About a week ago I began a series of posts based upon my basic view that God loves gays. It turns out that the sacrifice of love Jesus made was for all, and not just for all people, but for all creation. Faithful people on all sides of the question start here, with welcome in the Gospel. Those often labeled 'progressives' or 'the religious left' who are arguing for change in the church's teaching on homosexuality don't often admit that those opposed to change ARE for welcome. It is the character of their welcome that I want to explore, and how welcome looks different from a different starting place.
The crux of the issue is, I believe, embodied in this young woman's poster in the photograph. The issue, that is, revolves around how one answers the question: are gay persons part of a good creation, God's intention for life, or do they represent a tragic result of sin and the disordering of creation that followed? The question I'd like to deal with here is:
Can one be faithful to Scripture and the Confessions to which I am bound in my confirmation and ordination vows AND affirm the goodness of gays as gay? Some critics have told me that in holding such a view I am at best dangerous and unfaithful, and at worst in heresy (as are a good number of my colleagues teaching at Lutheran Seminaries and colleges). It is a question worth asking, I think, how well we have been heard if more than 140 people in theological education, many at ELCA institutions, can summarily by dismissed as 'dangerous and unfaithful'. As I hope to show through these posts, I may at points be wrong, but I do not intend to engage these issues in a 'dangerous and unfaithful' way.
So, onward. To begin, a word about blogs. This is not, I repeat, not an academic paper. I'll hyperlink to articles and chapters I've written, but this is meant to be brief, timely and provocative. The nuance may not be fully on display and that's okay in this genre.
I acknowledge here, as I have any number of times before, Scripture (and in the Christian tradition) has little to say about same-sex orientation, love and commitment. Those few time anything at all related to same-sex relationship is mentioned, setting aside for now the vital debates regarding the meaning of the texts, the character of comment is either seen as friendship and therefore positive (Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and the beloved disciple) or seen as sexual and therefore negative (texts like Lev. 18 - 20, or Rom. 1, for instance).
Despite the admission that Scripture says nothing positive about same-sex sexual relations, I chafe at claims that faithfulness to Scripture requires giving over primary authority on these questions to two texts, Genesis 1:26-28 and Mark 10:2-12. These two texts, our critics say, prove God's intention in creation for marriage as a "life-long promise of fidelity between a man and a woman" as the ELCA draft Social STatement on Human Sexuality puts it.. Why chafe at this claim? I've been married to Sonja now 18 years, faithfully and with joy. I do take these texts to be important in setting a scriptural context for discussion of marriage. It is just that I think these texts say more than "marriage is a life-long promise of fidelity between a man and a woman", and other texts are important, too, like Jesus' call to discipleship in Matthew 10:34ff where we are told allegiance to Jesus trumps human family.
Critics will agree other texts are necessary but they will say that the 'no' passages (Lev. or Rom.) responding to same-sex behavior are to be read intratextually in relationship to these texts from Genesis and Mark in setting the normative view. The use of normative here is a theological 'ought' that covers, or ignores, a messy empirical reality. I wonder if one could say this is true as a descriptive or positive norm, as in most people are attracted to a member of the opposite sex, while still saying there are a certain number of deviations from the norm. Some people will already see a major problem with doing this, something Georges Canguilhem dealt with in his important book The Normal and the Pathological. While obviously it is worrisome to distinguish between the normal and the pathological, and some 'deviations' are truly horrific (pedophilia, for instance) I don't want to say all who 'deviate' from the 'norm' are 'pathological.' Perhaps Andrew Sullivan's term of 'virtually normal' makes more sense. As in 'we gay people are the same in almost every way except our deepest desire for love and companionship turns in a same-sex direction, not an opposite-sex direction'. The point is, Scripture, like nature, shows diversity in kinds of relationships, from Solomon's hundreds of wives and concubines to Jesus' and Paul's presumed singleness. The Scripture contains multitudes, and we need a way to say, yes, male-female fidelity is central, normative even, without having that shortcut the complexity of Scripture's witness as a way of helping us understand the complexity of life. We at least need a place for the centrality of singleness as a counter-weight to the idealization of marriage as the only legitimate form of life God has blessed. That then opens the question of the interaction of texts to speak to the complexity of our lives and loves. This, just to be clear, is not an apologia for antinomianism (a typical 16th century term meaning 'anti-law' used as critique of positions that believe God might have a new Word to say for us today) . My position is hardly anti-law. I simply think a more complex understanding of Scripture with regards to sexuality allows us to see fidelity and self-giving love as the central teaching, not heterosexuality.
An interlude to deal with the role of experience in theology is needed just now, before continuing with further discussion of scripture. I agree completely with those who want no change on church teaching with regard to homosexuality when they invoke our commitment to the "canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of our proclamation, faith and life" (ELCA Constitution 2.03). This is a powerful statement, and not in the slightest a fundamentalist statement of the Bible's authority as a text. That is, not every word is equally true and equally authoritative. I think that is a hopeless position to live with, and it is not the claim of my church. What it is, then? It is rather a claim about the Word of God, Jesus and his coming to us as Living Word in Law and Gospel, borne in and through the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. This then raises the question of interpretation. Luther said (and I know well the danger of quoting Luther--he said enough to be made to support anyone's position):
"One must deal openly with the Scriptures. From the very beginning the word has come to us in various ways. It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us. That makes all the difference between night and day." (in “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” p. 145 in Timothy F. Lull, ed. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).
So it is not enough to say, as some do, 'The bible says, I believe it, and that ends it.' Over a number of articles and a book on this subject, I have made a careful attempt to speak about the role of experience as a part of the interpretation of Scripture, and as a source for theological reflection generally. The most clear engagement of this sort is in a little piece I wrote for a lecture series at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Spokane, WA, later published in the Union Seminary Quarterly Review. Titled "Experiencing the Body: Sexuality and Conflict in American Denominations," I there write carefully about the way our life-story interacts with our understandings of worldviews, including how we interpret Scripture as God's Word to and for us. It is, in part, a phenomenology of changing one's mind. And it tries to account for the fact that actually knowing and loving people is very often the key factor in causing a crisis of belief, leading to the disorienting and difficult work of rethinking. I went through such a change in my view of gay people, and tell that story. I've heard it told by gay people, their parents, friends, pastors, congregations, and on and on. The plain fact is that experience interacts with Scripture in the process of our interpretation. This is not merely a function of our culture's collapse into moral relativism. It is not that people want to live by their senses and pleasures, i.e., by whatever pleases them. This is a claim about how humans makes sense of the world around them.
This, then, is the crux of the issue. In theory I understand the argument that gay identity, that is, the reality of people's durable sexual attraction to others of their same gender, is a result of the chaos of sin set in motion by 'the fall'. Lots of things 'go wrong' in the world that were not intended to be so in God's original creation. Murder, for instance, was a result of the fall. Presumably Cain and Abel would not have done this to one another had there parents not sinned. Homosexuality has been put in this same category, as an abidingly defective impulse like hatred that leads to acts classed as abominations. I say I can understand the argument, and I mean I understand the logic of it. Yet I know now many people who are gay and Christian, who are in Sullivan's words "virtually normal" in the sense that their hopes and longings, faith and commitments, are the same as mine. They have all been a part of my experience, a source of the crisis of belief in the logic of classing homosexuality as disordered, as a result of the fall. It can't be avoided; I (and presumably many of those ordinary Lutherans and others who support changing the Church's teaching on homosexuality) have come to the place where it seems not only impossible, but deeply immoral, to look gay people in the face and say, "you are abidingly defective, in your person, and in your fundamental desires, and in your hopes and longings for companionship rooted in such desires, and thus in Christ you must suffer, bearing this cross in life, and we the Church shall help you to bear it." One reason why I admire Paul Hinlicky is that his position takes this starting point and follows it through carefully all the way through welcoming gay people in Christ and even allowing for the 'recognition, not blessing' of civil unions as marriage-like places of commitment and faithfulness for those who cannot change their fundamental orientation. This is, he would argue, as far as one can go if one wishes to remain a "confessional Lutheran."
Returning, now, to wrap up the discussion of the question I began with: Can one be faithful to Scripture and the Confessions to which I am bound in my confirmation and ordination vows AND affirm the goodness of gays as gay? I am in a position where I have had life-changing experiences with gay people whom I understand to be good, through and through. Is it indeed impossible to honor Scripture and confession as part of understanding how this could be? Must a 'confessional position' start and end with Genesis 1:26-28 and Mark 10:2-12? NO! Must every argument for God's offer of a new word be met with the legitimate charge of 'enthusiasm' and preaching 'another Gospel'? NO! I've tried in a piece boringly titled "Assessing the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality," to work with my colleague Fred Gaiser's exegesis of Isaiah 56:1-8 (and its background in Lev. 21:16-23 and Deut. 23:1). This remarkable passage in Isaiah welcomes fully the formerly excluded category of persons who had been sexually mutilated (Eunuchs). This example, where within Scripture God gives a new word that abrogates a previous word, comes also in Matt. 5, Acts 10 and Gal. 3. Such examples give us a solid place to work in thinking what it might mean to faithfully understand gays as "clean" and not in need of either exclusion or change (in their identity as gay, no, that is, but transformation of sinful selves in the same sense as all people need transformation, yes, indeed.)
Well, enough, enough. I will venture a bit further with these issues in the next post that takes the next logical step: if God loves gays gay, then God loves gay desire. Paul Hinlickly has said he is just waiting for "some fool to argue that." Well, Paul, wait no longer. I'll have a go because if indeed a faithful argument can be imagined in which God loves gays gay, then it follows. It must follow, actually, and needs to be said clearly for the sake of those whose lives quiver in fear and doubt that their desires, their longings, are worthy not of God's joy but God's wrath.
Anon, and peace,