Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bibles, Churches, Gays, Religion: Bilgrimage Readers Continue an Important Discussion

Recently, I responded to a question asked by a thoughtful reader of this blog (Bob/tinywriting) about how one determines when Christian groups have gone completely off-track as they appeal to the Jewish and Christian scriptures to ground their claim that they authentically represent the message of Christ. I also later added to that initial discussion several remarks about a recent study which appears to show that LGBTI folks who seek counseling from religious groups are at greater risk of suicide than those who seek counseling from non-religious sources.

These discussions have provoked an interesting and helpful response by Alan McCornick at his Hepzibah site. Though Alan's remarks focus on the first discussion here (the one centering on Bob's questions), they might well also make reference to the second discussion, since Alan speaks quite specifically about his reaction to religious groups as a gay man. Echoing Bob's question about why many Christian biblical literalists zero in on verses snatched from, say, the Leviticus purity code, while they ignore much of what the gospels say (or much of what the purity code says, for that matter), Alan writes, 

And nowadays I find such irony in the fact that the people most likely to present you with a bible with the words of Christ printed in red seem to be unaware that those words include the Beatitudes. "If a man asks you to walk a mile, walk with him twain... Give him your cloak as well as the coat he asks for... Forgive him... Love him…." Why are these folk still stuck with all that fire and brimstone stuff? All that sin? All that vengeance? Check the beam in your own eye.

And he adds,

I once bought into the notion that the Christians had the right idea about God and the Jews the wrong one - all you had to do was set the New Testament up against the Old. Today, I join hands with believers and non-believers alike, concerned only whether they are open, and of good will. I once thought the fact that fundamentalists preached one could rid oneself of homosexuality by "coming to Jesus" meant that believers were on one side, gays and lesbians on the other. Today, I note with respect that gay people are working inside their churches to expose that as a false dichotomy. 
And, even as a non-believer, I find that to be a very good good step forward.

Then there's this commentary by Adam Kotsko at the An und für sich site, which I happened on two days ago when Fred Clark recommended it at his Slacktivist blog, 

In short, if you were to rack up the greatest crimes of modernity, Christianity was deeply implicated in nearly all of them. The minority of Christians who resisted those crimes were marginalized and at times even actively persecuted by Christian leaders. The notion that we should overlook all this and return to some form of Christian hegemony repeats the signature move that makes Christian moral formation such a complete world-historical failure — the emphasis on forgiveness to the exclusion of almost anything else.

"The greatest crimes of modernity": Kotsko speaks specifically of nationalistic wars, imperialism, the slave trade and slavery, colonialism, and unbridled capitalism. He's arguing (and he's absolutely correct about this, it seems to me) that anyone who chooses to be associated with Christianity in the 21st century has a moral obligation to come to terms with the historic guilt of Christianity, with its complicity — including and perhaps even especially in the modern period — in some of the greatest crimes of history. 

Religious belief is not an instant answer to. It is not an obvious solution to. It is problematic. It comprises the problematic. Christianity is not an obvious cure for the illnesses that afflict humanity everywhere in the world. It may often exacerbate those illnesses. It may even cause them.

So what's a Christian to do? What's a gay person who feels strongly inclined to religious faith, to discipleship of Jesus within a particular Christian community, to do with all of this? 

More important fodder for the discussion from Ruth Krall here several days ago. Ruth makes these observations in the context of a discussion she and I are having in a discussion thread here, in which I tell her that I have theologian friends in both the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches who lament what happened in PCUSA and UMC when the Northern and Southern branches of their churches reunited, and they ended up with reactionary, recalcitrant, theologically illiterate Southern components of both churches seeking to determine the identity of their churches at a national level.

In response, Ruth writes,

The politicization of the church means, I think, that we get the worst of ecumenism in these forced mergers - usually begun in the minds of white males. 
I far prefer an ecumenism of friendship and a willingness to follow the prophetic trail of justice, compassion, mercy, and ordinary human love with integrity.  . . . 
So, I have come to believe that Bonhoeffer was correct. We need a religion-less Christianity. This notion that Jesus wanted to establish a church and that - my - church is the one he established has been very well debunked by a certain Dominican priest named Father Doyle. I agree with him but would stretch open his insights into a very different configuration of Jesus path spirituality - no longer called Christian because that word has been so debased by the powerful and the enraged.

For readers not familiar with Ruth Krall's work: Ruth is a Mennonite pastoral theologian (and mental health clinician) who maintains the important Enduring Space blog linked in my blog list here. Ruth has been at the center of the discussion of John Howard Yoder's legacy of sexual abuse (over a span of many years) of women he counseled as a Mennonite pastor or taught as a professor. At her Enduring Space site, you'll see links to four very important e-books she has written, most of them dealing with and reporting on this significant discussion of Yoder's legacy and how the Mennonite church is struggling (or not) to deal with it. 

More fuel for the fire: here's E.J. Dionne in his book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008):

To assert that encouraging doubt is one of faith's tasks may seem paradoxical. But that is the case only if faith is defined solely as a demand that everyone assent without reservation to a long and particular list of propositions. This is an inadequate understanding of religious faith.  The Christian and Jewish traditions in particular will always call us to a form of moral doubt that the political theorist William Galston has argued "questions our motivations and pretensions to special virtue" (pp. 184-185).

What is someone inclined to Christian faith to do, given what some people have made of the Christian tradition — as Bob and Alan correctly note? What are gay folks, in particular, to do with Christian faith, given what the churches have all too often done to us, and what they continue to do to us? 

I don't know the answer to these questions. There is not, to my way of thinking, a single answer to these questions. But it's important that the questions be asked, and that many different people contribute to the discussion, since the answers to these complex questions are equally complex, and require nuance — and, that's to say, the contribution of many different kinds of people speaking out of many different kinds of experiences.

I don't know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that I'm very happy that folks like Bob and Alan and Ruth and Adam Kotsko and Fred Clark and E.J. Dionne are talking about these issues. Though all the folks I've drawn together in this posting may not have been speaking directly to each other in the excerpts I've cited, to my way of thinking, each excerpt addresses an aspect of an important discussion that has been going on here and elsewhere lately — and which needs to continue.

The graphic is a print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724) of an illustration of blind monks examining an elephant — a parable found in many Asian cultures to illustrate the perspectival nature of truth. The print is in the Library of Congress and is available for sharing at Wikimedia Commons.

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