Wednesday, 16 July 2008

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

A guest-series by Ray S. Anderson

Following the recent ruling by the California Supreme Court permitting the marriage of same-sex couples, a newspaper report included a comment by two men following their marriage, “Now we are not living in sin.” The comment sounded somewhat sarcastic and was probably aimed more at the religious community rather than a description of their own spiritual condition. Nonetheless, it reminded me of the impasse created in the discussion of homosexuality when the label “sin” is used to portray same-sex cohabitation as unacceptable to many in the Christian community. It is not that homosexual persons are not sinners, as are all humans. “No one is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:9 NLT). But to label homosexual orientation and practice as sin in order to justify exclusion from the church and its ministry is too simple. The issue is more complex than that. Is there an alternative?

During the 1960s when I was pastor of a small conservative church congregation, two men living together in a homosexual relationship, both graduates of a Bible school and with a clear Christian testimony, became friends of some in the church and eventually asked me if they could join. They both knew what the Bible taught concerning homosexuality and knew that my position and that of the church was based on this biblical teaching. My response was: of course you can join. This is not a church for those who are perfect but for those seeking Christian fellowship and a place to worship and grow in Christ.

The word “sin” was not mentioned, by them nor by me. If they had asked me if I considered homosexual practice a sin, I don’t know what I would have said. I hope that I would have said something like this. Do you believe that a same sex relation is what God intended when he created humans as sexual persons? They would have answered, “No, but this is the only way that we have found it possible to live and love. While others may say that we have a choice, for our part we feel that this relationship is the only one that fulfills our life and meets our needs.” In several other ways, they had communicated much the same to me.

The Tragic as a Human Condition

It was my former colleague, Lewis Smedes, who reminded me that in the area of human sexuality we should not ignore the tragic as a component of all and every human sexual experience. In the discussion of homosexuality, he said, don’t forget the tragic. Not that a same-sex relation is tragic as opposed to heterosexual relations, but that it is tragic because all human sexuality must be understood as necessarily an experience of the tragic. The key word here is “understood.” The difficulty for many heterosexual persons with regard to homosexuality is that they have no way of “understanding” how such a practice and relationship can be part of an authentic human experience, much less one that is Christian. The concept of the tragic may be one way of understanding the complex experience of human sexuality that underlies both heterosexual and homosexual tendencies and practice.

When I am able to understand what motivates a rebellious child to act out in anti-social ways, I gain insight in how to relate to that child rather than simply use labels to describe their behavior. In somewhat the same way, if homosexual behavior is simply labeled as “deviant” or a “perversion,” one is not only free from attempting to understand, but one makes no attempt. What is needed is an underlying structure of human existence rather than a practice of human behavior to begin to understand and then engage in discussion with homosexual persons with regard to the church and its ministry.

The tragic is not something that happens to humans following their creation out of the dust of the ground and endowed with the divine image – but to exist as that particular human person is tragic. Thus the tragic is not the result of the fall, as though humanity as originally created did not experience the tragic. Rather, the tragic exists precisely because human persons experience the freedom of self-conscious existence with virtually unlimited possibilities while, at the same time, remaining bound by necessity to the dust out of which they are created. The tragic is the result of the fact that humans cannot be in more than one place at a time, and they are aware of that.

When caught in a dilemma in which responsibility to help another is the most important, a decision has to be made. Failure to be able to meet both demands is tragic. Even the first humans were confronted with the tragic. Not everything that is possible, not everything that is good, can be chosen or accomplished or experienced. Being aware of that constitutes the tragic.

Søren Kierkegaard called this irreconcilable tension between possibility and necessity Dread. I prefer to call it the tragic. Dread became for him simply the psychological/spiritual moment of absolute self-awareness. The tragic is more a construct of human existence that underlies all human life, not merely a moment of awareness. As a construct of human existence, the tragic cannot be avoided though it can be denied, as Ernest Becker profoundly described in his book, The Denial of Death (Simon and Schuster, 1973).

True, there is an existential experience of dread, as Kierkegaard argued, that can only be overcome by faith. But if faith can overcome dread, it cannot overcome the tragic. The most significant human relation that Kierkegaard experienced was his engagement to Regina Olsen, an “instant love affair” that lasted for several years until he ended it by his own decision – for her own good, as he put it, even though he continued to love her. In the end, while he could apparently surrender everything to the infinite for the sake of faith, he did not have the kind of faith that permitted him to enact a finite relation of love without losing his own self. “Had I had faith I would have remained with Regina” (Journals, Harper Torch, 1958, p. 86). In the end, I would argue, what kept him from marriage with Regina was not lack of faith, but failure to understand the category of the tragic. Faith cannot overcome the tragic, as if marriage (as an act of faith) would remove the relationship from the category of the tragic.

The Tragic and Redemptive Grace

The tragic cannot be overcome and eliminated without destroying human life as we know it. Redemption of the tragic is an eschatological event. That is, it will only occur when the “new heavens and the new earth” emerge with the end of this temporal order. It is only then that “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4 NLT). Until that time, redemption of the tragic will be provisional and partial with intimations of that eschatological reality illuminating the landscape of the tragic while calling us to embrace the tragic with redemptive grace.

Redemption is always within the tragic, but not from the tragic. Redemption from one instance of the tragic leads to an expansion of the tragic, not the elimination of it. When Jesus healed the paralytic who had been unable to work and had lain by the pool of Bethesda for 38 years, this was a miracle of release from his tragic situation (John 5:1-8). But we are not told what happened to him nor how he was able to make a living, having lived by the charity of others for all those years. If he ended up healed but without the means of making a living for himself, that too is tragic.

When I come upon an apparently homeless person with a sign requesting money for food, I ordinarily pass by. Some would point to that person as a tragic person, an object of pity if not compassion. But the tragic is not an object but a relation. It is my relation to that person that constitutes the tragic. I recognize the demand placed upon me in our common humanity and his uncommon need. If I were to take that demand as an absolute moral demand and respond out of my own means as a way of overcoming the tragic, I have only magnified the tragic in the form of other humans who place their demand upon me and my resources as well. To give everything that I possess in response to the tragic situation of the needy, would be to compound the tragic with regard to my own children. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us of this when he says, “Marriage and family require time and energy that could be used to make the world better. To take the time to love one person rather than many, to have these children rather than helping the many in need, requires patience and a sense of the tragic” (A Community of Character, U of Notre Dame P, 1981, p. 172).

Theologian Wendy Farley says that “Created perfection is fragile, tragically structured” (Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion, WJKP, 1990, p. 127). She goes on to say: “The tragic structure of finitude and the human capacity for deception and cruelty together account for the possibility and actuality of suffering and evil.” Humans are finite beings, they possess awareness of the infinite but cannot fully realize it. In this sense, the tragic is not something from which humans can be redeemed and still be human, but redemption itself must take hold of and suffer the tragic if it is to approach and take hold of humans. Farley puts it this way: “But to overcome the tragic structure of finitude, to be free animate beings from all suffering, to determine finite freedom so that it will always love the good and have the courage to pursue it – these things are not possible. The potential for suffering and evil lie in the tragic structure of finitude and cannot be overcome without destroying creation” (p. 125).

Perhaps Farley would be better to speak of the fragility of humankind rather than the fragility of creation, for the kind of fragility I have described as tragic is peculiar to human beings. We may think it tragic to watch our nonhuman pets suffer and die, but this is a projection of the human tragic sense onto and into the created order. Evil, then, is the intensification of the tragic measured by its power to attack and destroy the good that God intended.

Following Farley’s insightful analysis, I would say that the freedom of creation in its own authentic nature – as differentiated ontologically from the Creator – is only tragic from the perspective of human beings who are endowed with a spiritual nature (imago Dei) which promises a destiny beyond that of its own creaturely nature. For all creatures but the human, their nature determines their destiny. For humans, their destiny lies beyond the power of a creaturely nature, though humans “suffer” from the exigencies of a creaturely nature. In this way, because love is a possibility of human existence which is in itself tragic, love is “intrinsically tragic,” for it is an investment of the self (the power of personal, spiritual being) in the face of the powers of nature, over which it is, at times, powerless.

One cannot consciously live with full awareness of the tragic, as Ernest Becker reminded us. Denial of the tragic may seem to be the only way to survive without losing one’s own existence. Nonetheless, the tragic continues to underlie human existence. Faith will not overcome it as an existential movement of the spirit, as Kierkegaard hoped. Faith itself is an eschatological point of reference that is grounded in the promise of God rather than in an immediate release from the tragic.

This is one reason why understanding homosexuality as part of the tragic construct of human sexuality may offer a more redemptive approach than simply to label it as “sin” in order to deny its right to exist.


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