Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Engaging the Text: Stuff about God

Well, I think Scoots gave a good answer to our first question: How do Paul's comments about homosexuality fit into his argument in Romans? I'll reproduce his answer here:

As I understand Romans, Paul uses 1:18 thru 3:20 to establish that all of humanity – both Jew and Gentile – stands sinful and helpless before God. The idea is that humans are simply unable to be righteous on their own, which sets up Paul's proclamation of justification of both Jew and Gentile through faith (3:30).

Roughly speaking, the section consists of three moves.

The first move (which Matt has quoted) describes the thorough sinfulness of Gentiles. The idea is probably to catch the Jews in the audience thinking, "Yeah, those Gentiles really are awful."

But Paul goes on, in his second move (2:1ff), to say that those standing in judgment (perhaps Jews) are sinful as well. Finally, in a third move, (3:9ff) Paul throws out a litany of verses claiming that all of humanity is helplessly sinful.

Scoots' summary, up to this point, jives with every commentary I've ever read.

Consequently, one reaction to the passage in question could be to dismiss it out of hand, as something particularly Pauline, or at least Jewish, perhaps purely rhetorical, and in any case, incidental to Paul's real point: Jew and Gentile are both justified through faith.

However, this passage is a bit different than the vice lists we looked at earlier, because in Romans, Paul is doing some heavy-duty theological work. Rather than simply giving a list of do's and don'ts to particular congregations in Asia Minor, Paul claims to actually be telling us something about God. And this, of course, is the question that most of us care about – we may not trust Paul's patriarchal proclamations about sex and gender, but it sure would be nice to know what God thinks about the whole business.

Now it may be that we can still short-circuit this whole discussion, and I'll provide a couple of ways that we might do so.

First, it may be that Paul's statements about homosexuality here are universally applicable and universally understandable. Regardless of our worldview, the translation that we're reading, the connotation we might apply to different words, and the ineffable nature of God, it may be that these few verses represent a capsule of real live Truth, and that once we read them, we immediately have the option of receiving God's clear truth, or rejecting it.

The nice thing about this answer is that it's simple: Paul means I understand him to say and says what I understand him to mean. The nature of God is inherently simple, there are no mysteries, there are simply the things we ought to do, and the things we ought to avoid. The bad thing about this answer is that it's ... well ... too simple. It makes no allowance for the complexities of God, much less the complexities of human existence.

Second, it may be that Paul's statements about homosexuality conflict with our experience of the world, and must simply be judged inaccurate. This is a good approach for those who don't accept scripture as normative, or who mistrust Paul in particular, or who can't accept traditional interpretations of these parts of Romans.

The benefit of this approach is that we can be honest about our experience of the world without abandoning our faith in God. Problematic scriptures can be discarded, and edifying scriptures can be accepted on the basis of their self-evident truthfulness. But the problems with this second approach mirror the problems of the first. It becomes more difficult to allow scripture to convict us and teach us new ways to behave, plus it becomes very hard to explain how Paul's other theological statements – and likewise, any biblical statements about the nature and preferences of God – can be understood to be true.

But if we expect that Paul's statements about God are true in some general sense, we should probably spend a bit of time trying to figure out the sense in which his statements are true. Here are some possibilities.

    The gentile culture worshiped other gods, so God allowed the introduction of homoeroticism.

    In general, when cultures worship other gods, God allows the introduction of homoeroticism.

    In general, when individuals worship other gods, God allows them to become homosexual.

    In general, when individuals are rebellious, God allows them to corrupt their own bodies.

    In general, rebellion against God tends to lead to the corruption of one's own body.

    God disapproves of homoerotic behavior.

    God disapproves of homoerotic lust.

    God views heterosexuality as "natural", and homosexuality as "unnatural".

    God approves of anything "natural", and disapproves of anything "unnatural".

Feel free to mix and match, or add your own.


Brian said...

I haven’t had the chance to read your post all the way through, but I wanted to offer you a few sources, admittedly unsolicited, if you are interested.

The first link takes a look at the verses that those of us in the “gay camp” affectionately refer to as the “clobber passages”. The second link is just a list of books on the subject written from a gay positive viewpoint.



Darius said...

My all time favorite comic strip espousing my own position on theology! That sure got my attention…

To address what you're discussing in broad terms: if something in the Bible conflicts with my actual experience of the world, I take the Bible to be inaccurate on that point.

Sometimes this is really easy to do. For example, when we’re told, I think in John or maybe Luke, that Christians can drink poisonous things and handle poisonous snakes with impunity. You could try to explain it away as metaphorical, but from the context, it sure sounds literal. I’ll pass on the antifreeze every time, and I’ve noticed it hasn’t replaced wine in any services I’ve ever attended…

Homosexuality to me is just as obvious. I’ve yet to hear an argument against it that makes sense based on experience and reason.

So when scripture departs that radically from my own sense of reality or morality, it’s not a tough decision. I figure things were different in a lot of ways in first century Palestine. So it’s true that I don’t take the perspective of those who wrote the gospels as “normative.”

Yet there is so much there in the New Testament that does resonate and which, in doing so, has been formative for me, that when passages don’t immediately sound quite “right,” I find rereading them – and sometimes rewriting them – to be very worthwhile.

Formative, not normative…

scoots said...

if something in the Bible conflicts with my actual experience of the world, I take the Bible to be inaccurate on that point.

I think I see your point, Darius, and I respect your apparent insistence (from viewing your blog) on stating your own perspectives without imposing on others.

For me, though, I believe that I am called as a Christian to work toward certain normative goals in the world, or at least within the church (to which the world is invited). So from my perspective, I don't feel I can hold to your stance on experience proving the Bible inaccurate, at least not without nuancing it.

I would consider myself a conservative in the sense that I think humans will hopelessly degrade and destory one another and themselves apart from divine intervention. Having considered where divine intervention might come from, I am persuaded that Christ has the most credible claim, and that the Christian Scriptures are our best bet in understanding him. I'm also persuaded that God's intervention, generally speaking, depends on our willingness to be changed by what we find in Scripture.

In short, I consider the Bible generally normative, because I think we'd all be hopelessly lost (to violence, pride, greed, lust, whatever) without it. That's not to say I won't consider setting it aside at points, just that I need a very good reason for doing so. And I try to be a little bit skeptical about what is "obvious."

Interestingly, now that I describe my own position, I think it fits very nicely with Paul's argument in Romans: those who deny God fall into self-destructive idolatry and wickedness, and only divine revelation/intervention (God in Christ) can break them out of it.

This, of course, is only what I believe, so it may not persuade anyone else, and that's ok. But granting that some of us do consider the Scriptures generally normative, how could we differentiate which parts we need to have our perspectives changed by, and which parts could be set aside or perhaps even condemned?

Matthew said...

Thanks for the links. I've actually read some of these things already, and some other things are referenced in previous posts in this series. =)

That approach really resonates with me. (The snakes are in the Hollywood ending to Mark, I believe.) "formative, not normative" seems to be a powerful mantra ... but as Scoots points out, powerful mantras can be dangerous.

I think that's my question for Darius too. How do we allow ourselves to be formed by the text while resisting the urge to throw away the parts that might be correct, but difficult?

Darius said...

To put it in Christological terms, maybe we need to believe in the Holy Spirit, and notice that ignoring the Spirit also carries risk.

To remain too long on one spot on that path which is the way and the life is to forsake it.

homo escapeons said...

Homosexuality is not exactly a curable condition like getting the mumps and thankfully most of the modern world is moving on.

Why don't we compare the homophobia of the monotheistic desert tribes and the acceptance of it by the Greeks and other cultures who inhabited more fertile lands. But really ..it's 2006!

You might assume from my moniker that I am gay however I have a wife and four kids, overkill for a beard(cover) but I do have friends, cousins, aunts and uncles who are NATURALLY gay.

For some dogmaholics it is the scariest thing ever? It's even more disturbing than having been born female, black, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or anything else other than a white Protestant guy like the orange haired British Jesus in the King James Bible. Heaven forbid Yeshua would be portrayed as a Middle Eastern Jew!

Actually if a 30 year old Jew was still unmarried and without children and hung around with 12 other guys all of the time his orientation would have been very suspicious in the first century.

I would think that everyone in the Dogmaholia should embrace the whole Mary Magdalene 'BEARD'thing in the DaVinci Code. If for no other reason than to dispel those rumours about you know who?

scoots said...

I'm not buying the assumption that homophobia is the essential reason people oppose homosexuality. While I do have to admit that there are probably millions and millions of people in this country who simply hate gays, I'm pretty sure I'm not one of them.

In fact, I very much wish I could say that I believe homosexual relationships are fine in the eyes of God -- it would make my beliefs immensely more credible in the eyes of society and academia, plus it would make it far easier to welcome gays at church.

Nor do I think I'm over-simplifying the question. I am fully aware of how Paul and other biblical writers were culturally-bound, and how their writings reflect their presuppositions. I'm fully aware that gays don't choose to feel the way they do, that they probably can't alter their feelings, that they often genuinely love their partners, and that they have often been silenced, attacked, and even killed because of their homosexuality.

I have known people who are gay that are well-adjusted, spiritual-minded individuals, with good family relationships, and who love their neighbors.

I'm also aware that sexuality is an important part of our humanity, and that asking someone to be celibate is no small matter. And I'm aware that many individuals who are gay experience condemnation of gay sex as an attack against their humanity.

And yet, I don't trust human perceptions alone to say what are right and wrong. They are valuable, but in my opinion they must be compared with the biblical witness, and based on our discussion so far I still have to hold, based on Scripture, that gay sex is wrong. I am willing to consider going against the so-called "plain" meaning of a text, but in this case I have yet to hear sufficient reason to do so.

You can call this dogma if you like, but I think I have good reason to believe that Scripture is something which God has actually, intentionally, given to the church; considering that, I'm not likely to change my view just because it is unpopular.

This could change as we engage these texts, of course, but someone's going to have to make a substantial argument that doesn't just throw around words like "homophobia." That kind of approach doesn't promote truth; it just throws the unfair stereotypes at someone different.

homo escapeons said...

Oh my word you think that I am scoot-ing around the issue. Your particular views on the subject are completely predicated on your belief that the Bible is infallible. So let's agree to disagree and examine the ramifications of punishing humans for their natural orientations in a modern conformist culture.

It is pointless to engage in a verification of any portion of the Bible as a valid divinely inspired reference. The believers will declare it above reproach and the others will dismiss it's pedigree.

The new world will (albeit reluctantly) eventually succumb to the rationalisation (however disturbing) that Philosopher John Gray stated in Straw Dogs, "The advancement of Science has left all religions, save perhaps Buddhism, in the dust the day that Darwin published On The Origin of Species."

Nearly everyone alive will concede that certain applications to improving our lot in life (turning the other cheek/caring for the poor/forgiving agnostics) can be drawn from many ancient texts but for argument sake it's just conversation since people either BELIEVE them or they don't.

We, as a species, have only scratched the surface of self discovery in the last 200 years. Modern theology will have a much tougher row to hoe and rightly so.
Mr. Gray may well be right, that horse left the barn some time ago.

scoots said...

So let's agree to disagree and examine the ramifications of punishing humans for their natural orientations in a modern conformist culture

A quick not on "natural inclinations." I take this phrase to refer to what we do naturally, without being taught or programmed. People use this argument all the time, but I don't see it logically having any real bearing on the question at hand. If a child had a natural inclination that we all agreed was evil (i.e., he tortured kittens), we would not hesitate to punish him for it. So I think the actual reason most people here would hold that homosexuality is ok is because it's an expression of mutual love, or because it doesn't hurt anyone, not because someone can't help it. So the real issue is the nature of the behavior, not whether someone can help it.

But back to escapeons' question. I think we actually live in a modern half-conformist, half-anti-conformist society. As much as conservative Christians want everyone to be like them, there is more than ample voice in our nation calling for tolerance, diversity, and condemnation of those who do want conformity.

I think everyone would admit that a certain amount of conformity is good, even necessary, just so we know what to expect from each other, e.g., when driving in traffic or agreeing to a purchase at a market.

And if a religious group claims to hold itself accountable to a certain god or to certain higher principles, then I think it's reasonable to expect a certain amount of conformity within that community, at least at the points where their god or laws or beliefs call for it.

It would be silly, in my opinion, to read the Gospels as a Christian, and not think that Jesus expects some conformity to what is taught there.

When Christians teach hate, for example, I think they're wrong, because they aren't conforming to Christ's teachings. When people condemn those who do wrong -- well, that's a little bit trickier, because Jesus was quite harsh with some people, quite gentle with others. And there were some that he was very gentle with but still expected them to change.

Even trickier are questions like homosexuality, where Jesus himself apparently never said anything about the topic, and where the passages that the NT does contain are less clear (or, some would say, less true to the gospel) than many would hope.

Now, I would hold that a Christian group, because Jesus taught his disciples to live according to standards, has the responsibility to teach its members to live according to those standards.

I think that one way to prevent this from becoming a means of "punishing" those who differ is by admitting that Christianity is an explicitly voluntary faith.

The difficulty is that children are often raised in the church, so they have little say in what they are taught. I'm sure a child who realizes he is gay may feel very much punished by the teachings of many churches -- although I think this, too, can be mitigated if the church teaches a simple message of celibacy rather than throwing around words like "abomination" and "pervert".

So, any suggestions on how a religious group can be true to what it believes without punishing those who differ?

Darius said...

Scoots and Homoescapeons: You guys should get an award for thoughtful dialog on a blog without recrimination even though you have opposite views on something related to religion!

A basic difference in your positions is that S sees the Bible as what I'd term, "the words of God." Doesn't mean you're a fundamentalist or take them literally, but that you view it as a document which is specially and uniquely true because, in some sense, God wrote it - and God didn't write anything else in the same special way.

Since I don't share S's premise, I have no inclination to study the Bible to see whether I think it should be read as sanctioning homosexual behavior or not because I think the case is clear enough without need of study. I'd have to say though, that it looks like reasonable Christians can differ on this, since it's such a divisive issue within the church.

Scoot, to my mind, you give many sound moral and rational grounds for approving homosexuality when you think outside the terms of what you believe the Bible says.

However: when, in the last analysis, you think, essentially, that it's difficult and yet reasonable to ask homosexuals to remain celibate, I'd have to disagree. Saint Paul himself advocated celibacy as the ideal, but recognized that unlike himself, most heterosexuals are incapable of such self-restraint. So he advocates marriage.

How could we ask more of homosexuals than heterosexuals? I don't think it's realistic.

homo escapeons said...

I am always ushered into the same corner when discussing gay rights in the modern church and two doors always open for me. On the floor is a small latch that opens to groundwork analyzing variations in the amygdala of homosexual men. I am certain that all of us will benefit from unlocking the secret world of the brain.
The other exit is a DaVinci like ceiling tile that opens and sends a ladder down with the consoling fact that vertebrates are formed as females (thank goodness!)and individuals have to mutate if you will on cue to produce a male of the species.

Perhaps we can tussle about with whether Adam had an omphalos (naval) or how different the good book and history would have turned out if Eve had been created first, just as we humans are today.

For now anyway I shall retire from the Adam and Steve debate, it seldom holds any surprises and since not a one of us involved is gay what on earth do we know about it?