Response to Jason: Are Christianity and Homosexuality Reconcilable?
I’ve never really believed that it was possible to reconcile Christianity with homosexuality. The scriptures seem clear enough to me — to be a Christian is to be opposed to same-sex sexual relations. The only real question is how Christianity will oppose homosexuality: Will it be in the way that Jews oppose eating shellfish? Or will it be in the way that Muslim fundamentalists oppose cartoons of Mohamed? That is, will the political means be in play, or not?
I had intended to respond to this issue earlier and had written a long post on the subject but WordPress ate it (I guess that makes WordPress a conservative). I can’t really redo that whole thing, but take this as a thought or two on how I make sense of being a Christian in a church that accepts gays and lesbians.
1. I live in (Vancouver) Canada, where gay marriage is legal in all the provinces. In fact it’s not gay marriage, it’s just marriage. While there are undoubtedly still social and cultural forms of prejudice against gays and lesbians throughout the country, politically and legally everybody’s on the same level in terms of civil rights.
So Jason is right that a deeper issue in the end is the political question: will US Christian opposition to gays and lesbians take place at the personal level or will they attempt to impose their preferences through a political agenda?
Here in Canada, that battle is already over. Conservative Christians lost–though they haven’t quite figured that fact out yet in certain parts of Alberta. That is, there are some Canadian conservative (usually evangelical) churches that promote gay conversion, expel outed gay members, denounce homosexuality from the pulpit, etc. etc. But more than anything, it’s really just a battle between Christian churches as to whether to accept or deny the reality of gays as members of their population. And since only about 2-5% of this country actually attends church any Sunday, this is not exactly a major issue for most people.
But it still shows up. This week a woman was fired here in Vancouver from a Christian private school and she charges (rightly, from what I can tell) that it was because she is a lesbian. This controversy has re-raised the issue here of whether Christian churches should be exempt from public anti-discrimination laws that they feel violate their religious oaths. Obviously a tricky subject, but note that it only applies to the question of private religious institutions, not public ones, where no teacher can be fired over his or her sexual orientation.
As an American living abroad, it’s beyond absurd (and frankly tragic) to hear all these notions of gays and lesbian destroying the traditional family or whatever when I interact with said people and their families all the time. I can assure you they are not the bogeymen of these bizzaro right-wing fantasies. Dark fantasies, as Jason’s post points out (depressingly), that are sometimes rather seductive.
1a. As a personal twist to the story, Jason and I grew up in the same traditionalist Roman Catholic city (though we didn’t know each other) that neither of us live in anymore. In cultural (and even geographic) terms, we both now live about as far away from said city as we can. I rather strangely grew out of my homophobia while with the Jesuits (a Roman Catholic religious order). This might help explain the seemingly paradoxical situation I find myself in.
2. So on to the specific intra-Christian debate on this question. In many ways, this is the least important issue. The church I attend is one of the most forward-looking on gay inclusion, but even there we have blessings for gay/lesbian civil marriages that can’t take place in the public part of the church. This is the same church my (non-Christian) wife and I got married in publicly without a problem.
So, how to reconcile Christianity with homosexuality?
Back to this line from Jason’s post:
The scriptures seem clear enough to me — to be a Christian is to be opposed to same-sex sexual relations.
Generally, the first thing to say here is that the scriptures might not be as clear as we think they are (although in the end, religious liberals need to be willing to face the fact that scripture may in fact be clear on this particular point).
Here’s the (in)famous passage from Chapter 1 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
20Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
Notice the context, which is a critique against Gentile paganism. Paul, remember, is a Jew. This is a classic Jewish criticism of Gentile Greco-Roman culture.
At this point you should go read Jason’s brilliant post on Athenian pederasty. When Paul is denouncing homosexuality this is the kind of thing he has in mind. He is not criticizing two women who are living together and raising children together down the street because no such people existed in his society and he would never have been able to imagine such a scenario. It’s worth considering strongly how the early Christian invectives against that practice are in part (though not wholly) a criticism of the lack of human agency/freedom of choice of some involved in those pairings. Particularly in the Letter to the Romans whose central point is the spiritual freedom (and its political and social implications in the here and now) of the Christian gospel.
Paul also is not thinking of two men in a committed relationship who love God/Jesus and go to church. Because again no such people existed. This is an important point as the (er, pun not intended) thrust of Paul’s argument is that pederasty is a consequence of idolatry. In other words, if there are gay people who show true love and belief in God this might force a re-examination of the obvious link between idolatry and gay relationships.
So the theological debate in the end is not about gays/lesbians but about a person’s position on how they understand the scriptures and the place the scriptures hold. That’s where the real fight is and I wish the fight would take place there rather than using gays as a proxy because it’s an emotional hot button issue. And it’s always easier to blame and scapegoat somebody else I suppose.
So to radically simplify the biblical theological debate:
[The Liberal Position]: Did Paul write that letter reflecting his own views of his own time? The “shameless acts” reference (the term used I believe is porneia) may refer to cultic temple prostitution. Which again would link back to the notion of idolatry. Is the human experience of people coming to God and showing signs of Christian faith and living (while still being gay and themselves not seeing any contradiction in that) “proof” that times have changed and God may speak to us still?
[The Conservative Position]: Or did God write that passage and as such there is no real contextuality to the statement at all? i.e. In this view, it is a clear and broad condemnation of gays.
A question the conservative position needs to wrestle with (and ask itself if it really is in the end conservative or just partially liberal) comes from the next passage in Romans, following what I just quoted:
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.
The “they” in verse 28 is not referring to gays and lesbians by themselves. It is referring (in essence) to the entire Gentile world that has not acknowledged the God of Israel (via in Paul’s mind the Messiah Christ Jesus). All of those “deserve to die”. I mean last time I checked it wasn’t just gay people who committed the following:
Lying, Being arrogant, gossiping, rebelling against their parents, being foolish, being ruthless (hello Goldman Sachs), Murder.
I qualify for a number of those sins myself (not murder).
In other words, Paul is not going where you think he is with this passage–a point totally missed by people who cite it for their various political agendas.
To wit, Chapter 2:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
George Rekers the anti-gay minister caught with a man has now learned this lesson rather publicly:
19and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, 21you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You that boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’
My own position I guess I would call post-liberal. I accept the basic liberal point of the historical-critical method to reading the Scriptures. You have to read for context and imagine the role of the human authors in the process (even if one still holds to some form of Divine In-spiration). I’m not pre-liberal as it were.
The weak spot in liberal theology ultimately is that the various portions of scripture end up fragmented without an overarching story line. As a result, there is not necessarily a standard “up” above the reader or the church as a whole. From the liberal position the danger is we read “over” the text, standing in judgment of it, rather than learning from it, being open to it as a source of revelation. But as a post-liberal I have to say such revelation needs to be more than this contemporary existence but include it as well. Again post-liberal not pre-liberal.
I don’t know if that is a perfect reconciliation. It’s not a totally worked out system in my head at this point. It’s more a kind of dream or impulse. A general way of moving and responding rather than exact prescriptions with complete clarity. I mean if Jason is right and there is no way you can both be a Christian and accept/love gays and lesbians as they are in their actual lives, then I’ll have to abandon my Christianity because I’m not going to go back to the former ways of relating. And, in my case, such a change would also require me to find another profession.
In the case of Romans my way of interpreting would ask what the meaning (if there is one) of idolatry is anymore? Especially in relation to the depiction of the human body and, for example, the cult of (overly skinny) youth. In Christian theology, the human body is the temple of God (as Paul will say later in the letter to the Romans). Disfiguring the human body is disfiguring the temple of the Divine. Literally scarring God. On the other hand, improperly worshiping the temple instead of the one who resides in the Temple is also a classic theological error rampantly committed in our world I would say. While including in said reflective discussion gays and lesbians looking for and/or in committed relationships of love and care who are drawn in whatever ways to God. Particularly in a Christian setting, attracted to the gospel.
It’s speaking to us, place a kind of frame they we are willing to let call to us, even judge us, but realistic in the sense of accepting where we are as North Americans culturally, economically, politically, socially, and so on. But still in the sense speaking to this life and not simply becoming some “Sunday morning brain” where I get to be saved and get to go to heaven when I die and live in make believe lala land for an hour and then have my “normal” Monday through Saturday existence. It’s not an easy balance. I can appreciate the clarity of a position held by Jason that it’s one or the other– a position interestingly shared by many conservative Christians (who just disagree about which side of the ledger they fall).
Reconciliation, the word Jason correctly used, is about standing in the middle and reaching across the spectrum, embracing beyond the typical social divides and conceptions, usually getting pulled apart (or crucified) in the process. Becoming a sacrifice in other words, so that there might be a resurrection on the far side destroying the walls that previously divided (see the Letter to the Ephesians on this point).
Or I’m full of it.
Or a little both.