Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Another Take on the "Gay Marriage" Debate

John Marty is a state senator here in Minnesota. (Yes, he is the son of the famous, reads-every-word-ever-published Martin Marty -- as well as the brother of Joel, another acquaintance of our family, and Micah and others.) He is a good practicing Lutheran (frequently he and his family are among the congregation of Mount Olive, where his roots run deep), a thoughtful person, a dyed-in-the-wool "liberal" (by the common definition), and an outspoken advocate of compassionate and ethical conduct. Many of us consider him the "conscience" of politics in this state. Not surprisingly, many consider him a naive nag.

In any event, John has published the comment below on the issue of whether this state ought to pass an amendment to our constitution that would "ban" the recognition of marriage (or equivalent status) for same-sex couples. John draws an interesting distinction between what churches may (and perhaps ought) to say and do and what government ought. I offer it here because it suggests one perspective on how to deal with the issue.

Conflict over Gay Marriage is Religious Dispute
by Senator John Marty
February 13, 2006

Last fall, a "Minnesota Pastors' Summit" plotted strategy for religious leaders lobbying for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions. They claim they are defending heterosexual marriages from the threat of homosexual ones.

As a father happily married for 25 years, I don't see how somebody else's marriage is a threat to my own. No one has offered a single cogent argument explaining how same-sex marriages -- or any marriages -- pose a threat to others. My Christian faith not only allows, but encourages committed gay couples to marry. For many Christians, Biblical passages on love and commitment are more compelling than the handful of verses about homosexuality. When I see the love and commitment of same-sex couples, I see this as something that is valued and pleasing to God and therefore worth defending.

Many Christians favor gay marriage and promote making a sacred, lifelong bond between couples who love each other. It is because of our faith, not in spite of it, that we promote marriage and work to strengthen families of gay couples just as we do for heterosexual couples. We believe that a child is better off if his or her parents are committed to each other, regardless of whether it is a heterosexual or same-sex couple.

One key scripture cited by anti-gay-marriage Christians as proof that homosexual intercourse is sinful is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But a literal reading suggests it is a condemnation of violent gang rape, not homosexuality. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel interprets the sin people of Sodom committed: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." (Ezekiel 16:49)

Regardless of what these ministers think the sin of Sodom was, Jesus says that a town's unwillingness to welcome an outsider is worse than Sodom's sin. (Luke 10:10-12) Do these ministers also favor a constitutional amendment banning inhospitality to immigrants?

The other main scripture quoted in support of their amendment is Leviticus 20:13, where gay sex is an "abomination." Despite their stated desire to interpret the Bible "literally", few of these anti-gay-marriage Christians support a literal interpretation of this verse, because it requires a death penalty for homosexuality. A literal reading of scripture also provides a death penalty for equally "sinful" behavior like working on the Sabbath.

Why focus on homosexuality when there are many biblical condemnations of economic injustice and lack of concern for the poor, for every condemnation that they find against same-sex relations?

While anti-gay-marriage pastors do not speak for all Christians, they win some followers among sincere people who feel apprehensive about homosexual attraction and consequently accept the interpretation that homosexuality is "unnatural". After all, for those of us who are heterosexual, it is not part of our nature; therefore it is, by definition, unnatural to us. However, for gays and lesbians, it is opposite-sex attraction that is unnatural.

I've always figured that people who truly believe that sexual orientation is a choice, are those who themselves experience sexual attraction to both men and women, i.e. people who are bisexual. For them, it is a choice. Our views about sexual orientation are colored by our personal experience.

I raise this discussion of religious beliefs about homosexuality and gay marriage because that's what this debate is about -- religious beliefs. These topics are appropriate for religious groups and people of faith to discuss. Minnesotans on either side of the debate should respect the right of others to disagree. But this religious debate does not belong in the political arena. Churches that oppose gay marriage can refuse to perform same-sex marriages. They can even deny membership to gays and lesbians. And churches that support gay marriage deserve the same freedom to perform those marriages and to welcome people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender just as they welcome people who are heterosexual.

The decision about whom one should marry is a matter appropriately left to each couple; the decision of a church to consecrate a marriage is appropriately left to each church. I can think of few things more intrusive than having government telling
churches whom they can and cannot marry. Minnesota law already prohibits same-sex marriages. Those who want to put that prohibition in the constitution are trying to impose their religious beliefs on everyone. Do we really want such a heavy-handed, invasive government?

The constitution must respect religious freedom and provide equal civil protection to every couple. Let religious groups decide whether to sanctify gay marriages, but keep the state out of it.

Judicial Temperament

Because he's a lawyer (now Supreme Court justice -- eek!) and a professing Christian, Antonin Scalia is fair game for this blog.

Here's an example (the latest of many) on the justice's judicial temperament.

I guess he has settled it with noble and pristine logic. It is now beyond dispute: I (along with millions of others, I add in self-defense) am an idiot.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Evangelical Concern for Global Warming

An impressive array of eighty-six Evangelical scholars, pastors, bishops, college and seminary presidents and professors has signed and formall published "The Evangelical Climate Initiative: Climate Change: And Evangelical Call to Action." In the document, the group acknowledges that many of signatories have been hesitant to sign such a statement because they have been waiting for substantive evidence that "global warming" is a fact. Well, they now believe that the evidence is undeniable, and they advance a solid argument that Christians cannot take the situation lightly. You can read the encyclical and follow a link to the list of signatories here.

The document opens with "As American evangelical Christian leaders, we recognize both our opportunity and our responsiblity to offer a biblically based moral witness that can help shape public policy in the most powerful nation on earth, and therefore contribut to the well-being of the entire world. They go on to advance four claims: that "human-induced climate change is real"; that "the consequences of lcimate change will be significant and will hit the poor the hardest"; that "Christian moral convictions demand our response to the climate change problem"; and that the need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing lcimate change -- starting now."

This initiative surprises some, who read into the evangelical movement an identity with right-wing politics. That is a stereotype, of course, but it is regularly lent support in news outlets. This helps set the record straight. When a former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, Rick Warren (the purpose-driven guy), the presidents of Bethel University (St. Paul area) and Wheaton College, Timothy George (dean of Beeson Divinity), the president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the general superintendent of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, and many others agree that it is time to get serious about this issue, it is a sign both that the situation is dire and that the problem does not lend itself to a red/blue-state analysis.

The statement of this group of 86 has not arrived without controversy. "The usual suspects" (e.g., James Dobson, Chuck Colson, D. James Kennedy, Don Wildmon, and others) have come out against the statement. And many encouraged the National Association of Evangelicals not to support the Initiative. (Nevertheless, NAE head, Ted Haggard has announced his person support for the document while refusing to sign for fear that his signature would be interpreted as binding the NAE to the statement.) And many major news organizations have refused or failed to take notice of it. (The New York Times, where a full-page ad ran, published a good article about it, though.)

But, as I said, this Initiative and its statement claims the support of a very impressive collection of rock-solid Evangelicals. And with their vow to continue to fight on this issue, it will not go away. (Evangelicals seem better able to sustain theological and political pressure than do the mainline liberal protestant traditions, who ironically may agree with them on this issue.)

I think this is a very healthy development. I take it, too, as a call to take our brothers and sisters in the progressive evangelical movement with utter seriousness. Thank God for them and for this witness!

Shameless Promotion

As I have noted before, I sit on the Board of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. One of the major activities which we sponsor is an annual theological conference. This year we are joined in our sponsorship by Duke Divinity School. "Prreaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible: A Conference for Clergy and Laity" will be held at the Divinity School of Duke University May 21 through 23.

You can find details here.

If you can get East, you will not be disappointed in the quality of the presentations and of the interaction among attendees. I'd love to see you there.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Theological Works for Teens

My good buddy, Pontificator (actually, I've never met him, but I've read his blog for quite some time, and I consider it one of the most impressive I can name -- and after all, we have both studied with Robert Jenson, so we're buddies in spirit, anyway), has devised lists of Theology Books for High Schoolers, here, and Theology Books for College Students, here. Now, Pontificator has recently swum the Tiber, so his list is, understandably, a little skewed in the direction of one branch of the Roman Catholic tree of knowledge. I'm wondering how we might supplement (or revise) his list.

How about we start a list of recommended works for high schoolers and college students -- books that every reasonably read graduate should have read.

A memory to help explain why this interests me: When I began college (at Concordia, Moorhead), the first professor I met in my first college class was Joan Buckley, who taught English. Joan became an inspiration, a mentor, and a friend -- and I am proud that we are still friends. Well, one evening fairly early in the semester, I was walking across a deserted parking lot, when this huge station wagon came barreling toward me. It came to a stop, and Professor Buckley jumped out. (She claims no memory of this event, but I assure you it is not apocryphal.) She told -- well, ordered in that polite firm way Joan has -- me to come with her, and off we went to her home, where she offered me coffee and Scandinavian cookies and promptly disappeared downstairs. She returned with a stack of books about 3 feet high (that may be a slight exaggeration?): Take these and work on them while you're here, she said; no one will make you read them, but you need to read these to be well-read. The works were mostly theological, not literary (I remember Kierkegaard, but the rest of the list is mushed up with other lists I keep in my head).

Well, that made a profound impression on me: first, that she would care enough about me to take such a personal interest; second, that there was (at least according to this prof) a kind of cultural canon that ought to be absorbed as a part of liberal education; third, that education (and later I'd understand: culture) included this aspect of personal transmission.

And so, in honor of the example of newly retired Joan Buckley, I issue this challenge to you: Name five books that every young person ought to read. If you want to add a sentence justifying your recommendation of each book, so much the better.

I'll begin with two books, with the disclaimer that I have not thought about this very long, so I'll be supplementing my list. This list is in no special order.

I have trouble recommending C.S. Lewis, who seems a natural, because I find him so boring. But his science fiction should probably be on the list.

Walter Wangerin, The Book of the Dun Cow.

This is a fable which re-casts the apocalypse in a bizarre and wonderful
way. It contains the most lyric commendation of the office of the hours
that I have read. (You didn't really think there would be no liturgy book, did
you? It's appropriate to any age.
N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus

Wright is one of the brightest, most prolific, and challenging of scholars.
This book would prepare kids to take on the Jesus Seminar, the other gnostics,
and the wackos who would make of Jesus an idea in their own image. It's pretty accessible, but I'd probably put it on the "college" list.

C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, Book One)
I'd like to think that this will lead to the other two in the trilogy. It's
another fictional entre to the realm of theological pondering.

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
This may be on the college list, but it is a marvelous and quite accessible
introduction to the essentials of the faith, organized around the Apostles'
Creed. It's a great place for any kid to begin.

OK; it's your turn.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Why the Resurrection

Today's thought is drawn from an essay on Baptism written by Katherine Vaz for Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments (Dutton, 2000). I'm not sure how it fits into her essay on Baptism, but I think it provokes important thinking about the Resurrection and the life of faith. Tell me what you think.

It is the person we long for, not the elegant lesson. Memory, for all its
misfirings, should be humbler than it is, and nostalgia cannot be trusted to
honor the dead. It extrapolates from the known, makes us construct who someone
would be, based solely on what he or she was. If we resort only to the
inaccuracies of memory, then everyone we love is at one point finished and
attests to our failure of imagination. (I am not referring to revisionism, which
whitewashes the past, but to the effort to send our imaginations in pursuit of
what Apollinaire called "the truth behind the true.") I want people to possess
stories they did not have the chance to enact while alive. I still want my loved
ones to surprise me.

Thus Katherine Vaz, at p. 30.

It strikes me that God raised Jesus from the dead, not just to "prove" that Jesus was right, but also to prevent the kind of tricks memory plays from reducing Him to a grand idea. We see a lot of theology that is "thesis-driven" -- i.e., that does not take seriously that faith is an event, not a great idea; that Jesus is a person, not a cause.

In Theological Discussion, we are reading Christian Thought Revisited by Justo Gonzalez. In the work, he teases out three major strains of thought in early Christianity, one of which was radically influenced by Platonist philosophy and driven by a desire to portray Christianity as consistent with the "high" art of philosophy. That strain continues to be strong, it seems to me. Christianity is portrayed as a way to succeed (financially, emotionally). Or it is driven by great ideas (liberation, "God is love"). This is done without any particular reference to the person of Jesus or his on-going body, the Church. And if that's what "faith" is, the tricks of memory kick in: We make Jesus into something "better," more helpful, more accessible -- whether that is true to who He is or not.

I really don't like "Jesus and me" talk -- "He walks with me and he talks with me." But I realize that I don't really object to the notion of the presence -- palpable presence, even -- of the Lord in one's quotidian affairs. Instead, I object that the claims made in such talk usually are not true to how Jesus in his pre-Resurrection life lived, and they do not jibe with promises and mandate for his post-Ascension presence.

I think, for example, that to talk about Jesus without a real-presence, effective, objective sacramental theology is bunk. (I'm sorry: I know that is insensitive. I use "bunk" merely for effect. I don't dismiss the entire Calvinist heritage, for example.) How can one come to celebrate the presence of the Lord in a "memorial"? When he promised to be bodily present in the Eucharist, for example, how can we trust any memory that denies that bodily presence? Is that not reducing the Incarnation to an illustration, salvation to sophisticated philosophy, faith to the correct idea. Wasn't that the message of the great Christological and Trinitarian controversies -- viz., that what The Faith has to deal with is a Person (or Three Persons), not just a good idea?

None of this is very clear yet, but I am grateful to Katherine Vaz (and to the good fortune which led me pick up this for under 10 bucks at a remainder house) for a rich insight into Christian thinking and practice. Was this, perhaps, one of those surprises of which she writes?

Friday, February 03, 2006

The "Prophet Cartoon" Controversy

There is upset in many quarters over the publication (originally in a Danish paper, but later picked up by others) of cartoons in which the Prophet Muhammad is depicted. As I understand it, one cartoon pictured the Prophet with a headdress fashioned to look like a bomb; in another, he complained that heaven was running short of virgins for suicide bombers. (Thus, at least, the BBC.) In response to the publication and re-publication, protests have been simmering and breaking out among numerous Muslim populations within and without the Middle East. And the protests and calls for protesting have raised counter-protests from those who deem themselves not "politically correct." For example, some Lutherans of my acquaintance wonder aloud why we ought to be sympathetic with the Muslims when the world just tells us to "learn to live with it" whenever our faith is attacked. (There are also strident defenses of the freedom of speech and the right to publish. But I don't want to deal with those arguments.)

I wonder two things.

First: Do I correctly read the reaction to the cartoons to be that the Prophet is depicted at all? I understand that Islam forbids the picturing of either the Prophet or Allah. The fear is that a depiction easily lends itself to worship -- i.e., idolatry. And I respect that -- in fact, anyone else in the Judeo-Christian tradition (in which I rest) should respect that. After all, we have the commandments in Exodus and the Orthodox iconographic canon forbidding physical representations of God (the Father).

But what I find astounding is the (relative) silence about the content of the cartoons beyond the picture of the Prophet. These are scandalous aspersions that attach to all of Islam, and I haven't heard or seen a discussion of that aspect of the issue. The cartoons accuse Islam of a fundamental (sorry for the word) and necessary connection with terrorism -- a connection, I would argue, that does not bear scrutiny. I grant that there are factions within Islam (or that claim to be within Islam) that foster and support terrorism (I guess on religious grounds -- although I don't know enough about it). But Islam itself cannot be charged with that horror. There are millions of Muslims who oppose the kind of religion-based violence that is bringing dishonor on their faith. So why are the imams and their non-Muslim sympathizers (among whom I count myself) raising a fuss about this? Or have I simply missed the boat?

It's like those pictures of Jesus dressed as a warrior (ala Arnold): The problem is not that Jesus is pictured; it is that Jesus is pictured in a way that is contrary to all that he did and taught.

Second: Is is fair to ask Muslims to suck it up and get a thicker skin, the same way conservative Christians are called to do whenever there is a seemingly disrespectful representation of Jesus or Christianity? That's the point making some religious blogs these days (especially among my "conservative" Lutheran acquaintances).

I remember, for example, the brouhaha over the "Piss Christ" (see it here -- and notice the description of the "medium" as "esoteric" and the "genre" as "Jesus Christ") . Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix (cross with the body of Christ) immersed in a container said to be urine. What he meant to say, I haven't a clue (and really, I don't care: in art and literature, it's the interpretation that counts, not the artist's intention, it seems to me -- but don't hold me generally to that hermeneutic). What people understood (or wanted) him to say is all over the map. For some, it is a profound reflection on the the Incarnation, a depiction of the true-human nature of Jesus which shows just how deeply he descended into the human condition. (You don't get deeper, they say, than bodily fluids.) Others have touted this work as the poster child for free expression, for free artistic expression, for the right to make a public horse's a** out of oneself. But critics have countered and accused Serrano of blasphemy, or ridiculing Christian faith, of violating the limits of free speech, and (probably, but I don't know) of beating his cat.

The free speech debate doesn't interest me (even though I'm really hot on the First Amendment). The controversy over the religious meaning of the event (not just the artifact) is fascinating. I personally happen to find some legitimate and even poignant inspiration from the work. (I'm not about to hang it in my office, but that's a different issue.) But I can understand a certain squeamishness about it.

Well, to the point here, conservatives claim that when they protested the display of the work, "liberals" told them to toughen up, to "get over it," to learn to live with alternatives and with criticism. (Of course, we progressives would never have said such things. We would have attempted dialogue to find out what was giving offense and then would have tried to talk through it. Thus the difference, perhaps, between "liberals" and "progressives." But don't hold me to that, either: I'm only putting it that way because I don't consider myself a liberal.) But those conservatives (self-designated) are now up in arms again because they don't know why the liberals are being all "sensitive" to the Muslims, given their earlier advice to Christians.

It's probably a half-valid point. The non-valid point roots in the basic difference between the two upsets: There is nothing in Christianity forbidding the portrayal of Jesus; the issue was the disrespect that some saw in the Serrano portrait. That is arguably not a basis theological affront (although there were plenty who saw it as blasphemy -- which is). In contrast, it is fundamental to Islam that there be no portrait of the Prophet. When the Danish paper violated that canon, it was a really big deal. The difference in the situation (at least as explained to me by my Muslim friend) is the difference between accident and substance (hints of Aristotle and of transubstantiation, perhaps?): Portrayal at all is a substantial issue; the means of portrayal is accidental.

The valid point is that no religious community may rightly claim, as a right, freedom from affront in a pluralistic world. In fact, the world does not respect religion of almost any kind -- Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, et. al. -- enough to set it beyond comment and ridicule. We "religionists" will be attacked, joked about, questioned, challenged -- but rarely listened to sensitively. And we probably have to get used to that. (All the more reason for Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer visions of the Church as primary, formative communities -- gatherings where our self-esteem as religionists is bolstered in the proper terms.)

I'm not very sympathetic with moaning about how Christians always "take it on the chin." Sure, there are areas of the world where it is dangerous to be Christian, but that's not the issue here. Frankly, those people who most moan about the disrespect shown to Christians never discuss the state of Christianity in China, for example, or Saudi Arabia, for another example -- I suspect because to do so would raise difficult questions for their politically conservative allies.

And I think that Christians (at least Western ones) legitimately can be called to a higher level of sympathy for members of other religious traditions -- especially Muslims. We are in a pretty secure situation in the Western World. I find it hard to believe that any major news outlet would publish similar broad-brushed smears of Christianity or Judaism. (Sorry, the Serrano is just not on this scale.) Had the cartoons focused on Jews (e.g., showing them insatiable for land and olive trees because many Israelis seem to be), the outcry would have been deafening. And besides that, we Christians are called to treat others kindly and to come to their defense.

And from that might come another political agenda: We might reasonably raise questions about whether it is necessary or a good thing intentionally to misrepresent or derogate or "disrespect" another faith tradition -- even it there are things about that tradition which drive us crazy or deeply offend us. I think we might reasonably raise those questions to the institutions of civil society in which we are involved. You don't have to become a pluralist of religions so to advocate. So you won't find illustrations of the disputed cartoons on this blog. (But notice, I did link you to the Serrano picture!)