Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Place of Gay Persons in God's Plan: The Biblical Question (2)

The following is from a journal entry dated August 1990:

I want to do this thinking through of the biblical evidence about “homosexuality” as a personal thinking through in which I try really to encounter the negative objections and let them persuade me as they may. So I’m stretching for a cool, reasoned, academic voice. Futile, of course, as futile as Thomas’s entertainment of objections to his theses, because I know ahead of time what I think.

Or do I? I want to write as if I’m responding to a reasonable and thoughtful gay-basher. I don’t recall having ever met any such person.

Re: the bible. A reasoned analysis would cite the specific texts. I’m working from memory and not troubling to do so. Not sure I will. If I do look at each text eventually, I’ll have to pay more attention to the exegetical details.

But I'm looking at the texts as a group deliberately, to point out that, even before we approach the texts individually, we have a serious problem of interpretation to face. This is why anyone, or any church, would ever grab a handful of disparate texts from a huge grab like the bible (which is a compilation of many texts written at many different times for many reasons) and then claim that that handful of mysterious texts written over many centuries in many contexts is a consistent statement about a psychological phenomenon that was not even understood until the late 19th century.

This is where I was headed with my concluding remarks last time re: texture: what seems never to receive sufficient attention as any question of interpreting the biblical evidence about “homosexuality” arises is what to do with any specific text. We have such a strange book with which to work—many books.

As my remarks about the fundamentalist canon within a canon (and the fundamentalist tendency to mirror cultural norms in selecting this canon within a canon) suggest, one of the primary problems confronting the biblical theologian is that of deciding what to take seriously. I don’t mean simply what to take seriously when there are notorious difficulties with what the scriptures appear to teach—and here I’m narrowing the focus to the problem of deciding what to take seriously ethically. The imprecatory psalms pray that God’s people may dash the heads of their enemies’ children against the rocks; the chosen people are divinely ordained to exterminate their conquered peoples; the bible accepts slavery as a permissible social arrangement and tells slaves to obey their masters; Leviticus commands God's people to execute witches.

No. I’m talking more about focus and perspective, that which enables us to see anything at all in the text. To be more precise: I’m talking about hermeneutical starting point. What makes us even see, let along highlight, the “anti-homosexual” texts? And why do we miss so much that appears even more significant from another ethical vantage point, say that of feminism? (Feminism is about ethics—it's a movement centered on ethical questions—that seems self-evident to me, because it envisages the liberation of women to full personhood. God who makes persons wishes them to be fully liberated . . . .)

Part of the answer to what makes us see these texts in the first place, I think, is that we’ve taken 17th-century confessional statements as the benchmark for orthodoxy. As Shailer Mathews observes, when most American biblical literalists tout orthodoxy, what they actually mean is not the long, vexed, rich historic traditions of the church. What they mean is something like the Westminster Confession or a variant thereof. We’ve been fixated for some time at this stage of development, and stuck with the exegesis it entails.

The connection between 17th-century orthodoxy and an anti-homosexual exegesis may not be readily apparent. Homosexuality—the concept as we know it, of an irreformable predisposition to erotic attraction towards one’s own sex—did not exist in the thought of the Reformers (or of their Catholic patristic and medieval predecessors). I’m not even sure, in fact, if they addressed the question of homosexuality.

What I’m getting at, rather, is a suspicion that the way we read the bible now has been framed for us for some time, for several centuries, in fact. E.g., our tendency to ignore the numerous and weighty texts that call into question the very possibility of a capitalist economy seems clearly rooted in how the Reformers, or at least their first followers, who formulated the classic Reformation credal statements, read the bible. This is not a novel insight. Max Weber showed us this years ago. And liberation theologians are hammering the point home today.

Liberation theology seems very pertinent to this discussion, it seems to me. If we grant a fundamental premise of liberation theology—that the bible can and must be read in new ways in response to new historical developments—then it seems to me we’re always beginning anew, we’re always in a position of having to ask why this text and not that one, why have we privileged this and ignored that? This means, of course, taking the bible seriously, far more seriously than fundamentalists do or many Catholics, with their doctrine of ecclesia docens.

To point the discussion back towards the “anti-homosexual” texts: have we “heard” these texts primarily because we’ve always read the bible patriarchally? (Note that hardly anyone immediately imagines, when the texts are cited, that they refer to women. Our concern is with forbidding male homosexuality—our concern, and so the bible’s, we imagine?) How would our hearing differ if we heard the biblical texts with feminist-liberationist ears? Perhaps we would not even notice these texts!

Perhaps we would notice instead the very attractive, alluring softness of Jesus—what Leonard Swidler calls his androgyny. Generations of muscular Christians have attacked the anemic, neurasthenic sissy iconography of Christ in parts of our tradition. And I don’t mean to imply that he was the pale and wilting flower of 19th-century sentimental iconography.

But what alternative do we envisage? I fear muscular Christianity has thought of Jesus as a kind of divine Rambo, someone who, if he appeared today, would come among us chewing a cigar stub, swaggering, kicking ass, and bellowing in a loud deep voice about all the problems of the world, all the problems the world presents the men who want to control it. Or church bureaucrats no doubt would refine the image, but it would be equally macho: the 3-piece suited, slim, svelte, bronze poster boy who would toss out his cool aphorisms with supreme sangfroid in boardrooms.