Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Untune That String: Hidden Assumptions of the Divine Order Argument about Sex

I continue to ponder that strange intrusion of Catholic natural-law thought about divine ordering of sexuality into contemporary Protestant teaching about sex. As I have noted in previous postings, it is fascinating to observe leaders of churches that have historically stood aloof from Catholic doctrine and practice eagerly grafting onto their theological traditions today a rather mystifying intrusion into those traditions: namely, the Catholic natural-law based theology of human sexuality, with its strong emphasis on the “ordering” of sexuality to procreation (see,

As an example of such grotesque grafting of natural-law thought onto traditions antithetical to natural-law theology, I’ve cited essays written by the United Methodist of Florida, Timothy Whitaker, who chaired this year’s UMC General Assembly discussion of homosexuality. Bishop Whitaker is widely regarded in Methodist circles as a leading opponent of attempts to make Methodist teaching about gay and lesbian persons more welcoming, inclusive, and affirming. As I note in previous postings, when Rev. Karen Dammann of the Pacific-Northwest UMC conference was permitted to remain in ministry in 2004 after having made her sexual orientation and committed gay relationship public, Bishop Whitaker wrote a strong critique of the church decision that allowed her to continue in ministry. That critique states,

Those who support the Church’s position believe that the prohibitions against homosexual practice in Scripture and tradition should be placed in the context of the whole teaching of Scripture which affirms that the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness are the revelation of the divine order for the sexual life of human beings. They believe that the Church should adhere to this divine order rather than accommodate to ideas and practices acceptable in Western societies. They support justice for homosexuals in civil society and hospitality toward all homosexual persons, but they believe that the public teaching and moral guidance of the Church about human sexuality should be faithful to the witness of Scripture and consistent with the teaching of the transcultural historic and global Christian community
(; emphasis added).

Bishop Whitaker repeats the assertion about the divine ordering of human sexuality in a recent essay about what it means to live the Christian life ( This essay speaks of the “ordering of sexuality” as one of the non-negotiables of Christian discipleship.

These are merely examples of a much wider field of discourse found throughout the Protestant world today.* The discourse of divine ordering of human sexuality, with the attendant claim that the “whole teaching of Scripture” affirms such divinely revealed order and the implication that the churches are bulwarks against social chaos insofar as they uphold a divine order that has existed from the beginning of the world, runs everywhere through Protestant rhetoric about sexual life today.

Also implicit (and, indeed, often quite explicit) in these claims that God has revealed in both nature and Scripture a divine plan to order human sexuality are claims that this divine order requires us to regard men and women as ordered to complementarity, as complementary not merely in the biological sense, but in the roles the divine plan for human sexuality requires each gender to play (see And, it goes without saying, the roles that male church leaders (and, yes, their female cheerleaders, too) find etched into the divine law of nature and the sacred law of scripture require men to rule and women to submit.

It’s all so neat. It’s all so obvious. Why can’t those who reject this game plan hardwired into the human psyche just see it, admit that it’s there for all of us to see and follow? Why can’t those who rebel against this most fundamental dictate of God for happy and prosperous human life recognize that such rebellion will result in upheaval in every institution of Christian society—not to mention, in such disruptions of weather that sexually permissive areas of the world will be wiped from the earth through “natural” disasters?

The men who rule us: it’s so clear to them. And what’s clear to them ought to be obvious to everyone else, since they stand at the top of the pyramid looking out over the vast disarray of creation, noting the breaks in the dykes of divine order, shouting down to us below about those breaks and the disorder they portend for us all.

As I ponder the scenario (albeit from the bottom of the pyramid, where the feet on my shoulders inconveniently distract me from thinking as clearly as the owners of the feet above do), I wonder how biblically based theologies like Methodist theology have managed to get from the scriptures to the natural law concept of the divine order of human sexuality. When even Catholic theologians have always admitted that it’s well-nigh impossible to combine natural law thinking and the scriptures—they are two entirely different discourse fields, two entirely different ways of looking at the world, with different originating imaginations—how can Protestant church leaders be so supremely confident today, as Bishop Timothy Whitaker is, that the whole teaching of Scripture points to an absolute and consistent revelation of the divine order for the sexual life of human beings?

As I noted a day or so ago in my critique of the similar (and the similarity is not surprising; it’s telling) assertions of Cardinal Walter Kasper to the Anglican Lambeth Conference, no, it does not ( The whole teaching of scripture decidedly does not constitute or contain some kind of consistent revelation of the divine order for the sexual life of human beings.

Focus on the term “order” alone, and you step into a minefield of exegetical problems that illustrates the difficulty of wringing the philosophical concept of divine order out of scripture texts. The first such problem is that the term is almost entirely absent from the thinking of those who wrote both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It is a philosophical term derived from Greek and Roman philosophy. Order is a concept that simply did not engage the imagination of the Jewish and Christian biblical authors as it did Graeco-Roman philosophers.

In fact, in some key respects, the Jewish and Christian scriptures constitute stringent critiques of the Graeco-Roman philosophical concept of order. The prophets set themselves against all oh-so-assured theologies of divine order that divinized the way things are—and that gave divine status to those who benefited from how things were arranged. And whereas Jesus never speaks of divine order—which is to say, of the philosophical concept on which the men who rule us want to hinge the future of the church today—he talks constantly about the reign of God.

That was a social order in which the “divine order” proclaimed by the men who ruled in his day was to be turned upside down. Jesus’s vision of how human beings should live together if God ruled the world was anything but orderly. It was anything but a prop for the social imagination imposed by those at the top of his society.

In the reign of God, the last are first. The poor take precedence over the wealthy. Those who are sated will be turned from the table so that the hungry may eat. The path to power in the reign of God is to renounce all power. Exercising leadership in the reign of God is choosing to serve all, and, in particular, to kneel before and wash the feet of the humblest.

Divine order? If Jesus ever even dreamed of such a concept, he clearly did so to stand it on its head. And for that reason, he was crucified. The Roman authorities put him to death because they feared the revolutionary potential of a teaching that undercut all their assertions about how the world had to be ordered, if civilization were to continue. Jesus’s central act to proclaim the intrusion of God’s reign into history—his shockingly disorienting choice to sit at table with sinners and share their food, thus taking on their contaminated status—was considered an act of social defiance that, if practiced more widely, would turn the whole world upside down. He had to be stopped, this preacher and practicer of intrusive social disorder that proclaimed God’s inclusive love for everyone, and God’s preferential love for those most excluded from the benefits of the order that structured their society.

Viewed against the framework of what is central to Jesus’s teaching and life, the concept of divine order proclaimed so confidently by the churchmen who rule us today is curious, indeed. How can anyone read the Jewish and Christian scriptures and come away convinced that God has set up a divine order that just conveniently happens to be dispensed by (and benefits) those who find such divine order stamped all over creation and inscribed in their holy books?

Note what is really going on in the attempt of churchmen today to use the concept of divine order to regulate the sexual lives of others. At its heart, the argument that there is a divine order for human sexuality inbuilt in creation and affirmed by scripture is an argument that human sexuality is volatile, dangerous, inherently transgressive, and will destroy society if it is not regulated.

That is to say, the argument about a divine order for human sexuality goes hand in hand with arguments (sometimes implied, sometimes stated outright) about the need for the churches to maintain social order. Or else. Let women get out of hand, and see what happens then. Let people control their reproductive destinies, and imagine what chaos will ensue. Let gays “affirm” themselves and “marry,” and everything we hold most sacred will surely stream down the same gutters out of which the gays have climbed into the light of day.

Shakespeare knew the argument. He heard the same tune sung in his day—only, then, the question was what would happen if the hierarchical social system of Elizabethan England, symbolized by monarchy, should be toppled. As has Ulysses say in Troilus and Cressida,

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe.

Untune that string, and hark, what discord follows! This is an old, old argument used persistently throughout history by those with all power in their hands, when that power is threatened. This is the ultimate logic of the divine order argument about human sexuality. This is the warning within the warning, when the churchmen who rule us preach about the unthinkability of allowing gay persons to imagine that they have a place within the divine order established by God for creation: a place equal to that of their heterosexual brothers and sisters.

The entire argument is based on hidden assumptions about the discord that will follow, about the social chaos that will occur, if natural law is violated (that is, if the church-defined and church-enforced natural law is violated). The entire argument is based, as well, on hidden assumptions about who should define divine order, who spots it more clearly than the rest of us, who interprets it for us, who owns the books in which the concept is spelled out. The entire argument depends on hidden assumptions about who should remain at the top of the scheme of divine order that God (the male God, the Father God) has set into place, which is dispensed and protected by the churches under the leadership of the men ruling them.

If the men who rule churches really want to engage human sexuality as an energy, to find its “place” in human society, perhaps they would be better advised to stop imagining it as a chaotic, dangerous, dark, destructive energy that they are called to curb for the good of society, and to begin thinking of it as the engendering center of creativity. Perhaps a more convincing theology of human sexuality could be built around the concept that erotic energy is inherently disorderly in a good way, a way that has powerful potential to fuel creative movements for constructive change.

But to go down that theological road would require that the churchmen who rule us submit their own power and privilege to re-examination and re-negotiation. It would require opening the conversation to those these churchmen insist on treating as dangerous Others. It would require that, as they open the conversation, they bring to the table precisely those against whom their theology of a divine ordering of human sexuality has been used as a powerful weapon: women and gay persons.

And I just don’t see the men ruling the churches ready to take that step today. Do you? It is easier to pretend we have all the answers when the question itself presupposes that the world may be a bigger place than we can control, a place in which our supremacy may not be assured by nature or God, if we examine it honestly.

*A disclaimer: as previous postings on this blog have noted, I underwent a life-changing experience rooted in homophobia at an institution under Bishop Whitaker's pastoral supervision in Florida. Because I have sought to understand and deal with this painful life experience, I have had no choice except to try to understand and deal with the theology that justified the treatment I received. This has led me to examine Bishop Whitaker's work, to try to understand how churchmen can continue to state that they deplore homophobic discrimination while they oppose equal rights for (and equal treatment) of gay employees in institutions under their supervision. Bishop Whitaker is far from the only churchman today to whom such questions should be placed. I do not intend to be unfair in singling him out. But the effect of one of his instititutions on my own life has given me no choice except to seek to understand and deal with what that institution did to my partner and me. When injustice is done to us, those who are implicated in the injustice inevitably become part of the prism through which we seek to understand and deal with questions of injustice thereafter.

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