Wednesday, February 4, 2009

word of God

My father forwarded an email conversation about homosexuality he's been having with a woman who writes a column for the local newspaper in Western North Carolina. He asked her to explain for him how one can justify enforcing some Biblical laws but ignore others, and then asked for my help in responding to her answer. She wrote:

As for your second question about scripture, it could encompass so many passages and become an in-depth discussion of biblical interpretation that I have to guess which passages you're addressing. I think you're especially referring to the Old Testament which prohibits homosexual acts in the strongest terms and also prohibits other actions, such as sex during menstruation and other behaviors considered unclean. There are people who explain this Old/New Testament relationship much better than I can, but in essence, the guideline many Christians use is whether the prohibitions are repeated in the New Testament, indicating they are matters of morality rather than just ritual practices relating to the issue of clean/unclean. Homosexuality is addressed in both testaments. The statement against homosexuality in the Old Testament (and don't some people love to self-righteously spout that passage about abomination) would be easy to dismiss as part of the legalities of the old law if that were not so. More critically, Scripture as a whole seems to indicate the sexual relationship should be within the bounds of marriage, and marriage only. My gripe against so many conservative Christians is that they waste an inordinate amount of time on the issue of homosexuality when the greater threat is simply the cheapening of sex into a form of recreation, whatever one's sexual preference.

Here's what I wrote to my father.

I don’t believe any passage of the Bible is “the Word of God” not the Jewish Scriptures nor the Christian scriptures, neither the stuff that I happen to agree with, nor the stuff that I don’t agree with. All of the Bible, every word, was written by human beings. Every word is the product of a certain person with all of their individual concerns and limitations, living in the midst of a particular culture at a particular historical time. No matter how much they may have been inspired by God in the first place, God’s word has to be transmitted through an imperfect means and we have no way to judge whether the resulting word is from God or from the imperfect context.

So how do we know what God wants from us? Kathy Ross’s test is whether a commandment from the Hebrew scripture is repeated in the Christian scripture. But what this position admits is that either God’s commandments can change over time, or that people can misunderstand the will of God. If eating shellfish was once an abomination and it isn’t any longer, then why isn’t it possible to say that homosexuality once was an abomination (in Paul’s time) but isn’t any longer (in our time)? Or if eating shellfish never actually was against the will of God then why couldn’t it be that homosexuality was also never actually against the will of God and Paul simply got it wrong?

Christians might argue that scripture was sealed after the New Testament and no changes are allowed any more. This is religious imperialism in that it say it’s OK for Christians to change clear Biblical teaching from the Jews but no one can change Christian teaching. And it ignores the truth that in fact we have rejected many New Testament commandments (such as concerning slavery and the role of women in the church) precisely because we realize now that those commandments were culturally based, not the will of God.

So how do we know whether some religious rule is really the will of God, or a cultural construct? Well it’s impossible to do that with 100% certainty, but the best approximation we can come to is by realizing that God speaks constantly through millions of different voices and we should try to listen as broadly as possible. Scripture is one source of insight to God’s will but it must be balanced with a living religious tradition that speaks new words for new circumstances, religious voices from outside one’s own tradition; the application of human reason and the discoveries of science, and also, and I think most importantly, we must listen to the people who are actually living the experience that we would wish to judge.

It is my lived experience that gay and lesbian couples can form relationships that are just as holy, just as personally fulfilling, and just as beneficial to the larger community and to the achievement of God’s goals for humanity and the earth, as can heterosexual couples. No pointing at 2000 year old scripture will ever convince me otherwise because Paul’s words can always be debated while I live my truth everyday. It’s offensive to me that people would rather defend Paul and cause human suffering, then reach out in compassion and trust to their own family members and neighbors.

I believe Kathy is correct that God calls all persons to sexual morality. I also believe that the commitments of marriage are the best context for sexual relations, and that sexual relations should be respected as a form of intimacy and spiritual deepening and not merely as recreation. Thus it seems hypocritical to me to forbid marriage to same-sex couples and then condemn us for having sex outside marriage. Our religions have made sexual orientation the defining line between holy and sinful instead of drawing the line between respectful or abusive sex. Let’s encourage all couples to form healthy committed relationships and allow gay and straight couples to work together against the real problems of promiscuity, adultery, exploitative and selfish sex.

1 comment:

Doug Muder said...

The buzzword for this stuff is "dispensationalism". They find indications in the Bible that history is broken into different "dispensations" with different rules for each. Not just Old Testament and New Testament, but there are several dispensations within the Old Testament. I forget what they are, but I believe pre- and post-Flood are different dispensations.