Last Sunday, three scholars of religion teaching at universities in Iowa published an editorial statement in the Des Moines Register noting that the debate about marriage equality often centers on what people imagine the bible says about homosexuality--but those citing what they imagine the bible says about this topic are often woefully biblically illiterate. I'm particularly struck by a point that one of the scholars, Iowa University professor Robert R. Cargill, makes in an interview with Huffington Post about the editorial.
According to Cargill, "it is obvious" to most scholars of religion (and some religious leaders) that the biblical understanding of marriage is far more diverse than the one-man, one-woman, for-life model many people of faith want to derive from scriptural testimony. But many scholars of religion are "terrified" to say this out loud, for fear of reprisal from the religious and political right:
Ultimately, said Cargill, a Biblical "argument against same-sex marriage is wholly unsustainable. We all know this, but very few scholars are talking about it, because they don't want to take the heat."
And this was the fundamental point I wanted to make back in January, when I responded to Lawrence O'Donnell's commentary about homosexuality and the bible. You can't base an informed ethical response to homosexuality in contemporary Christianity on biblical texts that can't have addressed the issue of homosexuality, when they had neither a term to describe the modern psychological understanding that some people have a more or less consistent erotic attraction to members of the same sex throughout their lives, nor a concept of such attraction.
When religious thinkers and leaders announce, as Southern Baptist pastor Tim Reed of Arkansas did recently, that "Scripture makes it clear that homosexuality is a sin," and "God's word explicitly says homosexuality is a choice, a sin, it's not something you're born with," they're making it up as they go along. God's word says no such thing.
These religious thinkers and religious leaders are behaving no differently than their predecessors who supported slavery did over a century ago, when they maintained that God's word explicitly condones slavery and defends the right of some people to claim ownership of other people. They're making it up as they go along, every bit as much as some religious people I've heard in my own lifetime holding forth on integration (God's word is clearly against that) or women's place in the scheme of things (God's word clearly wants men on top and women under male control).
Nor should Catholics be smug about the attempt of some evangelicals to twist complex biblical texts into neat moral formulas bashing gay folks, consigning women to second-class citizenship, or upholding the supremacy of those with light pigmentation. Catholic leaders can be just as biblically illiterate as the most uneducated bible thumper anywhere in the world, as Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, just proved with his astonishing comments to a group in Arizona.
As Michael Clancy reports in an article at National Catholic Reporter to which I linked a day or so ago (and about which several readers have already made insightful observations), Paprocki informed his listeners that the polygamy of the patriarchs of Jewish scripture has nothing to do with Catholic propaganda about "the biblical model of marriage" as one man and one woman joined for life, and even to mention the fact that the patriarchs for centuries had multiple wives is to defend polygamy--not to call into question Catholic smugness about how things have "always been."
And when asked why the Catholic church opposes the marriage of two people of the same sex on the ground that they cannot procreate, while it permits two people of opposite gender who cannot procreate to marry, Paprocki cited the story of Abraham and Sarah to imply that this is a story about the illictness of same-sex marriage. And about how God can do miracles for those with the right biological equipment and the intention to use that equipment in divinely ordained ways.
Catholic bishops can clearly go through seminary and receive not a whit of good exegetical or biblical education. And Catholic scholars can be just as craven as the other scholars of religion that the three Iowa professors decry for their unwillingness to play a role in helping educate an American public that is direly in need of sound biblical education, as people everywhere spout toxic nonsense about what "the bible says" about gay and lesbian human beings, while never managing to find a single verse of scripture that comes anywhere near their formulation of what the bible says.