July 10, 2005

Inside and Outside

A reflection on Moral and Ritual — Tobias S Haller BSG

At my most pessimistic I sometimes feel that the utility of Scripture in helping us better to understand our current situation may have reached its limit. Over the last several years I have grown weary of seeing texts tossed back and forth, twisting in the air as they fly, stretched beyond their capacity, or shrunk to insignificance. When I consider how little the Scripture actually says about the presenting issue, and how much of what it says is in a limited vocabulary of half-a-dozen Hebrew and Greek words — some so rare they are only understood by conjecture, others so capable of a range of figurative and literal application that they can mean almost anything one wants — and then take account of the energy of the debate, I begin to despair of Scripture’s providing us with a settlement to the matter.

I agree with Luther when he said that we cannot simply make any word of Scripture mean whatever we might like it to mean. But at the same time I have to affirm that the meaning of any given passage of Scripture is necessarily subject to interpretation; that the process of understanding what a text means isn’t optional — on the contrary it is the object of the exercise.

Contrary to those who assert the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Scripture does not (indeed cannot) interpret itself, although we may use one portion of Scripture better to understand another. But Anglicans do not allow the Scripture to stand alone, apart from reason, and the record of the church’s wrestling with those sometimes difficult texts. As Hooker put it,

The force of arguments drawn from the authority of Scripture itself, as Scriptures commonly are alleged, shall (being sifted) be found to depend upon the strength of this so much despised and debased authority of man. Surely it doth, and that oftener than we are aware of... Even such as are readiest to cite for one thing five hundred sentences of holy Scripture; what warrant have they, that any one of them doth mean the thing for which it is alleged? Is not their surest ground most commonly, either some probable conjecture of their own, or the judgment of others taking those Scriptures as they do? (Laws, II.7.8)
I do, however, think that there is a hermeneutical key to unlock the treasury, so that old and new can be brought forth. It lies with Jesus, and he left it to the church. Jesus was confronted by a number of religious questions concerning right and wrong. Some of it was presented in ways designed to trip him up; others seemed genuinely interested in finding the right way. So how did Jesus apply Scripture to these questions? As the wristband puts it, WWJD?

When Jesus set aside the dietary laws this was not simply meant as an end in itself. The dietary laws symbolized for him a whole approach to discerning morality that was based on “the outside.” (It should be noted that although Mark understood Jesus as “declaring all foods clean,” the question that was presented to him actually had to do with hand-washing, not food.) In any case, Jesus used this incident as an opportunity to reflect upon the locus of morality. Morality, he says, is not about what goes into one from the outside, but about what comes out of one, from the heart. In this, Jesus is advocating an ethic of disposition or intent, as opposed to an ethic based primarily upon a list of externally exercised do’s and don’ts, which finds its most primitive form in moralities based on taboo and purity. As I also noted in an earlier comment on God’s Shellfish Argument, this contrast was addressed in Peter’s miraculous vision of the sheet let down from heaven; and he rightly understood that this was not about a change in the dietary laws, but about how people are to be treated — not as unclean because of practice or nation, but as capable of receiving the love of God. It is abundantly clear that Jesus had little patience with the focus on external purity as a means to please God; and Saint Paul continued this teaching — see Col 2:21-23 and 1Tim4:3-5 — although, given his Pharisee training even he occasionally slipped from grace into law!

The other locus classicus for Jesus’ teaching on morality resides in the summary of the law and the “Golden Rule.” Jesus reduces the specifics of the Decalogue to the love of God and neighbor, with the rather subjective touchstone of doing as one would be done by. Even his critics recognized the wisdom in this approach.

So, bearing these two keys in mind, when I return to the actual text (this is the vitally important task) and look at the passages that are traditionally advanced against any allowance for same-sex sexuality, I have to ask, are these moral prohibitions, based upon the disposition of the heart, or are they rather primarily ritual or cultic matters related to external acts? Do these prohibitions take account of either the love of God and neighbor, or the subjective judgment of mutuality and responsive care, or are they simply absolute and categorical?

If I may give one last parallel example, How did Jesus relate to the question of the sabbath? The text of the law is rather abundantly clear; it is explicitly categorical in listing all the categories! Yet Jesus recognized circumstances in which this clarity was forced to bend to charity — the rigorous interpretation that one could do no work of any kind is bent to allow the doing of works of love and care. The sabbath exists not as an end in itself, but as a means to the rest and refreshment and betterment of human beings.

This is where I and some of my colleagues have been trying to pitch the discussion. The various arguments from a surmised “complementarity” of the sexes are still to my mind too much concerned with the “outside” — the sexual dimorphism that we share with most of the animals and some of the vegetables — rather than with the “inside” which is what truly makes us human, and wherein resides our similarity with God: in the capacity to reason and to love. The dismissal of all same-sex relationships, without regard to anything other than the gender of the parties, the explicit declaration that all this talk of love is irrelevant to the question, does not strike me as being in keeping with the ethical world of Jesus Christ.

Although I am loath to add to Scripture, the following application of what I’ve said above occurs to me, purely as an imaginative exercise:

Some lawyers came to Jesus and said to him, Teacher, we found two men who have set up household and live together after the manner of a man and wife. Shall we do unto them as it is written in the law of Moses? And he said unto them, For your hardness of heart Moses gave you this law. But it was not so at the beginning, when God made companions for Adam and allowed him to choose the one suitable to him, the one who was most like him. And they said to him, but was not that Eve, the mother of all living? And he said to them, Do not be deceived, ‘the Lord does not see as mortals see’ — you lawyers and Pharisees look only to the outside, and do not look to the heart. But God knows what is inside a man, and it is from inside that true love flows. And do you not know that when Jonathan looked upon David his soul was bound to him, and he loved him as his own self, and gave up his life for his friend? David spoke rightly when he said there is no greater love than this. If these two should set up their lives together, what is that to you? Love the Lord your God, and do not judge.

As I say, this is purely imaginative. But it does strike me as in keeping with the Gospel.

July 6, 2005

God’s Shellfish Argument

A number of reasserters have critiqued those who point out inconsistencies in the church’s application of the laws in Leviticus with what Kendall Harmon has dubbed “The Shellfish Argument.” He summarized this argument as, “You have noted that Leviticus is against same sex practice, but Leviticus says we should not eat shellfish. So how could we possibly listen to Leviticus?”

Now, of course, no one I know of is suggesting we throw out all of Leviticus, or very much more of it than has already been thrown out (which goes well beyond the dietary regulations). After all, as Kendall rightly notes, Leviticus contains the last half of the Summary of the Law. No, as far as I can see, the matter comes down to two troublesome verses addressing certain male homosexual acts.

The “shellfish argument” came to mind this week as the Daily Office lectionary rolled around to Acts 10. It is an instructive story, and should give one pause before dismissing the “shellfish” argument entirely; since it appears that this is precisely the argument with which God confronted Peter, when he showed him all the unclean animals and told him to eat. Peter rightly understood that this wasn’t really about food, but about people, and how one ought to treat them: not as unlcean, but as loved by God — and thereby opened the way of salvation for all of us Gentiles!

So it isn’t about shellfish, dear friends; it isn’t about food and drink; it is about respecting the dignity of every human being as much as God does, and considering the possibility — as difficult as that may be — that the church has had it wrong for all these years, and missed the point God made, and Peter understood.

July 1, 2005

Episcopal Church Against Scripture

Erik Nelson has contributed a fascinating and typical work on behalf of the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD): fascinating in its use of false analogy and the slippery slope, and typical in its disregard for the actual text of Scripture, and unsupported assertions and generalizations.

For example, take the reference to Plato's Symposium. Nelson is referring to Aristophanes' famed description of the origin of sexual orientation in the splitting of primeval beings into halves. There is no evidence that Saint Paul was aware of this work, which, since it contradicts Genesis he would no doubt have dismissed out of hand. It is also abundantly clear from Romans 1 that Saint Paul did not believe in intrinsic homosexual orientation (which is "explained" by the story in Plato), but rather saw it as a perversion brought about as a consequence of idolatry. (Paul presages the Talmudic notion that this is a Genitle problem, not a Jewish one; a similar phenomenon exists in Africa today, in which homosexuality is rendered socially invisible. These come together in +Malango's recent comment that it is absurd to suggest that David and Jonathan may have had a sexual relationship because they were "married men." Apparently the "down low" is a phenomenon with which many wish to remain unfamiliar!) It is not difficult to believe that Saint Paul would reject the notion of intrinsic sexual orientation in the first century when there are plenty of "reasserters" out there right now who do the same, even in the light of abundant evidence to the contrary.

As to the changing nature of "morality" which Nelson seems to find so troubling, even his examples fail. Slavery is not simply tolerated in Scripture. It is mandated in certain instances, and approved in others. After all, Adam was created as God's "eved" -- the ambiguous Hebrew word for servant or slave -- and God's liberation of the Israelites from Egypt was not absolute -- it was because God was reclaiming his rightful property, whom he "bought" or "purchased" -- as Christ did the church! The language of slavery is intimately bound up with the mystery of salvation. It is true that by the time of Paul we get a more luke-warm tolerance of human slavery but note that Paul analogizes slavery with the proper relationships of obedience between the believer and Christ, in much the same way as he analogizes the relationship between husband and wife. But nowhere in Scripture is slavery condemned as immoral in itself. It was not until the 19th century that the challenges rose to the level of condemnation, denying the right of any person to take possession of another.

Ultimately it comes down to the question: What is moral? I can perfectly understand some folks who read, for example, Leviticus 18 and 20 and come away saying "These are eternal moral Laws to govern humanity forever." There does seem to be a tendency to group anything having to do with sex under the category of "moral." The problem is that some people skip over the laws they don't like to think about, or which would demand more of them then they desire to give. And I'm not talking about what Kendall calls the "shellfish" laws -- although one should note that the Christian distinction between "moral" and "ritual" is not in itself an OT idea; God told the people to obey _all_ of the Law.

Now of course, Jesus made distinctions about the law: quite obviously the "dietary" law. But he also touched on other of the Laws of Moses, for example concerning divorce. He held that the Law of Moses in this regard was a concession to human hardness of heart, and not part of God's original intent. Now that's quite astounding, don't you think, if you are going to regard everything in the Law of Moses as always reflecting God's will (or "being God's word"). Doesn't it raise a question in your mind that there might be other "moral" matters on which Moses' law is an _imperfect_ and all too human reflection of God's actual will for human beings? I'm not saying this "proves" anything, but it should give one pause before talking about "Scripture" as if it were a uniform body of laws all of which are equally valid and equally eternal and unchanging.

Let me give another example: a man divorces his wife and she marries another man. The second husband dies. Would it be "moral" for the first husband to remarry her? (This actually happened to my paternal grandmother, so it is close to home; she and my grandfather divorced, and then my grandfather remarried her largely because he wanted to be a real father to his biological son, my father, as he was growing up.) I think most people would find no problem with this from a moral perspective. Nor, as far as I know, would the church forbid such a remarriage. Yet the Bible does, and in no uncertain terms. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 even goes so far as to call this an abomination (using exactly the same terminology applied to certain male homosexual acts in Leviticus. (See also Jeremiah 3:1)

I think one of the problems is that people tend to see anything having to do with sex as "moral" -- when it can actually be cultic or cultural or even social. In the section of Leviticus dealing with incest and homosexuality, for instance, a man sleeping with his wife during her period is harshly condemned and entails a serious penalty. (Ezekiel continues the refrain on this wickedness.) But I doubt many people today would regard that as a _moral_ question, even if they find it distasteful.

So it is evident that some things about morality do change over time, and from culture to culture; and contrary to Nelson's slippery slope argument, it is not true that if one thing changes then everything must.

Christ gave us a standard for morality: it is called the Golden Rule. And he gave us the charge not to judge others, but to do good to others, in accord with this principle. This is the touchstone for morality from the mouth of the Son of God. We do well to hear what he says, and see all else through that lens of understanding.

Nelson's article is at Episcopal Church Delegates Argue Against Scripture, Not From It