Historically speaking, Christianity hasn’t had the greatest track record on issues of sex and gender identity. For that matter, neither has the West in general. Indeed, to be a member of Western civilization—at any time—and identify with a minority or ‘non-mainstream’ orientation was to court physical and emotional harm of the highest order. Whatever the velocity of social change we’re witnessing in many parts of the world today, it remains the case that treatment of LGBTQIA communities has been defined less by acceptance than persecution and stigmatization.
Over the last decade or so, we’ve begun to see signs of inclusivity, not just on the part of other religious institutions but from the Christian church in particular. There are now dozens of LGBT-affirming Christian denominations. Several mainline Protestant denominations bless unions regardless of the gender of the two people entering into the commitment, including many Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians. Consider the United Church of Christ, for example, which is not only an open and affirming institution but actually filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for violating their religious right to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies through state law. (The judge decided in UCC’s favor.) And according to Pew Research data, the wave of change is growing in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision.
These are all indications that the inner logic of marriage equality has seeped into the popular consciousness and forced Christian institutions to sit up and listen. While social advance never comes as quickly as its advocates and allies long for, I’ve become increasingly hopeful that the church and mainstream Christians alike are finally ready to join in this conversation in a meaningful way.
Still, as theological perspectives take on a more progressive luster, there remain better and worse ways of growing the base of inclusive Christianity. A recent post on Patheos titled Christians, Here’s Why You Don’t Have to be Afraid to Support Gays illustrates what I am convinced is a largely ineffectual way of achieving the desired result. It is not so much the theology espoused that I find problematic as much as the ability of that theology to crack the ideological shell of the audience it presumably seeks to persuade.
Its author, Susan Cottrell, draws attention to Jesus’ expression of universal love throughout the gospels. As the central figurehead of the Christian life, a focus on the message of Christ is trusted to overcome staunch convictions that see certain sexual relationships in terms of right and wrong. She writes:
“Perhaps there was a plan here to encourage us to dive deeper into the road Jesus laid out for us, of love first, love last, and love throughout. Perhaps there was a plan to help us deepen our love for and relationships with those we may have been taught did not “deserve” our love and attention, and those we were taught are somehow “less than.”
Wonderful sentiments all around. But as someone formerly steeped in a faith tradition committed to thwarting gay marriage, I have to say its dialectic serviceability is limited. As much as I found the post encouraging on a narrative level—bridging as it does Christian values and humanist values—I’m afraid it’s unlikely to resonate with those who come to this question with different starting assumptions. Believers occupying both sides will have no problem with the ‘Jesus is love’ meme or embracing certain Christocentric theologies as part of the Christian message. Indeed, those who push heteronormative viewpoints frequently insist they are doing so out of love, insofar as one’s sexual orientation is a matter of the soul and its eventual destination.
Alas, we also have generations of church dogma and tradition to contend with, the gatekeepers of which invariably tend to decode Jesus’ far-reaching compassion in ways that don’t violate or encroach upon theological strictures. The assumptions baked into these theologies dictate a particular reading of the Bible or, more specifically, a particular exegetical approach to the Bible. (Whether or not biblical support is offered as postliminary justification only or the overriding reason for opposition is open to debate as far as I’m concerned.)
In any case, Christian attitudes toward sexual orientation, along with other common theological hang-ups, are grounded in a specific set of doctrinal commitments—usually some form of inerrancy that confines the reader to narrow interpretations of select passages. They see the Bible foremost as a supernatural, unified, morally, historically and empirically perfect book for all time and all places. They do not see it as a human-authored, multivocal pastiche of richly imagined accounts concerning the historical odyssey of the ancient Near Eastern nation of Israel together with a collection of Greek literature centered around the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and the various communities dotting the first century Judea province, as historical-critical study has shown.
The applications and consequences of these commitments run the gamut from issues like same-sex marriage to the science of evolution and even to orthogonal questions of praxis such as whether to practice abstinence or consume alcohol. In fact, because these basic commitments are so ingrained in certain fundamentalist circles, you can often use one’s stance on one of these issues to predict their stance on another (in precisely the same way identity politics holds predictive power). They “cluster” together, to the extent that a Christian who denies the science of human origins is very likely to also oppose same-sex marriage, and will proffer biblically motivated reasons for both. These commitments are reinforced by their local community groups, their theological positions on matters of social interest buttressed by the dogma of family and church.
This being what it is, the solution seems quite clear. Simply change those guiding assumptions about the Bible—i.e., install a new hermeneutic—and away goes the dissonance. Except for many Christians, they deny (or have failed to realize) they have taken on board any assumptions whatsoever. They’ve never been prompted to examine those foundational assumptions which generate these heated internecine debates in the first place; rather, they consider certain notions non-negotiable and hallowed (e.g., that the Bible is a manual of divine perfection) because either a) they believe those convictions to be self-evident or b) it is all that they’ve been instructed to affirm, or both.
Our aim is complicated, moreover, by the fact that many of these same Christians were taught that to question the received wisdom of their church is to challenge God himself, rather than to challenge a specific reading or approach to scripture. That is, they equate critiques of the interpretive choices of other believers with critiques of God. Alternative approaches to the biblical texts are never given a fair hearing. This — this is the fundamental problem that underlies the sporadic albeit predictable clashes with academia and creates so many of the tempests that have balkanized the Christian community for most of the last century or more.
Therefore unless we address inerrancy (something the post in question does not do), we can expect negligible headway in a dialogue with believers inculcated in the fundamentalist mindset. It is simply unrealistic to expect successful conversation on this issue in particular and other theologically laden questions that intersect with public life without colliding with inerrancy and hermeneutics. In the same way that lauding the thrills of new technology isn’t likely to persuade a luddite whose resistance to technology is founded in fear, any attempts to shift longstanding mentalities without engaging the specific doctrinal commitments which give rise to them are sure to ring hollow. In short, touting the loving and redemptive nature of Jesus Christ will only get us so far before we will need to tear down inerrancy and its correlates, which is best achieved through historically informed understanding of the texts we refer to today as the Bible.
After posting this to Facebook, a comment subjacent provides a Christian perspective that sounds off many of the latent assumptions and recapitulates many of the same pitfalls I describe above. I’m reproducing it along with my response below, as I think it’s appropriately illustrative of the kinds of rhetorical impasses one is likely to encounter when seeking to engage Christians whose worldview is anchored to certain doctrinal tenets regarding the role of the Bible in relation to Christian identity.
“I appreciate the sentiment that Christianity as a religion has done wrong to non mainstream groups.
Ultimately either one believes in the God of Abraham and of Jesus and thinks He has a created order that when followed provides a better life, or one does not.
There are only so many ways to interpret the Bible’s stance on the created order.
To say that God did not create us distinctly male and female and Eve for Adam to marry while claiming to glean wisdom from the Bible would be obtuse and intellectually dishonest or at best confused.
Any decent reading of the Bible accurately gleans that people were created with two distinct genders and one appropriate form of marriage.
To blame the church for being judgmental and hypocritical is accurate.
To ask it to compromise on Bible truth to satiate the woundedness of people it has harmed in the past is requiring too much.”
At this point I would ask that you step back and consider whether you may in fact have illustrated precisely the problem described in the post. It is not too difficult to discern from your comments the unstated and unexamined assumptions baked into your own theological approach. Right off the bat, you rattle off a number of misnomers rendered more or less obsolete by historical-critical study. When you say things like “the Bible’s stance”, you’re assuming the ‘Bible’ represents a univocal whole, with a single, consistent message or doctrine or theology, as opposed to a diverse set of texts composed and compiled over the course of more than a millennium. Not only does the rubric of ‘speaking as one voice’ not hold up when isolating the issue of sexual orientation in particular, it pretty much fails across the board—from abstinence to murder, treatment of foreigners, the status of women, and so on.
This is because univocality and internal consistency are largely modern notions grounded in Hellenistic ideals of truth as singular. Western culture writ large, influenced by Greek philosophical traditions, tends to define truth in monistic terms (e.g., “Only that which contains no contradiction is true” and “Only that which is true is authoritative”), but such notions were alien to the non-Hellenized world. The Hebrew writers, and later compilers of the biblical canon we hold in our hands today, were not overly concerned with contradiction or inconsistency. Indeed, many of its themes, especially throughout the Hebrew Bible, stand in dialectic tension with one another. Were we to presume the biblical writers and subsequent editors all intended to convey a unified message, it becomes rather difficult to explain why they would have chosen to consolidate such a hodgepodge of disparate texts with competing viewpoints, discrepant accounts, and complementary mythologies.
The philosophical rigor we bring to the written and spoken word is taken for granted today. Premodern writers, by contrast, were perfectly comfortable with preserving the messiness inherent in varied, discrete traditions. What we construe today as contradictions and doctrinal or theological diversity are all notions we’ve retrojected—or mapped onto—these ancient texts. In doing so, today’s fundamentalists hold these texts to standards they were never intended to meet.
Your bringing up Adam and Eve is a serviceable example here. Disregarding the fact that it is one of dozens of other creation myths and hardly narratively original to Israel, there is also the question of what lessons, moral or otherwise, ought we derive from the text today. Which is to say, the conversation that needs to take place (and, I must emphasize, is already taking place across the Christian landscape) is much larger than the interpretation of any one passage. This is about the overall approach to scripture (hermeneutic). Whether the Bible should be used as a benchmark for settling modern moral and scientific questions, or whether other resources (including reason, personal revelation, tradition) should also be incorporated is precisely the right question.
So for example, it’s no secret the Bible contains certain passages which present a condemnatory and even prosecutorial view of ‘nontraditional’ relationships (not exclusively, of course, because Ruth and Ezra and Nehemiah and Jacob supply relevant counterexamples to contend with). Few people would argue to the contrary, and by now we’re all familiar with such passages. But when we refer to ‘interpretation’, we’re not asking, “What did this BCE author mean when he wrote this passage?” We’re asking, “What do we do with this passage, regardless of its intended or original meaning?” The broader question is one that asks how we should make sense of the sentiments of texts written thousands of years ago in light of modern realities.
Thus your assertion that a “decent reading of the Bible” shows “one appropriate form of marriage” not only is undermined by the biblical evidence itself (marriage in the Bible is not restricted to one man and one woman, or in fact to any one model), but attempts to leapfrog this entire conversation by avoiding its central contention. We’re not demanding one “compromise on Bible truth”; we’re challenging the very notion of what it means to say “Bible truth” in the first place. And you cannot engage this larger question by ignoring hermeneutics.
Finally, none of this is new. This is a conversation that’s been taking place for some time now among various Christian communities and denominations. I would encourage you to branch out a bit more and engage these alternative viewpoints shared by members of your own faith tradition.
Feature image via The Atheist Next Door