possibility of sex is so bad that it warrants death.

The meanings of these two stories, though traditionally largely agreed upon, are now deeply disputed by Christians.

Christian defenders of same-sex relationships would want to argue that this traditional interpretation of the Sodom story goes far beyond what the text actually says. The story is about attempted same-sex rape, not consensual or committed same-sex relationships. It's about the desire to humiliate and degrade foreigners, not the desire to share erotic intimacy.

Christian defenders of contraception would want to argue that Onan was killed, not for contraception as such, but for selfishly refusing to honor his brother by agreeing to follow the divinely mandated custom of levirate marriage. (Levir is the Latin word for brother-in law, and levirate marriage was a social institution whereby if a man dies without having a son, his brother is obligated to try to reproduce with his widow so that a male offspring can be reckoned as his and can carry on the family name and control the land.) This argument, though, doesn't sit well with the fact that the punishment for refusing to do this was public shaming, not death (Deut. 25:5-10), and in the history of the church there has been, up until 1930, a universal condemnation of contraception by all churches with this passage being used frequently to back up this prohibition. (See John T. Noonan's Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists).

My point here is not to say what is or isn't the correct interpretation of the Sodom or the Onan story. My interest is in the fact that many Christians clearly "see" an obvious condemnation of all same-sex relationships in the Sodom story, while they do not clearly "see" a similarly obvious condemnation of contraception in the Onan story, despite the fact that both stories have been used for the vast majority of church history to condemn both same-sex relationships and contraception, respectively.

Where you go with this observation is up to you. I wouldn't want try to argue that if you reject the traditional position on contraception that you therefore must necessarily reject the traditional position on same-sex relationships. Although the two issues are related, you can't draw a straight line from the first to the second and be done with it.

The juxtaposition of these two stories, though, with their comparative traditional interpretations and their contrasting contemporary interpretations, should spur us to be aware of and reflect on the messy entanglement of person and text in the process of interpretation.

Richard Rohr, in one of his books, says that, "We do not see the world as it is, but as we are." The same can be said for the Bible. That realization itself can't settle biblical debates, but it can, perhaps, help us see them in their proper light.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Picking and Choosing, Binding and Loosing

Had blogs existed in Dante’s time, there is no doubt he would have added a tenth circle of hell to describe what goes on in the comments section. A while back, I wrote a piece that gained a little traction and attracted several comments, one of which was this little gem:
“As a member of the UMC I am ashamed of what you just wrote, how can you pick and choose the parts of God’s word to obey, that is legalism and that is what you are doing… I guess you are a pastor but I would not be a member of your particular Methodist Church… We all must obey God’s Law and his word, no cherry picking, just be obedient…”
“Picking and choosing” or “cherry picking” is a frequent charge you hear Christians making against one another. The assumption behind it is that we are to obey the “whole Bible” and not just pick certain parts. Yet, the Bible is not really the kind of book that functions like a timeless law code. Everybody has to make decisions, sometimes very tough and unclear decisions, about how to interpret and apply certain biblical texts to our lives today. The problem is that when other people’s process of interpretation and application leads them to different conclusions than our own, we derisively call it “picking and choosing,” masking the fact that we ourselves are not simply taking the whole Bible “as it is,” but are also necessarily engaged in the work of interpretation.
Interpretation is inevitable and unavoidable. It’s simply what happens when we read. The Bible doesn’t come with footnotes saying “read this metaphorically” or “this was just meant for the original audience” or “this is actual history.” We have to make decisions about all these matters and more. Some hard-core literalists think, for example, that they are just reading Genesis plain and simple “as it is” when they assert that it is a historically accurate account of exactly how the world came to exist. They miss the fact that they have made a decision (or, more likely, the decision was made for them by the guardians of their brand of faith) to understand the genre of these texts as history and not, say, poetry or saga. But Genesis doesn’t come with notes telling us what literary genre it is. We have to do our best to figure that out by reading it in its historical context. (And when you do that, you see that expecting the kind of information from it that you get from modern history is out of place.)
Picking and choosing, then, is not just something that other Christians we disagree with do. We all do it. We all need to do it. It is simply the process of trying to understand, interpret, and apply Scripture to our lives. Jesus told his followers that they would have to pick and choose. Well, he didn’t use that exact language. He said we would have to “bind and loose.”
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Jesus speaking to Peter in Matthew 16:19)
The language of “binding” and “loosing” came from rabbinic terminology, and referred to the interpretive process whereby some Scriptures were “bound,” that is, declared as still in full effect in a given situation, and some were “loosed,” that is, declared to not be in effect for a given situation. This process has always been and will always be messy. In Acts 15, for example, we see the early Christians debating what to do with the scriptural requirements for Gentiles becoming part of the people of God. What about the Scriptures that stated clearly that circumcision was required (Genesis 17:9-14)? Some Christians wanted to bind this Scripture, and some, because of their experience of the Holy Spirit at work among Gentiles, wanted to loose it. The latter eventually won out, and now we yawn over what seems like the obviously right choice, but at the time it was far from obvious.
This would be the first of many debates over binding and loosing, over picking and choosing.
The defining moral debates in the church today are not over who really respects the Bible or who has a “higher” view of the authority of Scripture. For the most part, they are about the messy details of how you go about faithfully picking and choosing, binding and loosing.
The fact that we are having serious debates over huge issues is not a sign that the church is in trouble, that we have turned away from the Bible’s authority, or that we are in a unique period of history. We’re just doing what we have always done and what we will always do.
The “infallibility” or “inerrancy” of the Bible is hardly ever the real issue. Believe what you want about that, the fact remains that the Bible will always be read by fallible and errant human beings like you and me.
One of the interesting things about the advent of high definition, slow motion replay in sports is that, far from removing the subjective human element from the game, it has actually highlighted it all the more. With some plays you can slow it down, blow it up, and zoom in and there is still going to be different ways of seeing it.
Maybe this is why God didn’t bother with giving us the One-Timeless-Creed-of-Everything-to-Believe-and-Do-Forever-in-All-Times-and-in-All-Places, and instead gave us a diverse collection of histories, poems, prophecies, biographies, parables, letters, and prayers we call the Bible. We would never agree on what the former means anyways, and the latter is much more interesting and energizing to discuss and live with.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wesley and Slavery: A Model for Methodists and Same-Sex Marriage?

The slavery analogy is the most prevalent argument in the current debate on same-sex marriage in the church. While the analogy can be illuminating in some ways, those on the liberal and conservative sides of this debate often mishandle this analogy in some very unhelpful ways. 

Liberals sometimes think they can just utter the word "slavery" and they assume that is a trump card in this debate. Conservatives, on the other hand, often go to great lengths to try to show (unsuccessfully) that the analogy doesn't work because he Bible really never "endorsed" slavery after all, it merely "tolerated" or "regulated" it. 

Dr. Bill Bouknight, an Associate Director with the Confessing Movement, makes this argument in a very surprising way, arguing that "the Year of Jubilee in the Old Testament was the most radical slave-freeing piece of legislation ever devised." Which is a pretty odd claim to make, considering that the most often cited pro-slavery passage in the Bible is to be found in the Jubilee passage in Leviticus 25:

44 As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 45 You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. 46 You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.

This legislation fully endorses enslaving and owning people outside of their ethnic group, treating them as property to pass on to the next generation. I am not sure what Dr. Bouknight finds so "radical" in this passage, which gives divine legitimation to a deeply ethnocentric ethic.

The fact is that even though one can find laws or narratives in the Bible that soften or humanize the institution of slavery, there is no direct opposition to the institution of slavery as such. This is why the Christian abolitionists had to adopt the methods of trying to contexualize the specific passages concerning slavery (trying to point out differences between ancient and modern slavery), and to emphasize the general passages about justice and love. These are the same interpretive strategies, of course, employed by those who now argue for gender equality (and it still needs to be argued for in most churches) and who support the consecration of same-sex marriages. 

John Wesley, however, while being a staunch opponent of slavery, did not make the Bible the center of his argument against it. In fact, as best I can tell, he never really discussed the biblical passages often quoted for or against slavery. In his Notes, he either completely skips over passages pertaining to slavery, or, if he does comment on the passages at all, he focuses on something other than slavery in his commentary. (After searching through the main pro- and anti-slavery passages, the only one I could find where he does comment on slavery in the Bible is in 1 Timothy 1:10. ) In his major work on the subject, Thoughts Upon Slavery, he deliberately sets aside the Bible and chooses to argue simply on the grounds of "natural justice" and appeals to basic human empathy. He writes:

Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no sympathy, no sense of human woe, no pity for the miserable? 
I think it is fair to say that for most who are conservative on this issue, there is a concern that they not let emotions overrule what they see as reasoned arguments from Scripture. I know several folks who say that although they feel like people should be able to marry people of the same sex, they do not think it can be right from a Christian perspective. 

I think that kind of attitude should be handled with nuance. On the one hand, I have some respect for it because I am a contrarian at heart, and so I have some admiration for people who are willing to hold and defend unpopular opinions, no matter how much I might disagree with them. I also understand that emotions are not always the best guide to accurate knowledge.

On the other hand, the emotions, while not infallible, can in fact be very powerful guides to truth. This truth has been long neglected in large part because disciplines like theology have been historically dominated by male figures who have operated on the assumption that male=rational=good and female=emotional=bad. The emotions, though, are a central part of who we are (male or female) and God can use our emotions just as much as God can use our cognitions to teach us truth. 

I think, for example, about my own changing understanding of the Bible and women in leadership. In my early 20s, I was convinced that women shouldn't be pastors (among other things) because the Bible clearly prohibited it and I wanted to be faithful to the Bible. Over time, however, I got to know some women who are pastors and found myself being blessed by their ministry. At first, I tried to rationalize my experience by saying, "Well, just because their ministry is effective doesn't mean God approves of it. I mean, God can use all sorts of imperfect things to bless people, so even though God might speak to me through them, God still would prefer it to be men in those roles." 

After a few years, though, that became harder and harder to hold on to. It just started to seem silly. So, I eventually read lots of scholarship on the key passages, and decided that there were good reasons not to treat the "women be silent" passages as universally binding. 

My point, though, is that my change of mind was grounded in a change of heart.

I paid attention to what I was feeling and I let that unsettle, and eventually change, what I was thinking. This is what happens for many people regarding the same-sex marriage issue.  I think Wesley would approve of that approach. 

I am not saying, of course, that Wesley would have approved of same-sex marriage. I am simply pointing out that an approach to morality that doesn't minimize the deep human feelings of justice and fairness is one that is authentically Wesleyan. So when liberals on this issue point out the damage and destruction that comes from the traditional Christian view, when they ask us to imagine what it would be like to be told we can never enjoy sexual intimacy with someone we are genuinely attracted to, when they highlight the happiness and fruitfulness that can come from same-sex couples, they are doing for gay people what Wesley did for slaves. They are asking us to put ourselves in their position. They are asking us to make empathy be the central interpretive key for Scripture.

They are not the first to ask that of us. It is often overlooked (because the verse is often cut off when quoted) that the so-called Golden Rule was not given by Jesus just as a basic moral principle, but also as a basic interpretive principle for reading Scripture:

"In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

The "law and the prophets" was the Bible in Jesus's day, and Jesus is saying that empathic action towards others is the filter through which we are to read Scripture and apply it in our lives. Whether that sounds too liberal or not is irrelevant. It's how Jesus told us to read Scripture.

I should be clear that I do not think that if you hold a conservative view on this issue, that you are therefore necessarily a hard-hearted person. My intent with this little article is more defensive than offensive. 

Liberals on this issue often get accused of denying the authority of Scripture (when what we really deny is the authority of the traditional interpretations of certain Scriptures) and of listening too much to emotions and the culture around us. While the liberal conclusions may be wrong (I think a healthy dose of agnosticism is appropriate for many moral positions), the method by which many of us come to those conclusions is deeply Wesleyan in spirit, and resonates with the same method by which many in our church changed their minds about slavery and, more recently, the status of women. 

Being open to letting experience change you (liberality) is not always good and it is not always bad.

Holding on to your current understandings and convictions (conservativism) is not always good and it is not always bad.

Life is just not that neatly divided up. But the genuine desire to please God is always good, and, as Thomas Merton put it, "the desire to please God is what pleases God." Instead of assuming the other side is either a bigot or a rebel, let's assume of them what we would want them to assume of us: that in our approach to this issue and in the conclusions we hold regarding it, we are trying our best to please God as best as we can understand in the present moment. Which is the most that can be asked of a person.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Has Inclusivity Made Churches Irrelevant?

I recently read a fascinating scholarly article by sociologist N.J. Demerath titled (get ready), "Cultural Victory and Organizational Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Liberal Protestantism." His thesis is quite intriguing, and I think has a lot of traction. He proposes that the broad organizational decline of mainstream or liberal churches over the past 50 years is actually the result of the success of the message being preached by such churches. 

These churches, he argues, tend to preach a message that emphasizes pluralism (many different viewpoints out there), individualism (it's up to you to decide what to believe), and free and open intellectual inquiry (don't let creeds hold you back). These values, however, as good as they may be to certain degrees, tend to erode institutional loyalty and organizational solidarity. 

So, somewhat paradoxically, the organizational decline in the church is the result of the message being received, not ignored. To put it simply, the culture at large has embraced these values that have been promoted by liberal Protestants, and this has now made the continued existence of liberal Protestant churches irrelevant. People don't need to come to church to learn that they need to be open-minded and tolerant, since these values are now largely embraced by the culture as a whole. 

While I am sure that the decline of mainstream churches is due to more than simply this, I don't think this can be discounted as an important contributing factor. 

I am all for churches being places of critical thinking and intellectual exploration. I have even tried to instigate a bit of this myself. I am also all for cultivating a church community that doesn't try to dictate the correct answer for every ethical and theological question that we have. We see through a glass dimly, and like it or not, we have to live with a good deal of ambiguity and uncertainty. 

One of my favorite quotes from John Wesley is in his explanation of Methodism, where he is listing things that do not define a Methodist Christian. He says,
 "But as to the opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think." 
While Wesley endorses a wide and generous understanding of Christian faith, it is not an understanding without any boundaries. There is a "root" to Christianity that cannot be pulled up and it still be Christianity. For Wesley, the root of Christianity would no doubt include the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ as God's ultimate revelation of reconciling love. 

Jesus is Lord.

Jesus is central to God's purposes.

Jesus is what God looks like in human form.

Jesus is the Savior of all humankind. 

While we are certainly free to disagree with those statements, we are not free to disagree with them and still operate under the banner of "Christian." (We may have some doubts about them or be confused about what exactly they mean and still, of course, be a Christian, but we cannot positively deny them and still coherently and meaningfully claim Christian identity.) 

Any religious identity must have borders or there is no ground for the identity in the first place. As Andrew Walker and Robin Parry put it in their new book Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy,

"Orthodoxy may be a large tent but it is not infinitely large. Boundaries do need to be drawn and this, we maintain, is a good thing. If Christianity can be anything at all then it is nothing at all."

I'm afraid "inclusivity" has often meant watering down the gospel message so much that people can't find anything to disagree with. The problem with that approach is that you also then take away anything of substance for people to agree with and therefore, live for. 

It's a shame that what we often get in churches is either a liberal church with no solid theological center, or a conservative church with way too many fixed theological boundaries. Wesley advocated a third way for his people: proclaim unity in Christ and in God's reconciling work through him, but don't expect uniformity. Wesley was all for inclusivity, but it was definitely a Christ-centered inclusivity. 

Perhaps the way to sum up what I am driving at is this: our mainstream church emphasis needs to switch from Christ welcomes all, to Christ welcomes all. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Christ is Not With Us

Is Christ with us?
A. Yes
B. No
C. All of the above.
My first inclination would be to answer “A,” of course Christ is with us. Did he not promise to always be with us (Matt. 28:20)? The New Testament, however, taken as a whole, would answer “C,” Christ is with us, in one sense, but in another sense Christ is absent from us. Perhaps the starkest contrast can be found in Matthew’s gospel where just a couple chapters before this cherished promise of ongoing presence, we find Jesus acknowledging his upcoming absence when he tells his followers that he will not always be with them (Matt. 26:11).
So, while it is one-sided to merely say that Christ is absent from us, it is just as one-sided to merely say that Christ is present with us. It seems to me that we often make the mistake of focusing on just the promises of presence and not the acknowledgements of absence in the New Testament. This is especially prevalent in the way we talk about the meaning of communion. We talk about it as a way, indeed a central way, of experiencing Christ’s ongoing presence in the world and among us. Often the phrase “real presence” is used to describe this belief that Christ isn’t just present in our imaginations or minds, but is actually objectively present in a mysterious way in the sacramental meal.
I believe all this to be true, and it is certainly taught in the New Testament. But this is not all that is taught about the meaning of communion. Yes, Christ promises in one sense to be with us (“This is my body… This is my blood”), but at the same time acknowledges that this ritual meal will be carried out in his absence when he says that he will not participate in this meal again until the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness (Luke 22:15-16; Mark 14:25). In a similar vein, the apostle Paul refers to communion as a way of “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor.11:26). So, there is a sense in which in communion we experience Christ in the present, but another sense in which in communion we acknowledge that Christ was once with us in a way that he currently isn’t, and will one day be with us in a way that he currently isn’t.
Talking about the “real presence” of Christ is only part of the truth. There is also a “real absence.”
This scriptural balance is important to maintain for our spiritual health. If we just focus on the promises of presence, we can get the mistaken impression that Christians are to always be compulsively happy and immune from life’s pains because Christ is with us and therefore nothing can hurt us. The problem is that this isn’t true, and if you always try to sustain a walking-on-sunshine attitude, you will wear yourself out and become alienated from reality.
The New Testament is much more realistic than that. Because we are in an important sense away from Christ, our hearts will ache, our bodies will suffer, our deepest longings will go unfulfilled, and our relationships with be difficult.New Testament scholar Mark Powell, in his book Loving Jesus, says that as we grow up and mature in the faith our compulsive happiness should turn into a confident sadness. We are without the fullness of Christ’s presence, and that is reason for us to mourn. Ironically, the deepest kind of joy or well-being (“blessedness”) comes from being willing to enter into this kind of sadness (Matt. 5:4).
Now when I celebrate holy communion, I don’t just see it as a way of experiencing Christ’s presence. I see it as a way of coping with Christ’s absence. Feeling like Christ is absent, feeling sad at times because of the sense of divine absence in your life, is not a sign of spiritual weakness or failure. We need to reclaim the fullness of the paradoxical biblical truth that Christ both is and is not with us.
The Bible uses a number of images to try to capture this dynamic tension, perhaps the most prominent being that of a bride and her groom. The groom has been taken away, and we look forward in hopeful anticipation of the wedding feast and the intimate union in all its fullness. It is a reality we long for and anticipate, not one we currently enjoy. Contemporary theology and preaching seems to have taken a sharp turn towards emphasizing exclusively the present dimension of the gospel message as a way of correcting an older mistakenly one-sided emphasis on the future dimension of the gospel. Both are distortions.
Christ is not with you.
Christ will be with you always.
They’re both true. Accept the first and deny the second, and you get an unbearable despair. Accept the second and deny the first, and you get an unsustainable “happiness.” Accept both and you get biblical faith.