Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Some more on (homo)sex

That, I have a kind of love-hate relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should be clear to all who have visited this blog. I was born and baptized into a predecessor body. I have seen my "home" traditions merge into larger entities with other Lutheran/ethnic traditions. (Actually, I was baptized into the Iceland branch of American Lutheranism, which eventually was taken into the Lutheran Church in America. I was raised, under-graduate-educated and ordained in the American Lutheran Church. I cheered the formation of the ELCA in small part because my two traditions would now be merged. I am emotionally invested in the existence of the ELCA.)

As a consequence, I hate to see turmoil in my home, just as I hate to see it in my familial home (even though I'm usually the one to cause it -- go figure). But I believe that turmoil roots somewhere -- either in something important (in which case we need to deal with it openly, honestly, and at whatever cost it levies) or in something petty (in which case we tell everyone to shut up). I think the issues of sex are of the former variety (as I said when I began this blog).

Sex is, however, a symptom of a deeper problem. Whether you call it a crisis of authority, or giving in to "culture protestantism" or whatever, the deeper problem needs to be faced squarely and honestly. And by doing so we will no doubt pay some cost.

The underlying problem is this: How do we make a decision about the faith? Do we look to history? Do we go with the current research? Do we do what we feel is good? What place does the Bible have in our discussion? How do we read and interpret the Bible?

I have long sensed that the reason that both "sides" in the homosexuality debates in the ELCA cannot seem to talk together is that they are using two different sets of language. And for my money, you can't carry on a dialogue in two languages when neither side really gets the language of the other side.

Here's an example (see, Rob: I do listen to you). In the previous thread, Melancthon comments

What I've come up with, for today at least, is that for me it [i.e., the question of blessing same-sex unions] isn't really a question of doctrine. It seems to me to be a clear case of doctrine getting in the way of the Gospel, and when that happens, doctrine must yield, at least in practice.

What I mean by this may not be clear because people who are on the opposite sides of these questions from me do not see the doctrine in any way obstructing the Gospel and they see those on my side as making a clear intrusion into something that is obviously in the realm of doctrine. To the extent that this last point is true, I think the people on "my" side are in error.

What I want to say is this, the way that gay and lesbians are actually treated in our Church is an obstruction to the Gospel. Some people (not all) hide behind "the traditional teaching of the Church" to justify their non-acceptance (rejection) of gay and lesbian Christians. This is a problem of practice, not of doctrine.
Now, I don't think that "doctrine" and "Gospel" cannot be understood apart from each other -- not in the Church, anyway. The Gospel has no content, no reality, no "isness" apart from the doctrine which defines that reality. And I think that we often and readily forget that "gospel" is not just whatever makes us feel good; Gospel has hard and fast content -- it is the experience of the presence of Christ, who is not just any old anaesthetic for whatever bothers us, but is the flesh and blood incarnation of God, who in his/God's existence is not just whatever I happen to imagine him/God to be.

Here's a negative illustration: My pastor once preached about the travails he experienced while traveling -- late flights, hot airports, low blood sugar, raging temper, and all the things we all know firsthand. He was, then, impressed when he raced up to the desk at the boarding gate, late and flustered, fearful that he would miss his flight. "And then the ticket agent spoke a word of Gospel to me," he said. "She said, you've got lots of time; go around the corner and get a sandwich."

"She spoke a word of gospel," he said. Wrong! At least, he is wrong if he's using the term in the Church's sense. Because the Gospel tells of and makes present Christ. Yes, I know that giving a cup of cold water is "doing Christ" to the neighbor. But the Gospel is not the water.

Don't get me wrong: It's good to give water. And it's good to calm down raging passengers and give them permission to relax. That's all very fine. But it's not Gospel. How do I know? Doctrine tells me so.

"Gospel" (at least in the peculiarly Christian use of the term) is what makes Christ present to the life and experience of another. The Gospel has content, specific stuff. "Gospel" does not refer or specify anything other than that. "I brought good wine" is really good news; it is not the Gospel. "Christ is Risen" is not good news to a lot of people, but it is gospel -- in fact, it is the very definition of gospel.

But how do I know that? Does "the Bible tell[] me so?" Well, only partly so. The Bible would get and has gotten very confusing for those who read it, but for the doctrinal decisions and definitions of the Church, made over time in light of changed or clarified situations, specifying how to read and interpret the Bible. (Reinhard Huetter makes this point really clear in his book "Bound to Be Free." I may be missing some important elements in explaining this because he has made it so clear there, that it now seems obvious to me.)

So it is that when Melanchthon, here, says that doctrine can get in the way of the Gospel, I may not disagree with him -- if he means what I mean. (Obvious, right?) However, if he means to designate as Gospel something amorphous, unincarnate, dogmatically neutral, (such as wanting to be kind to people whatever their conditions), then I do disagree. Of course, he is absolutely correct if he means "bad doctrine" (read: heresy) can get in the way of the Gospel. That's what the Church Councils saw and why they had to issue edicts, decretals, confessions, anathemas (don't know the plural) -- to set out the proper boundaries to the content of the Gospel. What is important is to designate Gospel, not as an adjective, but as a noun.

The Gospel has content; the crisis the ELCA faces roots in her refusal to call that spade a spade. In her effort to be popular (after all, we must grow congregations, you know) and "nice" and "inclusive" and "uplifting," the ELCA is moving away from what has always been Lutheranism's forte -- a strong sense of biblically grounded theology. Her dive into "culture or liberal protestantism" (about which I'll blog in a week, I think) is well meaning, perhaps, but deadly.

Sex is a symptom of that -- right now the hot-ticket symptom. As I confessed when I began this blog, I don't know why that is, but I don't doubt that it is. It may be that this is the most obvious situation in which two views of the Gospel and of the meaning of authority come head-to-head.

I think that much of the discontent with the sexual debate is the refusal for each side to explain its bottom line. The "traditionalists" or "conservatives" or "catholic evangelicals" (CEs) want to make clear that you don't just take the text of scripture and find passages that justify your position and then go off on your merry dogmatic way. They are, however, often coy about admitting that the upshot of their position is that the Bible is not the final authority for all matters of faith and life. (The Lutherans, of course, have always acknowledged that by requiring their ordinands to swear fealty to the "creeds and the Lutheran confessions." We've been a little lax on the councils, but they are implied.)

Of course, the "progressives" or "liberals" won't admit that for them the Bible isn't the last word either. They look at Bible passages and even compare them to other passages, just as do CEs and biblical critics. But the big difference is the honor paid to the history of the Church. For them, the historic witness of the Church is not determinative or even very important. They are often ready to pitch all of that on the basis of modern "scholarship" or new "paradigms." (I think of all the times I have heard Foucault invoked in discussions of Corinthians, for example -- and usually Foucault is cited as the unquestionable authority in matters of sex. How or why he can be so designated is sort of just taken for granted.)

So the question arises: How are we to make sense of the Faith? What is the Faith? Is it something we make for ourselves? Is it something we swallow, hook-line-and-sinker (such a good Minnesota term)? Are we free to re-interpret the scriptures based on new understandings? If so, what is the basis for that claim. And if so, how are we to determine what new thinkgs apply?

Sincere pro-gay-rights "advocates" I know will always begin with an assertion, not with a biblical text: "God is loving and expects us to be loving, so we have to bless same-sex unions" is how one friend puts it. "I couldn't believe in a God that doesn't accept gay people" is how another puts it. In both cases, support for the position comes from outside the Christian tradition. Sure, God is love; sure God expects us to be loving. But the entire history of the Christian church has denied that that love accommodates same-sex relationship (or at least practice). And it is at that point that the problems between the sides begin.

The Bible speaks of God as love; but the Bible also only speaks of same-sex love in judgmental terms. Jesus, of course, never once mentioned anything about same-sex love. But the Bible also doesn't speak about the Holy Trinity: That was a construct that the Church came up with as a way of making sense of the numerous passages where God seems to have different personae -- talk of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit (of the Father or of the Father and the Son). Well, there is similar evidence (although not from a council of the Church) that same-sex practice was a serious violation of God's intention for the world. (I think Chrysostum preached in absolutely clear terms about it.)

Where does this put us? I'm not sure.

I am sure that the Bible will not settle the matter for us. It is possible, as has been demonstrated innumerable times, to put Bible passages together to justify virtually any position one wants to take. The development of thought obvious over the scope of the Old and New Testaments makes it possible to apply that kind of "trajectory" analysis from the end of the canon to today. (There was that interesting book of Robinson and Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity, that really got me interested in the whole notion of arcs of development of thought and practice -- most of which I have difficulty applying here.)

When we get honest, we may discover that there is no way we can resolve some issues as a unified church. I rather expect that the issue of homosex is one of those. I don't mean to suggest that it is church-dividing, in the technical sense that one or the other party must pull up stakes and set up its own denomination (don't get me going on those!). But it does mean that regardless of how the ELCA Churchwide Assembly votes on the issues, we will not be a house undivided for a very long time.

I read some reports of the votes last evening at the Assembly. It sounds like the house was in complete disarray: No one seemed to know for sure what the actual issues on the table were or the import of the vote "yes" or "no." I think the use of parliamentary rules will not serve the assembly well. I am not sanguine that this will be a very healthy synod.

And it is because neither side will 'fess us and acknowledge the issues at stake.


Andy said...

Either I'm slow on the uptake or a week of your posts showed up today (maybe both).

I think you're absolutely right that the "two" sides in the sexuality debate are failing to hear each other. Part of that, I think is because there are really many more than two sides. I thought the ELCA study guide did an excellent job of enumerating the concerns involved, but as my congregation studied it, I got the sense that people didn't really trust the "other side" enough to believe that those were really their concerns.

As we all know there is a difference between why people do what they do and the arguments that they put forth to defend what they've done. But in this case I think that insight has grown into a monster (or perhaps more accurately a devil). Many conservatives think that the "other side" is driven by a "gay agenda" and that both their Biblical arguments and their cries for mercy are simply ploys to advance that agenda. Many liberals think that the "other side" is motivated by homophobia and bigotry.

My fear is that in some limited sense both groups are right. I'm sure there are people in this who have the above noted motivations. They are almost certainly a minority on both "sides" but they color the debate and prevent it from moving in productive directions.

As I said in my comments on the other thread, my biggest concern in this is the treatment of gay and lesbian Christians. The ELCA has voted again and again to welcome gays and lesbians into the life of the Church, but in many churches (my own included) they still feel distinctly unwelcome. And the current debate has made them feel even more unwelcome because it draws people out of the woodwork to promote "correctional therapy" and similar attrocities. And when people like that show up, I am going to be against anything they are supporting.

(Incidentally, I agree with your comments about the Gospel having specific content, and I also agree that it is often misused in the name of free love. What I meant is that the way the Church treats gays and lesbians often prevents them from receiving the Gospel in way that I suggest is akin to that seen in the Catholic doctrine of invincible ignorance, i.e. "If you hate me, why should I even listen to what you're saying?")

On the other side of the fence, there are people such as yourself who are concerned with faithfulness to the Christian tradition, and you rightly object that people are trying to overthrow the doctrine of the Church in the name of inclusiveness. They are. I can't deny it.

What we need is for the reasonable people on each side to come clean about what their real goals are. I think that we could work out a way to accomplish them all. But in a two-party system this simply isn't possible.

Dwight P. said...

Melancthon, I think the Church needs a good dose of teaching in being an alternative culture -- if not the Hauerwasian counter-culture. The Church is an ecclesial community, not a political one (I think I say something similar somewhere else) -- and they're two different animals.

It's time for the Church/ELCA (and this debate has highlighted it probably more clearly than any the ELCA has faced) to come to grips with its own failings to form people in the process of discernment. We need to give up "party" images -- with their necessary implication of partisanship, as though we're on different sides -- in favor of an image of the Church as one, working through together to a solution, not a showdown.

It is tragic to see campaign buttons and sashes at a church convention. That's not how a church operates: If we get anything from St. Paul, it is that!

Maybe there's something to be learned from "win-win" negotiating strategies in law. It's a little complicated by doctrinal differences. But we aren't talking doctrine on most issue anymore. It's "politics" -- which has assumed a gross definition in our secular culture that carries over into the church culture. We have to cleanse it -- and I think a new (really, old) paradigm is necessary.

What do you know about discernment?


Andy said...

I think the most honest answer is that I'm not sure what I know about discernment. It's an area where it's easy for me to be humble.

I'm very inspired by the story of John Woolman leading the 1758 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends to unity against slavery. The point of that story, near as I can tell, is that they knew they had discerned well because they all ended up in agreement. I've also heard a story about Russian Orthodox bishops meeting with Anglicans who challenged them saying that they couldn't even agree among themselves, to which the Orthodox bishops declared, "We are of one mind. We just don't know what it is yet."

But the realist in me can hardly imagine that happening in the current case (though I seem to be coming into agreement with you). Perhaps that's just weakness in my faith.

I hope it was clear that I was using the "two-party" comment as a term of complaint. I completely agree with your criticism of the politics of this issue.