Thursday, 17 July 2008

Homosexuality and the church: a meditation on the tragic (Part Two)

A guest-series by Ray S. Anderson

The Tragic and Human Sexuality

If love is intrinsically tragic because it offers possibilities of fulfillment to human desire, hopes and needs that can never be met in even the most perfect human relationship, then sexuality itself is intrinsically tragic. The sexual nature of humanity perhaps lies nearest to the core of the self in terms of human intimacy. This is why sexuality is such a profound and yet complicated – and yes, tragic – component of the structure of humanity.

Sexuality itself is tragic because it is a component of the very structure of humanity that is woven through with the tragic. We do not understand what it is to be a human person until we understand that. And we cannot understand the struggle to integrate unfulfilled, sometimes chaotic, and often self-defeating sexual experience into authentic human personhood until we understand that.

When a man in his late 40s tells me, “I always wanted to have children, but after getting married when I was 25 I discovered that my wife could not and would never be able to conceive a child. Yes, adoption was one possibility, but my dream of having a child of my own well never be realized.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

When a single woman in her late 50s tells me, “When I was in my 20s I thought for sure that I would be married. All of my friends found someone, I never did. I have lived all these years hoping for someone to love me in a special way. It never happened.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

When a homosexual person tells me, “I knew that I was homosexual from the time I was a teenager. I tried to deny it, but finally accepted it, and though it is against what the Bible teaches, I have someone to love me and to live in a relationship that I could never have otherwise.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

What each person in these situations has in common is an experience of the tragic as a component of their human experience. We must first understand that before considering the moral implications of their behavior. When Jesus confronted the woman at the well (John 4) he drew forth the truth that she had lived a life of promiscuity. “You have had several husbands and the man you are living with is not your husband.” Jesus perceived the tragic component of a woman’s life lived under these circumstances. The moral issue with regard to living with a man not her husband was never brought up. Jesus did not label her a sinner, but empowered her to confess that he was truly the Messiah sent from God. My point is that to label the sexual orientation and practice of a person as “sinful” fails to understand the tragic construct of that person’s life.

The Tragic and the Kingdom of God

Sin is not a condition that precedes grace. For until one is welcomed into the Kingdom of God through grace, the tragic only is a condition to be overcome, sometimes by religion, rather than by a relationship in which the tragic is brought under the promise of redemption. Until we each have discovered our own sin, always through grace, to be called a sinner by others is not only graceless, it is tragic. It breaks the common bond that makes us human. Saul of Tarsus would never have accepted the accusation that he was a sinner until he experienced the grace of God through his encounter with the risen Christ. Until the tragic nature of sin is revealed though grace, it lies untouched and unredeemed, hidden like a deadly virus that thrives on self-affirmation only to emerge in self-condemnation.

Jesus did not label persons whom he encountered as sinners, but rather offered them the power of his own person and inclusion in the Kingdom of God as an eschatological promise of redemption of the tragic. Looking over the crowd who followed him, he had compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:7). Later that day he instructed his disciples to feed them and, as a result, more than 5,000 were fed. This “miraculous meal” was an eschatological sign and promise of redemption from the tragic. For a meal only lasts one day and holds back the tragic for a time; then hunger again rises up to remind humans that their existence is fragile and weak.

Redemption from sin begins with understanding, not with condemnation. Does this mean that sin is disregarded? Not at all. But then we should understand that we are bound to each other not only by virtue of the tragic, but also by sin. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church with regard to sexual sin, he placed that particular sin in the same category as greed, worship of idols, and being abusive, a drunkard or a cheat (1 Cor 5:11). Paul only discovered that he was a sinner following his experience of grace through Jesus Christ. It is of no benefit to the Kingdom of God to call someone a sinner; instead, offer the grace of God so that they discover this for themselves.

The Kingdom and the Church

Jesus proclaimed the coming and the actual presence of the Kingdom of God in his own life and ministry. “But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has arrived among you” (Matt 12:28 NLT). But the Kingdom, while bringing redemption within the tragic, did not promise redemption from the tragic until the end of this temporal order and the coming of the Kingdom of God in glory. At the same time, Jesus said that his Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Paul taught that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of living by religious rules and regulations, but of “living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17 NLT).

The Kingdom of God confronts the world with the reality of what God intended for humanity and the way it is supposed to be, calling what is into a redemptive relation with God as Creator and Redeemer. The church is a sign of the Kingdom and acquires its identity and role in relation to the Kingdom. As such, the church is not the Kingdom of God, but an eschatological extension of the Kingdom into the present world order. In the end, it is not the church but the Kingdom of God that is presented to the Father by the Son in its fullness and completeness (1 Cor 15:17).

The church in its teaching and life, under biblical authority, is not only a place where we can come “just as we are,” but a place where we can experience the redemptive grace of God to become and live as God intended. This is the tragic aspect of the Kingdom of God and the form of the church in the world. It embraces what is tragic in the form of the failure of humanity to be and live in accordance with what God intended. At the same time in its teaching and practice it brings the tragic under the redemptive promise of healing, hope and ultimate overcoming of the tragic. For the church to exclude its neighbor, the homosexual person, is to forsake its own relation to the Kingdom of God and its authentic mission on earth.

38 Comments:

CJD said...

Love this line: "It is of no benefit to the Kingdom of God to call someone a sinner; instead, offer the grace of God so that they discover this for themselves."

Only if this were practiced, I suspect we churches in the West would be something akin to that city on a hill.

Thanks, Ray, for not compromising God's intentions for humankind while at the same time proffering a few helpful suggestions on how to be faithful to our mission in this world.

Teresita said...

When a single woman in her late 50s tells me, “When I was in my 20s I thought for sure that I would be married. All of my friends found someone, I never did. I have lived all these years hoping for someone to love me in a special way. It never happened.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”

Fortunately Jesus is not like that woman, waiting for us to love him in a special way, i.e. without sin. Because if he did, it would never happen. Jesus humbled himself sufficiently to die the worst kind of death the Romans could imagine, so he is quite prepared to accept our small imperfect kind of love, if we approach him with contrition and faith and hope.

For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.

Shane said...

"If love is intrinsically tragic because it offers possibilities of fulfillment to human desire, hopes and needs that can never be met in even the most perfect human relationship, then sexuality itself is intrinsically tragic."

This seems like an odd claim to me. What exactly are these "possibilities of fulfillment" which love offers but can never deliver on?

People have all sorts of unrealistic expectations about what having a relationship will do for them. But that's not a tragedy, it's just a false belief accompanied by some frustration. But surely the frustrations attendant on one's foolish beliefs don't count as 'tragedies', do they?

Chris Green said...

Prof Anderson,

First, let me say I think you're exactly right when you argue that only in Christ do we find ourselves to be sinners. And you're right that that is something we should - can - find only for ourselves before God.

I also have to say again what I said in response to your first post. The tragic is not a condition, nor a relation, but is a hermeneutic. It is the most ancient, and most humane, coping mechanism. But, at the end of the day, it isn't a vision available to the Christian.

Because I can't agree with your understanding of the tragic as inherent to humanness, I can't accept that sexuality is inherently tragic. Yes, human desire always eludes fulfillment, and if Christ were not, then this would be best understood tragically. But I think the "always more" of the human spirit finds its vindication and redemption in Jesus, who saves us from the evil that makes our desires voracious.

To be human is to always be desiring. But this is not necessarily tragic, and far from evil. The realization of the Kingdom of God will not mean the final satisfaction, and therefore cessation, of our desires, but it will mean their sanctification and glorification. Even if there will be no sex in the new creation, that doesn't mean there will be no desire! In fact, I would argue (following C. S. Lewis) that there will be no sex because our desire for that will be displaced by a greater desire for something more.

I don't want to say again now only what I said before, but I think it's important to realize our vocation as Christian pastors is not so much to draw attention to the givenness of this world as it is to draw attention to the good news of the in-breaking Kingdom that has already begun disrupting and redeeming this world. Hope, not tragedy, is our business.

Our pastoral work has to be eschatological. We are seeking to direct people toward God's future, not to ground them in the tragic present.

Aric Clark said...

Chris Green,

I don't want to be in an eschaton where there is no sex. Even if there is something better to desire, that doesn't mean you throw out other good things.

Shane,

A repeated theme in your comments in these posts has been to deny that "x" behavior or situation or dilemma was tragic. I'm certainly not interested in an argument over definitions and whether such and such a use of the word tragic is formally accurate, but it seems to me that many of your denials have been strange. For example it is patently tragic for a person to be created with a desire for the sublime which it is impossible (short of the eschaton) to fulfill. That is practically the definition of tragedy. It is not a lack of realism that causes the human being to hope for and expect impossible fulfillment from our relationships, it is a profoundly felt need for unity which other humans are incapable of meeting.

Ray Anderson,

Thank you for these posts. I appreciate your emphasis on tragedy and grace, though we would obviously disagree about Homosexuality as sin.

Ray Anderson said...

My Scripture reference for the statement that in the end the Son will hand over the Kingdom and not the church to the Father is incorrect. It should be 1 Cor. 15:24. Sorry for the typo.

Ray Anderson said...

Shane:

"People have all sorts of unrealistic expectations about what having a relationship will do for them. But that's not a tragedy, it's just a false belief accompanied by some frustration. But surely the frustrations attendant on one's foolish beliefs don't count as 'tragedies', do they?"

Unrealized expectations may well be based on idealistic or even foolish goals. I would argue that there are possibilities (not mere expectations)that arise out of the core of human existence in a finite world where they cannot all be met. When I perform a marriage that includes the promise of mutual love, sexual intimacy and fidelity to the marriage vow, I am reaching into the very core of the self, raising the possibility of fulfillment to the highest level. This is not a time to warn them that sexual dysfunction may occur so that what is promised and desired cannot be realized. This is the tragic aspect of love and human sexuality. We dare not speak of it, but must be prepared to embrace it. Perhaps "in sickness and in health" is the only way of hinting at the tragic. A shared promise rising to the level of a vow is already a redemptive act, embracing the tragic with the bond of love.

Adam Kotsko said...

At this late date, I have absolutely no patience for the claim that homosexuality is a sin. Nor do I believe it is at all obvious that the Bible condemns homosexuality -- the majority of material that touches on the topic is affirming, which we would be able to see better without the a priori assumption that the Bible must be anti-homosexuality.

There are homosexual Christians. Their homosexuality does not detract from their Christianity but in fact enhances it. Homosexuals are among the most enthusiastic ministers and lay leaders in the church. The Holy Spirit has spoken, just as it did when it fell upon the Gentiles without the benefit of baptism. Stop trying to cut off a piece of your neighbor's personhood in the service of three (misinterpreted) verses from the Bible.

Shane said...

@ Aric

"For example it is patently tragic for a person to be created with a desire for the sublime which it is impossible (short of the eschaton) to fulfill."

This sounds like you are charging God with a misdeed.

However, we aren't talking about the sublime as such, but human relationships. If a man told me his marriage was tragic because it fell short of the sublime, I would tell him he was a fool for thinking that marriage was supposed to give him access to the sublime.


@Ray Anderson,

Nobody in getting married promises to give his or her partner maximal fulfillment, or at least no sane person promises or expects that. It's tantamount to expecting a human relationship to express the sublime. But how could any person legitimately expect that?

If impotence is an existential tragedy, you're probably expecting too much from sex.

Shane said...

Here are two further examples of things that aren't tragedies:

I'm hungry and I want a cannoli. "When I eat the cannoli, I realize that I could also have had cheesecake and I want cheesecake, but my actual choice for cannoli precludes actualizing the choice for cheesecake, ergo the structure of human hunger includes an infinite desire for objects incapable of fulfillment and is therefore tragic."

"I use drugs to find the sublime. However, the sublime never appears within my drug-experience, therefore the structure of drug-use is tragic."

Shane said...

@Adam,

That everything you read is positive means one of three things:

1. that there really isn't anything at all to be said for the other side.
2. you are reading only a biased selection of the literature.
3. that the available literature is itself biased. (Probably in the sense of a publication bias of some sort.)

If you are actually interested in the truth of the matter rather than in adopting a sort of ideological stand on the matter, then you'll have to show that you've eliminated (2) & (3) as possibilites.

I think (2) is the most likely situation. have you read Robert Gagnon's work on this question?

Adam Kotsko said...

I am aware of the apologetics for a homophobic position, yes.

Adam Kotsko said...

Also, looking at your comment again -- I didn't mean the majority of scholarship is pro-gay (in fact, even the majority of gay scholars seem to take it for granted that the Bible "condemns homosexuality," as for instance Bernadette Brooten), but that the majority of actual biblical material is affirming of homoerotic relationships.

I understand my position is a minority position. Nevertheless, I view the anti-gay position as ideologically driven and not worth taking seriously. Sorry! That probably means our conversation will not be very productive.

Doug Harink said...

I'll follow up briefly on a few responses to my post yesterday, and then touch on Ray Anderson's contribution today. First, thanks to Andre for giving us a more nuanced understanding of MacKinnon. My point, however, was not to engage in a study of his work, but to suggest that Hart's critique is important, for this reason: Hart challenges any notion that tragedy is original and intrinsic to human creaturehood as such, and I think for very important reasons.

Second, I do not rule out all talk of tragedy -- I think Shane is right to suggest that it is a hermeneutic that is very ancient, and perhaps for one who does not believe in a Christian vision of creation and new creation, it is an important "coping" strategy. Yet it is precisely a hermeneutic which Genesis 1 challenges, and to which the Christian doctrines of creation, redemption and consummation stand as an alternative. Ray Anderson is proposing a hermeneutic of human creaturehood as tragic that runs against the grain of scripture and the Christian theological tradition in a fundamental way.

Third, and this brings me to today's contribution: while Anderson rightly argues that grace precedes sin, it is clear that for him grace does not precede the tragic. Rather, the tragic precedes and sets the conditions for the operation of grace. This comes out clearly, as some have already pointed out, in his understanding of desire. Human desire, he rightly understands, has infinity as its end. But he does not set that proposition within the context of an understanding of the triune God as the true infinite, in whom all human desires find their completion. The triune God stands in utter contrast to the false infinities and empty sublimes on sale in the marketplace of desire -- including sexual relations as an "essential commodity," a sine qua non of human flourishing. The infinite grace of the triune God precedes all desire as its origin, and upholds all true desire as its end. The core meaning of human creatureliness lies in that, in which there is no tragedy insofar as all created objects of desire, when desired in accordance with their created truth, lead us on to the completion of that desire in communion with the Creator.

One might expect, then, that for Anderson unfulfilled sexual desires, as tragic, will require that "grace" will come in the form of "realistically" dealing with such desires in terms of the competition among finite sexual goods and evils to be consumed. The call to seek, through and beyond sexual desire, and through a refusal of sexual relations, a measure of greater fulfillment in the triune God, will not be considered. Or, if it is, it will be accounted as another one of the "tragic" possibilities, on a par with other choices about how sexual desire might be fulfilled.

I think the true test of Anderson's proposal will be whether he can, finally, give a positive, non-condescending (i.e., non-tragic) account of the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the multitude of other Christians (and not only Christians) who have sought, and found in good measure, the consummation of sexual desire, apart from "sex", in devotion to the triune God and his kingdom. And, whether Anderson can present these Christians to us not as the "impossible" exceptions that prove the rule, but as joyful and hopeful normative sacraments of the true end of all human desire. These are the "signs of contradiction" to Anderson's theology of the tragic.

Grant Wahlquist said...

Ray -

As a former Fuller student, your post was exactly what I expected. That said, knowing the torture that I went through as a closeted gay man while I was there and the liberation, freedom, love, and joy that I've found since coming out, I find this post tremendously disheartening. I never had a course with you but was familiar with your reputation and didn't quite expect to read something this out of touch by you. There are plenty of wonderful theological reasons why gay life ought to be celebrated and the majority of students at Fuller believe so, regardless of whatever lipservice they pay to the orthodoxy of older professors.

Andrew said...

You know, people on here keep referring to the work of Robert Gagnon as something worthy of intelligent consideration.

Like Adam said above, if you want a "scholarly" defense of homophobia, then Gagnon is your man. Just because he wrote a 500 page book on the issue doesn't mean that his research is exhaustive, nor his conclusions profitable.

The real issue here is over whether the few Pauline texts that in variously ambiguous ways refer to "homosexuality" (whether behavior, orientation, etc.) are to be considered profitable for framing one's theology on the issue. I would argue that their inconclusive nature on the subject, at best, reveals that they are not.

The best, and most socially and theologically inclusive, thing that you can do with the biblical text (and church tradition) in framing a response to contemporary issues of sexuality is to read them as holding up monogamous covenantal relationships (and celibacy as an equal alternative) as that which best achieves human flourishing.

While a perspective on the "tragic" is indeed a different approach to take on the matter, it gets us no further down the road toward including all people as representative of the diversity of the community of God.

Doug Harink said...

My apologies! I think I attributed to Shane a point that was actually made by Chris Green (tragedy as hermeneutic), and quite possible also the other way around. Sorry, guys.

Lucy said...

@ Adam

It strikes me that you are engaging is the exact closed-mindedness and capitulation to ideology that you so despise. Making the sweeping judgment that all forms of opposition to homosexuality are products of ideology and homophobia is simply ignorant.

Since Robert W. Jenson is a regular authority on this blog, and since he could hardly be charged with closed-minded conservatism or simply howling with the pack, I will quote him:

"Here is doubtless the place where some judgment must be made about homoerotic practice also. It follows stringently from the earlier chapter's analysis of sexuality and its role in human being: homoerotic acts, however occasioned or motivated, constitute desertion in the face of the threatening other sort of human, defection from the burden of co-humanity. Therefore homoeroticism is, in the present terms, always lust, and powerful attraction to it is a grievous affliction. That Scripture, on rare occasions, when the matter is mentioned, treats homoerotic acts as self-evidently sin, disaster, or both, is not an accident of Scripture's historical conditioning but follows directly from its whole understanding of human being." (Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology II, p. 141)

unheimlich said...

Lucy,

re: "Since Robert W. Jenson...could hardly be charged with closed-minded conservatism or simply howling with the pack."

Ummm...I think you might want maybe to "revisit" this one.

Re: your quotation, it is basically a text-book example of ideology. And it is precisely because there is no standpoint, especially the concrete actuality of homoerotic experience, from which this claim could be contradicted or confirmed. Adam's assertion, on the other hand: not ideological, precisely because it can be confirmed and/or denied from concrete experience.

Andrew said...

@ Lucy

How is that Jensen quote even remotely fair to LGBT persons?

See, this is the problem we have here, and the problem with Jensen's quote: First, it references only "homoerotic acts." To reduce sexuality to acts, whether in its homo- or hetero- expressions, is absurd. Are we going to honestly sit and let theologians get away with reducing the discussion of homosexuality to only that which centers on the act of intercourse, rather than on the identity of the whole person? This type of characterization is equal to saying some absurdity like "all homosexual people care about is sex," and if we have Christians still believing that lie, then we've got bigger problems than just with the issue of sexuality--problems like a tendency toward unreasonableness and anti-intellectualism.

With this in mind, Jenson's characterization of "homoerotic acts" as "desertion in the face of the threatening other sort of human, defection from the burden of co-humanity" and "always lust" is just beyond comprehension.

And, just one more time, "Scripture" doesn't treat "homoerotic acts" as "self-evidently sin, disaster, or both." At best, the references to homosexuality are ambiguous as to their meaning, and the people who, in the face of this reality, continue to view those texts as "self-evident" in their characterization of homosexuality as sinful, are ignorantly wearing their conservative hermeneutic on their sleeve proudly.

Shane said...

@ Andrew,

'homophobia'

Wow, <20 comments before somebody brings out the H word.

Sorry, I can't stay to talk, I've got a Klan rally to get to.

Ray Anderson said...

Doug Harink.

First, I must confess that I have not read Hart’s book (I may be the only one!) so that my response will be superficial in light of the depth of that critique.

Second, I do not hold that the created order is intrinsically tragic. I indicated as much when I suggested that Farley might be better off to speak of the intrinsic tragic aspect of human kind, or rather, the relation of human persons to the created temporal order. If objects in the solar system apart from human beings sometimes crash into each other, that is not tragic, except perhaps, for the Creator who might have said, “Oops, I never thought of that!”

Third, I do not hold that the tragic precedes grace, rather it was the grace of God that created the first humans out of freedom, not necessity. “Then God said, let us make human beings in our image, to be like ourselves” (Gen. 1:26 NLT). In the second creation account the lack of a counterpart to the solitary human is viewed as tragic “It is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18 NLT). Again the grace of God is brought into the picture so that when the man finds no fulfillment in the other creatures (not merely a ‘desire’ but lack of an ontological counterpart), the man is put to sleep and another human is created (grace must kill before it can make alive, a quotation from T. F. Torrance I first heard in a lecture in Edinburgh). Here then we have the form of the human as cohumanity, male and female in his image (1:27). It is in the relation of humanity as cohumanity and both in relation to the created order that we find the tragic. The created order, including the first humans, was called ‘good’ (1:31). Good but very dangerous! If we assume (I do) that the law of gravity was present in the creation prior to the fall, then a slip and fall could well result in an injury.

Fourth, I do not hold that the tragic is due merely to ‘unfilled desires.’ Human sexuality is more than ‘human desire,’ it is bound intrinsically to ‘human being.’ Being with and for the other as well as being subject to the finite order of time and space, is the origin of the tragic, not in some ‘ancient hermeneutic’ (Shane) that we have outgrown in a modern world. The absence of the other in the second creation account is overcome by grace, so that longing for the other emerges out of the creation of humans as ontologically interdependent. This is the fragility of creation, that humans are bound to each other by intention, not merely desire.

Thus it is not sexual desire that constitutes the tragic in such a way that contemplation of the infinity of divine perfection fulfills that desire; rather it is longing for the other that makes sexual intimacy both a fulfillment of ‘being’ as well as a threat to one’s being. For the other not to ‘be there’ as being for the other, but only as a sexual partner, is tragic. But here too, the tragic can be and needs to be redeemed by love that embraces the tragic with intentionality and hope..

Finally, if the Desert Mothers and Fathers find fulfillment in divine devotion rather than sexual intimacy, or even sexual desire, I suspect that they still experience the tragic in the fragile and often tentative encounters with each. The phrase, “it is not good for the one to be alone,” was not and is not met by God alone as the other. I hope that this is not condescending.

kim fabricius said...

@ Ray,

I know I am committing the genetic fallacy here, but I get the impression that, rightly unhappy with the fierce opposition of evangelicals to same-sex relationships, you are trying to find a way out via "the tragic". However I think you've entered a cul-de-sac. For all the insightful and compelling things you say about the tragic, I finally share with others a concern about the foundationalist essentialism you seem to accord it. More to the point, I am concerned about what work you think the tragic is supposed to do for homosexual relationships in distinction from heterosexual relationships, as I do not believe that gay and lesbian partnerships are "unnatural", pathological, or "intrinsically disordered" (RC teaching) or rebellious (Romans 1). I guess what I'm saying is that I simply don't see the need for these impressive theological gymnastics. You could say I'm just not in the audience you're addressing and trying to persuade.

By the way, I've read some Gagnon, and he is very impressive, but finally, for me, unpersuasive. Above all, Mark Twain said, "You can't depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus." I think Gagnon's imagination is out of focus. Shane will shoot me for saying such a thing - it's not a syllogism - but I'll take the bullet.

@ Douglas,

Thanks for this theological tour de force. Of course you don't say anything about homosexuality! I only wish that in your last paragraph you had talked about celibacy in the context of friendship, and in critique of the marginalisation of "single" people. I also have a slight problem with your elevation of celibacy beyond a singular sign to a "normative" status in a postlapsarian world, not least because celibacy can be a pathology as well as a vocation (as it no doubt could be in the sands of Egypt).

But also this: in his wonderful little book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers Silence and Honey Cakes (2003), Rowans Williams writes that the question about desire can be put as the question, "What do we want our bodies to say?" And he continues: "Asceticism is one way of saying something with your body, just as much as the pledging of the body in sexual fidelity is saying something with the body." And when asked, "Who are the equivalents of the desert monks today?", Williams cites not only Thomas Merton and Bede Grifiths, but also Bonhoeffer (who, of course, was engaged to be married) and Desmond Tutu, examples of "monks" who redirect desire by combining contemplation with action on the margins, in exile, whatever their marital status.

Anonymous said...

Where does Christ's power in the Holy Spirit come in? Are you saying He is powerless to change someone and their practice? Before conversion homosexuality does not have bearing on ones access to salvation but what about afterward? I only ask because if homosexuality is ok before and after it is just a matter of time when pedophiles will claim their same argument. If a 30 year old man has a consensual sexual relationship with a child and says it ok because he was born that way, what is the churches response? Is their no redemption to God's design in salvation? Isn't the churches response to be biblical even though there may pass time before someone is cured of a pre-conversion practice? That is part of the battle, to bring our warring flesh into subject to God's will and design. Be it whatever vice it is that exalts itself against God. Marriage is God's design so it is not tragic though it may philosophically connected to other human activities. Other activities are tragic because they are not aligned with God's will as determined by scripture. We may, as humans, feel that culturally they should be allowed.
A tree is known by it fruit, and as christians what should the fruit look like? We should strive to subject our flesh to the the Spirit in all vices, such as homosexuality, alcoholism, adultery, overeating, etc.. Where the church exercises discipline in these areas is the real question.

Adam Kotsko said...

@ Lucy:

I have examined the evidence, over the course of many years, and come to the conclusion that there is no plausible reason to oppose homosexuality. It's not like I woke up this morning and decided to be a jerk about the topic -- I've come to my conclusion, and no one has said anything new here to convince me.

I have read Jenson's systematic -- I love volume 1, but volume 2 seems to be filled with a lot of "pro-family" stuff that occasionally verges on fascism. How is it the task of a systematic theology to say that the regulation of sexual reproduction should be the primary role of the state, for instance? There is no need to sign on to Jenson's knee-jerk conservatism just because he is brilliant as a dogmatic theologian.

Chris Green said...

I'm in agreement with Doug, and in spite of Prof Anderson's clarifications, it still seems to me he is holding the prevenience of the tragic. I suspect part of the problem is Prof Anderson's reading of Genesis 1 and 2. But if this is true, it is because, as Doug says, Prof Anderson does not begin with a Christian understanding of creation and does not move toward a Christian understanding of the End.

"The infinite grace of the triune God precedes all desire as its origin, and upholds all true desire as its end."

A point of clarification: when I said the tragic vision was an "ancient hermeneutic" I did not at all mean to say it has been outgrown by moderns! On the contrary, as David Tracy has argued, moderns stand in great need of it. Instead, I was saying that apart from the Christian eschatological vision, the tragic vision is the best way of making sense of ourselves and our situatedness in this world; the fact that it is ancient testifies to its worth, I think.

In the final analysis, then, I still read Prof Anderson's position as essentially pagan - and not Christian. I don't intend this mean-spiritedly; I like Prof Anderson's work quite a lot. But I fundamentally, and therefore strongly, disagree with him on this matter. As I see it, grace, and not the tragic, is definitive of creatureliness, including human sexual relationships.

Doug Harink said...

@Ray,

I don't think I attributed to you the notion that "the created order" is tragic, only that for you (following Farley) human creatureliness as such (i.e. in its original relationships to God, other humans and the other creatures) is tragic. You seem still to hold to that.

You wrote in your meditation: "But the Kingdom, while bringing redemption within the tragic, did not promise redemption from the tragic until the end of this temporal order and the coming of the Kingdom of God in glory." How is that not letting the tragic precede and in fact determine grace, or the Kingdom?

I think we are working with quite different theological visions. I detect a theodicy in yours (that's a hunch). I try to avoid theodicy. We're in deep here, and I honestly cannot put a whole lot more time into the discussion.

@ Kim

Thanks for the reminder about discussing celibacy within the context of friendship -- very important. As to the "normative" character of celibacy, I of course am aware that there are pathological as well a healthy ways to be celibate, as there are of marriage. My point is that celibacy and marriage are formally the two modes, in the sexual-social aspect of human existence, of bearing witness to the new creation.

About homosexuality: What I appreciate about Ray's approach to the question is precisely that he is taking a lot of time approaching it, without jumping immediately to the question itself. It's his avenue of approach that I think is fundamentally flawed. But I think it's crucial to set the broader theological context, and that has already been lost sight of in some of the more hasty judgements that are being made by some.

At this point I would just respond to one comment that I think Andrew made, that scripture provides us with the context of "monogamous covenantal relationships" within which to discuss the question of homosexuality. Well, some might question "monogamous," since there are plenty of exceptions to that rule in scripture. But what is completely unquestionable in scripture is the assumption (because, it seems, no argument is thought necessary) that, in the realm of human sexual relationships, "male and female" is the basic and only context within which "monogamous covenantal relationships" are thinkable. The only exception being "no male and female" (Gal 3:28 -- note, here Paul breaks with the disjunctive "or" and repeats the conjunctive "and" of Gen 1:28), which I take (in conjunction with 1 Cor 7) to be his relativizing marriage in relation to celibate singleness.

Enough for now.

Shane said...

Foundationalist Essentialism?

Foundationalism--epistemological point that there exist a certain class of basic truths which are self-evident and can for the foundation for further deductions.

Essentialism--metaphysical position that there exist some such things as essences.

I don't think Prof. Anderson has said either of those things. You're trying to use this claim as a reductio ad absurdum, "oh god, not that AWFUL essentialism again" but that's due to your lamentable preoccupation with Wittgenstein, the relevance of which to the present question about homosexuality I do not see.

What are you, some kind of essentiaphobe?

bls said...

How long can this absurd discussion go on? Some people are gay. Many gay people fall in love with other gay people, and often set up housekeeping together.

End of story. The insane repetition of "the Bible says" (which is, IMO, a tremendously shallow reading of Scripture) and (God help us) the "slippery slope to pedophilia" only points out how morally corrupt the anti-gay position is. Do people really have this much trouble telling the difference between love and rape?

That really isn't anybody else's problem, sorry.

JM said...

BLS,

"How long can this absurd discussion go on? Some people are gay. Many gay people fall in love with other gay people, and often set up housekeeping together."

This is a completely modern, secular notion. Where else, when else have people made this equivalence between a marriage and homosexual couple?

"End of story. The insane repetition of "the Bible says" (which is, IMO, a tremendously shallow reading of Scripture) and (God help us) the "slippery slope to pedophilia" only points out how morally corrupt the anti-gay position is. Do people really have this much trouble telling the difference between love and rape?"

I'm willing to listen, and I have read the liberal readings of the Scriptures, including the link you provided a few weeks ago, but honestly...I remain unconvinced. But let's say, for arguments sake, that it is at least a viable reading of the text. It's certainly not the plain reading of it, and to assume that people reading the scriptures come to the conclusion that homosexuality is forbidden are coming to that conclusion because they're ignorant or malicious is unfair.

Adam Kotsko said...

"But what is completely unquestionable in scripture is the assumption (because, it seems, no argument is thought necessary) that, in the realm of human sexual relationships, "male and female" is the basic and only context within which "monogamous covenantal relationships" are thinkable."

I believe there is a misprint here -- "unquestionable" should be "unquestioned." Once you do ask whether there is anything affirming of homoeroticism in Scripture, you find some really interesting stuff.

Ray Anderson said...

Chris Green wrote:

"In the final analysis, then, I still read Prof Anderson's position as essentially pagan - and not Christian."

I find it incredible that the theological concept that God created out nothing this world by grace alone and not out of some pr-existing material nor out of some fatalistic necessity should be pagan!

I find it stunning that the theological concept that the second creation story (Gen2) whereby human beings came into existence by grace as male and female, interdependent upon each other for their own 'being human' should be some kind of pagan hermeneutic.

I find it difficult to comprehend why human beings created by grace alone, endowed with the divine image and likeness with the capacity to love another human is a pagan anthropology rather than a biblical and Christian one. The capacity to love is also the capacity to hurt, and love exists before sin and before the tragic. That is why love can embrace redemptively the tragic and not fall into despair (As with a pagan world view?) That is all that I meant by the tragic. For me, at least, it really is that simple.

But I am over my head in this discussion; I only wanted to make clear why I believe, as a Christian and not a pagan, that grace precedes the tragic even as grace will finally in the eschaton overcome the tragic.That really is the premise of my paper. And if that is not biblical and Christian, I am really in trouble! Thanks everyone for the stimulating responses.

Brian Lugioyo said...

Ray, Thanks for this post. I have been trying to follow the discussion but being the second person not to have read Hart's book or Gagnon's work keeps me behind here. This post helps remind me that before I was heterosexual I was Brian and before my friend was homosexual he was Peter. Arguing about abstract people such as gay people or straight people makes the discussion easier since it distances real people from real difficult situations (something I think the post is trying to fight against). Peter struggles with his sexuality and for him, though in a loving relationship, it has not been easy, it has been for him tragic. I love him and his partner and do my best to extend grace to them rather than to tell them that their lifestyle is biblically questionable. I think this is partly what you are saying. For me the closer I am to the situation the easier it is for me to see the tragic.

Your post reminds the church to love the stranger rather than to label them. Thanks - Brian

Chris Green said...

Prof Anderson,

I hate that I've irritated you. I had no intention of provoking you; as I said, I like your work, and I do not intend to use a label for your thought simply as a means of dismissing it. I called your position "pagan" because I believed that was the best description for it.

Further, following Lewis and Tracy I believe that many people in the modern world need to be converted to paganism before they can be converted to Christianity! And many Christians need a taste of it, too.

"Pagan" isn't a name for that-which-I-can't countenance. Paganism gave rise to the tragic vision and the (tragic) hero, and as I said before, the tragic vision is the best alternative to the Christian vision of hope.

David Tracy, whom I've mentioned repeatedly, delivered a lecture ("The Tragic Vision: The Abandoned Vision of the West") in which he said,

"A tragic vision I maintain involves three basic elements. First, necessity. Second, intense suffering, sometimes as a result of that necessity. And something like an active, I call it, human response to that suffering – it need not be heroic, but active. Together these involve a yes to life as it is, as one actually tries to live it, as involving necessarily suffering and joy and often both together. "

I can say Yes to this, so long as one doesn't say this is the final - or the first - word. {Weil and Nietzsche, the two thinkers Tracy appeals to throughout his lecture, do make this mistake, I think. Weil's Christianity is shot through with paganism.}

Besides the question of prevenience, I also am troubled by the question of whether we should say Yes to "life as it is" or to life as it shall be. This is the difference, I think, between a tragic hermeneutic and a hermeneutic of hope. As I've said in other posts in response to your position, I don't think the work of the pastor is so much to say "Accept the way things are" as it is to say "Anticipate the way things shall be."

Given that, there is a time for us to consider the tragic. Some of us, as I've already said, need to open our eyes to the tragic; we need to "face the fact" that we are "as good as dead." But faith is not facing the facts; it is "hoping against hope." It is looking beyond without failing to see what is here before us. It is hope without naivete. It is expectation without wish.

As I (obviously wrongly) thought you were saying that the tragic precedes and determines grace, that it is definitive of human being and situatedness, I considered it accurate to describe your position as I did. I do think that all human relations are tragic; but not because that is inherent in humanness. I think the doctrine of creation, illuminated by the resurrection of the fully human Jesus, disallows that understanding. I say all of this to emphasize that I wasn't dealing you a "low blow." I simply misunderstood you.

Even now I"m struggling to understand what you might have meant by "the capacity to love is also the capacity to hurt," if you didn't mean that the tragic is elemental. But you say it quite straightforwardly, "love exists before sin and before the tragic" and "grace precedes the tragic" and grace will "finally in the eschaton overcome the tragic." So I am obviously failing to "get it."


God bless,
Chris Green

Pieter Pronk said...

"When a homosexual person tells me, “I knew that I was homosexual from the time I was a teenager. I tried to deny it, but finally accepted it, and though it is against what the Bible teaches, I have someone to love me and to live in a relationship that I could never have otherwise.” I respond: “Yes, I understand that, it is tragic.”"

What exactly is tragic about that, besides the fact that he still thinks it is against what the Bible teaches? If you leave out that (in my opinion about what the Bible teaches) error, this gay man would just say that he has accepted his sexual identity, and now has found somebody to love.

Is answering: "yes, I understand that, it is tragic" really the best pastoral response? Or would you suggest it should be the basic response for pastoral communication?
"When a heterosexual person tells me, "I've been heterosexual from the time I was a teenager. And I've accepted it. I now have someone to love me and live in a relationship with." I respond: "Yes, I understand that, it is tragic."

Really the only thing that the whole notion of the tragic seems to hang on is that you believe it is against what the Bible teaches. If, like me, somebody doesn't believe homosexuality goes against the Bible, then there seems to be no need for the "tragic" at all.

I don't see how this tragic idea is, at it's core, any different from those ideas of the church that say: "come to the church, homosexual person, I don't want to condemn you for your sin, but I want to help you. we're all sinners after all."

Isn't your only change that instead of calling it sin you call it tragic? "we're all tragic, after all"

Denise Hess said...

Chris,
I appreciate your comments--very clarifying.
Although I am not sure you intended it, I think you have rightly identified where I locate the tragic--it lies in between the two pastoral statements "Accept the way things are" and "Anticipate the way things shall be."

Pastorally, I like your statement "looking beyond without failing to see what is here before us" and would only add that for me it is also "looking at what is here before us without failing to look beyond." A slight change in emphasis that can make all the difference when coming alongside one who is hurting.

Prof. Anderson,
Picking up on an earlier post by cjd, I too found the most powerful line to be:

"It is of no benefit to the Kingdom of God to call someone a sinner; instead, offer the grace of God so that they discover this for themselves."

Much more than wrangling over definitions of the tragic, I would like to hear more of your thoughts on grace.

Specifically, what does an offer of grace look like in a context (such as the context of the above comments) where there are differing definitions of sin?

Thanks--Denise

Ray Anderson said...

Chris:

thanks for hanging in there with me, I think that I over reacted! You say:

"Even now I"m struggling to understand what you might have meant by "the capacity to love is also the capacity to hurt," if you didn't mean that the tragic is elemental. But you say it quite straightforwardly, "love exists before sin and before the tragic" and "grace precedes the tragic" and grace will "finally in the eschaton overcome the tragic." So I am obviously failing to "get it."

The capacity to love another is a two way-street. To love another is to become vulnerable, open to being shamed, wounded, and even abused.I assume that Adam and Eve before the fall had to struggle to maintain the intentionality of mutual love so as to avoid the 'tragic' possibility of treating the other merely as an object. That's all that I meant by the statement and that's what I mean by the tragic.

And Pieter: You ask: "Isn't your only change that instead of calling it sin you call it tragic? "we're all tragic, after all" The concept of the tragic as I use it, is simply the fact that human beings were created with the freedom to know that they are destined for more than creaturely existence but without the power to overcome creaturely existence. Thus, there is a 'fragile' relation between humanity and the earth out of which we were given bodies as well as a 'fragile' connection between one another. Love requires an intentionality to always be open and there for the other. It takes patience and hope to embrace the tragic as a possibility of love. Sin enters in through the tragic, but the tragic is not itself sinful, while there is no sin that is not tragic. It appears that the word 'tragic'causes a great deal of anxiety and speculation. I intended it to be a quite simple, and I thought, obvious fact of how our human existence is poised as it were, begin what we are destined to be and what our creaturely nature requires us to be--temporal beings with an eternal destiny (Eccl 3:11).

Denise: You ask: "Specifically, what does an offer of grace look like in a context (such as the context of the above comments) where there are differing definitions of sin?"

Ah, another essay!Short answer, grace is incarnational, it is God coming through Jesus to take hold of humanity estranged from God and in his own person, overcoming sin and death. There is no special kind of grace for different kinds of sin.The Body of Christ lives by this grace and, as did Jesus, embraces all who come to grace within the tragic structure of now but not yet. If Jesus is the dynamic reality of the Body, we will know how to do this with good conscience and a lot of patience!

Chris Green said...

Thank you, Prof. Anderson, for a kind response. I've enjoyed the dialogue, and have benefited from it in a number of ways.

Thanks,
CG

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