Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Few Antitheses on Same Sex Relationships

Having enjoyed Kim Fabricius' continuing propositions series at Faith and Theology, I was excited to see him recently address the issue of homosexuality in the Church. Same-sex relationships, of course, remain one of the most divisive issues in Christendom (as demonstrated by the gaining fissures within Anglican Communion), producing far more heat than light on all sides of the debate. Given such an atmosphere of off-putting rhetoric, any salient theological insight should be received with gratitude, and I'm thankful for Kim's efforts to crystallize the deeper issues which concern both the ancient voices and those of contemporary dissent.

Antithesis #1 Kim addresses the nature/nurture issue in proposition 2, and provides what I think is the bedrock for an inclusivist case - namely, that homosexuality is about identity, not a set of practices or learned behavior. It's at this point where the discussion can get unnecessarily bogged down in scientific analysis about genetic predisposition - but one has to ask whether the "natural" can provide much help for Christians who are discussing the normativity of certain behaviors. Demonstrating that a behavior is "natural" requires further distinction (both in contemporary discussion and the use of Biblical arguments from "nature"), since Christian ontology is a complex of two elements - namely, the divinely stamped image of God and the fall of man into sin. All sorts of activities can also be shown with confidence to be genetically predisposed, yet Christians passionately affirm them as defective of the image God, not representative of it. Describing homosexuality as a congenital disposition, then, merely restates the debate, not advances it.

Antithesis #2 The use of the Bible in resolving these sorts of questions has been an axiomatic problem for theologians, for which homosexuality is a banner example. But Kim doesn't resort to the common tactics of simply dismissing the Bible on the grounds of interpretive impossibility - he actually acknowledges (in proposition 3) that the Bible clearly prohibits homosexuality. His real objection in appealing to Biblical authority is that it's not exactly clear whether the phenomena the Bible condemns is actually the same phenomena as is currently conceived. But this tabling of the Scriptures on the topic may be premature, on two fronts. The first is what seems to me to be an undervaluing of the sophistication of Greek sexuality. Kim's point about the difference between ancient and modern conceptions of same-sex love seems to assume the reduction of homosexual behavior to cult prostitution or episodic erotic encounters. But a few biblical scholars (and not a few classicists) acknowledge the warm, loving, and committed variety of ancient same-sex relationships. Kim is right to assume that the issue of identity bound up with homosexuality is much more pointed today than in ancient times, where activity and identity were conflated - but its important to note that these notions weren't pit against one another. Identifying oneself as "homosexual" would have certainly been foreign to Greek ears - but the "natural" attachment to the same sex celebrated by the ancients doesn't seem too far from our understanding of homosexuality (and much closer to Paul's than some are willing to admit).

Secondly, though, the Bible's teaching on sexuality goes far beyond apophatic pronouncements and prohibitions. The positive teaching of Scripture gives a theologically nuanced affirmation of heterosexuality, out of which these prohibitions grow. Jesus' teaching about man as male and female, mysteriously fused together in marriage is God's institution of a normative social convention. The imagery projected by this union is explained by Paul as the mystery of Christ's love for the Church. Far from being one metaphor one could choose among many, this is a "mystery" - the same word used in Ephesians to describe the amazing union of Jew with Gentile in the dissolution of national ethnic barriers in the Church. The Biblical language of idolatry as a diversion from this monogamous heterosexual union isn't incidental. Both adultery (Ezk. 16) and homosexuality (Ro. 1) illustrate idolatry and corrupt this intended projection. Exactly how all of this works, as Paul says in Eph. 5:32, is a mystery. But what remains clear is that he is "speaking with reference to Christ and the Church". If these connections to the imago Dei were ad hoc constructions of the later church, I might agree with Kim about the exegetical difficulty of Gen. 1:26-28 as a proof-text - but as it is, the Biblical writers themselves have seen the sexual prohibitions as having grown out of God's ideal design. It's a fundamental misunderstanding of Romans 1 to see the listing of homosexuality as just another Jewish polemic against Gentiles, or as just another sin which emerges from idolatry. Same sex relationships are given a par excellence place in his argument against idolatry because it pictures the replacement of the Other - God - for that which is the same - created things (a very Barthian critique).

Antithesis #3 Kim appeals to a trajectory principle to marshal Biblical warrant for the inclusion of practicing homosexuals in the Church - an approach with as conservative prestige as to attI. Howard Marshall and William Webb. But this is a controversial concept, to be sure. Kevin Vanhoozer has aptly warned, "One problem with this approach is that the interpreter has to assume that he or she is standing at the end of the trajectory, or at least further along (or better at plotting line slope intercept formulas!) than some of the biblical authors in order to see where it leads." Again, this is a very Barthian concern, in that it puts the interpreter in His place, in the driver's seat of the redemptive-historical train. At best elusive, and at worst prejudicial, the trajectory approach toward inclusion is capable of casting nets wider than anyone might wish, depending on the judgment of the one who happens to be "plotting the slope".

Antithesis #4 I hesitate to add to Kim's eloquent call to live in the truth and witness to Christ in proposition 12. It is a beautifully stated fact of Christ existence, namely our reliance on the Spirit for words and actions tempered with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Yet, in the context of the Churchly warring over this issue, it should probably be said that no one has the corner on this particular market. Not so much an antithesis as a clarification, it should be said that for those who see homosexuality as fundamentally unbiblical, there is a vast difference between our view of the morality of homosexuality and our view of the Church's moral obligations to homosexuals. That is to say that the warmth of contact and fellowship of Spirit-filled Christians with lesbian and gay people can be a reality for those who, despite their views on homosexuality as sinful, take very seriously their ethical responsibilities toward these commonly mistreated individuals. If there is any hint of antithesis here, it's at the notion that inclusion be defined in terms of a coupling of divine grace and ecclesial ontology with the moral acceptance of homosexuality - which is an all too infrequently mentioned bully tactic.

Remarkably, though, Kim Fabricius has managed to contribute to the Church's wrestling with these explosive issues without resorting to anything like the tactics he decries, delivering with the same characteristic grace and insight as we have come to expect from him.


Brandon C. Jones said...

Thanks for the insightful post. I especially appreciated the dangers of the "trajectory" approach.

nate said...

Moral obligations to homosexuals is a phrase that needs to invade a few Christian hearts. Including mine.

And the phrasing of "producing far more heat than light on all sides of the debate" made me stand up and clap right here in my cubicle. Figuratively speaking. Literally, it was more of a non-literal golf clap.

Luther's Stein said...


Great post. I was working a response myself, but yours is better -- I think I'll just send my readers over here.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks Brandon - I've enjoyed quite a few of your posts at The Normal Christian.

Nate - golf clapping seems like a healthy compromise with Charismatic forms of worship. I heartily commend your ecumenical spirit.


You're very kind!

Caleb said...

You raise some good points. One question - do you use a 'trajectory' approach in ascertaining a biblical view on slavery? Or if not how do you deal with the biblical material that does not explicitly argue for the abolition of slavery? How about for your understanding of 'gender roles' (whatever that understanding might be)?