Monday, August 11, 2003

A Gently Worded Response, Part III

I have been especially rewarded by the response to my earlier post regarding homosexuality and the Christian faith. There is a lot to think about in Melissa's post in response, and Will sent me a marvelous and heartfelt e-mail that he really should post on his blog. I find it heartening that even though I get very frustrated with the way that issues of faith and religion are portrayed in the media, I can find a circle of friends with whom I can discuss emotional issues with good will.

Melissa's and Will's responses brought to mind several thoughts over the last few days.

1. "Buffet" Christians vs. "Eat Your Vegetables" Christians

Melissa finds unfair my dichotomy of "buffet" Christians vs. "eat your vegetables" Christians, because she believes that all Christianity requires a certain amount of sampling and choosing. I think that she is correct generally, but incorrect as to the point I was making. I would like to elaborate.

I think that Melissa is correct in that there are two areas of genuine uncertainty in modern Christian faith, even among those who take an inerrantist view of Scripture. These areas give every believer genuine concern, and require a great deal of thought and insight to resolve.

A. The One Percent Problem. The first problem is that there are certain inconsistencies in the text of the Bible itself. I am not referencing the belief that the Bible should not be taken literally because of the circumstances of its writing (various authors, languages, histories, etc.), which was present to a greater or lesser degree in both Melissa and Will's responses. Instead, for the moment, I am talking about completely irreconcilable statements, such that even inerrantist Christians have a hard time reconciling them. For instance:
1. When Jesus cursed the fig tree, did the apostles watch it die (Matt. 21:18-19) or discover the next day that it had died? (Mark 11:13-14, 20)
2. Why do Matthew and Mark incorrectly quote the Old Testament? (e.g. Mark 1:2; Matt. 27:9)
3. How did Judas Iscariot die -- suicide (Matt. 27:5) or an accidental fall (Acts 1:18)?
4. Should the post-resurrection portion of Mark be considered authentic? (Mark 16:9-20)
5. Why do 2 Kings and 1 Chronicles not match in those places where they overlap? (numerous)

These possibly irreconcilable portions of Scripture create a grave concern for Christians who wish to take the Bible literally. They can take comfort, however, that these areas of concern are minor, are a miniscule portion of the overall text, and do not implicate the core aspects of the faith.

Similarly, there are differences in the various texts of Scripture, and any attempt to make a "definitive" translation must attempt to decide which version should be taken to be "correct." Yet these variations make up no more than one percent of the entire Bible, and again do not affect the core doctrines. Most interestingly, Dr. Phillip Comfort noted that the Law itself was lost for a time, 2 Kings 22:8-13, and thus finds it unremarkable that we would have to struggle to piece together that which was almost lost. In that sense, we are modern-day Josiahs. I find this proposition to be very, very interesting in its implications for all of theology.

At any rate, I agree with Melissa that there are certain textual issues of which every Christian should be aware, and which require a certain amount of picking and choosing.

2. The Problem of Emphasis. The second issue that every Christian must confront is the fact that Christianity is based on a number of paradoxes. Christ was entirely divine, yet entirely human. God is three people, but is one person. God controls everything, yet humans have free will. God is everywhere, yet he is separate from us. The truth lies in keeping these paradoxes in tension by having faith that both are true at the same time, a notion that is somewhat like a Zen koan. The proper reconciliation of these two issues is simply beyond us, requiring us to have faith in both propositions.

These tensions have led to certain differences of focus and emphasis. For instance, Presbyterians focus intently on the sovereign nature of God, while Methodists focus instead on the free will of man. Episcopals believe that baptism is an act performed by God, while Baptists believe that baptism commemorates an act performed by Man.

Moreover, there are other differences between the denominations. Lutherans and Episcopals believe in ceremony and hierarchy much more than Baptists or Presbyterians. And churches are all over the map in their understanding of the manifestation of spiritual gifts.

Thus, to this extent, Melissa is correct that all Christians choose a "flavor" of Christianity, in that they select a style of worship, church structure, and doctrinal emphasis. Yet each of these faiths arises from Biblical teaching, and returns to Biblical teaching. The brilliance of the Council of Nicea, and the creed that came out of it, was the insistence that there are certain doctrines that cannot be believed without contradicting a critical, undebatable portion of the Bible. So it is possible for Christians to select among these various choices without being forced to reject or ignore a particular passage of the Bible.

3. My Point, And I Do Have A Point. My point is simply this: though there is variation in the Biblical text itself, and though there is variation between the denominations of Christianity, there is nevertheless a body of Scripture that necessarily gives rise to a set of principles. On the one side are people that are unwilling to disregard an unequivocal command of the Bible, and on the other side are people that are willing to do so. Will and Melissa both defend the latter viewpoint with elegance and grace. For instance, Will is unwilling to accord the writings of Paul the same deference as the Gospels themselves, which is (perhaps not coincidentally) a viewpoint that I once shared. His reasons for doing so are heartfelt and well-reasoned, and his rejection of Paul consequently accords him greater latitude in his doctrinal conclusions.

The point of my earlier post was not to say that this latter view was wrong. Instead, I wanted to defend the former viewpoint against what I felt were depictions of ignorance and irrationality. If a person chooses to take some of the Bible as true, then it is not necessarily irrational for a person to take the entirety of the Bible as true. And it is not unreasonable for a person to choose to subjugate his own desires to an unequivocal statement contained therein.

Seen in that way, I hope that my distinction between "buffet" Christians and "vegetable" Christians takes form. Setting aside the one percent of the Bible that can be fairly disputed, ninety-nine percent of the Bible is spread out before us like a Luby's buffet. Some people feel free to pass up certain items on the buffet, because faith should be a matter to be reinterpreted by each believer as she lives her life in faith. Others feel that they must take the entire buffet as a whole -- the vegetables with the meat, the unpalatable with the tasty, the hard with the easy -- because God is the same God He was ten thousand years ago, and His declarations of the eternal verities cannot change in that time.

That is why I emphasize the fact that Paul depicts homosexuality as a sin, a violation of God's eternal nature, instead of a cultural issue that could conceivably change as the Church grows and develops. It makes the problem much harder than "culture" or "tradition," either of which I would happily eject.

And that is why I am discussing the view that "faith" might reasonably require more than "love" or "fellowship," and instead requires the believer to yield to God by trusting that God knows better than we do. That is, if we don't like what the Bible has to say about a certain practice, it may be arrogance for us to think that we know better than God. It certainly wouldn't be the first time; the Corinthians had rationalized themselves into accepting sex with a stepmother as acceptable (1 Cor. 5:1), and the Catholic Church had developed an entanglement of theology that rationalized the sale of salvation for cash on the barrelhead. I'm not saying that everyone must give such deference, but merely that it is not unreasonable for Christians to insist on such deference in their own lives. My issue with the media was the implicit criticism of that deference as unreasonable and ignorant.

Actually, I disagree with what I just wrote. Frankly, I do believe that it is simply incorrect for a person to disregard an unequivocal command of Scripture, but at the same time, I will not "insist that people be right" by imposing my view on my brothers and sisters. That is, I fiercely believe that people who do not defer to the Bible can do so reasonably, in good will, in faith, and in love. Indeed, my friends have illustrated this point perfectly. And I take great comfort in the fact that homosexuality is nowhere in the Nicene Creed, which represents the "irreducible minimum" of the Christian faith. I write to insist that my own view deserves the same respect that I accord to others.

This is the core of the "tolerance" problem I wrote about earlier, in which the modern view is that all viewpoints are to be tolerated except those that are dogmatic. Will believes it is simply wrong to accept Biblical rules over one's own wishes. I believe it is wrong to accept one's own wishes over Biblical rules. We can agree to disagree, and can cheerfully discuss our faith over a pint of Shiner Bock. But my concern is that for all its claims of "tolerance" and "acceptance," the Left is creeping toward the belief that Will's view is self-evidently right, and that my view is self-evidently wrong -- just as it has come to pass that most consider it self-evident that truth is not absolute.

Of course, the Right has long had the same problem, and I certainly don't want to ignore that fact. But the Right has not spent quite so much time proclaiming its "openness" and "willingness to consider new things." Thus, I don't sense the same feeling of hypocrisy that I do when "South Park" blasts people like me. And even the most "faith"-inspired films and movies fail to acknowledge the "eat your vegetables" point of view. That is, the "faith" of "Touched By An Angel" is nevertheless the "buffet" faith that would be the most palatable to the most people.

2. Why It Matters That He's A Bishop

I also disagree with Melissa's opinion that the real question is the blessing of same-sex unions. The primary defining characteristic of the Episcopal faith, vis a vis other Christian denominations, is its absolute insistence on a hierarchy of the clergy that runs unbroken back to Peter himself. There is nothing quite like a visit from the Bishop to clarify matters in an Episcopal church, because your rector must get on his knees in deference to his Bishop. It certainly illustrates the church's premises and priorities.

After this vote, if an Episcopal in New Hampshire believes that Christians must defer to the unequivocal commands of the Bible, he or she is now forced to choose between the Bible and the Church leadership. If the question were merely the union of same-sex couples, the New Hampshire Christian could ignore it, because the hierarchy problem would not remain. But it is awfully hard to remain subject to the authority of a Bishop who disregards an unequivocal statement of doctrine, if you believe that humanity must take the faith in its entirety without picking and choosing.

That, to me, is why the confirmation of Bishop Robinson has brought the issue squarely to the forefront. In another denomination it wouldn't create such a problem.

The attempt to smear Bishop Robinson was transparently shameful, but I don't feel that it proves the real issues in this matter one way or the other.

3. Translations of Greek

Will raises another point that deserves mention. He protests that some scholars believe that the reference in 1 Corinthians is to "male prostitutes," not all homosexuals, and that the reference in Romans is to the fact that the practices were pagan. These are certainly the viewpoints of those that seek to explain the New Testament in a way that would remove all barriers to Biblical acceptance of gays and lesbians, such as Bishop John Shelby Spong. I can only urge every person with an interest in the subject to investigate it for him- or herself, and to do so with an open mind.

A couple of years ago, I turned to those very arguments with great hope that they would provide a solution to this problem, which continues to grieve me greatly. Unfortunately, I was unpersuaded. Worse, I came to the conclusion that the only way to reach those conclusions was to twist the language unnaturally in order to fit a preconcieved notion of what you wanted the verse to say, because the weight of evidence tilted far more in favor of the "traditional" interpretation. I concluded by being dismayed and embarrassed for the liberal theologians. Better to honestly reject the verse altogether than to strain credulity.

For instance, the critical word in 1 Corinthians is arsenokoites. "Arsen-" is a prefix that means "male," and "koites" is the same word as "coitus." The word is quite forceful in its coarseness and means either "f*cker of men" or "man who f*cks," if you get the distinction. The latter construction is the one that gives rise to liberal theologians' interpretation that it must mean "prostitute." But why would one interpret "man who f*cks" to be prostitution? One has to read extra terms into the word, or else fall into the nonsensical interpretation that Paul was condemning all men who engage in the generative act. "F*cker of men" is the clearest meaning, and requires no careful side-stepping. Add to that argument the fact that the word is preceded immediately by malakos, which means "soft" or "effeminate" and which has been documented to have been used to refer to the partner who is penetrated during gay male anal sex. Given that arsenokoites is immediately preceded by malakos, I conclude that Paul is referring to the act of homosexual male sex, and is being particularly sure to get rid of any "loopholes" by specifying that both partners are committing a sin by doing it. That is, it's a sin to be the butch or the femme. And this doesn't even get into an analysis of similar Greek words and their use of "arsen-."

I am not sure that this argument is even necessary. For "buffet" Christians, it's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, because no amount of interpretation and translation is going to change the end result. But I strongly recommend that "eat your vegetables" Christians should research the issue for themselves. When I did so, I was dismayed to find that I came to the conclusion that it would be intellectually dishonest to "explain away" Romans and 1 Corinthians in order to find an acceptable answer to this problem. Because this conclusion caused me great grief, I sincerely hope that others reach a different result.


In the end, this was never about Will or Melissa or any of my own friends, with whom I feel I can discuss matters of great import or great meaninglessness. It was a way to express my concern that my way of looking at the world is increasingly falling into disdain, and to defend the reasonableness and intelligence of those men and women whose deference to the Bible brings them into painful conflict with their desire to reject all criticism of gays and lesbians. The most curious thing of all is that even now, after having spent a total of about seven hours writing on the subject, I still find that I am unable to embrace the view that I have defended. It is easy to accept the sovereignty and superiority of God in the abstract; it is very hard indeed to put that belief into action in a world that is very different from Paul's, or Augustine's, or even Billy Graham's.

 10:53 PM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?