Friday, May 27, 2005

The Anglican Communion Institute's "The Holy Scriptures and the Teaching of the Church Universal on Human Sexuality"

Despite its long-winded title, this piece is refreshingly brief; I will try to follow suit (it is near the bottom of the ACI's "Articles" section). It purports to set out "[t]he continuous teaching of the Church," namely "a consistent word" about "God's intention for human sexuality" implicit in both testaments. While the strategy of starting with biblical theology is laudable, I doubt the paper succeeds.

I. A.
First, let's make some relatively superficial criticisms of the paper. According to it,
marriage is instituted inGenesis "as a means" to God's "creative purpose for humanity." In Genesis the eternal purpose is being fruitful and multiplying. In Ephesians et al., the marriage covenant "reflects" God's eternal purpose--a purpose prima facie having nothing to do with reproduction, but rather our salvation. For a paper boasting a consistent word, some work remains: What is marriage for? Reproducing, or reflecting salvation? First, how are these to be fitted together? Second, how is homosexual union inconsistent with reflecting salvation?

Remember: for Paul, being single is permissible, and at least as honorable as being married. Yet, "within the Church...male and female are to be in a covenant relationship of marriage that reflects God's eternal purpose." Note the imperative "force" of "to be": males and females in the Church Ought to be married; from this it follows that nobody in the Church is Permitted to be single. The paper's claim is too strong, contradicting Paul. That is, there is no general rule obligating heterosexual marriage for any individual male or female in the Church. Nor does such a general rule follow from the creation of male and female in Genesis.

Is it true that "African, Asian, and other non-Western cultures have the language, the lifestyle, and the support systems for homosexuality familiar to the West"? Prima facie, that is just incredible. It seems the West has an array of legal protections and socio-economic opportunities absent throughout many of the nations of the rest of the Anglican Communion for gays. E.g. how many Nigerian gay couples can have legally recognized unions in Nigeria, as is possible in Spain, and even the U.S.?

II. Small changes could preserve the paper's general argument from my complaints in section I. So, on to a more serious point: "homosexual practice" from Leviticus to Romans and elsewhere is "a clear rebellion against God's created purpose" be that reproducing or reflecting salvation, according to the paper.

The point isn't that homosexual "practice" precludes or is inconsistent with reproduction, for instance--that would be false anyhow. Gay men and lesbians could meet solely for the purpose of reproduction, and then divide the children between them, for instance. Rather, God has issued a certain command about how reproduction should be carried out: by married heterosexual couples. It is the fact of God's command that counts. Presumably something similar could be said for reflecting salvation: God gets to decide what counts as a permissible reflection by fiat; only heterosexual marriage does, and asking "Why?" is out of place. Our proper place is to obey the command.

Is there any answer to such an argument from divine command? Set aside reasons to question divine command theory per se, or whether divine command theory is genuinely Biblical. I want to keep common ground with ACI; the proper way to give an answer is to start with the Bible, from premises the authors of the paper would accept. Here I rely on the argument in my second post. The paper admits the "Church is the Bride of Christ" and that marriage is a "covenant relationship" that "reflects God's eternal purpose." Ephesians is even stronger--marriage is to be modeled after the relationship of Christ to the Church. Given such premises, it follows gay marriage is permissible: the relation of Christ to the Church includes the relation of male to male (a male Christ to a male Church member, each resurrected). If marriage here below is to be modeled after a relation in which males are relata, men can be the relata in marriage here below.

I don't think ACI anticipated an argument like mine when they were writing this piece. Thus it is no surprise that I can say they err in taking prohibitions of homosexual practice to preclude homosexual marriage. Perhaps the prohibitions against homosexual practice are part of a general prohibition against unchaste action and fornication: in general sex outside of marriage is sinful between anyone. If that were the case, a marriage covenant between gay partners would make sex between them permissible. That counterfactual holds even for conservatives at ACI. Thus, their case requires more argument--bringing up marriage as reflecting salvation opens up the possibility of referring to the eschatological state after which marriage here below is to be modeled. They have to somehow keep the normative grip of the eschatological state while denying it permits gay marriage. Good luck!

Saturday, May 21, 2005

A Reply to Turner's "ECUSA's God"

If you haven't read Turner's piece, go find it online (try the Anglican Communion Institute)--in spite of itself, I believe it reveals a peculiar orientation among some of ECUSA's theological conservatives. It seems to me his arguments assume liberal individualism--the kind of thing one finds in Hobbes, Locke, and Paine, as well as Hayek, Rand, and Nozick. This liberal individualism is almost certainly un-Biblical: from a Biblical perspective, arguments that require liberal individualism are unsound, and those Christians who push them are putting forward a tendentious version of Christianity.

Turner's rhetoric is misleading, overheated. For Turner, ECUSA's "working theology" is fixed on the idea of "radical inclusion" as a consequence of God's being love, inasmuch as God's being love implies we shouldlove others. He calls the preaching of God's being love and radical inclusion "vacuous preaching," preaching empty of traditional stresses on substutionary atonment and the personal need to repent for sins. But read carefully, and note well that he admits "the theology of radical inclusion has its location in what I have called the Great Tradition," sc. Nicene Christianity; preaching radical inclusion really isn't then, as he said earlier, "vacuous preaching."
His complaint is not that ECUSA's working theology lacks content, but that ECUSA should be preaching more--not just "A ( radical inclusion),"but "A & B (repentance and atonement through Christ's death and resurrection)." Overheating the rhetoric may give the misleading impression that radical inclusion is somehow un-biblical, or even heretical--a perversion of the true Gospel woven anew from out of thin air by preachers who are completely abandoning genuine Christianity. But Turner admits radical inclusion is in fact legitimate--ECUSA's emphasis on it, at the expense of substitutionary atonement, is new and troubles Turner. But to put it that way leaves Turner's position wobbly, and would have left him with much less sympathy from readers. I fear--and I hope I am plain wrong--such obfuscating demagogic rhetoric is a trope, a strategy too popular among rabble-rousing conservative writers.

In dropping or de-emphasizing B, Turner claims ECUSA has fallen into "truly monumental" theological poverty. According to Turner, ECUSA has lost interest in confronting the people with their sins, has lost interest in witnessing the need for repentance, and has lost interest in preaching Christ's atoning death: it is no longer a religion of salvation, interested in helping put the petitioner/God relation right. These are big claims made with little evidence, but Turner isn't reluctant about characterizing ECUSA's working theology.

Alas, he gets that theology almost all wrong--and the curious thing is Turner's apparent utter blindness to why he is wrong. ECUSA is focusing on sin, namely sins of social injustice: the oppression of women, the evil of segregation, discrimination against homosexuals, immoral wars, etc. Surely these sins of social injustice implicate individuals in sin. To address a social injustice--for instance, addressing the oppression of women by instituting their ordination--does in fact confront individuals with their sin, and does call for their repentance. Getting right with God requires confessing one's part in these sins, and turning around with God's help, coming out of Babylon as it were. Indeed, this is a matter of salvation. How is it then ECUSA's working theology of radical inclusion fails to confromt people with their sins and fails to call for repentance? It looks to me like some schismatic conservative ECUSAns have been confronted with their sins about oppressing gays, and they are angry, ready to divorce and divvy up property rather than repent.

But Turner is oblivious to this--for him, you see, the misogynist,the racist, the warmonger, the robber baron, et al. are not sinning in being these things. To him, the social injustices ECUSA is exercised over are merely moral issues, and just aren't really about sin, properly speaking.
For Turner, an unjust social structure is not primarily of religious interest.

Rather, he implies ECUSA's working theology should be set on individual members and their sins, calling them as individuals to personal repentance for individual sins unrelated to social justice concerns. As if petitioners in the pews could be sealed off from being responsible for the sins of their secular communities!To him, individuals are like little sealed units who can repent and become just via Christ's sacrifice without having to address social structures and social injustice.

But that is just false--he underestimates how much humans are continually constituted in their personhood by the communities to which they belong and the relationships into which they enter. And his view is unbiblical as well--the Bible calls social injustice sin, and calls us to repent. A focus on social injustice need not exclude calling attention to personal sins and calling for personal repentance. Indeed, this is the current issue. Turner is not alone in his odd adherence to the premises of liberal individualism. His blindness, his curious obliviousness to human nature and what the role of the Church should be is shared by many conservative ECUSAns who sympathize with his reading of the times. To them, the call of the Word is: Repent!

Addendum, May 27, 2005: At the end of Part IV, Turner writes "The theology of radical inclusion as preached and practiced within ECUSA must define the central issues as moral rather than religious...." Above, I infer that for Turner issues of social justice, the "central issues," are merely moral in ECUSA's preaching.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Christian Believing, Ch. 1: Not by Bread Alone

CB's Ch.1 takes the very existence of religion as a problem calling for an answer: whence religion? Will it wither away as modernity progresses? CB answers "no;" we are driven by nature to a spiritual awareness of the ultimate which is the root of religion.

One might object: from "we are driven to recognize the ultimate from the chaos of the world and our nature" it does not follow "there is something ultimate." Religion, even if unavoidable, might yet be false. CB devotes the next few chapters to that difficulty.

I. Foundations of Religion
We are, according to Westerhoff and Holmes, religious by nature--the drive toward religion is as natural as hunger, and like hunger, it is a desire. Chaos is an ever-present reality, and for most, it is unbearable. We naturally respond to unbearable Chaos with desire for Order. That longing for order is the origin of religion.

Seeking this Order, we end up seeking something other than apparent Chaos, and this "something other" is ultimate. We may become conscious of this ultimate order by (1) finding basic assumptions on which all human life is lived (as the assumption of order beyond/behind chaos) ; (2) discovering the limits of language, finding that we are conscious of what we cannot say, or imagine saying; or (3) finding ourselves dependent of something else which is n ot dependent on anything else.

Thus, we experience the holy, that within our experience which is infinitely more than we can explain, eluding our comprehension. The holy is a mystery; we not only fail to know of it, but we cannot know it--we are radically ignorant of it. The infinitude of the ultimate makes it holy and mysterious. Our nature pushes us in this direction; we are disposed not only to being rational, but to spiritual awareness, i.e. to consciousness of the ultimate, the holy, and its mysteriousness.

II. Religion Itself
One can take the holy as the source for meaning and coherence in one's life, or not. Doing so, the holy is sacred; one's life then expresses religion. One who fails to live religiously, failing to live in submission to the holy, lives in radical anxiety.

Expressions of religion are not equally good. Religion may serve the function of escape, or the function of involvement. Escapist religion denies or minimizes the holiness and mystery of the ultimate. Religion serves as a "safe harbor." It makes clear demands setting its people apart and assuring them of their superioirity to the Others, on the Outside. It gives answers that leave no questions, tending toward literalism (of text, liturgy, etc) and resisting intellectual critique. For the answers come from an infallible source. The faithful use religion as a means of manipulating the holy to serve their ends; religion is magical.

Religion of involvement affirms the holiness and mystery of the ultimate. The ultimate is surprising, making religion difficult and demanding; we cannot comprehend it, there is always more to the ultimate beyond what we know. Even so (as God's gift) reason is reliable, and we can use it to push back the horizon, becoming more aware of the ultimate. There is no question of manipulating the ultimate; believers must accept ambiguity. Given the mystery of the ultimate, he truth of anything said of it, P, depends on our willingness to let P "extend beyond our comprehension."

Escapist religion indulges in false mystery. Having evaded intellectual criticism, escapism needlessly mystifies. Only by accepting such criticism, only by involving itself in the arena of rational thought (e.g. science), can religion fulfill its moral witness to othe world.

III. my closing comments
Note the critical potential of these distinctions in light of the aftermath to GC2003. What does living religiously in faithful openness to an infinite God require of us in this dispute?
The Anglican Communion Network's theological charter holds (I.4) "We confess, hold, and bear witness that this sending, the work of the Holy Spirit in particular, is accomplished not through drawing us into new truths, but by binding us more fully to Scripture's remembered word...." Why can't the Holy Spirit reveal a new truth to us? Surely finite Scripture does not comprehend God; there is always more to God that we do not know. Is God then unable to speak? The ACN is escapist, trying to limit the unlimited.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Theology of the ECUSA

From various critics of the 2003 GC/VGR affair, one might get the impression that the ECUSA has no Christian theology. With VGR ordained, it might seem to "conservatives" that legitimate, traditional, Christian theological standards no longer guide the ECUSA: anything goes. Does the ECUSA stand for anything Christian in a traditional sense? Is there a distinctive theology behind the ECUSA's actions?

I think the answer is "Yes." But go and find anyone making an accessible defense of the ECUSA; where will you turn? The HoB listserv? Explicitly theological defenses are relatively hard to find, e.g. buried somewhere deep in the catacombs of L. Crew's site.

I propose a review of the Episcopal Church's theology with a view to the 2003 GC et al, a review taken primarily from its own teaching series. Properly distilled, from these works a cogent rationale emerges, one with teeth, one that (alas) does not seem to get out and around as much as it should. Where to start? I will go chapter by chapter through two works:

Christian Believing (1979), Urban T. Holmes III and J.H. Westerhoff III (CB)
The Anglican Vision (1997), James E. Griffiss (AV)

Later, we shall continue with other works.

Friday, May 06, 2005

ECUSA on the issue of blessing same-sex unions

It seems many critics of ECUSA's 2003 GC assume that there is no biblical argument in favor of blessing same-sex unions. They infer ECUSA's leadership has abandoned biblical warrant as a guiding reference point, and some feel convicted by conscience to withdraw altogether from the national church. Although an observer might be tempted to dismiss the fuss as a minor brush-up in a small denomination, ECUSA's decisions on same-sex unions have much wider significance. If successful in bringing same-sex blessings into their liturgy, ECUSA could inspire other mainline denominations to do the same. With mainline Christianity pulling in the same direction, wider political effects could follow--perhaps impeding current federal and state drives to prohibit legal gay unions or marriage.

ECUSA's success may hinge on whether it can stay together. For instance, if the AAC/ACN manages to displace ECUSA in the Anglican Communion, what ECUSA does with respect to same-sex unions will have rather less significance.

Will ECUSA stay together? It might help to have clear biblical warrant for same-sex unions. Here is an argument I am currently working on, a piece of biblical theology, in favor of same-sex unions:

(1) Jesus is resurrected in the flesh. [Yes, "in the flesh" is overkill, but I want emphasis.]
(2) In the world to come, the members of the Church will be resurrected in the flesh.
(3) In the world to come, Jesus will enter into a new relationship, R, with the members of the Church.

(1)-(3) have strong biblical support, and a conservative flavor. The argument works with conservative premises to achieve a rather un-conservative conclusion. Ironically, some supporters of GC 2003 would qualify or deny these premises; to them, my argument would seem unsound.

(4) Marriage among Christians here-below is to be modeled after R.

Again, (4) has strong biblical support. The meaning of Christian marriage is to be found in the union God, in Christ, seeks and will attain with his people, the Church. So far, my argument is orthodox.

(5) R holds between men.

There will be male members of the Church in the world to come, I hope, and Christ is male. (5) sounds odd in this context perhaps because you see where I am going, but it is still orthodox.

(6) Given that R holds between men (from (5)), and marriage here below is to be modeled after R (from 4), it follows that marriage here below can be between men.

And (6), of course, is unorthodox. Yet it follows from orthodox premises.

I am tempted to say self-described "orthodox" ECUSAns do not know what follows from what they believe; they do not seem to have taken either marriage or resurrection seriously enough. If you deny (6), which of the premises will you deny? Denying (1) implies denying the resurection of Christ, denying (2) implies denying the general resurrection, denying (3) implies denying that there will be a new, real, reciprocal relationship between Christ and the Church in the afterlife, and denying (4) denies marriage the mystery of its meaning alluded to by Paul.


Hopefully, you will find something useful and interesting here to take along your way.