Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Place of Gay Persons in God's Plan: The Biblical Question

The following journal entry is from August 1990. In this and several other journal entries I wrote at this period, I was attempting to step back from the theological questions about homosexuality and to look at them as objectively as I could, as a theologian (and a believer using his head). I was deliberately not reading many books on gay topics or theological or moral analysis of the question of homosexuality.

I had, of course, read any number of theological books about various topics in the years leading up to this journal entry, since I had just completed a master's and doctorate in theology. And I feel certain I am echoing the ideas of theologians I had read in what I say below.

But I'm trying not to do so directly. I wanted to make these theological claims my own, because it was my own life that was on the line, as I decided how to face being gay in a homophobic church.

In what follows, I wanted, insofar as possible (but recognizing that we never approach any such questions like this with total objectivity) to imagine that I was encountering these questions for the first time and thinking through how a reasonable believer should respond to them.

And so the following from August 1990, on the scriptures and homosexuality:

Those who argue that active, self-affirming homosexuality is reconcilable with a Christian ethic encounter a number of objections—from scripture, tradition, and natural law. In my view, the natural law objections deserve most attention because they are the most persuasive. The scriptural argument is often in the forefront of the cultural battle, and many churches continue to promote it, but obviously without having done much research or thinking about the very weak basis that the bible provides if we want to oppose homosexuality on moral grounds.

One has the impression that the scriptural argument had less force in the past than it does today. Today it is foremost in most people’s minds—a testimony to the power fundamentalism exerts in American culture, and thus, through American influence, globally.

As I believe John Boswell has shown, until the High Middle Ages, the purported scriptural injunctions against homosexuality counted not for a great deal in the church’s teaching regarding sexual morality. Scripture had simply never been used in a literalist fashion within the Christian tradition, up to that point.

The patristic tradition of exegesis was allegorical, and Origen’s famous method of reading the bible privileged non-literal interpretation. These hermeneutical approaches tended to preclude a crudely literalist reading of those texts that presumably outlawed homosexual activity.

The texts: the prohibition in the Leviticus holiness code of males lying with one another; the Sodom and Gomorrah story; and the Pauline texts—the castigation in Romans of the vices of the pagans, for which God destroyed them, and the inclusion of “homosexuality” among those grave sins which, in various of Paul’s parenetic passages, will keep one out of the kingdom of heaven.

Commentators usually deal with these texts one by one, seeking to divine their original intent or purpose, to decode them or even to translate them (for the Pauline texts present serious translation problems), and to place them in their context. Such careful exegesis is of course necessary, and appears to show that these texts are hardly so transparent as fundamentalists have taken them to be. But I think that a set of preliminary interpretive observations can be made about the whole group of “anti-homosexal” scriptures qua group.

The first such observation concerns the paucity of the texts. Clearly, if one can search the whole bible and find only a handful of texts—and those not patent at all—forbidding “homosexuality,” the issue is not for the scriptures anywhere near the crucial moral issue that modern moralists have made it out to be.

When one thinks of how much more extensive and persistent is the condemnation of the more conventional sexual vices—adultery, fornication—one realizes how much less the matter of “homosexuality” was at the forefront of biblical writers’ concern. (An obvious counter to this observation is that a culture that could hardly envisage the possibility of homosexual desire or behavior would of course not have dealt with the issue. But I’m not sure that that objection doesn’t actually speak on behalf of a cautious reading of the biblical injunctions against homosexuality.)

And when one compares the few biblical texts on homosexuality with the wealth of texts forbidding capitalistic business and banking practices, one wonders even more at our contemporary allocation of weight to the “homosexual” texts, and our elision of the others . . . .

Another general preliminary comment is, of course, that fundamentalist interpretation is hard to support, unless one simply decides a priori that the scriptures must be read literally. Catholicism does not so decide and has not, though in the current push to keep gays marginal and powerless in American society, certain Catholic clerical leaders and many Catholic laypeople are willing to make common cause with the fundamentalists (and to adopt their approach to the bible, whether consciously or not).

In my view, one of the neatest and most persuasive critiques of the fundamentalist approach is Barth’s. Barth points out that biblical literalism actually humanizes the scriptures in a way that robs them of their divine otherness and mystery. To say that we can clearly understand the bible (a linchpin of the fundamentalist argument) is to imply that it operates at our level, and not God’s. As Barth observes, in this way we wrap up the refractory and challenging message and put it on a shelf so that it won’t bother us: or, to change trope, we construct a manageable human bible that keeps us fairly comfortable with much around us. Literalists always choose a canon within the canon, and this canon not surprisingly usually mirrors the prejudices of the culture.

I’m not quite sure how to voice my final preliminary observation. The best way I can put the insight is to say that the purported anti-homosexual texts simply lack the “texture” of strong, unambiguous moral condemnations of homosexuality. Perhaps I’m really thinking of genre. When one looks at these texts from the standpoint of genre, what does one find? A holiness-code prescription; a quasi-historical narrative; a conventional diatribe against decadent morality; and parenetic lists. In order to collate these into a single moral teaching about homosexuality, one must wrest them from context and wrench them into a shape (and purpose) that it’s doubtful they were intended to have.