Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Twelve propositions on same-sex relationships and the church

by Kim Fabricius

1. Let it be said at once that the question of same-sex relationships and the church is a question of truth before it is a question of morality or discipline. Is the church’s interpretation of scripture true? Is the church’s traditional teaching true? If they are not, then they have to go, otherwise the faith of the church becomes bad faith. As Milton said, “Custom without truth is but agedness of error.” One other thing in anticipation: Jesus said that the truth will make us free (John 8:32); Flannery O’Connor added that “the truth will make you odd.” But before we say anything more, we must know what we are saying it about. In most discussions on the issue of human sexuality we talk at each rather than with each other; in fact, we talk past each other.

2. I take it that homosexuality – and certainly the homosexuality I am talking about – is a given, not a chosen (a “life-style choice”); a disposition recognised, not adopted; a condition as “normal” as left-handedness – or heterosexuality (whether by nature or nurture is a moot but morally irrelevant point). I also assume an understanding of human sexuality that is not over-genitalised, where friendship, intimacy, and joy are as important as libido, and where sexual acts themselves are symbolic as well as somatic. Needless to say, the “Yuk” factor deployed in some polemics has no place in rational discussion, while the language of “disease” and “cure” is ignorant and repugnant. Fundamentally, homosexuality is about who you are, not what you do, let alone what you get up to in bed. This is a descriptive point. There is also a normative point: I am talking about relationships that are responsible, loving, and faithful, not promiscuous, exploitative, or episodic.

3. What about the Bible? This is the Protestant question. “The Bible says,” however, is a hopelessly inadequate and irresponsible answer. Nevertheless, we must certainly examine specific texts – and then (I submit) accept that they are universally condemnatory of homosexual practice. Arguments from silence – “Look at the relationship between David and Jonathan,” or, “Observe that Jesus did not condemn the centurion’s relationship with his servant” – are a sign of exegetical desperation. No, the Bible’s blanket Nein must simply be acknowledged. But Nein to what? For here is a fundamental hermeneutical axiom: “If Biblical texts on any social or moral topic are to be understood as God’s word for us today, two conditions at least must be satisfied. There must be a resemblance between the ancient and modern social situation or institution or practice or attitude sufficient for us to be able to say that in some sense the text is talking about the same thing that we recognise today. And we must be able to demonstrate an underlying principle at work in the text which is consonant with biblical faith taken as a whole, and not contradicted by any subsequent experience or understanding” (Walter Houston).

4. The first condition is not satisfied. The Bible knows nothing about homosexual orientation, or about homosexual relationships as defined in Proposition 2. In the Old Testament, the stories about Lot and his daughter (Genesis 19) and the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19) are about gang-bangs, while the prohibitions against homosexuality in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) are about (a) cultic cleanliness and (b) male dominance (i.e. a man should not treat another man like a woman). While purity concerns are not entirely anachronistic, Brueggemann is surely right to say that if push comes to shove, justice trumps purity.

5. More pertinent are attempts to ground an anthropology of heterosexuality in Genesis 1 and 2. But as sympathetic as I am to understanding the imago Dei in relational and social terms, there are serious exegetical problems with this reading of Genesis 1:26-28, particularly if you read the text Christologically. As for Genesis 2, there is a rather obvious aetiological reason why a man and a woman would have to parent the human race, which says nothing about “compulsory” heterosexuality. There is certainly more to say about Adam and Eve than not Adam and Steve, and much in the rest of the Bible that would dissuade us from taking reproductive sex as the norm. Finally, a major omission from most references to the Old Testament: the Wisdom literature, with its emphasis on the observation of the world as a clue to discovering the way things are with God and creation, and therefore the suggestion that empiricism itself is biblical, and scientific findings germane to the discussion.

6. In the New Testament, the gospels are shtum about homosexuality. That leaves three references in the Pauline corpus (Jude 7 is irrelevant: cf. Genesis 19). The condemnations in I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11 depend on the translation of two obscure words (malakoi and arsenokoitai), but let us assume that they refer to same-sex relationships. There is certainly no question about the matter in Romans 1:18ff., undoubtedly the most relevant Pauline text about same-sex relationships. Or is there?

7. It is at least noteworthy that Paul deploys the language of dishonour and shame, rather than sin, to describe male-male relationships, which, in any case, are but a specific instance of the universal distortion of desire that enters the world as a result of the primal sin of idolatry. And Romans 1:26 is an interesting verse. We assume it refers to lesbianism (the only one in the Bible if it does), but the early Fathers, until John Chrysostom, and including Augustine, took it to refer to male-female anal intercourse. A cautionary tale here about the “obvious” meaning of a text! There is also the question of the rhetorical function of Romans 1:18ff. – or rather Romans 1:18-2:5. As James Alison observes (rightly ignoring conventional chapter and verse denotation), Paul’s argument works by condemning Gentile sexual practices – why? – so as to set his Jewish-Christian “hearers up for a fall, and then delivering the coup de grace” (Romans 2:1), such that “the one use to which his reference could not be put, without doing serious violence to the text, is a use which legitimates any sort of judging” such behaviour.

8. More to the point, again, is the question of the nature of the homosexual relationships being condemned. Are they the kind of relationships defined in Proposition 2? Is, therefore, the first condition of the hermeneutical axiom stated in Proposition 3 satisfied? The answer is No to both questions. The Hellenistic homosexual relationships that Paul condemns, if not forms of cultic prostitution, would normally have been both asymmetrical in terms of age, status, and power (the “approved” form was pederasty) and therefore open to exploitation, as well as inherently transitory. And as Rowan Williams reflects on Romans 1: “Is it not a fair question to ask whether conscious rebellion and indiscriminate rapacity could be presented as a plausible account of the essence of ‘homosexual behaviour’, let alone homosexual desire, as it may be observed around us now,” let alone in the church?

9. Summing up the Old and New Testament texts as they contribute to the contemporary discussion on homosexuality, the late Gareth Moore says: “In so far as we can understand them, they are not all concerned with the same things, they do not all condemn the same things, and they do not all condemn what they do for the same reasons. Most importantly, they do not all condemn same-sex activity, some of them do not condemn same-sex activity, and none of them clearly condemns homosexual relationships or activity of a kind which is pertinent to the modern Christian debate.”

10. Unlike Protestants, Catholics approach the issue of same-sex relationships indirectly through the Bible but directly through tradition as interpreted by the magisterium. In particular, appeal is made to “natural law”, norms of being and precepts for action said to be knowable apart from revelation, through ordinary experience and practical reason. Cultural pluralism and post-critical insights about the social construction of reality have radically problematised the concept of natural law. Nevertheless, the condemnation of same-sex relationships on the basis of natural law even on its own terms is intrinsically contingent. Thomas himself accepted that natural law may not be immutable, and that specific judgements are open to change. With the Wisdom literature, empirical evidence is indispensable. One recalls Wittgenstein’s advice: “Don’t think, look!” And when one looks at gay and lesbian people, what does one see? Does one see defective heterosexuals with an inclination that is “objectively disordered” leading to behaviour that is “intrinsically evil”? Whose experience? What evidence?

11. My own view is that, following the biblical trajectory (cf. the “underlying principle” in the second condition of the hermeneutical axiom stated in Proposition 3) of an ever-expanding inclusiveness of once-marginalized people (Gentiles, women, blacks), it is only a question of time before the list expands to embrace homosexuals. Theologically, the issue before us is not that of “rights”, or even justice or emancipation (the discourse of liberalism), it is a matter of divine grace and human and ecclesial ontology. The issues we have to tease out together include biblical hermeneutics (particularly as it relates to the prescriptive use of scripture in Christian ethics and to Augustine’s regula caritatis), empirical evidence, and personal experience. With my own eyes I have seen the certainties, caricatures, and phobias of Christians melt away through the warmth of contact and fellowship with lesbian and gay people, and, indeed – crucially – through the visibility of their holiness and charisms. The biblical paradigm is the story of the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 – which, of course, is actually the story of the conversion of Peter himself, an “Aha!” moment before “Truth’s superb surprise” (Emily Dickinson), an event which sent the early church back to torah and tradition trusting that the Spirit would guide it into new heuristic strategies of reading and interpretation.

12. For all Christians, as the drama unfolds, the question must surely be this: How, as embodied and sexual creatures, do we live in the truth and witness to Christ? “Live in the truth”: acting not according to law, either biblical or ecclesiastical, but not according to personal feelings either, rather following the truth that must ultimately lead to Christ, while refusing complicity in conspiracies of secrecy and deceit, particularly in clerical culture. And “witness to Christ”: as forgiven sinners with no claims to infallibility, not being judgmental on the one hand or contemptuous on the other, and not seeking to score points against one’s opponents, or to back them into a corner, let alone bullying, un-churching, even demonising them. Amidst the rubble of cognitive dissonance caused as the tectonic plates shift, the building blocks of the future will be the practice of “hearing one another to speech” (Nelle Morton) and piles of patience and perseverance, for (to conclude the Dickinson verse): “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” We will certainly discover what the church is made of, whether we Christians really trust the Spirit, practice peace, and live in hope.

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