Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A More Progressive Conversation- Part 3

Hi Rob,

Again, I appreciate your response and would like to offer some thoughts on what seems to be one of the major points in your response: adherence to tradition. 

You write:

...believers can deny a view the church has held for 2000 years and think he or she is doing so because he/she has looked at the texts with fresh eyes – but it’s just possible that he/she is looking at the text through the lenses our culture has provided for determining truth.

...Here we are in the first part of the 21st century for the very first time in history denying two thousand years of tradition.  And it’s only in a Western culture that some of the church is doing so.  

...Why is it now that we have come up with such novel and creative ways to understand these texts?  What is it about our time that has brought us to believe what no representative Christian body has ever believed before?  And what is it about our culture that has led us to accept what the vast majority of Christians outside of the west presently reject?  It’s a belief that we know better.  It’s a belief that we have progressed and others have not. 

You are certainly right to point out that a progressive view of the Bible and homosexuality (I only use "progressive" to describe this view because that's how you described it) certainly comes, at least in part, from being influenced by a culture in which same-sex practices have come to be seen as morally acceptable by many people. While I have felt and, to a lesser but still significant degree, still feel somewhat nervous about making such a huge shift in Christian sexual ethics, I have come to see that the "for 2000 years" argument has much more emotional and rhetorical force than logical substance.

I guess the biggest problem for this line of reasoning is that it could be used to also deny previous major shifts in Christian ethics, the two most substantive being our changing attitude towards slavery in the mid-19th century and towards women in the mid-20th century. Let's just focus on the analogy with the status of women. Everything you said above could be, and certainly often is, said in relation to keeping women second-class people. Although I am not sure, I suspect that you are in agreement with the UMC that women can be pastors (please correct me if I am wrong). The shift among many Christian denominations in the West that has taken place over the past 50 years is one that had to reject nearly 2000 years of tradition, and this shift was undoubtedly influenced by our society's growing acceptance of gender equality. 

I think sometimes we have to admit that the non-Christian world can get things right that the church misses. Christ fills the cosmos, and God's Spirit blows where it will, so truth isn't limited to those of us in the church. Sometimes we need to be open to learning what God's Spirit might be saying to us through the broader culture. This was certainly the case with women's rights. Also, the church's acceptance of full gender equality required some "novel and creative" interpretations of several things Paul said about women. I would be the first to argue that Paul went along ways towards gender equality in his time and culture, but the fact is that he also said some things that require some deep exegetical considerations to get around that have not been embraced by 99% of our church tradition.

So, I agree with the main thrust of what you said, namely, that progressives have not reached their conclusions by Bible study alone. However, I disagree with the implication you make from this, namely, that progressives are doing something illegitimate when they let their culture influence how they read the Bible. We certainly did this when we changed our mind about women, and I would hope you would agree that it was a good thing we did. 

Also, one indication that progressives are not being influenced by culture alone, but by deep biblical values as well, is that many progressives (such as myself) still uphold norms of monogamous fidelity for same-sex relationships. This, obviously, goes against the grain of our culture's sexual ethics which, as you say, has as its only taboo no overt and immediate harm. Our culture in many ways suffers from a great deal of confusion about what authentic and whole sexuality looks like. I am just finding it impossible to say what the harm is in two people of the same sex loving each other in a covenanted partnership for life. When it comes to other things, such as our culture's increasing acceptance of pornography and promiscuity, it isn't hard to point to why such things are destructive for individuals and families. So, while I have no doubt I been influenced by culture on this, its hasn't been a blind and uncritical influence. In my own thinking and living, I swim upstream on a number of issues, and perhaps even swim upstream (at least in some circles) in insisting that fidelity be a central norm for sexual ethics.

The slavery and women examples suffice to show that the "for 2000 years" argument isn't sufficient in and of itself, and if we adopted a principle that said that we should not go against established tradition, there would never be any such thing as moral progress. However, there is an important counterpoint one can raise here. Although the Bible does have passages that condone/endorse slavery and the subjugation of women, it also contains passages that do point towards a more liberating view. So, Christian abolitionists and feminists had a few verses they could put in the arsenal to fire back at the traditionalists. However, the Bible contains nothing positive whatsoever to say at all about same-sex relationships. I believe the five explicit biblical prohibitions of same-sex intercourse are very difficult to interpret, in terms of discerning their range, scope, and the assumptions behind them. But any honest interpreter of Scripture must acknowledge nothing overtly positive about such relationships in the Bible. (In my mind, appeals to the Roman centurion's slave, David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi don't go very far in this regard.)

If a Christian is going to argue for gay marriage, she/he would have to do it on grounds other than direct scriptural appeal. But Christians have formulated a number of theological or moral principles for which there is no direct scriptural appeal. Take, just as a random example, the belief in an "age of accountability." Most Christians believe now that all children go to heaven if they die before reaching this age, usually thought to be around 13 or so. This belief has no direct support in Scripture at all. It makes sense and is accepted because it seems to be an outworking of more general biblical convictions about God, namely, that God is just and good, and it wouldn't be just or good to punish children forever. I am not arguing that we shouldn't believe in an "age of accountability." I am just making the point that if you require direct scriptural support for a conviction, you are setting the bar so high that some of our most deeply held convictions wouldn't make it past that requirement.

Most Christians have come to see heterosexual marriage as primarily about an intimate bond of friendship between two equal people who have voluntarily entered into the life-long relationship. (This way of thinking about marriage, by the way, is itself a huge shift from previous cultural definitions of marriage. Contrary to what politicians say, marriage is the social institution that has changed the most over time.) Most Christians do not think that procreation is necessary for a marriage, and the church and the state bless and legitimize heterosexual unions that have no intent of having a child. With the account of heterosexual marriage that many Christians have come to endorse, it has become much more difficult to give a principled reason (as opposed to a mere prejudiced assumption) why homosexual people should be excluded from such a marital arrangement. If marriage is primarily about celebrating and upholding interpersonal love in a life-long covenant, what it is exactly that precludes two men or two women who long for intimacy with one another from participating in this institution? 


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Wesley, Hell, and Non-Christians

In my research for the book I am working on about hell and universal salvation, I've taken an interest in going back to John Wesley's sermons to look at his theological attitude towards people outside the Christian faith. Although I knew that Wesley had a very wide and hopeful view of the power of God's saving love in Christ, I hadn't realized the extent to which he strongly emphasized that Christians should refrain from condemning people of other faiths. Below are a few quotes from him that I think every good Methodist should know.

A couple of historical and linguistic notes: "Mahometan" was an old-school English way of referring to Muslims. "Heathen" was a word that traditionally referred to people who were not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. Also, in Wesley's world, Protestants saw Catholics as deeply heretical, and Catholics returned the favor, and the two sides had a history of trying to settle disputes by killing each other.

….I have no authority from the Word of God “to judge those that are without.” Nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to him that made them, and who is “the Father of the spirits of all flesh;” who is the God of the Heathens as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that he hath made. Sermon 125: On Living Without God, point 14.

It cannot be doubted, but this plea [lack of  knowledge] will avail for millions of modern Heathens. Inasmuch as to them little is given, of them little will be required. As to the ancient Heathens, millions of them, likewise were savages. No more therefore will be expected of them, than the living up to the light they had. Sermon 106, On Faith, I 4.

But with Heathens, Mahometans, and Jews we have at present nothing to do; only we may wish that their lives did not shame many of us that are called Christians. We have not much more to do with the members of the Church of Rome. But we cannot doubt, that many of them, like the excellent Archbishop of Cambray, still retain (notwithstanding many mistakes) that faith that worketh by love. Sermon 106, On Faith, II 3.

It is not so easy to pass any judgment concerning the faith of our modern Jews... it is not our part to pass sentence upon them, but to leave them to their own Master. Sermon 106, On Faith, I 6.

We cannot account for his present dealings with the inhabitants of the earth. We know, “the Lord is loving unto every man, and his mercy is over all his works.” But we know not how to reconcile this with the present dispensations of his providence. At this day, is not almost every part of the earth full of darkness and cruel habitations... But does not the Father of men care for them O mystery of providence! Sermon 69 – The Imperfection Of Human Knowledge. II 4

Perhaps there may be some well-meaning persons who carry this farther still; who aver, that whatever change is wrought in men, whether in their hearts or lives, yet if they have not clear views of those capital doctrines, the fall of man, justification by faith, and of the atonement made by the death of Christ, and of his righteousness transferred to them, they can have no benefit from his death. I dare in no wise affirm this. Indeed I do not believe it. I believe the merciful God regards the lives and tempers of men more than their ideas. I believe he respects the goodness of the heart rather than the clearness of the head; and that if the heart of a man be filled (by the grace of God, and the power of his Spirit) with the humble, gentle, patient love of God and man, God will not cast him into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels because his ideas are not clear, or because his conceptions are confused. Without holiness, I own, “no man shall see the Lord;” but I dare not add, “or clear ideas.” Sermon 125: On Living Without God, 15.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A More Progressive Conversation- Part 2

Rob Renfroe, a key leader in the Confessing Movement in the UMC, was kind enough to respond to my response to his editorial in in the Good News magazine, "When Progress Isn't." (Scroll Down to find part 1 of this.) With his permission, I am posting it below. Rob raises some thoughtful criticisms that deserve a thoughtful response, and I hope to do that soon.

Thank you for writing and for the spirit of your comments.  I think you’ll understand that in an editorial, by necessity a relatively short piece, I cannot handle every issue in great depth.  Gay marriage was a very minor point of the piece.  For the first time in 30 years I devoted an entire talk to the topic of homosexuality.  I presented it last week for the men’s group I lead here at TWUMC.  I have attached my notes so you’ll see how I come at the topic of homosexuality when I have more time.  I don’t address gay marriage in the talk and I don’t go into depth on the various Scripture passages though I gave the guys some references to look at it themselves.  Frankly, I think good Christians folks can differ on civil unions and even marriages for gay couples provided by the state.
I think we could probably go back and forth about why Christians in a 21st century, Western culture view the Bible’s teachings on homosexual activity in a variety of ways.  You might argue that progressives have reached that point after careful consideration.  I would argue that that “no man is an island” and that as free and as unencumbered as we think we are intellectually as we pursue truth, all of us are influenced by the culture that surrounds us and we may not even realize when or how we are.  Hence, believers can deny a view the church has held for 2000 years and think he or she is doing so because he/she has looked at the texts with fresh eyes – but it’s just possible that he/she is looking at the text through the lenses our culture has provided for determining truth.
At General Conference in Pittsburgh, one delegate from Africa after he spoke on the topic of gay marriage was told by a U.S. delegate, “Well, obviously this is more of a problem in some cultures than it is in others.”  The idea was that once the African is more “enlightened” and has progressed to where we are as a culture, he and others like him, won’t have the same problem he does now with gay marriage.
More than being offensive, I found her comment telling.  Our differences may be about different interpretations of the various texts, but it’s also about something different and even deeper – how do we “see” the Bible – through what cultural lens?  
Here we are in the first part of the 21st century for the very first time in history denying two thousand years of tradition.  And it’s only in a Western culture that some of the church is doing so.  Somehow postmodern westerners have come to the conclusion that every passage about same-sex behavior in the Bible is not talking about same-sex behavior as we know it.  Even more amazingly, rather than condemning that behavior which would be the most obvious interpretation of these passages, we now see the Bible commending gay marriage as equal to heterosexual marriage though there is not one positive word in the Bible about homosexual behavior, much less gay marriage or even the idea of gay marriage.  It is hard to believe that the progressive view has not been culturally influenced.
There’s a saying that to a worm in horse radish, the whole world is horse radish.  And it an overly-sexualized culture that is intent on the mistaken notion that there are few behaviors that are inherently wrong (unless there is a victim) and that is intent on denying the differences among the sexes, it’s not surprising that some in the church will be influenced by those beliefs and presuppositions (the horseradish we live in) and read the Bible with those assumptions as the lenses they look through to see and interpret the world.
That may sound dismissive to persons of good faith who have studied the texts.  It’s not meant to be.  But I believe it’s true.  Why is it now that we have come up with such novel and creative ways to understand these texts?  What is it about our time that has brought us to believe what no representative Christian body has ever believed before?  And what is it about our culture that has led us to accept what the vast majority of Christians outside of the west presently reject?  It’s a belief that we know better.  It’s a belief that we have progressed and others have not. 
My closing words may come across as harsh.  But I believe what I wrote.  And it’s always good to have a little flourish in an editorial.  They’re meant to spark thought and debate.
So, we may just differ on this one.  Thanks again for writing,
All the best,

Monday, February 6, 2012

Is Jesus The Only Way? - Follow-Up

A More Progressive Conversation

The following is an email response I wrote to an article in the latest edition of Good News magazine, a publication of the Confessing Movement, which is a group within the UMC. This article was given to me (anonymously) by a church member, so I read it and felt like writing a response. If you are going to read this, I would encourage you to read Rob Renfroe's article first before you read my response. If I get a response from him, I'll be happy to post that as well.

Hi Rob,

We’ve never met, but one of my fellow church members recently gave me a copy of your article in Good News magazine, “When Progress Isn’t.” I would like to offer a response.

First, I think you are exactly right about the main thesis of this article, namely, that change in cultural attitudes and values isn’t always real moral progress. I also agree with you that it is unfair when people identify their position as the “progressive” position, thereby emotionally intimidating others into taking their view so that they don’t feel like “antiquated” and “unenlightened” people.

It seems to me, however, that in this article you engage in rhetoric that is just as one-sided and unfair as the type of rhetoric that you denounce. For example, you write:

Once, it was considered wrong to live together before marriage. But we Americans have “progressed” well past that supposedly archaic notion. We didn’t always have a million abortions in this country every year. But we “progressed” to that tragic point a couple of decades ago. Now we are told that we need to accept the progressive belief that homosexual marriage is just as acceptable in the sight of God as heterosexual marriage. All this shows that you simply cannot believe the Bible and believe that all change is progress.

There are people, such as myself, who do not think that homosexual marriage is right just because our culture is going in that direction. I think lots of things in our culture are headed in a destructive direction, and I think our calling as Christians should be to be willing to swim upstream when needed. As for the examples you bring up, I think that cohabitation is misguided, and I grieve over the mothers and babies who are the victims of abortion. Its saddens me, though, to see influential people like yourself lump together moral issues like this in such a cavalier way that doesn’t leave room for thinking through each issue with integrity and sincerity, rather than just buying into intellectual packages.

In your article you talked about what we need to do and not do in order to reach young adults. I totally agree that we should never change our message simply to make it more palatable to a group of people. I can tell you though, as a young adult, that one of the things that church leaders do need to do in order to engage young adults is be willing to set aside pre-determined packages and labels and be willing to actually think outside of a constricting binary spectrum largely determined by the media. Some of us, for example, think that the traditional interpretations of the relevant biblical passages on homosexual relationships are not very compelling and coherent. They sound to us like I am sure the slavery passages sounded to the abolitionists, and like the anti-woman passages sound to women called and gifted by God to preach. Don’t dismiss us that easily by just assuming that we are just going with the flow of culture. We just might be going with the flow of God’s Spirit.

While you are right in saying that change isn’t always progress, the flip side is that keeping things the same isn’t always about being “faithful to the Gospel once and for all delivered to the saints,” as you put it. Just as we shouldn’t assume that recent trends in our intellectual culture are always directing us to a better place, neither should we assume that conserving tradition is an inherently more faithful thing to do. The storyline of the Bible is one that involves both conserving tradition and being willing to reject tradition in order to go forward in our understanding of God and God’s ways. Some of the prophets, for example, clearly rejected the sacrificial system instituted in Leviticus (Isaiah 1:11-12; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 7:22-23), and the apostles clearly rejected the earlier teaching of Scripture in order to accept Gentiles into the church (Genesis 17:9-14; Acts 10-15). Our biblical tradition is full of people who were willing to question whether previous generations really understood God and God’s ways fully and finally. You go on to write,

I have already mentioned C. S. Lewis. In Surprised By Joy, [sic] he writes about “chronological snobbery.” It’s the conviction that when matters before us are moral or spiritual or theological in nature, the most modern beliefs are the most correct beliefs. It’s an elitist approach to history and to knowledge, denying the wisdom of the ancients because we are certain that “the latest is always the greatest.”
“Chronological snobbery” is the bedrock belief upon which theological progressivism is built. It is the conviction that we may dismiss what the Scriptures teach, because, frankly, we have “progressed” to the point that we know better. It is a belief that our culture is so superior and our contemporary values so more enlightened than were the authors of the Bible, that we may dismiss their writings whenever we choose.
That is what’s behind the progressive approach to Christianity. Chronological snobbery. Cultural elitism. And intellectual arrogance.

As a matter of rhetoric, this is simply an uncharitable and unfair characterization. To assume that people who disagree with you are arrogant and snobbish elites is simply false and you should repent of being so quick to demonize brothers and sisters in Christ. As a matter of substance, your claim that theologically progressive views are built on the foundation of “chronological snobbery” is overly simplistic. Yes, there are some people with theologically progressive/liberal views who are simply being a sponge to the culture and are absorbing whatever the world tells them. But there are also many people with some theologically progressive/liberal views that gain these views  through years of hard study, reflection, prayer and conversation.

I used to be a member of the Confessing Movement. I used to really look forward to getting the Good News magazine. I still agree with much of what the organization stands for. In many ways, I am very conservative theologically. I believe the Creeds. I believe Jesus was literally born of a virgin, literally rose from the dead, and that he will literally come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one goes to God except through him. But what has turned me off from this organization is the attitude it has shown towards the debate about same-sex relationships. It doesn’t bother me that this group has a conservative stance. Even though I have an affirming stance towards covenanted, monogamous same-sex relationships, I think that there is nothing wrong with a group who is convinced otherwise doing what they can to fairly promote their views. What really bothers me is when leaders like you quickly dismiss the positions of others that they have been struggling with and wrestling with for years and years with cheap and easy jabs. I don’t see how you can honestly say the Bible is clear on this issue. Even if the conservative position is right, it is certainly not clearly right. My bookshelves are filled with works written by top scholars across the boards who are all very intelligent and I can assume sincere people who come to very different exegetical conclusions. Perhaps if both sides on this debate dropped the language about what is “clearly” the case, we could have better conversations.

I apologize for the length of this, and if you have read this far, I thank you. I love the UMC, but I’m just getting tired of how we talk past one another so much. So I just wanted to share this with you and hopefully spark a more productive kind of conversation.


Friday, February 3, 2012

Mark Driscoll on Marriage

You may have seen that mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll has come out with a best-selling book about marriage. It has received lots of criticism from a variety of people for a variety of reasons. I haven't read the book, but I have read an article he wrote related to it for Fox News:
One of the main points he briefly makes is this:
"Marriage is for one man and one woman by God’s design. This is the consistent teaching of the Bible from the table of contents to the appendix and the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself (Genesis 2:24-25, Matthew 19:4)."

The reason I am responding to this is because this is a perfect example of how people have a tendency to make claims about the Bible that actually have nothing to do with the real content of the Bible. I wonder if Pastor Driscoll has ever read the following:
Exodus 21:10If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.
Deuteronomy 21: 15 If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, 16 then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn.
Deuteronomy 25:5When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
Throughout ancient Israel's history, the story of Adam and Eve was not seen as precluding polygamous marriage. Polygamy was not only allowed, it was explicitly commanded by Moses in the aforementioned case, and this was such a serious matter that if a man refused to do this he would be socially shamed (Deut 25:9-10) and God is depicted as actually killing someone for not doing this (Gen 38). By the way, Jesus was confronted with a scenario involving this type of polygamous marriage, and he didn't take the chance to say that he thought it was wrong, just that there will not be any marriage in the age to come (Mark 12:18-27).
Don't get me wrong, I think monogamy is a much better marital arrangement than polygamy. But I don't think that one can say that the Bible clearly and obviously supports this. Christian ethics has never been just a matter of quoting Scripture. Discerning what is right and wrong as a follower of Christ involves the tough work of discerning what the mind of Christ would tells us about a given situation or action, and this is usually not an easy, black and white endeavor.Too often the Bible functions as a symbol of authority that we try to use to legitimize our own predetermined views.
Again, I am all for monogamous marriage (please don't misunderstand me Andrea!). I think that one can take foundational Christian principles of love, respect, and mutual service and make the case that a monogomous marriage better embodies these values than a polygamous marriage does. However, it would be foolish to say that the Bible supports this view from "the table of contents to the appendix" because it obviously doesn't. In general, I think we need to do a better job honestly acknowledging how our ethical thinking as Christians depends on a lot more than quotes from the Bible. Making statements about the Bible that can easily be debunked with a quick Google search does nothing to help draw people into a life with God. It only sets up unnecessary roadblocks, and does a lot more damage than good.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Church & Same-Gender Relationships - Session 2

Here is an "uncut" extended version of the talk I gave last night:

Here are the talks from Rev. Skarda and myself: