Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 1

Homosexuality, always a hot button issue in the ongoing "culture wars," is once again dominating the current news cycle because of last week's successful Amendment 1 ballot initiative in North Carolina and President Obama's predictable, not-so-courageous declaration that he is "for" gay marriages.  Indeed, even my own modest blog post on the issue attracted a record number of hits and thus demands a follow-up or three to clarify what indeed a genuinely Christian response to the phenomena of homosexuality and homosexual practice — these, by the way, need to be distinguished — ought to look like.

Readers of my previous post will recognize that I have a somewhat less-than-definitive position on gay marriage.  On the one hand, the Bible — both in the Genesis creation narratives and the testimony of Jesus himself clearly defines marriage as the permanent "one flesh" union of a male and a female.  Yet America is not a Christian state in which biblical standards have definitive legal or legislative sway.  "Natural law" solutions, as a friend suggested, might be more promising, but I will not hold my breath in expectation of such winning the day any time soon.

In particular, as a Christian I am sick and tired of hypocritical windbags like the 4 times married/3 times divorced Rush Limbaugh bloviating about how President Obama is leading a "war on traditional marriage."  Evangelical Christians, with divorce rates approaching those of the society as a whole, have already done yeoman's work in that regard.  Indeed, in my view the most elegant solution would be for the state to get out of the marriage business and offer civil unions for all domestic partnerships instead.  Whatever the solution, two things must be safeguarded: first, the civil rights of de facto homosexual partners to both insurance and inheritance benefits, not to mention such common decency matters as hospital visitation rights; and second, the inviolable right of the church to refuse to bless and sanction such homosexual partnerships.

This latter point directly raises the issue of the proper Christian attitude towards homosexual practice.  As all are aware, Christians have historically regarded such practice as sinful because of the Bible's prima facie opposition to it.  The matter is somewhat more complex today.  The cultural pressure to affirm — "tolerance," after all is a euphemistic code word for "acceptance" of someone or something's legitimacy and even to celebrate, same-sex genital activity is overwhelming, especially in the academy.  Refusal to "get on board" the cultural agenda is regarded as hopelessly out-of-date pigheadedness, unreconstructed bigotry, or worse:  one might be lumped together with the bĂȘte noire of Christian believers, the dreaded fundamentalists.

The watershed moment occurred in 1980, with the publication of John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.  Boswell, a practicing Roman Catholic and openly gay Yale historian who died in 1994 of complications from AIDS, argued not only that ancient and medieval Christians had a more accepting view of homosexual behavior than did the post-Reformation church, but that the New Testament texts traditionally used to condemn homosexual practice were amenable to different interpretations.  His conclusion was that the New Testament says nothing that can be legitimately used to condemn modern, same-sex committed relationships.  Boswell's work opened the floodgates for works from both homosexual (L. William Countryman, Dale Martin) and heterosexual (Robin Scroggs, Jack Rogers) scholars who, despite their interpretive differences in detail, argued similarly that the traditional Christian opposition to homosexuality is unsupported by a hermeneutically-sensitive reading of the Bible.  Such works also precipitated a definitive traditionalist (though decidedly not fundamentalist) response from Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, whose massive The Bible and Homosexual Practice was published in 2002 (see also his website dealing almost exclusively with the issue).

Some might wonder how homosexual scholars arguing for such interpretive revisionism could be taken more seriously than, say, evangelical scholars like Peter Lillbeck who argue that George Washington was motivated by a decidedly Evangelical piety.  After all, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are not the only ones capable of begging the question and utilizing a hermeneutic of wishful thinking to "demonstrate" pre-held positions arrived at by other means.  That is a fair question, and almost certainly true in some instances (on both sides of this issue and many others besides).  And in today's academic climate it hardly matters.  A learned gay friend of mine wrote me that "most gay theologians are pretty much beyond the debate at this point, and don't write in a tradition that would consider Paul (or the several Pauls) and his opinion to be a deal-breaker."  Indeed, many scholars supportive of homosexual relationships, both homosexual (Bernadette Brooten) and heterosexual (the late Walter Wink), today acknowledge that Saint Paul, at least, was — or at least would have been religiously averse to all forms of homoeroticism.  For them, Paul — let alone any or all strands of the Pentateuch — simply does not have the last word. 

Here, of course, is the spot where I have to respectfully disagree.  Since childhood I have confessed that the Bible, properly interpreted and applied, is the only rule for a Christian's faith and practice.  In his poststructuralist guise, Dale Martin would accuse me of hermeneutical naivete and hopeless foundationalism for basing the continuing authority of Scripture on its historical-critical interpretation.  As a critical realist, I am not so hopelessly naive as he might think.  Nevertheless, I remain guilty of imagining that Paul, for instance, can be understood sufficiently to base one's beliefs and practices on his written deposit.  And, as I hope to demonstrate in subsequent posts, the apostle is very clear indeed on this issue.

Nevertheless, as has become clear to me in recent years, the relentless drum beat of the culture has made many supposedly "evangelical" Christians weak-kneed on the issue.  In the wake of our society's shameful legacy of oppression and discrimination against racial minorities and women, no one wants to be labeled a "bigot."  And (at least) superficial similarities may be detected with regard to the status of homosexuals in our culture.  Likewise, John Lennon and the Beatles famously sang, "All You Need Is Love," live on the telly back in 1967 (with Mick Jagger, among others, in attendance).  Denial of the appropriateness of homosexuals to express their desires smacks of "hate" according to the standards of today's discourse (by the way, I am not denying that such "hate" does in fact exist, even if the accusation is often made inappropriately).  Moreover, "science" has shown the likelihood that both biological and psychological factors play a role in determining a homosexual orientation.  When such factors are combined with an assimilation of the culture's tacit assumption of sexual entitlement, the default position of a sizable cross-section of young Christians is to affirm both gay people and homosexual practice.

I came to this shocking realization while reading the hundreds of comments to Rachel Held Evans's important blog post entitled "How to win a culture war and lose a generation." Biblical prohibitions were explained away or marginalized with an alacrity — and worse, a hostility toward traditionalists — usually reserved for the most ardent of skeptics.  It left me with the sad realization that those of us called to preach and teach the Word of God have largely failed to do so in such a way that our students and congregants could be inoculated against the most egregious of our culture's assumptions.

Rachel herself is not entirely innocent on this score.  In a follow-up post she lauded the Gay Christian Network as an organization that supports LGBT Christians trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality.  What is needed, according to Evans, is a "radical change in how we treat one another as Christians and as citizens ... a movement toward reconciliation, healing, grace, and love."  To facilitate this, she suggests that "we need to listen to one another's stories ... because everything changes when you are confronted with someone else's story."

I get it.  I likewise am tired of the worn-out culture war objective to rid the larger culture of the depredations of the "gay agenda."  Moreover, it is also salutary for Christians to listen to the stories of the homosexuals in their midst, not to mention those who have departed, voluntarily or otherwise.  Many of us need to repent for how we have treated gay people simply because of their sexual orientation.  Indeed, nothing is more silly than the assumption of many culture warriors that homosexuals blithely choose those to whom they are sexually attracted.  Such an assumption is dangerous in that it enables such warriors not only to condemn homosexuals — nothing, after all, is less costly than strident preaching against sins one has no possibility of committing — but also blinds them to the metaphorical General Sherman trees growing out of their own ocular sockets.  If nothing else, listening to such stories will promote a genuinely Christian, loving response to the gay people in our midst.

Yet — and here I must be clear — personal stories are not arguments.  Call me a modernist if you like, but the fact remains that kindled empathy and compassion are not hermeneutical masters capable of bringing the biblical text into submission.  Indeed, I would argue that all personal stories must find their meaning and significance in light of The Story — creation, fall, redemption (Israel, Christ, church), consummation — narrated in Holy Scripture.  Only in the light of that story can we understand the particulars of the biblical text.  Moreover, it is only in the light of that story that we can rightly interpret the existential complexities of life in our fallen, groaning world.

In future posts, I will deal successively with biblical arguments against the traditional position and with the two central texts in Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Romans 1:24-27.  No doubt, as my aforementioned friend predicted, I will "manage to offend everyone."  I can live with that, so long as I try to speak (what I consider to be) the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and don't manage to offend the one whose opinion alone counts, the Lord who bought me with the price of his own blood (1 Corinthians 6:20).

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to the future posts.
    Thank you for sharing your perspective on this difficult issue. It is helpful.