Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Confessing Bewilderment as a Theologian: On Tradition, Experience, and the Ethics of Same-Sex Relationships

The following is a short paper I wrote for a class this week concerning whether the church's tradition or human experience ought to be more decisive for determining the ethics of same-sex relationships. Upon reflection, I decided I could not ethically answer the question by choosing one side over another, not as a faux "both/and" third way, but precisely because my only honest answer was bewilderment. Furthermore, because my calling as theologian places me differently than a pastor, I find myself in a different position than most of my classmates. To that extent I hoped that I might model a small portion of the patience required to deal truthfully and wholeheartedly with issues such as this one, rather than answer simply for the sake of answering; and I hope whatever success I may have had in doing that might be of use to others in this forum.

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In considering the question of whether historic tradition or present experience ought to be considered more important for Christian discernment of the ethics of same-sex relationships, I find myself with Stanley Hauerwas when he confesses his “own bewilderment about what can or should be said” in response.1 If graduate school is a place that trains students to address difficult questions with sharp arguments and penetrating logic, seminary must be where we learn that sometimes the temptation to answer impossible questions with easy answers—or to offer halfhearted replies to problems whose solutions we have yet to discover—must be refused, and unequivocally so, in order to cultivate the time and space required to live prayerfully and patiently in the tension of not knowing. I hope to model that intentional stance in what follows, insofar as any clear answer on my part to this formidable and family/society/church-dividing question would be thoroughly dishonest and intractably impertinent.

I have the rhetorical and argumentative capacity to argue the best case for both sides of this question. As much as I have read, and as much as I have shared in conversations and dialogues on the matter, I do not feel there is any new “information” I could receive that would sway me to either side. Essentially, it seems as if one’s view of the character of God, of creation, and of redemption, the nature of Scripture, and the revelatory value of experience simply decides the matter one way or the other. But then, of course, if one seeks to move past one’s own opinion and experiences, there are two equally competing camps (if not three): those committed to the long (and more or less unanimous) history of the church’s tradition, and those gay and lesbian persons whose experiences (and suffering at the hands of the bigoted and hateful) seem self-validating. Of course, the third group are those gay and lesbian persons who have chosen to discipline their sexual desires for others of the same sex, either by mere passive non-participation in genital sexuality (and thus celibacy) or by active intentional seeking of the transformation of their sexual desires toward heterosexual expression (and thus, potentially, marriage). I know good men and women, and good Christians, both gay and heterosexual, in all three camps; and it is beyond me to deny to any of them the claim that God’s Spirit is present and working in their lives.

That, of course, does not solve the problem. Further complications arrive by way of how to define the proper telos and function of a theological account of marriage, and similarly in the vexed history of Scripture and its application by Christians toward predominantly powerless groups of persons like women, slaves, and the “uncivilized.” With regard to the former, though I appreciate the coherence and long history of the Catholic articulation of the goods and ends of marriage, in my own life, in Scripture, and in general society I simply cannot find it ultimately satisfactory, primarily with regard to its relentless insistence on genital complementarity and the necessity of two adults of separate genders for the rearing of children. Though these aspects seem ideal for a number of reasons, there are excellent arguments against this ideal, both theological (the hospitable welcoming of adopted children by two persons of the same sex) and practical (the awful numbers of orphans and single-parent homes in the world), and its proponents seem almost willfully blinded to the realities of the most vulnerable and suffering today.

With regard to Scripture’s history of human application, I am of an equally torn mind. On the one hand, for (literally) thousands of years women were held to be second-rate status human beings who ought to submit in all things to men (whether husband or father), as were slaves (though they may be of equal “status” in theory if not in practice), and all substantiated by recourse to the Bible. On the other hand, I believe that the arguments used to justify these injustices were decidedly unbiblical and should never have held sway in the first place. Thus, with Richard Hays,2 rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion, I want the church to come to the New Testament, and to Scripture as a whole, with a hermeneutic of trust. The reign of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and poured out in the Holy Spirit in the creation of the church, inevitably calls forth the sorts of peaceable practices and other-welcoming habits of worship and life that ought to have properly ordered the life and faith of the church down through the centuries. To be sure, this vision broke through time and time again in the lives of ordinary men and women in spite of the institutional structures of patriarchy and violence—yet I am honest enough to admit the fact that it is difficult to look at the full history of the church as one of (substantial, systemic, and sustained) liberation, equality, peace, justice, and empowerment for those traditionally held at the bottom of society.

Now, to switch perspectives entirely, as I understand it the theological argument against acting on same-sex desires is fairly straightforward and not, in my opinion, contrary to the character of the triune God narrated in Scripture. (And, to reiterate, this and other arguments have to do with an ecclesial response to this issue—that is, within the sphere of the church’s faith and practice—and not necessarily with legal or societal structures). As the argument goes, God created, intended, and commands human beings for and toward heterosexual love as bounded and enlivened by the marital covenant between husband and wife; we live in a fallen world, and our desires are disordered; therefore those who experience sexual desire for other persons of the same sex ought, in the community of God’s people and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to refuse the fulfillment or expression of those desires, and are called either to the gift of celibacy or to the reordering of their desires toward persons of the opposite sex. But in the active fulfillment of sexual desire with a person of the same sex, sin is committed.

Not only do I understand this argument, I believe it is simple, coherent, and biblical, and it names the experience of Christian friends who experience same-sex attraction. If I were pushed to make a decision on the matter with no room to struggle, I would find myself landing here. So why not claim it as my position? Primarily, the combination of the severe ambiguity of Scripture3 with the powerful, deeply emotional testimonies from gay Christians who affirm and model the mutual love and respect possible in covenanted same-sex relationships.4 Furthermore, given the example of the Spirit’s free and creative activity—paradigmatically in leading the early Jewish church away from every known possibility given to them by Scripture and tradition regarding the practices of circumcision and ritual purity—who can say where the wind blows?

As it stands, because I am not and do not plan to be a pastor, but rather claim the calling of a theologian, I believe that the only faithful option available to me for the time being is to continue to live in the tension of not knowing, of not having an answer (even for class assignments). More than anything, my prayer is for the church: that we find ways to love one another and not to demonize, to welcome and not to barricade, to worship and not to exclude. If God gives even that much grace, it will be enough.

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[1] Stanley Hauerwas, A Better Hope (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2000), 51.
[2] Hays, incidentally, provides the most compelling argument of which I am aware for the binding moral authority of the New Testament account of same-sex sexual practice. See Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 379-406.
[3] Of course, I do not mean the ambiguity of the texts themselves, which are about as clear as possible. Rather, I mean the extremely limited presence of homosexuality at all in the biblical texts, combined with the radical subordination of marriage and family to the call of the gospel, as well as the alternative understanding of the nature of same-sex relationships in the first century context.
[4] See Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” The Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement.

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