Thursday, August 07, 2003

I have been very bothered by some recent discourse about the nature of religion generally, and regarding the recent decision of the United States Episcopal church specifically. The most startling to me was last night's "South Park," which concluded with a Catholic priest berating the Vatican for failing to understand that Christianity is merely a series of aspirational aphorisms, not any sort of a code or dogma. It's not that I disagree with the view -- though I do -- but rather that I am dismayed by its intolerant tone and Kindergarten logic. That view is, in its own way, every bit as sneeringly dismissive as the religious intolerance that it purportedly criticizes, because it is necessarily based on the notion that it is incorrect for a human to yield his own understanding to a truth greater than one's self. But on what basis does "South Park" arrive at that conclusion? By what basis does "tolerance" choose to be reject this view as unacceptable? Because it is inconvenient? Societally unacceptable? Self-evident? For those who believe that God is bigger than humanity, it is not self-evident that egotism is the proper measure of faith.

One of the most difficult, and most rewarding, aspects of faith is the very fact that one cannot pick and choose from its elements. It is a relationship that involves give and take between the worshipper and the divine. Humanity gives by acknowledging that our own vision can be shortsighted and own desires can be foolish. And it receives clarity of insight and communion with God Himself. But without the obligations, the rewards are hollow and selfish. The obligations of faith train us, strengthen us, and ultimately lift us to a place higher than we even knew we could aim. In this way, the glory of faith comes through the understanding that one cannot lose weight without abstinence; that one cannot become strong without exercise; that one cannot truly find one's self without losing one's self. Faith trusts that God has figured it out better than you have.

And I submit that a person is free to believe that, or to reject it, but it is arrogant to demean another for believing it. Yet that is exactly what seems to be happening on the "tolerant" Left. As was so well-explained by David Brin, the Left paradoxically tolerates any viewpoint except "intolerance." All religious insight is equal, except for the insight that this particular religion is correct and that others are false -- an insight inherent in each of the world's religions to a greater or lesser degree. In pursuing this paradoxical demand for bland uniformity, purported tolerance becomes intolerance -- like the Unitarians on a jihad. What most inflames me is the snide, condescending tone of it all. "Don't these ignorant rubes get it? You take what you want and leave the rest. You make your own faith." But what if you don't think that you are the final arbiter of truth? What if adherence to Christianity necessarily requires an indivisible bundle of beliefs?

Or, to stretch a metaphor to the breaking point, some treat faith like a buffet that should be picked over according to one's own personal standards, while others believe that it's important to eat the vegetables because Mom says they're good for you.

This paradoxical rejection of a faith-centered worldview in the name of "tolerance" has led to a growing rift in American society. Anyone wanting to understand the embattled position of the Christian Right would do well to look at current depictions of Christianity in the popular media. Even the most overtly Christian show on television--"Touched By An Angel"--refers to God and not Jesus, treats Judaism and Christianity interchangeably, and never once says anything that would indicate an exclusive claim on truth. Despite the fact that angels come from three faith traditions that have some very serious claims on absolute truth and non-negotiable dogmas, the show divorces the messengers of God from the rest of God's context. But why should angels be any more "acceptable" than the fact that Christ was resurrected from the dead? The implicit understanding is that Christians are idiots whose simplistic faith has a certain gut-level appeal, but shouldn't be taken seriously by adults. I am sure that Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, Isaac Newton, and the thousands of great Christian thinkers and scientists would be sorely tempted into an apoplectic fit.

Worse, I can count the number of Hollywood films depicting a positive Christian conversion experience on one hand. (Curiously, they often star Christian actor Robert Duvall.) Salvation is an embarrassment, not something to celebrate.

I believe this persistent depiction is prejudicial and ignorant. It is not necessarily foolish, obstinate, or ignorant to yield to something you believe to be greater than yourself. Nor must the unique and irreconcilable aspects of Christianity be cast aside in the name of our postmodern bronze calf, "irony."

Which leads me to the recent decision of the Episcopal church. They have chosen to elect a homosexual as a Bishop, which necessarily required them to analyze the status of homosexuals in the Bible. In offering their opinion of this issue, some have chosen to treat the answer as self-evident, and treat those that have difficulty with the decision as obstinate or ignorant. But just as I feel it is intolerant and ignorant to insist that a person must pick and choose her faith as if she were the final arbiter of truth, it is also intolerant and ignorant to insist that a voluntary association of Christians must reject certain dogmas.

Viewed respectfully and openly, the question is agonizingly difficult and the answer is not self-evident.

The problem with our modern understanding of the New Testament, at least as I inadequately understand it, is that Biblical doctrines can have one of three different statuses. And the real question here is where to place the Bible's criticisms of homosexual behavior.

1. The Old Testament

The first status is "Old Testament," and it is not so easy to disregard this portion of the Bible in this debate. The relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament is the subject of the weightiest portions of the New Testament: the Epistle to the Romans, and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Briefly and inadequately summarized, they explain that the Law was necessary in order that humanity would realize that God was perfect and that humanity could never do enough to be like God, or to deserve Him. In fact, the inevitable result of humanity's reliance on its own efforts was death -- physically, to be sure, but much more important was the spiritual death that arose because our inability to follow the Law kept us from communion with God. Even the atonements offered by the Old Testament were fleeting, because the pervasive nature of our own shortcomings would drive a wedge between ourselves and the Divine shortly after the atonement was offered.

But the bitter realization of humanity's inevitable failing was tempered by the joyous promise that God would make all things right in His own time, by providing a method to reach His presence and glory. This "bridge to God" was to be the Messiah, who was described by Jeremiah as a perfect man whose death would be the first truly undeserved death in the history of the world, but whose death would suffice to pay the debt owed by each and every fallible human. Jesus was that perfect man, God made flesh to achieve what we could not, descended to our world so that he could lift us up to heaven.

And while here, Jesus did not come to break the Law or get rid of it -- He kept every word of it. Instead, Christ came to provide an alternative to the Law. Each person can choose to do his or her best to achieve perfection, and will be judged by the divine standard of absolute and utter perfection demanded by God's very nature. Each person will be fairly judged by that standard, and will get exactly what he or she has earned. Or, each of us can choose to eschew justice and seek an unearned grace, which comes through Christ alone. That is, we can be sentenced fairly, or we can get clemency from the Governor.

Romans and Hebrews, therefore, explain that the Law was necessary so that we would truly understand exactly how hard it is to earn our way into heaven. The Law is still the legal system applied to each and every person in the world, and each person is justly treated. Under the New Testament, the Law still applies to Christians as the measure of righteousness, but the reason they can commune with God is not their adherence to the Law, but their acceptance of Christ's gift. In Romans and Hebrews the authors acknowledge that a very reasonable and human response to the free gift of salvation would be to attempt to live our lives in a way that pleases God. We would honor God by doing so, and should thus strive toward perfection. But our salvation comes through Christ's gift, not any effort of our own, because our own fallibility inevitably interferes.

But that doesn't mean living our lives under every jot and tittle of the Law. Paul, Peter and the early Church quickly established that it was unnecessary to become Jewish to become Christian. That is, one could follow Christ and still eat "unclean" foods, or be circumcised, or wear forelocks. This, of course, creates a great question as to how much of the Law was "forgiven" under these doctrines, and how much of the Law would still be "sin" when committed by Gentiles. It is a subject of great scholarship, and I freely admit that I do not fully understand it.

But I will set aside that question for the moment, because the Old Testament need not even be at issue in the Episcopal debate. It is not necessary to look to Deuteronomy or Sodom in order to find a Biblical criticism of homosexuality. The Sodom story may in fact be about the ancient belief that visitors under one's roof must be protected. It is enough, for purposes of this discussion, to distinguish the Old Testament and to note that it has a different role in New Testament theology than it did before Christ's resurrection. It is not enough to say that the Law no longer applies to Christians, for that much is well-established, and is believed even by those who take issue with the confirmation of Bishop Robinson.

2. Societal Issues

The New Testament is made up primarily of the epistles of various writers, mostly Paul, who were attempting to answer the hundreds of questions that arose in the early church. In doing so, the writers' focus was on (1) correcting doctrinal errors, and (2) fostering a greater cooperation among a diverse membership. The former were simply issues of error, not open to debate. No person who engaged in this behavior (such as the denial of Christ's divinity) would be correct, because he would necessarily be ignoring an important part of the testimony.

The second focus arose out of the need to keep the church harmonious, and out of the fact (explained in 1 Timothy) that it is a sin to cause a brother or sister to lose faith and become disheartened. Certain people are weak in their faith, he explained, and would be misled if you do something proper that they (incorrectly) think is improper. So Paul counseled the Church to be servant-like and to abstain from those actions that would cause the brother or sister to stumble.

It isn't always easy to distinguish the first from the second. The entire book of 1 Corinthians is a passionate criticism of a church that had rationalized itself into gluttony and promiscuity, and could arguably either be a reassertion of sin as a normative matter or an imposition of cultural norms in an effort to keep the Corinthian church from flying apart and creating a bad witness for the world. I personally believe that it is some of both. For instance, I am personally persuaded that Paul's criticism of women's leadership in the Church was based solely on a need to foster cooperation, not on a belief that it is actually sinful for women to do so. For instance, Paul poses this question: "Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?" 1 Cor. 11:13. Well, fine. I judge for myself, and I conclude that there's nothing wrong with it. Paul takes pains to distinguish the law from the cultural norms (see also 1 Cor. 14) and apply only the cultural norms. So, the question is one of cooperation. The weakest member of today's church would not actually be led into error by female leadership, so there is no need for the church to take a servant-like position that defers to the sexists. I hardly need to add that the letters of Paul are replete with examples of vibrant female leaders in the early Church.

But there is another level of analysis that can be applied.

3. Actions That Are Explicitly Called "Sin" In the New Testament

There is a third category of items, however, that very well may not be subject to this "cooperation" argument, because they are explicitly and repeatedly called "sin" in the New Testament. For instance, adultery is a sin. It is a sin because Christ flatly called it a sin, as did Paul. One can choose to commit adultery, but one cannot believe that adultery is not sinful unless one chooses to impose one's one beliefs on the Bible by editing out the unpleasant parts. The adulterer must adopt a position in which she picks and chooses from the "buffet" of Christianity, instead of eating her vegetables. But if a person chooses not to disregard that portion of the text, I think that decision would not be unreasonable, dishonorable, or ignorant. The very nature of faith very well may demand it.

So, here's the rub. Paul explicitly, unequivocally, undoubtedly says homosexual sex is a sin. In 1 Cor. 6:9, he goes out of his way to explain that gay male sex is sin as to both partners, and in Romans 1:26-27 he explicitly adds lesbian sex to the list of sins. And he isn't using the more "soft" cultural-normative language that he used with regard to women, either. He calls these acts a sin. It's a sin on par with other sins, to be sure, and it is surely curious that Paul includes homosexual sex with sins of excess. (See 1 Cor. 6:9-11) And it would be wildly inappropriate to apply a greater level of criticism to homosexual acts than to acts of theft, gluttony, or adultery. But the fact remains: homosexual sex is called "sin" and "error" and "unrighteousness" that should not be done by Christians. Moreover, this isn't part of Paul's more general advice that celibacy makes for a less complicated life, which is often unfairly construed as a disapproval of all non-procreative sex. See Romans 7. This is an explicit choice to call out homosexual sex in particular as sinful, on par with adultery and theft.

Thus, people of good will and faith are forced into a very, very difficult position. On the one hand is the belief that it is proper to submit to a faith that is greater than one's self, that God's will is greater than one's own, and that the greatest reward can come from yielding one's own will to a greater cause. On the other hand is the present cultural belief that homosexuality should not be considered shameful or inappropriate. Such people can approve of measures that defend the rights of gays and lesbians under American law, and they can demand that gays and lesbians be treated with the honor and respect they are due. But those beliefs do not answer the Biblical question at hand.

And that is why these people of good will and faith must not be imperiously expected to ignore an explicit command of the Bible, as if they were children who have embarrassed the adults by failing to understand that the fairy tale was just a pleasant lie. The issue is intellectually rigorous and grievously divisive, because the only way to reconcile one's beliefs with one's homosexual friends and loved ones is to conclude that Paul was wrong on a point of Christian dogma. This is not a simple conclusion, nor a self-evident one, and it does not deserve a breezy and dismissive treatment. And it is far too facile to suggest that Paul be excised from the New Testament--an error I have made in the past. Paul can be infuriating at times, but he correctly expounded the great weight of the Christian doctrine by which we live our everyday lives. Without Paul's guidance, for instance, a Christian would have to slowly deduce the great explanations of Romans, the great encouragement of Phillipians, and the great joy of 1 Corinthians 13.


So far I have railed against what I perceive to be the condescending portrayal of the issue from the Left, which serves me right for only reading and watching the more liberal news sources. (And does "The Daily Show" really count as a "news source"?) I haven't offered my own answer, because I have none. I currently hold in tension the deeply held belief that the Bible is true and the deeply held belief that homosexuality should not be criticisized, much less characterized as "sin." In particular, I think that homosexuality is different in kind from the other sexual sins listed by Paul, because the other sins are balanced by the fact that there is a non-sinful way to satisfy the heterosexual sexual urge. They are merely a sort of gluttony. In contrast, gays and lesbians have no God-sanctioned way to satisfy their natural passions. (That's really the issue, isn't it? I disagree with Paul's characterization of homosexual sex as "unnatural." Romans 1.)

And when confronted by this sense of unfairness, I have been sorely tempted to explain away the tension through elaborate sophistry or willful ignorance, but have stopped short. What is the point of "fudging" one's most deeply held beliefs?



When I make my decision, I'll be sure to let God know. I'm sure He's on pins and needles.

 5:21 PM

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