Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hell and Torture

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, non-religous Americans are more likely to describe the CIA's actions as "torture" and to condemn it as morally unjustified than religious Americans are. Fascinatingly, non-religious people are almost twice as likely to describe it as torture as white evangelicals

While this may seem disconcerting to many, it is not terribly surprising. After all, most evangelical Christians hold to a theological outlook that justifies the never-ending torture of much of humanity in hell at the hands of God. Indeed, one of the ways ancient and medieval church leaders justified the torture of heretics was to claim that it would be better to be tortured in this life and to be "corrected," than to die in sin and face an eternity of torture. 

Timothy Gorringe, in his 1996 book God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation, showed how theological views dominant in the modern West, particularly a punitive understanding of Christ's atoning work on the cross (the so-called "penal substitution" model) contributed to a harsh and retributive legal sentencing system (England in the 17th century had over 200 crimes that warranted capital punishment).

While certainly not an exhaustive account of why so many Christians support torture, it seems undeniable to me that the view of hell as everlasting punitive torture has contributed to this phenomenon. There may very well be, and probably are, thoughtful conservative Christians who both believe in such a hell and at the same time oppose human beings torturing other human beings, and I can imagine several lines of response they would give to show why God has certain prerogatives that other human beings do not have. So, I wouldn't want to claim any kind of necessary logical connection between believing in hell and supporting torture, but at the same time, it doesn't seem hard to see how such a view, especially at a popular level, would promote such an ethic of torture (or lack thereof).

Views about the afterlife matter deeply for a number of reasons, perhaps the main reason being one that is important regardless of whether you even believe in an afterlife: what people think about the world to come shapes the way they act in this world. If the God you worship is someone you claim is just, loving, and at the same time ok with tormenting much of humanity for an eternity, then that will shape the way you see justice in this life, and that will in turn affect how you think others should be treated. 

A theological outlook that makes room for a divine torturer doesn't have much problem making room for a political climate that supports human torturers. 


Friday, December 5, 2014

The Church's Intersex Cover-Up


We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world... We reexamine our ethical convictions as our understanding of the natural world increases. We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced. - "The Natural World," in The United Methodist Book of Discipline

Approximately 1 in 2000 human beings are invisible to the eyes of the church. 

They are known as "intersex" persons. Intersex individuals are human beings who cannot be clearly and unambiguously classified as either "male" or "female." In other words, they do not have the set of reproductive, hormonal, and/or genetic characteristics that fall into the binary gender categories we normally assume. Historically, such individuals have sometimes been referred to as "hermaphrodites." 

I remember a couple of year ago when I first learned of this, that my response was one of knee-jerk disbelief. We're all conditioned to think that you are either a boy or a girl, and that these categories are exclusive and exhaustive. You have to be one or the other. 

Turns out that simply isn't true.

The existence of intersex people presents a major challenge to the church (more about that in a second), yet it is a challenge that has been virtually ignored by the vast majority of churches. It should be emphasized that this is not because of insufficient or murky scientific evidence. Unlike issues such as sexual orientation or transgender identity, where the scientific evidence is not always definitively clear or conclusive, the existence of intersex individuals is simply a scientific fact that cannot be reasonably denied. 

While it is rare, it is not so rare to to warrant the silence the church has given it. Of all the major Christian denominations, to my knowledge, only the Southern Baptist Church and the Church of England have even so much as named intersex persons in official church documents, and this is only in passing as a contrast to the issue of transgender people (intersex people have a biologically ambiguous sexual identity while transgender people "only" have a psychologically ambiguous sexual identity, according to these documents). 

United Methodist teaching nowhere mentions intersex persons (or transgender, for that matter). The Roman Catholic Church goes even further than the passive omission of most, and strongly teaches that maleness and femaleness are ontological categories, meaning that they describe the deepest essence of human beings. For all their tradition of synthesizing revelation and reason, Catholic teaching doesn't at all seem to be troubled by the fact that obvious scientific evidence undercuts these theological assertions. If "male" and "female" are exclusive and exhaustive ontological categories for humanity, that would mean that people who do not fall in these categories are in some way less than fully human. 

There is, of course, an obvious reason why churches have tended to ignore the existence of intersex persons. They call into question the gender binary that we use for the basis of numerous ethical judgments that are seen by many as essential to the Christian faith. The categories of male and female, and the assumption that they are exclusive and exhaustive, is the grounding for the ethical judgments of many churches regarding who can be ordained in the church and who can marry who in the church. Acknowledging biological complexity might force us to open up to greater ethical complexity, and that is not something many of us really want to do. 

The fundamental challenge intersex persons pose to Christian teaching is how to account for their existence theologically? The Southern Baptist Convention describes them as the result of "fallen humanity." I suppose, in that vein, one could simply view the intersex condition as a disease or disability of some kind, and thus account for it in the same way you would account for any other natural disease or disability in your theological view. The question, then, though, would be if the problem is with the intersex condition as such, or if it is really with the way we classify and stigmatize it. The problem may not be with intersex people, but with the lenses through which we see them. 

I don't have a bunch of grand solutions to the ethical and theological challenges that intersex people pose to the Christian faith. I have been helped in my reflections by Christian scholars such as Susannah Cornwall, Christine Gudorf, and Patricia Beattie Jung and would encourage folks to explore their work in their own deliberations. I am still pretty confused about many things, though, concerning the theological and ethical implications of facing up to this biological reality. 

I will also admit that my explorations into this subject have made me somewhat uncomfortable. Having your categories for arranging the world destabilized is just not very fun. (And it's only 1 in 2000, so why worry about it?) 

Then I think about Philip, and about that eunuch that he baptized (Acts 8:26-40). Eunuchs were widely seen in the ancient world as being neither male or female, but some kind of "third sex." I think about how radical the early church was to let the Spirit of Jesus destabilize and expand their categories for classifying and evaluating people. Then I wonder if that same Spirit might be calling us to do the same. 

At the very least, it's worth wondering about.

For more on the science of intersex, see Alice Dreger's TED talk, "Is Anatomy Destiny?"



Friday, November 28, 2014

The Biblical Cosmos

Many books have been written highlighting the great differences between a modern worldview and an ancient biblical worldview, if by “worldview” you mean that to refer somewhat metaphorically to a system of values, priorities, and commitments. However, concerning the gap between the ancient biblical worldview and the modern worldview, as it concerns the actual physical world we live in, there have not been many works solely devoted to exploring this great divide. Most often, this issue comes up only tangentially in works related to the intersection of religion and science.

Robin Parry’s recent book, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful Worldof the Bible, steps into this void in a very helpful way. Parry shows us how the biblical authors saw the world very differently from us in just about every aspect of creation. By drawing on biblical texts and literature from surrounding nations in the ancient Near East, we are shown that the ancient biblical world was one where the earth was seen as a flat-disc, surrounded by water on all sides, held up by an ocean below the ground, with a solid dome over it holding back the ocean of water believed to reside just above it. God and the angels resided above the earth, while the dead resided deep in the earth’s core. While much of this is widely known, Parry also offers a compelling look into less noticed ways ancient people understood the significance of natural features such as mountains, deserts, storms, and seas.

Parry does a fine job showing how fresh and new meanings can be derived from biblical stories when we interpret them with a fuller knowledge of the way biblical authors understood the physical world and the way God relates to it. For example, the sea was seen by ancient Israelites as a source of chaos and destruction, full of monstrous threats (sometimes actual monsters, like the Leviathan). Only God, the Israelites believed, could control the waters and conquer chaos. Knowing this can bring deeper levels of meaning to several biblical stories involving water (Flood, Exodus), perhaps especially to the gospel stories of Jesus walking on the sea and calming the raging waters. A claim to the divinity of Jesus is, then, implicit in these stories. It also helps us understand why in John’s vision of the heavenly city (Rev 21), “the sea is no more.” Ultimately, all the chaotic and monstrous forces that threaten will be swallowed up in God’s final victory.

One of the more intriguing suggestions that Parry makes is that the ancient biblical writers saw the whole created order as in some sense alive, and that we might do well to consider the wisdom and truth of this approach. In the Newtonian worldview that has carried forward into recent time, we tend to see the world “mechanically,” as a lifeless, inanimate, inert machine, filled with some animate creatures such as ourselves and other animals. Parry draws on many of the Psalms, and other texts, that speak of creation as in some way responding to God (trees clapping, waters praising, etc) to suggest that perhaps the ancient biblical authors did not make the sharp divide between animate and inanimate creation that we tend to do. In their view, Parry argues, all of creation is somehow “animated.”

While he never uses this term, this view is known as “panpsychism,” and has been receiving more attention lately in some philosophical circles. While there have been several recent works that trace the development of panpsychism in Western philosophy and defend it in the context of modern mind-body debates, how this view might have been held and developed by biblical authors is a largely unexplored topic, as far as I know. I think Parry is to be commended for raising this issue, and I hope others will explore it in more detail.

In the final section of the book, Parry moves from describing the ancient biblical view of the cosmos, to offering suggestions for how modern Christians can still receive the Bible as God’s Word while not being bound to its mistaken views about creation. For example, how are we to think about the ascension? If heaven isn’t literally above us, then where did Jesus ascend? Where is Jesus’s resurrected body now? If he isn’t going to descend on clouds, what are we to think of the second coming of Christ? This are difficult topics, and while Parry can’t be faulted for not dispelling all the mystery, I do wish this section of the book would have been longer and offered us more. But I suppose that criticism speaks to the strength of the book as a whole. It is, on the whole, fun to read and full of unexpected insights, and as good books do, it leaves you wanting to know more. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Transgender and Genesis

"So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27

A Text of Terror

While this verse is for many Christians a foundational declaration of human equality and sacred dignity, I imagine that for many transgender (and intersex) persons it has served as a "text of terror," to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. Many Christians oppose transgender persons on the basis that they are rejecting their God-given biological identity. As a recent Southern Baptist resolution puts it, 
"God’s good design [is] that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception..."
The way this issue is framed by the SBC is representative of the way I've heard many people discuss it. (And by the way, the only reason I am picking on the SBC is because my own church, the UMC, strangely enough, doesn't even have one line in the Book of Discipline about transgender persons. Which may actually be a good thing.) On this account, being a transgender person is about letting your own psychological self-perception take precedent over biological sex, and that is dishonoring to God who created you to clearly be a male or a female person. 

Biology vs. Psychology?

This way of framing the issue, though, is problematic. While it is popular to say that "gender" (masculine and feminine) is a fluid psychological concept largely determined by culture, and "sex" (male or female) is a purely biological concept that is fixed by nature, this overlooks the fact while "sex" is a biological category, how we go about determining a person's sex is far from a biological given. Just ask Olympic's officials, who have engaged in several controversial decisions based on differences of opinion on what makes for a male or a female person. Is it chromosomes that matter? (But some intersex persons do not have the "normal" XX or XY patterns.) Is it internal reproductive anatomy that matters the most? External reproductive anatomy? Neurological structures? Hormone levels? 

"Sex" is a biological category, yes, in that it depends on biological factors, but how the decisions are made as to what really counts to determine this category is a philosophical process, not a mere biological given. Biology alone cannot tell you what biological factors count the most for what "sex" a person really is.

Why do many people assume, without argument, that chromosomal make-up and/or reproductive anatomy is more indicative of a person's "true sex" than their neurological and hormonal features? While the origins of transgender identity are not clearly understood, it seems that most would agree that it is largely shaped (if not completely determined) by mostly neurological and hormonal factors. This means it is dangerously misleading to contrast, as the SBC resolution does, one's "biological sex" with "psychological self-perception," precisely because one's psychological self-perception is largely rooted in biological factors such as hormone levels and brain structure. Transgender identity, then, isn't simply about psychology versus biology. It's about a tension or discord between different biological factors that go into sexual identity (hormones and brain structures may not match up with chromosomes and/or reproductive anatomy).

"Male and Female"

Now to the issue of how to read Genesis 1:27. Contrary to modern myths about the inevitable and ongoing conflict of science and religion (propagated by both religious and atheist fundamentalists), there is a long tradition in the church of trying to integrate scientific understanding and biblical interpretation. This means most Christian bodies have found ways to interpret the significance of Genesis for us that do not deny what science has clearly revealed, such as the fact that the earth, contrary to the assumptions of Genesis, is not a flat disc in a geocentric universe covered by a solid dome holding back waters from the heavens (Gen 1:6-8; Psalm 148:4). 

I would suggest that the new scientific information we have about transgender and intersex persons be treated in the same way as the new scientific information we have about the cosmos. How we interpret "God created them male and female" needs to accord with the best scientific understanding we have available to us. Just as the author of Genesis assumed limited and mistaken views of the cosmos (and yet God accommodated to that mistaken world view to reveal important truths), he also mistakenly assumed that biological sex determined both a heterosexual orientation and a certain gender expression. There are solid scientific reasons to now question these assumptions, and as Christians we should feel no more threatened by this than we do by Copernican cosmology. It turns out that understanding what is within us is just as difficult, if not more so, than understanding what is above us and beyond us. 

The Traditional View?

We should also be aware of how historically contingent and recent our own "traditional" views probably are on what "male and female" mean. We often take that to mean an absolute polarity, an ontological distinction, a total difference in kind. Historian Thomas Laqueur, though, in his book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, shows that much of Western intellectual history assumed a "one-sex model" of humanity, meaning that there is basically one sex with different bodily expressions. Basically, the male is the perfect form of the human sex, and the female is an imperfect form (surprise surprise!), and her anatomy and physiology were construed accordingly: the vagina is seen as an interior penis, the womb as a scrotum, the ovaries as testicles. Women were basically understood as having inverted male anatomy. 

Sex, then, was not seen as an absolute dichotomy as many of us tend to see it, but as a spectrum of variation. This, at a minimum, should cause us to think about how on the "traditional" reading we might be importing modern cultural understandings of sex and gender into the Genesis text without even realizing it. 

Why This Is More Important Than the Universe

While I compared changes to our understanding of sex and gender to our changing understanding of the cosmos, there is one big difference. You can believe that the earth is flat, 6000 years old, the center of the universe, and all that, and you probably will not do anyone any harm (unless you have kids and make them believe that too). But if you believe that transgender or intersex people are inherently deficient because of what you think Genesis teaches, you will do a good number of people harm, either directly or, more likely, indirectly. 

You may not bully or beat up a transgender person, but you will help contribute to a culture that stigmatizes such persons, making them more susceptible to violence of various kinds. While violence against transgender people can't be blamed solely on Christian teaching, it also can't be denied that our teachings on this matter have often functioned as the soil in which seeds of hatred and violence have grown.

In short, we have a long history of adapting biblical understanding to scientific discovery. There is no reason to stop it now, and 226 reasons from this past year to keep it moving forward. 


Monday, November 17, 2014

The Parts Don’t Fit: Robert Gagnon and Anatomical Complementarity

Robert Gagnon's 2001 work The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics has become the standard for the conservative Christian case against same-sex marriage, and rightly so. Dr. Gagnon has more research and publication in this area than anybody else I am aware of, and his work is more heavily documented and cited than most that write on this subject. Also, his logic is often fairly tight (though not always, as I will argue) and his responses to several of the standard pro-gay arguments are incisive. 

Most significantly, I think Gagnon is right to challenge the frequently made argument from progressive Christians that the moral debate really comes down to the issue of the new information we have about sexual orientation. In Paul's day, it is argued, they didn't know about how some people were innately inclined to be attracted to people of the same sex. Instead, they attributed homosexual desire to excessive heterosexual lust. In other words, because you had an insatiable lust for sex, people of the opposite sex get boring and so you start having sex with people of your own sex. 

That account of the origins of homosexual desire was probably the dominant understanding in Paul's day. However, as Gagnon and others have pointed out from various ancient literary references, there was also some awareness that, for some people at least, same-sex desire was congenital and exclusive. In other words, there was some kind of ancient recognition of what we refer to as a sexual orientation. (This point is also made by several gay affirming scholars. Gagnon has good references to these.) The fact that some people are innately and exclusively attracted to people of the same sex was probably not totally unfamiliar to Paul. Granted, there are important differences between ancient and modern understandings of the origins of sexual orientation, these are not clearly and obviously morally significant differences.

I think that it is pretty clear that, as an historical judgment, the apostle Paul would likely have disapproved of any and every type of same-sex relationship. I think this much should be granted to the conservative case. This is why I think some of the incessant wrangling over exactly what malakoi and arsenakoitai meant are irrelevant to the larger issue (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). Even if, as liberal Christians argue, in using these terms Paul probably only explicitly condemned specific types of same-sex behaviors that were most prominent in his day (such as prostitution, sex with slaves, or sex with prostitutes), that doesn't mean therefore that he would have approved of non-exploitative or non-coercive forms of same-sex behavior. We have no record of any ancient Jew approving of such relationships, or any reason to think Paul would have differed from them in this regard.

I don't think the crux of this debate should center on the orientation question, as important as that issue is in some ways. I think the debate needs to focus on, regardless of Paul's understanding of the origin of same-sex desires, exactly why Paul would have condemned same-sex relationships and if that moral reasoning is still applicable to Christians today

That he would have condemned all same-sex relationships seems clear to me.
Why he would have condemned them is the important question.

Before going any further, I know some Christians would react here by saying that once you have figured out what Paul said, you need go no further. What Paul said is what God inspired him to say, so case closed. You don’t need to figure out his moral reasoning and test whether it still applies to Christians. He taught it, therefore God taught it.

In response, it is important to note that such Christians who would make this response likely do so inconsistently. Take slavery, for example. We know exactly what Paul taught. He taught, at a general level, that slaves should be submissive to masters, although in some particular situations, he encouraged slaves to seek freedom if they could (of course, who wouldn’t encourage that). But why did he teach a general ethic of submission? Is it because God ordained the institution of slavery, or is it because he had to work within the cultural context in which he lived? Most Christians would now go with the latter, and argue that his moral reasoning that slaves should submit is not universal and timeless, but was bound to a culture in which there was no reasonable chance of overturning the institution of slavery, but instead of just having to work to spread the gospel within it.

Gagnon himself acknowledges that not of all Paul’s moral reasoning is universally applicable, such as Paul’s argument that it is unnatural and degrading for a man to have long hair (1 Cor. 11:14). He affirms that, “the inferences Paul draws from nature have to be evaluated on a case by case basis.” (BHP, 378) So, the idea of examining Paul’s moral reasoning to see if it is timeless and universal, or if it is bound by objectionable cultural assumptions, is one that is endorsed by Gagnon himself, and is in practice employed by most Christians today.

According to Gagnon, two of the probable reasons that Paul (and other first century moralists, particularly late Stoics and Hellenistic Jews) would have condemned all same sex relationships as "unnatural" are because they are inherently non-procreative and because they violate the natural gender hierarchy.  

Regarding the procreative norm, many of the Greek and Jewish intellectuals of Paul’s day made procreation central to their sexual ethics. The rational way to live is in accordance with nature, and nature teaches (so they taught) that the only rational purpose of intercourse is procreation. It isn’t that sexual pleasure was necessarily condemned as inherently bad, but it was bad to seek mere sexual pleasure, that is, sexual pleasure outside of procreative possibility/intent.

Regarding the “natural” gender hierarchy, in the ancient world, it was generally considered natural for men to be superior/active and women to be inferior/passive, and these stratified gender roles were reinforced in the sexual relationship. The man was to be on top, literally and figuratively. Same-sex relationships, therefore, were unnatural in that they did not conform to this natural hierarchy, specifically by degrading a man by lowering him to the status of a "receptive/passive" woman. 

While Gagnon thinks these two reasons probably played some role in Paul's negative ethical view of same-sex relationships, he is clear that he does not think that Paul's case against same-sex relationships rests primarily, and certainly not exclusively, on these two reasons. He acknowledges that the anti-woman views expressed in ancient denunciations of male same-sex behavior are offensive, and that procreative ability need not be considered necessary for a legitimate marriage in today's world (BHP, p.181). 

So while these factors played a role, you can disagree with patriarchy and procreationism (as many Christians today do, even many of those who do not affirm same-sex relationships), and still have a solid reason for rejecting same-sex relationships, a reason which actually forms the heart and soul of Paul's rejection of all same-sex relationships. What is this reason?

Gagnon refers to it as "anatomical complementarity,” which refers to the “fittedness of the male penis and the female vagina” (BHP, p.181). The idea of anatomical complementarity is the thread that runs throughout all of Gagnon’s work, and it is the moral reasoning he believes was ultimately behind Paul’s condemnation of all same-sex relationships.  It is why Christians today should still condemn such relationships. It is God’s clue in nature for all to see that men and women, and only men and women, were made to go together sexually.

Was this really Paul’s moral reasoning though? Gagnon argues in two ways that it was. First, he argues that this moral reasoning was prevalent throughout Judaism in Paul’s time. Here is where things get really interesting, though. In the chapter of his book where he discusses the context of early Judaism (Chapter 2), he has a section entitled “Gender Discomplementarity” (p.169-176). This section, however, really encompasses two distinct kinds of gender discomplementarity: that which refers to the violation of the naturally established hierarchy of gender and that which refers to the violation of anatomical complementarity.

He cites several ancient Jewish texts in this section that are intended to support his claim that ancient Jewish moralists believed same-sex relationships are wrong because they both socially degrade a man (reducing him to the status of a woman) and because they rebel against the anatomical complimentarity that God intends for the sexes. Yet, none of the texts that Gagnon actually cites have anything to do with a supposed concern with anatomical complementarity. They all emphasize the wrongness of the “effeminizing” effect of male same-sex relationships on the “passive” partner. Anyone can read this section and see that he fails to provide one example of an ancient Jewish writer who focused on the shapes of penises and vaginas.

This omission is very important, since it is at the heart of his case. (On this point, see James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 243). Interestingly, Gagnon prefaces some of these ancient Jewish quotations in this section by saying that the authors are “alluding in general to the blatant transgression of male-female anatomical complementarity, and in particular to the feminization of the male gender that occurs in the case of the passive partner.” (p. 171, italics mine) While the latter is obvious, the former “allusions” are not apparent at all. Gagnon at several points (see, for example, 364, 367) asserts that a concern for anatomical complementarity is “behind” the arguments from transgressing the gender hierarchy, but, again, provides no examples. He has a penchant for almost always bringing any discussion of ancient arguments back to anatomical complimentarity, even when there is no apparent reference to such moral reasoning at all in the texts under discussion.

This is crucial, because Gagnon will take what he sees here in these ancient Jewish writers and that let that influence how he interprets Paul’s moral reasoning. As Gagnon writes in summing up this section, “The consistent return of the arguments of the anatomical and procreative complementarity of male and female will be especially important for assessing what Paul meant when he asserted that same-sex intercourse was ‘contrary to nature,’ and for our interpretation of his words.” (BHP, 183) I don’t understand how he can refer to the “consistent return” of anatomical complimentarity arguments when he hasn’t even offered one clear example where an ancient Jewish moralist refers to it.

Here is where Gagnon needs to make a distinction and an acknowledgement. He needs to make a clear distinction between anatomical complimentarity and procreative complementarity (he often lumps them together with the unhelpful phrase “anatomical and procreative complementarity”). This distinction is needed, because there is no doubt that ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman moralists appealed to procreative complimentarity in arguing that same-sex relationships are against nature. But none of the texts he cites appeal to the anatomical genital structures, the “fittedness of the male penis and the female vagina” in the way that he does, and he needs to acknowledge that. For the ancient writers he cites, the emphasis is on procreation particularly, not complimentary genital “fittedness” in general. The reason such ancient moralists would have argued the sexes are “fitted” for one another is because they made procreation central, and only a penis ejaculating in a vagina can lead to procreation. Anatomical complimentarity as a form of moral logic ultimately collapses into procreative complimentarity for ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman moralists.

Although Gagnon uses this questionable analysis of the Jewish background to argue for an influence on Paul’s thinking about anatomical complimentarity, he also makes the argument exegetically from Romans 1, insisting that Paul’s appeal to nature was an appeal to the visible structures of creation, which include the fittedness of the penis and the vagina. But, as James Brownson has argued (BGS, p.241), what the text actually says is that knowledge of God from what is visible has been suppressed, not knowledge of human things, like the shapes of penises and vaginas. The suppression of that knowledge led to idolatry, which in turn led to various forms of sexual immorality. (In ancient Jewish thinking, idolatry always leads straight to sexual immorality. Compare Romans 1 with Wisdom of Solomon 13-15).

Where does this leave us? In my view, Gagnon has not established that anatomical complimentarity was the ultimate moral logic behind Paul’s statements. Paul’s primary forms of moral reasoning for condemning same-sex relationships were, in all probability, related to first century Hellenistic Jewish assumptions about procreation as the only natural end of sex, and the natural hierarchy of genders.

It could be objected (and Gagnon has argued along these lines) that Paul recognizes the value of marital intercourse beyond procreation (in fact, he never mentions procreation in his discussions of marriage, probably because of his belief in the imminent return of Christ, making such concerns pointless), and he also appeared to have a somewhat more positive view of women than at least many of his contemporaries. But the fact remains that when Paul describes same-sex relationships as “unnatural” he was drawing on a term, not from the Old Testament, but from Greek philosophical discourse where the term always carried connotations, in sexual ethics, of the violation of patriarchal and procreative norms. Had Paul not intended to communicate those norms at least to some degree, he would have probably chosen a different word than “unnatural.”

Paul’s moral vision concerning sexuality, while certainly containing revelatory insight, was also limited by his cultural assumptions about what makes for “natural” sex. As we have seen, most Christians acknowledge that Paul’s assumptions about what nature teaches elsewhere concerning the expression of gender roles (1 Cor 11) is no longer binding, because there are always lots of cultural assumptions made in describing what appears to be “natural.” That also, arguably, is the case in his understanding of same-sex relationships. If we are willing to acknowledge that Paul had some limited cultural understandings about gender roles, how could he also not have some limited cultural understandings about the meaning of sexuality?

That said, I think it might be interesting, for the sake of the argument, to go with Gagnon’s claims about anatomical complementarity. Again, he argues that the fittedness of the penis and the vagina was central to Paul’s moral reasoning in Romans 1. On his interpretation, same-sex relationships represent the most egregious suppression of truth on the human level. When we turn away from God, we then blind ourselves to obvious truths that should be apparent to all, such as the obvious complimentarity of the penis and the vagina. These material structures point to God’s design in nature for sexual expression, and it is to only be between a man and a woman.

Concerning what can be inferred from the natural law reasoning of ancient Jews, Gagnon writes, "Neither the male anal cavity (the orifice for expelling excrement) nor the mouth (the orifice for taking in food) are likely candidates for what God intended as a receptacle for the male penis." (BHP, 181)

It’s interesting that in drawing together his conclusions he only addresses male same-sex intercourse (which is the focus of most of his writings), and that he specified a male anal cavity but didn't specify a male mouth, although I suspect that is what he had in mind in this sentence. In personal correspondence on the issue of Paul’s likely view of non-coital heterosexual intercourse, Gagnon wrote, “I doubt that Paul would have had a serious problem with oral sex.” But then, one wonders, why gender would even matter at all if his point is that those orifices are intended for other functions. (On that note, several body parts certainly seem intended for more than one function. That he seems to assume only one intended function seems odd.)

Here is where Gagnon has not been very clear, nor has he sufficiently seen the problem with this line of reasoning: if consistently applied, it would also condemn all heterosexual non-coital acts as well as homosexual ones. In fact, through much of church history the term “sodomy” was applied to all such inherently non-procreative sex, not just same-sex intercourse. Gagnon denies this implication, but does so very briefly and without much argument. He simply asserts that the objection “misses the point” because what can be drawn from anatomical complementarity is not that all sex must always involve penile-vaginal penetration, but that this aspect of nature simply reveals that sex is to be ordered for opposite-sex couples, not same-sex couples (BHP, 365).

This is a highly selective and tendentious reading of the principle of anatomical complementarity. It certainly isn’t the way the principle has been articulated throughout most of church history. Any sex that is not open to procreative potential has traditionally been condemned by this logic, and still is by the Roman Catholic Church. (To be precise, Roman Catholic teaching doesn’t necessarily forbid all non-coital sex in marriage, but it stipulates that the consummation of the sex act-for the man- must take place through coital sex.)

So, it seems that if one were to accept the moral logic of anatomical complementarity in a thoroughly consistent way, one would be led to adopt the Roman Catholic teaching regarding heterosexual relationships as well. There is no non-arbitrary way to use the principle of anatomical complementarity to condemn all same-sex intercourse, while at the same time not using it to condemn all intentionally and inherently non-procreative intercourse in heterosexual relationships. While the Roman Catholic teaching on this matter is wrong, I believe, at least it is consistently wrong. The teaching of Gagnon (and most conservative Protestants) on this point strikes me as both wrong and inconsistent. The parts of the argument simply do not fit together.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sodom and Onan: A Biblical Rorschach Test

A Rorschach test is a psychological test designed to help psychotherapists interpret certain attitudes or emotional patterns in their patients. What a patient sees says much more about them than it does about the actual picture. It reveals more about what is deep within them than it does about what is in the inchoate splashes of paint. If you see a butterfly, you are good to go, while if you see splattered blood, you might need a few more sessions.

The Bible quite often functions as a kind of Rorschach test. Sometimes what we see in a text says more about us than it does about the actual text. A clear example of this would be what we "see" in the stories of Sodom and Onan from the book of Genesis. Most people are familiar with the first, but many have probably not heard of the second. That in and of itself is significant.

Traditionally, Christians have interpreted God's raining down fire on Sodom as a judgment on every kind of same-sex relationship. Homosexuality is so bad that it warrants death.

Traditionally, Christians have interpreted God's slaying of Onan as a judgment on every form of intentionally and inherently non-procreative sex, including masturbation. Preventing the procreative possibility of sex is so bad that it warrants death.

The meanings of these two stories, though traditionally largely agreed upon, are now deeply disputed by Christians.

Christian defenders of same-sex relationships would want to argue that this traditional interpretation of the Sodom story goes far beyond what the text actually says. The story is about attempted same-sex rape, not consensual or committed same-sex relationships. It's about the desire to humiliate and degrade foreigners, not the desire to share erotic intimacy.

Christian defenders of contraception would want to argue that Onan was killed, not for contraception as such, but for selfishly refusing to honor his brother by agreeing to follow the divinely mandated custom of levirate marriage. (Levir is the Latin word for brother-in law, and levirate marriage was a social institution whereby if a man dies without having a son, his brother is obligated to try to reproduce with his widow so that a male offspring can be reckoned as his and can carry on the family name and control the land.) This argument, though, doesn't sit well with the fact that the punishment for refusing to do this was public shaming, not death (Deut. 25:5-10), and in the history of the church there has been, up until 1930, a universal condemnation of contraception by all churches with this passage being used frequently to back up this prohibition. (See John T. Noonan's Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists).

My point here is not to say what is or isn't the correct interpretation of the Sodom or the Onan story. My interest is in the fact that many Christians clearly "see" an obvious condemnation of all same-sex relationships in the Sodom story, while they do not clearly "see" a similarly obvious condemnation of contraception in the Onan story, despite the fact that both stories have been used for the vast majority of church history to condemn both same-sex relationships and contraception, respectively.

Where you go with this observation is up to you. I wouldn't want try to argue that if you reject the traditional position on contraception that you therefore must necessarily reject the traditional position on same-sex relationships. Although the two issues are related, you can't draw a straight line from the first to the second and be done with it.

The juxtaposition of these two stories, though, with their comparative traditional interpretations and their contrasting contemporary interpretations, should spur us to be aware of and reflect on the messy entanglement of person and text in the process of interpretation.

Richard Rohr, in one of his books, says that, "We do not see the world as it is, but as we are." The same can be said for the Bible. That realization itself can't settle biblical debates, but it can, perhaps, help us see them in their proper light.








Monday, October 27, 2014

Picking and Choosing, Binding and Loosing


Had blogs existed in Dante’s time, there is no doubt he would have added a tenth circle of hell to describe what goes on in the comments section. A while back, I wrote a piece that gained a little traction and attracted several comments, one of which was this little gem:
“As a member of the UMC I am ashamed of what you just wrote, how can you pick and choose the parts of God’s word to obey, that is legalism and that is what you are doing… I guess you are a pastor but I would not be a member of your particular Methodist Church… We all must obey God’s Law and his word, no cherry picking, just be obedient…”
“Picking and choosing” or “cherry picking” is a frequent charge you hear Christians making against one another. The assumption behind it is that we are to obey the “whole Bible” and not just pick certain parts. Yet, the Bible is not really the kind of book that functions like a timeless law code. Everybody has to make decisions, sometimes very tough and unclear decisions, about how to interpret and apply certain biblical texts to our lives today. The problem is that when other people’s process of interpretation and application leads them to different conclusions than our own, we derisively call it “picking and choosing,” masking the fact that we ourselves are not simply taking the whole Bible “as it is,” but are also necessarily engaged in the work of interpretation.
Interpretation is inevitable and unavoidable. It’s simply what happens when we read. The Bible doesn’t come with footnotes saying “read this metaphorically” or “this was just meant for the original audience” or “this is actual history.” We have to make decisions about all these matters and more. Some hard-core literalists think, for example, that they are just reading Genesis plain and simple “as it is” when they assert that it is a historically accurate account of exactly how the world came to exist. They miss the fact that they have made a decision (or, more likely, the decision was made for them by the guardians of their brand of faith) to understand the genre of these texts as history and not, say, poetry or saga. But Genesis doesn’t come with notes telling us what literary genre it is. We have to do our best to figure that out by reading it in its historical context. (And when you do that, you see that expecting the kind of information from it that you get from modern history is out of place.)
Picking and choosing, then, is not just something that other Christians we disagree with do. We all do it. We all need to do it. It is simply the process of trying to understand, interpret, and apply Scripture to our lives. Jesus told his followers that they would have to pick and choose. Well, he didn’t use that exact language. He said we would have to “bind and loose.”
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Jesus speaking to Peter in Matthew 16:19)
The language of “binding” and “loosing” came from rabbinic terminology, and referred to the interpretive process whereby some Scriptures were “bound,” that is, declared as still in full effect in a given situation, and some were “loosed,” that is, declared to not be in effect for a given situation. This process has always been and will always be messy. In Acts 15, for example, we see the early Christians debating what to do with the scriptural requirements for Gentiles becoming part of the people of God. What about the Scriptures that stated clearly that circumcision was required (Genesis 17:9-14)? Some Christians wanted to bind this Scripture, and some, because of their experience of the Holy Spirit at work among Gentiles, wanted to loose it. The latter eventually won out, and now we yawn over what seems like the obviously right choice, but at the time it was far from obvious.
This would be the first of many debates over binding and loosing, over picking and choosing.
The defining moral debates in the church today are not over who really respects the Bible or who has a “higher” view of the authority of Scripture. For the most part, they are about the messy details of how you go about faithfully picking and choosing, binding and loosing.
The fact that we are having serious debates over huge issues is not a sign that the church is in trouble, that we have turned away from the Bible’s authority, or that we are in a unique period of history. We’re just doing what we have always done and what we will always do.
The “infallibility” or “inerrancy” of the Bible is hardly ever the real issue. Believe what you want about that, the fact remains that the Bible will always be read by fallible and errant human beings like you and me.
One of the interesting things about the advent of high definition, slow motion replay in sports is that, far from removing the subjective human element from the game, it has actually highlighted it all the more. With some plays you can slow it down, blow it up, and zoom in and there is still going to be different ways of seeing it.
Maybe this is why God didn’t bother with giving us the One-Timeless-Creed-of-Everything-to-Believe-and-Do-Forever-in-All-Times-and-in-All-Places, and instead gave us a diverse collection of histories, poems, prophecies, biographies, parables, letters, and prayers we call the Bible. We would never agree on what the former means anyways, and the latter is much more interesting and energizing to discuss and live with.