Sexuality, incoherence, and the need for theological imagination

I’ve never said much publicly about how I approach the issue of homosexuality and the church. Primarily, that is because I believe there are no issues, there are only people. And secondarily, I am committed to the covenant relationship of the United Methodist church and believe that fidelity to that covenant is a vital and necessary part of fulfilling our part of God’s mission through the church. I won’t break the covenant relationship, but I also think it is a deep theological error not to engage in conversation about what the covenant says and how we are to be most faithful to the gospel message going forward.

Aside from these two foundational convictions about how I live and work and speak about the Christian faith, I haven’t chimed into many conversations because I find those conversations to be mostly incoherent yelling matches. One value, often faithfulness to a strict reading of scripture and tradition, is placed against another, often a broader understanding of love and a compassionate acceptance of differences, and the stalemate between the two has only grown stronger over the years. It should be clear to anyone paying attention that a more creative theological imagination is going to be necessary if the church is to learn how to have substantive and meaningful conversations that lead to a renewed sense of church unity instead of a whole new set of denominations and/or isolated congregations.

Put as succinctly as possible, the arrogance of modern individualism without a proper notion of or appreciation for repentance inevitably leads to the impasse at which we find ourselves now. It is not scripture or love that are pitted against one another – it is our reliance on failed concepts of modern reason that make our attempts at debate devolve into practical atheism. Our blind acceptance of modern (ir)rationality leaves us with the inability to see the world through God’s eyes and prevents us from finding the theological imagination to see past our insecurities and egos.

I hope to add to the voices seeking a way forward by offering four fundamental convictions that I find to be crucial to any avenue for substantive theological conversation regarding human sexuality. I don’t know that I’ve heard any of these four convictions taken seriously as part of the ‘debates’ surrounding sexuality in the United Methodist Church, but I would welcome any guidance toward resources where these have come up. Taken together as a foundation for theological imagination, these and other such Christian convictions are necessarily implicated in the ‘debates,’ even more so than the conflict between “scripture/tradition” and “experience/love” that is usually seen to constitute the intractability of the arguments.

The precise meaning of each conviction is debatable within different strands of the tradition – my point is not to suggest everyone must agree with my characterizations. The point is to say that when we are unable to agree (or even notice disagreement) on these foundational elements, we never wind up having the fight we think we’re having about a church stance on homosexuality.

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Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

These words of Jesus apply to more than just Sabbath; this is a succinct reminder that fulfilling the law is a means of finding abundant life. Jesus healed on the Sabbath not because it doesn’t matter if we break the law, but because the law is a tool to empower life, not to restrict healing and wholeness. The Christian goal in moral restraint and order is to be guided toward the new life Christ is and makes possible – not to fall into a dead legalism that treats the law as an end in its own right. To understand the kind of life toward which the particular instances of the law guide us, we must be willing to take a more holistic view of what the law says and how we can be faithful to it. At least these three areas of human life and law are at stake before we can consider any LGBT arguments.

1. Human sexuality in general. We (United Methodists) have broad statements about dignity and intimacy that vaguely point toward the gift of sexuality, but that is where positive discussion stops. There is no more than a common sense implication of answers to questions like a) what counts as sex/sexuality, b) what are the practices of sexuality that best embody Godly sexuality, c) is anything sexual off limits for a married Christian couple, d) what is the goal of sexual experience (intimacy, babies, enjoyment, etc), e) how do we respond when we fall short (adultery, premarital sex/pregnancy, etc.), and f) how should we cope when we are survivors of sexual abuse and any of a variety of violations of our bodies (rape, genital mutilation, molestation, etc). Nothing meaningful is ever said about these topics (and probably a variety of others), which means that we have no meaningful language to discuss how/whether LGBT choices, desires, and/or practices fit within the umbrella of Godly sexuality. Until we have said something meaningful and with practical implications, it will always be a vapid conversation about ‘normal’ vs ‘not.’

2. The historical contingency of moral judgments. It should go without question that there is some element of historical contingency in the ways the Judeo-Christian tradition has embodied its moral convictions. Two examples that ought to be relatively uncontroversial:

a) The way the sacrificial system changed once there was no temple in which to make sacrifices. Those laws were not disregarded once the temple was torn down, but the meaning and implications of having those laws on the books is quite different, for both post temple Judaism and Christianity. It’s not that there is no meaning or direction from the law, but that what it means to be faithful to the tradition of those laws changes depending on the historical reality in which God’s people find themselves.

b) The status and role of women. For modern United Methodists at least, there is no theoretical or theological distinction whatsoever between the status and role of men and women. Because we have inherited and still inhabit a culture and history, within Methodism and our world in general, in which a strong separation of gender roles was valued, our lived reality does not perfectly reflect this ideal. But any notion that there is a proper distinction between men and women in leadership is an historical accident at best. No matter how clear you believe Paul’s letters are about submission and teaching, we don’t order the life of the church or relationships in the same way that they have been ordered in prior generations.

Suggesting how deep the above contingencies go or how exactly we are supposed to relate to these scriptural commandments is not my concern here. I merely reference them to suggest that no reasonable reader of scripture and history can think that there is no element of historical contingency in how we always read and implement even the clearest words of commands. Accepting that premise, there are at least three realities of the world we now inhabit that are relevant to human sexuality and represent a complete break with the world of scripture.

a) The role of children in family life – Through much of civilization, children played a vital role in the survival of a family and in the care of related adults in a family system. The exact importance is certainly debatable in a variety of situations, but it seems quite evident that modern American life has no assumption that children will live in the same region as parents, much less in the same home, and there are increasingly close to no jobs in existence that invite, much less require, the employment of someone from the next generation of the same family. At one point, children were needed to comfortably live to an old age, now that’s not the case at all.

b) The need for children in the general population – as recently as 1800, people were almost as likely to die before the age of 5 as they were to survive. Now, there is a roughly 95% chance of survival. This is but one small stat pointing to the reality that the having of many children was once vital to the survival of humanity – and now having too many children may threaten the survival of life as we know it.

c) The role of women in the workforce – The more industrialized and, now, information driven the workforce becomes, the less sense gender roles make in the workforce. To think we can compartmentalize work from the rest of life is one of the many deficiencies of modern life – the ability and availability of women to take part in every aspect of work life has implications in every aspect of how we view the status and role of women throughout society. During a time when women had to have a greater number of children for reasons a) and b), it made an entirely different kind of sense to need one man and one woman in a marital relationship. There were, at least many years ago, things women could not do by virtue of being the ones that gave birth and nursed the children.

Taken together, these three realities imply that it is at least plausible, if not likely, that heterosexual marriage may have been almost necessary for human survival, both as a species and as individuals, in the world inhabited by the bible. The relationship of sexuality and marriage to the having of children and the societal roles of women are now so fundamentally different that we need to dramatically rethink the function and meaning of sexuality and marriage today, even if the bible really does say about sexuality what a plain reading seems to imply that it says. Put more succinctly, at one time in history heterosexual marriage may have been a moral requirement for reasons that no longer exist. We can’t say that the law of scripture is the law if we cannot have a broader discussion of what the law is for and thereby what our rules on sexuality imply about life in the world we actually inhabit.

3. Heterosexual marriage and the language we use to describe it. I cannot think of a more vacuous and less Christian topic than the romanticism that underlies virtually all conversation regarding marriage. Popular rhetoric speaks primarily of the ‘right fit’ for marriage, of ‘soul mates,’ and of ‘happy ever after.’ These concepts could not be more irrelevant to the Christian definition of what makes a marriage significant. Marriage is significant precisely because it is the covenant in which what is different and divisive between two people is not permitted to rise above the tie that binds our hearts together. To the extent that the covenant of marriage is representative of God’s love for humanity, it is so precisely because God continues to love us when we fall short – not because our relationship is smooth sailing. To the extent to which we have lost the ability to speak of marriage as a uniting of that which is different, we have lost the ability to say anything about why homosexuality in particular might not be capable of embodying Christian marriage.

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Christ died for us while we were yet sinners

The language of our communion liturgy should not be construed to imply that we are any less ‘sinners in need of God’s grace’ now than we were when Christ died for us. We constantly rely on the grace of God to guide our thoughts and actions. We constantly rely on the grace of God to empower our lives to witness to the life and love that God is. But too often and too easily a discussion about morality and human action devolves into practical atheism. I’ve elsewhere said at length what I mean by practical atheism; below is a brief attempt to work out how practical atheism plays out with regard to our ‘debates’ about sexuality.

For this argument, I ask that you take it for granted that 1) homosexual practice and, therefore, marriage are explicitly forbidden by a plain reading of scripture; and 2) the weight of scripture challenges us to love all children of God, even the people who are explicitly enemies (the shape that love takes is obviously debatable, but, here at least, I only ask that you accept that we are never allowed to not care about the pain, abuse, or harm done to another child of God).

Accepting these two premises means that we cannot ignore the practical, lived reality of any particular group of people. We have to be willing to look at the reality others face if we are to find the space in which to admit when we fail, and embrace the times we learn to more fully embody God’s love. To not look or to pretend the lived reality of others doesn’t matter is already a failure – to not look is to assume that it is within human rationality to know the rules of the game of life and how to play that game appropriately. Nowhere in scripture or church history is it suggested that humans are capable of either and it is very reasonable to suggest that the very first sin in the garden was that very assumption; namely, that we should be able to know good and evil on our own.

To look at the treatment of LGBT children of God paints a very troubling picture. Research suggests that a disproportionately high 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT and 68% of those identify family rejection as a significant factor in homelessness. LGBT youth are between 2 and 10 times as likely to attempt suicide as the general youth population. LGBT people have become the most likely targets of hate crimes in America. Violence against transgender people is particularly horrifying and may be increasing, as expressed in a 2015 report. 5 of the 9 nationally reported hate crime murders in 2007 were motivated by sexual orientation bias – as many as 17% of all reported hate crimes are motivated by sexual orientation. These are just a few revealing stats about the ways in which LGBT persons are mistreated.

Regardless of how you think about causality in this case or how the church is supposed to relate in general to those who don’t conform to its expectations, it is undeniable that people who identify outside the ‘traditional’ definition of sexuality are harmed by others because of that identification and they experience greater personal struggles with their own sexual identification. It is also undeniable that the incompatibility of LGBT thought and action with church teachings (regardless of whether incompatibility is seen as a rejection of personal choices, in-born characteristics, or actual personhood) plays a non-negligible factor in creating the culture in which stats such as these become reality. I have no interest here in determining how much blame ought to go where. I am also not suggesting that sincerely held belief should never cause harm. My point is exactly the opposite.

Every belief and moral we embrace will have some negative consequence for someone, somewhere in the world. The brokenness of humanity runs deep enough that there is no one, right, correct, eternal interpretation of any belief or rule for life that does no harm and has no unintended consequences. To assume that there is or could be one is to reject our need for God’s grace to overcome our brokenness and guide us to deeper faithfulness. We cannot say that God’s Word requires us to reject alternate forms of sexuality in isolation from the fact that the church’s rejection of such forms of sexuality helps create the culture in which LGBT identifying persons are physically, mentally, and sexually harmed because of that identification.

Note that I am not saying stats on LGBT persons are obviously significant enough for the church to change its current language and expectations of sexuality. What I am saying is that there is no neutral ground on which the church can claim to be ‘just following God’s Word.’ We are always choosing whether to assign greater value to the way we currently read scripture about sexuality or the call to care and respond when other children of God are harmed in the world. To hide from the impossibility of making a perfectly right choice is to pretend that we can conquer sin without God – it is to be practical atheists.

If we are not willing to come face to face with the brokenness our choices cause, we will never let God get past our arrogance and transform our lives. There are always multiple competing goods involved in every choice we make and every belief we hold. To take sin and grace seriously enough requires us to admit that even if alternate forms of sexuality are in some sense sinful, it may be not only possible but required of us to ignore that fact in order to reject the more pressing and impactful evils of abuse and hate that we unintentionally justify by our words.

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Salvation is an act of God’s grace, not human ingenuity or faithfulness

At least two results of continuing to draw a line in the sand regarding homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christian teaching are deeply relevant.

  1. An untold but certainly non zero number of people, some identifying as LGBT and other sympathetic to LGBT persons, will lose their faith because of the perception that the church is unwelcoming to LGBT person. Regardless of how the church thinks it is portraying its stance, the perceived harshness of the rhetoric means that people will never be willing to entertain the gospel message.
  2. A significant number of people will cross the line from not accepting LGBT practice in the church to actively abusing LGBT persons. You can easily argue that it is their fault for crossing the line from thinking something is a sin to hurting a sinner, but it would be impossible to deny that incompatibility language partially facilitates the thoughts and actions that lead to outright abuse and harm.

It is argued in conservative circles that to accept a sinful lifestyle is to consign others to hell. In this case, if the practice of homosexuality is a sin, then to not call for repentance is to forego the possibility of salvation. Put differently, too bad for 1) people, but 2) people are forgiven anyway. But such a simplification is a radical departure from the historical emphasis that salvation comes through the grace of God and not human righteousness. A straightforward reading of scripture even tells us that the salvation of the whole world came precisely through our greatest act of sinfulness, the crucifixion of the Son of God.

It is certainly the case that God’s grace is big enough to forgive those who cross the line and cause harm. But to deny that God can forgive those who come to believe and act the wrong way about sexuality is to place a firm limit on the grace of God and to treat salvation as at least as much an act of human will and intention as an act of grace. Put differently, if God can conquer death, then God can overcome any wrong stance the church could take on human sexuality. We can no more stop the grace of God from fixing our mistakes than we can stop a hurricane.

Is it not better to fall on the grace of God for being too sexually permissive than for contributing too much to the culture of hate and abuse? I can’t answer this question on behalf of the church, but I firmly believe that there is no scenario in which the outcome of any debate regarding human sexuality does not give a concrete answer to it. To think that we can make a decision in which a wrong answer eliminates the possibility of salvation for anyone is to fundamentally reject our need for the grace of God.

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We are members together in the body of Christ

The identity we have is not separable from the traditions in which we are born nor from the relationships we have with one another. To treat ‘human sexuality’ as a topic separable from the historically, geographically, and biologically contingent ways we live and relate to each other is to buy into failed portions of modern thought and morality. Sexuality is neither a choice nor is it an identity. Every action and practice in which we are involved either witnesses to the life of the whole body or tears that body apart. Who we are as children of God is more basic than who we are as individual agents capable of acting or deciding anything.

To take this claim seriously is to require us to reject notions of justice and sin that place the emphasis on personal action and punitive justice. Instead, God’s justice guides our imagination toward the reality that in and through Christ all is set right and all creation is infused with the life Christ makes possible. God’s justice does not mean universal salvation is guaranteed or even likely, but it does mean that any notion of individual fate or action is only definable and meaningful in the context of the life Christ empowers and not the other way around. We are rejecting the unity of Christ’s body and the limitations of human reason and imagination if we think that any aspect of human belief, behavior, or identity is separable from any other.

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Where does all this leave the church’s debates regarding sexuality? Simply put, I don’t know. I offer these convictions as a way to say that I’m convinced our current UMC ‘debates’ aren’t even talking about what they want to talk about. Our lack of appreciation for tradition and the contingencies of any particular argument have guided us into a place of incoherence in the way we talk about scripture and life.

To reclaim a foundation upon which Christian argument could actually happen requires a dramatic shift in learning what it looks like to keep the main thing the main thing. I’ll close with four far too brief and incomplete principles, 1 based on each conviction above, that I would offer to begin to more faithfully shape conversation.

  1. Life, not law – Conversation must be primarily focused on how to embody the kind of life God makes possible, not what are the rules we can’t break. Repentance is a call not primarily to turn from sin, but to turn toward Christ. That kind of turn ought to be reflected in our priorities and expectations for Christian thought and action.
  2. Embrace tragic action – We are not God. We cannot rid the world of wrong belief and action any more than we can save ourselves. We have to be willing to face the reality that any attempt at faithfulness carries unintended consequences and those consequences are an integral part of any decision about how to faithfully live.
  3. Grace, grace, grace – We are still not God. We cannot create the kingdom of God any more than we can be perfectly righteous in every way. We have to emphasize our deep reliance on God’s grace in every decision and belief, not just give lip service to the idea of grace.
  4. Body, not self – We are part of a story we didn’t create and over which we don’t have control. Every principle, rule, and consequence we derive out of that story must be in service of uniting the body far more than punishing a member. Unity does not mean blind acceptance as much as it means healing and wholeness.

2 thoughts on “Sexuality, incoherence, and the need for theological imagination

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