Friday, March 29, 2013

God evolves

It's good news, I suppose, that more and more pastors and theologians are finding scriptural sanction for gay marriage, as  Evan McMorris-Santoro reports -- a nice illustration of Robert Wright's thesis that God grows kinder and better as human society evolves socially and ethically.

The process involves obvious self-delusion, as interpretation of texts invested with supreme authority always does. Here, for example, is Obama ally and megachurch pastor Delman Coates putting his "flexibility" on display:
Coates is a Biblical scholar and said his own views on marriage equality came from studying his faith's holy book....He said his understanding of Christian faith has always required flexibility and open-mindedness.

"We are evolving. Not just in our understanding of civil marriage, but we're also evolving in our understanding of what the scripture is affirming and what it is condemning," Coates said. "I think as more reasoned Christians take a look at scripture, it's pretty clear."
Coates also said the stories in Leviticus and other Old Testament books cited by opponents of homosexuality have been misconstrued for years, and that fresh views of what they teach have emerged through "progressive evangelical" scholarship.

"For example, saying that the infamous story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is often used as you know, 'Sodom and Gomorrah was condemned because of homosexuality.' Well, no," Coates said. "The request in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis is a request to rape the guests of Lot... which is not the same as a consensual relationship. So, the so-called wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with same-gender loving relationships. It's dealing with something totally different."

This new reading has led to faith-based changes in the views of same-sex marriage, and it could help explain how Obama cited Christian teachings while arguing both sides of the marriage issue.

"Yes, I think Christians can evolve as we reassess the meaning of these texts," Coates said. "And if scripture is our source of authority, then we don't want to be found guilty of misreading scripture."
"Misreading scripture" here means reading it in a way that does not comport with my own current moral reasoning.  I am reminded of my reaction many years ago when I first heard a paean to grass-fed beef: Why can't we just eat grass, and eliminate the middleman?  Why can't we judge what we think right and fitting and ethical and loving on the basis of our current principles, and leave two- and three-thousand year-old injunctions and stories out of it?

In a way, my question answers itself.  We can't eat grass, and perhaps we can't digest moral principles unless they're invested with some better-than-mundane authority. But I'd like to think we are evolving beyond that requirement. As I've mentioned before, I am fond of the moral perception expressed by one of the leaders of an all-female utopia in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novel Herland. Asked whether this utopia was not earlier plagued by "horrible ideas"  from which the current residents have freed themselves, this wisewoman replies:
"Oh yes, no doubt. But as soon as our religion grew to any height at all we left them out -- of course."

[Narrator:] Have you no respect for the past? For what was thought and believed by your foremothers?"

"Why no," she said. "Why should we? They are all gone. They knew less than we do. If we are not beyond them, we are unworthy of them -- and unworthy of the children who must go beyond us" (p. 124 in Google text linked to above).
Well said, sister. To return to Coates, he does have a point about Sodom and Gomorrah. But in McMorris-Santoro's article at least, he does not get around to contorting the harsh strictures of Leviticus.  Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri and a practicing pastor,  takes up that baton:
Obama, Cleaver said, is now espousing a view of Christianity more focused on the teachings of Jesus, and not the more black-and-white demands of the Law of Moses that came before him.

The Old Testament or "Hebrew Testament" as Cleaver prefers to call it, "does speak with great condemnation to the subject of a man laying with a man," he said. "[Leviticus] is not only anti-gay, it is violently anti-gay. And many people who have expressed over the years great intolerance on the issue of same-sex marriage, homosexuality and so forth were doing so from the Hebrew Testament only."

"What the president said... that comes only, exclusively from the New Testament, or the Christian Testament," Cleaver said. "And by that I mean Jesus Christ, who we believe to be Lord, never one single time addressed the issue of LGBT issues. Not once. I was trained in Seminary that the main thing is the plain thing and the plain thing is main thing. And so Jesus is very clear. He never stumbled over the issue, he never condemned anybody for it, never praised anybody for it."

"What he did do," Cleaver said, "and I can say this without fear of contradiction, is to preach love."
This is, I will grant, not a bad pass. Jesus does push back in startling ways against conventional and scriptural moral judgments, in injunctions like "judge not, that ye be not judged" and "let him who is without blame cast the first stone."  And Christianity has always been schizophrenic in its rejection/embrace of the "old law."  I'd like to see, however, what Cleaver would do with the harsh condemnation of homosexuality in the proponent of "new law," Paul (Romans 1):
So those people have no excuse at all! 21 They know God, but they do not give him the honor that belongs to him, nor do they thank him. Instead, their thoughts have become complete nonsense, and their empty minds are filled with darkness. 22 They say they are wise, but they are fools; 23 instead of worshiping the immortal God, they worship images made to look like mortals or birds or animals or reptiles.
24 And so God has given those people over to do the filthy things their hearts desire, and they do shameful things with each other. 25 They exchange the truth about God for a lie; they worship and serve what God has created instead of the Creator himself, who is to be praised forever! Amen.

26 Because they do this, God has given them over to shameful passions. Even the women pervert the natural use of their sex by unnatural acts. 27 In the same way the men give up natural sexual relations with women and burn with passion for each other. Men do shameful things with each other, and as a result they bring upon themselves the punishment they deserve for their wrongdoing.

28 Because those people refuse to keep in mind the true knowledge about God, he has given them over to corrupted minds, so that they do the things that they should not do. 29 They are filled with all kinds of wickedness, evil, greed, and vice; they are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deceit, and malice. They gossip 30 and speak evil of one another; they are hateful to God, insolent,[b] proud, and boastful; they think of more ways to do evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no conscience; they do not keep their promises, and they show no kindness or pity for others. 32 They know that God's law says that people who live in this way deserve death. Yet, not only do they continue to do these very things, but they even approve of others who do them.
Here the sexual "sin" is a kind of sign and seal of the social and spiritual sins where the emphasis admittedly lies. But for those proponents of an old law/new law distinction, it does highlight the problem of harsh judgments and invective and denunciation of the perceived bad guys that permeates much of the Christian bible.

The old law/new law distinction, btw, drives Jewish theologians insane. That's because the "evolution of God" in the Jewish tradition preceded Jesus; he was firmly within the mainstream of Pharisaic thought, and the evolution continued in 2000 years of rabbinical musings after him that improved human moral perception and legal tradition. Judaism, perhaps more than Christianity, left the harshness of the God imagined by the tribal Israelites whose perceptions are preserved in the Jewish bible behind -- at least until new noxious breeds of Jewish fundamentalism sprang up in the last few decades to justify Israeli land-theft and bask in the triumphalism now rife among the haredim in Israel.

Regarding the condemnation of homosexuality in the Christian bible, I wonder whether Cleaver would sign on to the sophistry indulged in here by a certain Greg Kouki:
To most readers, the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans contains the Bible's clearest condemnation of same-sex relations--both male and female.  Recent scholarship, though, reads the same text and finds just the opposite--that homosexuality is innate and therefore normal, moral, and biblical.

Reconstructing Romans

      In Romans, Paul seems to use homosexuality as indicative of man's deep seated rebellion against God and God's proper condemnation of man.  New interpretations cast a different light on the passage. 
      Paul, the religious Jew, is looking across the Mediterranean at life in the capital of Graeco-Roman culture.  Homosexuality in itself is not the focus of condemnation.  Rather, Paul's opprobrium falls upon paganism's refusal to acknowledge the true God.
      It's also possible Paul did not understand the physiological basis of genuine homosexuality.  John Boswell, professor of history at Yale, is among those who differ with the classical interpretation.  In Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality he writes:
The persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual:  what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons....It is not clear that Paul distinguished in his thoughts or writings between gay persons (in the sense of permanent sexual preference) and heterosexuals who simply engaged in periodic homosexual behavior.  It is in fact unlikely that many Jews of his day recognized such a distinction, but it is quite apparent that--whether or not he was aware of their existence--Paul did not discuss gay persons but only homosexual acts committed by heterosexual persons.[1]  [emphasis in the original]
      Paul is speaking to those who violate their natural sexual orientation, Boswell contends, those who go against their own natural desire:  "'Nature' in Romans 1:26, then, should be understood as the personal nature of the pagans in question."[2]  [emphasis in the original]  
      Since a homosexual's natural desire is for the same sex, this verse doesn't apply to him.  He has not chosen to set aside heterosexuality for homosexuality; the orientation he was born with is homosexual.  Demanding that he forsake his "sin" and become heterosexual is actually the kind of violation of one's nature Paul condemns here.
To allow a scripture to retain divine authority by asserting the alleged ignorance of the author requires some major mental gymnastics.  It is true that the primary focus of Paul's condemnation is not homosexuality, which he deploys as a mere emblem or symptom of depravity. But the acts themselves are most definitely condemned as depraved.

It's fine to pick and choose which parts of an ancient text inspire you.  But it's honest to acknowledge that you're rejecting the parts you don't like because they don't accord with your own values and perceptions, rather than to explain away all differences between your own perception and beliefs and those expressed in the text. The latter, though, is preferable to investing the perceived "original intent" with supernatural or otherwise inflated authority.

For those theologians who really want to get creative with sexual ethics, mysticism in all traditions might offer a rich vein. The Song of Songs, that most erotic of poems, slipped into the Jewish bible billed as an allegory of the human soul's union-loss-reunion with God, a trope that Christian theologians picked up and juggled high (in the last century, C.S. Lewis speaks of, to paraphrase from memory, that divine presence before whom we are all feminine -- retch if you will, but the trope does suggest a certain contingency or malleability in sublunary gender).  And late medieval Christian theologians had lots of fun with the challenging trope, teased out by Caroline Walker Bynum, of Jesus as Mother, which found its apotheosis in the writings of the anchorite Julian of Norwich. For Julian, God's motherhood was more than a trope; it was in fact a more-than-literal truth:
Thus our lady is our mother, in whom we be all beclosed and of her born in Christ, for she that is mother of our savior is mother of all that been saved in our savior; and our savior is our very [true] mother, in whom we be endlessly born and never shall come out of him.
Earthly motherhood here is a mere shadow of divine motherhood, the relationship that defines the universe. 

Paul asserted that "in Christ there is neither male nor female." A variety of mystics suggested that in Christ is both.  As mystics in general strive for union of which sex is often understood as a mere shadow, their bold imaginings give human sexuality a lot of running room.

1 comment:

  1. The best exploration of this subject that I've read is "Reasonable and Holy" by Tobias Haller (

    If you're looking for left-wing SSM advocates to fight, this is your target.