Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Friendship Dance (of the Trinity)

For Trinity Sunday, here is something I wrote for The Living Church a few years ago (June 11, '06):

Have you ever wondered what God was up to before getting around to creating the universe and us in it? Meditating, like Rodin’s “Thinker”? Contemplating, like some great cosmic mystic, the beatific vision of himself? On one hand, attempting to answer such a question seems presumptuous. On the other hand, what we imagine God to be like in eternity affects how we imagine God to be present in our own lives and in all creation.

All metaphors are inexact, but I suggest answering the question by imagining God dancing. More than dancing – before and beyond and within all creation God is a dance, God is a friendship dance. From all eternity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit dance the dance of love and truth and joy. God is a dynamic dance of mutual giving and receiving and delighting. As they sought language to point toward an understanding of God as Trinity, the early Christian theologians used the Greek word, perichoresis, which means something like “to dance around together.”

Out of this Trinitarian friendship dance, God creates. All of creation (and each of us in it) is an expression of God’s love and truth and exuberant joy. We are created to participate in the dance of God’s own life.

Jesus came dancing. He is the perfect image of God – the perfect image, if you will, of the dance. Jesus proclaimed God’s love and truth and joy. But he didn’t just proclaim it, he embodied it. Wherever Jesus was, there was the friendship dance. Jesus comes to us as God’s personal invitation to the dance, inviting us to participate in the dance at the very heart of it all. In his death and resurrection, Jesus broke the power of sin and death, making it possible for us to dance again.

If Jesus is the invitation to the dance, the Holy Spirit is the power of God moving in us to RSVP. The Holy Spirit choreographs our participation in the dance. Wherever the Spirit of Jesus is, there is the friendship dance.

The triune nature of God is one of the central mysteries of Christianity. But mystery is not the same as conundrum. Nor is it the result of a presumptuous desire to explain more than can be explained. Quite the opposite. Historically, the impetus to clarify some understanding arose in reaction to those who, like Eunomius, claimed to define the essence of God. Theologians like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa (Basil and the latter Gregory, under the influence of their sister, Macrina) reacted against such presumption. Collectively known as the Cappadocians, they argued that all we can really know of God is what God has revealed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. What God is beyond that is unknowable. We do not use trinitarian language for God out of presumption. It is just that, as Rowan Williams has said, “It is the least worst language for God we have.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is the result of Christians living and praying with the reality of Jesus Christ breaking in on their lives, inviting them to participate in God’s life. It is the result of Christians experiencing the reality of the Holy Spirit empowering and enabling their participation in God’s life. The doctrine of the Trinity springs from the experience of Christians who knew from the revelation to Israel that God was one, but who, in the invitation of Jesus Christ and the experience of the power of the Spirit, came to understand that it was not that simple. God turns out to be more complex. God is love, dynamic love within God’s self – a friendship dance.

This is good news because it means that who God is cannot be separated from what God does. God has done something in the sending of the Son, Jesus Christ. God does something in the giving of the Holy Spirit. In that sending and giving we know God. But we are not just given some information about God. Rather, in sending the Son and giving the Spirit, God sends and gives God’s very self. No doubt there is more to God than we can hope to understand. But what Christians claim is that when God reveals himself, God reveals himself truly. Whatever more there is to God, it will not contradict what we know of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity means that at the heart of it all is relationship. Descartes got it wrong when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” It is truer to say, “I am related, therefore I am.” Or, better yet, “I am loved, therefore I am.” When Jesus summarized the law as loving God and loving neighbor, he was simply saying that this is the way it is at the heart of it all. Love – mutual giving, sharing and receiving – is at the heart of it all. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist through relationship with one another. Because that relationship is at the heart of it all, the quality of our relationships matters. Love matters. Relatedness matters. Community and communion matter. Connectedness is woven into the very fabric of things.

The doctrine of the Trinity is also good news because it means there is room for otherness. If there is “space” within God for the Son to be other than the Father, and the Spirit to be other than the Father and the Son, then there is space for us to be other than God. God makes space for creation and for us in it. Understanding God as Trinity means understanding God as involved in, but not overwhelming, everything. There is room for real freedom. We can celebrate our unity and diversity, not as a contemporary cliché, but as a reflection of what it means to be created in the image of God. God is one, but one in whom there is intimate otherness.

Jesus Christ is the invitation to the triune friendship dance at the heart of it all. The Holy Spirit, moving in us, enables our RSVP. Responding to that invitation, we begin to participate more fully in the life, love, and joy of God. It is a mystery. But it is a mystery that is the gift of God’s self into which we can enter. God is a friendship dance, so let us dance together.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 4. Some Thoughts on Interpreting Scripture

When it comes to making Christian sense of the phenomena of same-sex sexual attraction, much depends on how we read scripture. But, that draws us into a much deeper and broader challenge in the contemporary church. There is a good deal of uncertainty across the church as to how best to engage the scriptures and a loss of confidence in some old assumptions about how to do so. One sign of this is the turn to early centuries of Church tradition for guidance among Evangelicals, something extremely rare until very recently.

Absent a Magisterium , as in the Roman Catholic Church, we are left to make sense of scripture in a context in which there is no straightforward, agreed upon, and authoritative hermeneutic (method of interpretation) for interpreting, understanding, or applying the writings we believe to be inspired by God and authoritative for the Church. The inevitable result is that faithful, pious Christians often come to different conclusions when interpreting the scriptures on a given matter. Even people who basically agree on the authority and inspiration of scripture and how it should be read often come to quite different conclusions on important issues.

We all need to give more attention to the interpretive principles by which we configure scripture such that some themes and passages are given more weight than others. And we all need to practice a good deal more charity and humility toward one another when we disagree.

Before looking at any particular passage of scripture that mentions same-sex sexual relations, it is important to look at what makes for faithful interpretations of scripture in general. I’ve attempted a constructive proposal for engaging scripture elsewhere (see The King or a Fox, a study guide for the Diocese of Fond du Lac in which I propose some criteria for interpreting scripture faithfully). Everything that follows should be understood in the context of that study guide. In this post I want to elaborate on one of the criteria I suggested for interpreting scripture – the Criterion of Love, which is closely related to another, the Criterion of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, this criterion by itself, like any one of the others, is insufficient and must be employed in harmony with the others. With those caveats, I do want to suggest that the criterion of love does open space for a rethinking of the meaning of the texts in the Bible that appear to address sex between people of the same gender.

St. Augustine on the double love of God and neighbor

St. Augustine, in his guide to interpreting scripture, argued that the fundamental key to faithful interpretation is Jesus’ summary of the law:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:38-40)

It is to teach us how to do these two things rightly that we were given the scriptures in the first place. Augustine goes so far as to make this rather startling claim:

So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the author demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and certainly is not a liar. (On Christian Teaching [De Doctrina Christiana], English trans. R. P. H. Green (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), 27)

Though this sounds remarkable, the idea that the building up of the double love of God and neighbor is the key for interpreting scripture is at least as well-founded in scripture as is Luther’s insistence that everything be interpreted through the lens of salvation by faith through grace. In fact, Luther, himself, asserted in his Introduction to the Old Testament that “faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law.” For more on Luther's interesting and nuanced approach to the Bible, see here and here.

Not only does Jesus give us the summary of the law, he applies it himself in a way that was shocking to his contemporaries when he insisted that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27). I submit that this was one of the most radical and unprecedented teachings of our Lord. The Sabbath – and the Law, generally? – is not something humans are meant to be squeezed into at any cost. Rather, it is given to us and for us to lead us into life with God and wholeness.

Paul makes several references to the centrality of Jesus’ summary of the law (cf. Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:13-14, Galatians 6:2). And the apostle seems to apply it as a key to discerning moral questions in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything.
(1 Corinthians 6:12)

"All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up.
(1 Corinthians 10:23)

Though Paul is reining in an apparent antinomian tendency among some of the congregation in Corinth, it is interesting that he does not do so with an appeal to the Law or some other abstract rule. Rather, he suggests measuring behaviors based on whether they exhibit self-control and the building up of the community.

It does not seem particularly ‘revisionist’ to agree with Augustine that interpretations that “build up this double love of God and neighbor” are to be preferred and that the test for whether or not an interpretation is in the ballpark of faithfulness is whether or not it can be demonstrated to do so. And if, as Jesus says, the Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath; might we entertain that if an interpretation of scripture seems to thwart the flourishing of members of the body of Christ that that interpretation needs to be looked at afresh? And if, as Paul says, the fundamental criteria on moral questions are what is beneficial for Christian freedom and the building up of the body of Christ and individual members of that body, might we ask in the case of Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to members of the same sex, “What is beneficial? What enables them to not be ‘dominated’? What builds them up? Would the blessing of Same-sex Unions build up the church? Would such unions inherently get in the way of its being built up?" Article XX of the Articles of Religion enjoins us not to "expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." Might we ask of any interpretation of scripture, "Is it repugnant to the double love of God and neighbor?"

A way of self-denial

The double love of God and neighbor is not simple, sentimental, or easy. It requires self-denial.To love God requires us to know God – through the witness of the Bible, through worship and prayer, through the witness of tradition and the saints, and through the witness of creation. That also requires continual self-scrutiny lest we construct an image of God that suits us and then love the image we have formed for ourselves. To love our neighbor also requires that we actually come to know our neighbor. That too requires continual self-scrutiny to examine our own resistance to love and our tendency to project onto others what we already think they are or should be as characters of the story of our own making. The double love of God and neighbor requires taking up the cross and denying ourselves in order to be open to the Other (God) and the other (our neighbor).

A Roman Catholic principle of interpretation

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has a similar principle of scriptural interpretation. According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities:

Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)

While there are plausible – maybe even probable – interpretations of scripture “contrary to evangelical justice and charity,” i.e., that endorse racism, anti-semitism, sexism, etc., they are to be avoided. Interpretations that reflect and reinforce justice and charity are more faithful to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that this principle makes space for asking whether or not we should be wary of reading biblical texts about homosexuality as referring in a straightforward way to what we are talking about now.

Of course, current official Roman Catholic teaching does not conclude from this that justice and charity rightly understood lead to the ordination of women or the blessing of Same-sex Unions. But, that merely raises the question of how we discern evangelical justice and charity.

What it is and isn't about

The double love of God and neighbor is not about "inclusion" which, in and of itself, is an empty concept. It is not merely a matter of declaring that "God loves everyone. Period." Few Christians would deny that. But it is an insufficiently Christian declaration. God's love is not mere affirmation but transformative  sometimes uncomfortably so. Nor is it simply about "respecting the dignity of every human being." Of course we should live into that part of the Baptismal Covenant. But, respect and love do not mean affirming everything we want affirmed. Sometimes respect and love mean speaking hard truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We must always be on guard for our inclination to rationalize our actions and call indulgence, love.The Christian way of love is not sentimental or indulgent.It is self-sacrificial. Our love needs continually to be purified and transformed.

That said, given the centrality of love and mercy in our Lord's teaching and the rest of the New Testament, we also need to beware that what we call love is recognizably love as opposed to a squeezing of others into abstract modes of being that neither build them up nor the Church. Love is not always nice. But it is always kind. Discerning the difference is one of the tasks of the Church living under the Mercy.

The issue, it seems to me, is whether or not entering into a committed, monogamous, permanent Same-sex Union provides a fertile context for the cultivation of redemptive, sanctifying disciplines that lead to deeper love of God and love of neighbor as exemplified by Jesus. It is about pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross-bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ and cultivating the disciplines that enable us to embody that love in thought, word, and deed. If so, do they not build up the community?

Next: Part 5. Why I Am Disinclined to Vote for Revising the Marriage Canon

Previous: Part 3. Positive Testimony

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Feast of Pentecost - Charged with the Holy Spirit

Tomorrow is the Feast of Pentecost approaches, here is something I wrote for The Living Church a few years ago (May 31, '09):

When I was growing up on the farm we had an electric fence. Being curious, or foolish, or both, my brothers and I would play games with the electric fence. You could hear the click, click as the electric charge pulsed through the fence. So, one game was to see if we could pinch the wire between the clicks. If you timed it right, you could pinch and let go of the wire and never get shocked. Of course, if you didn’t time it right, you got a bit of a jolt. We also experimented to see what would conduct electricity. If you place an old section of rubber hose on the electric fence, nothing happens. If you place a dry stick or an old dry bone on the wire, nothing much happens. If you do the same with a loose piece of wire . . . electricity gets conducted!

The Holy Spirit is like divine electricity given to energize, empower, transform, and sometimes jolt the Church into action. Disoriented and disillusioned, fearful and uncertain, the followers of Jesus who gathered in the upper room on Pentecost were bereft of the life, energy, and power they had known in his presence. Then the Holy Spirit charged – shocked is not too strong a word – them with new life and power.

That first generation of the Church was not energized by some new religious insight. Nor were they energized by some new ethical ideal. They were energized by the power of Spirit of God – the same Spirit that had descended upon Jesus and that he had promised to pass on to his followers. The current of that Spirit electrified them with the love, peace, joy, and hope of Jesus. Empowered by his Holy Spirit, Peter and the others were transformed and became transformers who shocked the world, turning it upside down with the power of the good news of what God had done and was doing through Jesus the Christ.

The Church is like an electric grid, charged through with the Holy Spirit. It is an ever-expanding grid that extends through out the world and back through time to the original Pentecost. As one definition has it, the Church is an ever-widening sphere of an ever-deepening reconciliation. The Holy Spirit is given to the Church to empower and energize that reconciliation which is a sign of the promised “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21).

Pentecost is a reminder that the divine-human drama centers not on the individual but on the community. While not strictly a matter of either/or, it does matter where we put the emphasis. By the Holy Spirit, God calls us into community where we learn to love one another as God loves us. In, with and under that community, the Holy Spirit moves like an electric current empowering the Church to make our “life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” (BCP 429).

While the Spirit is free to blow where it chooses, the normal way its presence and power are accessed is by being connected to the community that it animates and energizes. When we are baptized we are connected to the grid and electrified by the Holy Spirit. Or, to use the more organic language of the New Testament, in baptism we are grafted into the vineyard of the Church. There we are able to abide in Christ by the power of his Spirit and bear fruit.

The Holy Spirit is given to us personally primarily through that connection. So connected, individuals are energized and empowered by the love and joy of Jesus. As we learn to love in community, participate in worship and sacraments, pray, study scripture and serve we are continually energized and recharged by that same Spirit. Like the Apostles before us, we too are charged with the spiritual electricity of new life, new creation. And, unlike my crude experiments on the farm, whatever in us that resists conducting that Spirit – the rubber, dead wood, and dry bone of our sinfulness and brokenness – will be transformed into live wire.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 3. Positive Testimony

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. – Jesus (Matthew 7:18-20)

In the last post in this series, I mentioned that what has most prompted me to reconsider the traditional biblical interpretation and Church teaching on sexuality has been the testimony of fellow believers in the Church. And I gave examples of what I called the ‘negative’ testimony of the anguish of those who have tried to live into the traditional teaching. It is not just that they have found it hard, which we have every reason to expect being disciples of Jesus to be, but that they have found it to be a sacrifice that leads to death rather than life.

Now, I want to look at the ‘positive' testimony of my brothers and sisters.

Positive Testimony

In the early 1990’s I volunteered in the ‘Hand-to-Hand’ program of the San Jaoquin County AIDS Foundation in Stockton, CA. I was paired with a man, Barney, who had AIDS. Barney was straight and had requested a straight volunteer. But part of volunteering was going through some training and meeting monthly with other volunteers, many, if not most, of whom were gay.

This was my first extensive engagement with gay men (the volunteers were mostly men). I remember being moved by one volunteer whose long-time partner had died of the disease. He expressed his deep grief the way any husband would express grief at the loss of his wife to cancer. Both the duration of their relationship and this man’s genuine grief did not fit the then common stereotype of gay men as selfish and promiscuous.

More challenging was the presence of gay men whose open faith in and reliance upon Jesus was undeniable. And these were not what one would consider ‘liberal’ Christians. Their piety was of a very Evangelical, if not Pentecostal, sort. More so than mine in some ways. Although I did not always find their explanations of how they reconciled affirming their sexuality with the Bible convincing, I could not deny the sincerity of their desire to follow Jesus.

The congregation I served before becoming bishop of Fond du Lac nearly closed in the early 1970's about ten years after it was started. This was because the man who succeeded the first vicar was more than a little lacking in pastoral care, preaching, and other gifts that one hopes for in a priest. But more problematic was his inability to control himself sexually. He had more than one sexual encounter with women of the congregation. This was understandably devastating to the life of the parish. Many left and the handful that remained were demoralized. There was talk of closing the church. The bishop replaced this priest with Fr. George. Though in the early to mid 70’s being ‘out’ was not an option, Fr. George was gay. Undeniably faithful and pious, Fr. George turned things around and put his stamp on the character of St. Barnabas shaping it into a sort of high church Evangelical congregation. He reached out to Wheaton College and accompanied many a young Evangelical on the ‘Canterbury Trail’ (a book, Evangelicals on the CanterburyTrail, was written by Robert Webber who joined St. Barnabas when Fr. George was vicar). He is now retired with his partner in another state. I was honored and grateful to be one of the successors of this faithful pastor and priest.

Over my years as a pastor, several members of my congregation and others ‘came out’ to me, or, as I put it in a prior post, ‘let me in’ on the story of their life. I had extensive conversations with them. As a group, their piety and seriousness about their commitment to Jesus Christ is no different from that of other Christians I know. Or mine.

I also got to know gay and lesbian clergy colleagues in the Diocese of Chicago and beyond. It might be a surprise to some to know that several of the gay clergy I know are creedally orthodox and critical of liberal theology.

Finally, there are some gay theologians and spiritual writers whose theology I respect generally who have written in favor of the bless-ability of Same-sex blessings (SSU). I mentioned  Martin Smith in the previous post, as one whose faithfulness is evident. James Alison is an openly gay Roman Catholic monk and thus celibate. Nonetheless, he has encouraged his church to rethink its teaching on the subject using arguments based on official Roman Catholic theology. I have benefited from his writing on theology generally as well as on this topic. I have also appreciated Eugene Rogers, a lay Episcopalian theologian. Not only do these men exhibit a commitment to orthodox Christianity, they demonstrate in their writing a godly spirit of humility and generosity.

Of course I have also known gays and lesbians whose theology I consider suspect and whose character does not bear the marks of spiritual maturity. But that is no less true of straight people.

I know gays and lesbians who are desirous of living into the fullness of God’s will. I know gays and lesbians who robustly affirm the creeds and traditional Christian discipline in other areas and expect SSU to conform to the expectations and disciplines that have traditionally been the marks of Christian marriage. I know gays and lesbians who have lived into those expectations and disciplines faithfully for many years, often with little or no societal or ecclesial support.

What to make of this testimony?

We could dismiss this testimony. In spite of Jesus’ words quoted at the beginning of this post, we know that, often enough, people who are in many ways good do indeed do bad things and are unable to shake bad habits. And we should acknowledge that human beings are expert and creative rationalizers of their behavior. Maybe that is what is going on here. Our brothers and sisters might be blind to their sin in this area while remaining brothers and sisters to whom we still owe love and understanding even if we cannot condone behavior we are persuaded is sin.

But, I wonder. It does certainly seem to be the case that sometimes good trees bear bad fruit and bad trees sometimes appear to bear good fruit. And it is also true that we are masters of rationalization. But, there is more to it than that. It is not simply the case that the more mature in Christ we become – the more good the tree – the more good fruit we will bear and the less bad. It is that ‘good trees’ become increasingly self-aware through the discipline of self-scrutiny and less inclined to rationalize and thus better able to recognize their bad fruit and repent. One need not be an especially good tree to begin to see this. Most of the time we have some inkling that we are indulging in rationalization. Or, if in the moment, denial has the upper hand, we see it looking back.

Similarly, most of us know what lust feels like and how it plays in the imagination of our hearts. Those of us who are married know the difference between that and the desire we feel for our spouse. And that difference is about much more than the fact that we have a marriage certificate on file. One could say much the same about greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, malice, selfishness and other sins. The more mature we become, the better able to make those distinctions and to see the ways we indulge our appetites for each.

So, when Christians who give every indication of being mature, good fruit-bearing trees of faith say that they know what good fruit (virtue) ‘feels’ like and they know what bad fruit (sin) ‘feels’ like, and that their same-sex attraction and intercourse is more like the former than the latter, I suggest the rest of us should at least listen.

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny. – St. Paul (1 Corinthians 2:14-15)

Given the testimony of spiritually mature brothers and sisters, might we wonder if we are in a situation similar to Peter’s when the Spirit fell upon gentiles who he would not otherwise have expected to be candidates for that gift?

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 44-47)

Monday, May 18, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 2. Negative Testimony

A brief excursus before I write about testimony:

As I mentioned in the last post, several of the scholars I respect most have concluded that the traditional understanding is the only faithful option. But, here are other scholars who I respect a great deal who have argued that there is room for a faithful rethinking of that tradition. Eugene Rogers, has written what I think is the best sustained argument for rethinking the Church’s teaching on same-gender relations in Sexuality and the Christian Body. His main conversation partners are a Russian Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, Karl Barth, and Thomas Aquinas. Jeffery John’s booklet, Faithful, Stable, Permanent, is also quite good. He is more willing than most in the Episcopal Church to critique other attempts at making the case as inadequate. He concedes, for example, that male-female complimentarity has a certain obviousness about it that cannot be dismissed. Another gay theologian of solid creedal orthodoxy, is Roman Catholic monk, James Alison (Faith Beyond Resentment and Undergoing God).

There are others whose theology and/or biblical scholarship I respect who have argued for rethinking the Church’s teaching. The German Evangelical (and fairly conservative) theologian, Helmut Thielicke, argued for a more affirming position in the early 1960’s (The Ethics of Sex). And apparently the great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, changed his mind to a more affirming position:

In light of conversations with medical doctors and psychologists, Barth came to regret that he had characterized homosexuals as lacking in the freedom for fellowship. In the end he, too, found it necessary to interpret the plain sense of Scripture in light of advances in modern knowledge.
ThinkingOutside the Box, Part 4: The Voice of ‘Progressive Traditionalists

Barth and Thielicke both played a role in decriminalizing homosexuality in German society.

Others are Luke Timothy Johnson, Catharine Pickstock, William Placher, John Milbank, Tom Breidenthal, Sarah Coakley, Rowan Williams, and Evangelical theologian and ethicist, David Gushee (Gushee went through a change of mind similar to mine).

But there is also the testimony I have heard from fellow members of the body of Christ.

Testimony of brothers and sisters in Christ

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

It is a common charge that rethinking the Church's teaching is simply a matter of accommodating the surrounding culture. Though I have been critical of the apparent cultural captivity of much of the Episcopal Church (and yes, conservative Christians are often captive to culture as well), I don’t think it is always and only that.

What has provoked me to take another look and ultimately change my mind has not been what is going on outside the church. Rather, it has largely been the testimony of brothers and sisters within the Church.

That testimony is of two kinds. One is ‘negative’ and the other ‘positive’.

Negative Testimony and Collateral Damage

Over the years several Christians have ‘come out’ to me, or, as it has always felt, 'let me in' on their life. Usually this has included stories of personal anguish.

I have heard many stories of desperate attempts to change through prayer, determined willpower, various ‘healing ministries’, etc. All to no avail. I know there are stories of people who have experienced one degree or another of change in the orientation of their sexual desire and I would not want to dismiss those stories. But, the testimony I have heard and the fact that leaders of ‘ex-gay’ movements frequently end up denying the efficacy of the ‘reparative’ healing therapies they have advocated (see here, here, here, and herecalls into question the significance some conservatives place on such movements and the reliability of examples of change.And the experience of most who have participated in such ministries has been negative (see, this article). 

I suspect the emphasis placed on such healing ministries is actually not as much about evidence of real change as it is about the need for some – mainly heterosexuals – to believe real change is possible for the sake of their own comfort in maintaining the way they understand things. Even conservative Evangelical psychologists/researchers are much more cautious about advocating for such change (see this from Mark Yarhouse of Regent University).

I find much more credible the testimony of brothers and sisters like those I mentioned in the last post who have chosen the hard discipline of celibacy. Their testimonies must not be denied. But, I wonder, given the preponderence of other testimony, if the call to celibacy and the denial of all romance is adequate or necessarily the only faithful option for everyone who is gay or lesbian.


I have also heard many testimonies of gays and lesbians who have tried heterosexual marriage. The result is rarely happy. Most end in divorce. And even when they don’t, there is collateral damage. I know quite well the story of one such marriage that did not end in divorce. The couple was married in the days before coming out was an option, especially in conservative Christian circles. She did not learn he was gay until sometime after they married. In spite of years of infidelity on his part, they stayed together, raised a family, and remained married until his death. In many ways theirs is a testimony of admirable sacrificial commitment that included more than a little grace. But, I also know enough about the story to know the emotional toll it took not just on the couple but on their children. And I know she now has serious reservations about the wisdom of entering into such a marriage. She does not recommend it. And her experience made her considerably less conservative when it comes to questions of sexuality.

Then there are stories of physical and verbal bullying that gays and lesbians frequently experience. Martin Smith, the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, is someone whose maturity in the faith I respect. Here is his testimony about the threat of abuse: Matters of life and deathI do not know anything about the faith of Joel Burns, but the stories he shares, including his own are too common. At the very least, Christians need to ask if the way they talk about and engage those who experience same-sex attraction contributes to this. Silence, let alone the refusal to speak against such bullying, is not an option for Christians who desire to follow the example of Jesus. Stories of Christians opposing anti-bullying efforts are not encouraging.

And there is the testimony of Christian parents of gay and lesbian children. Some parents reject their children outright when they come out. I know others who have loved their children even as they have been clear about their disapproval of their behavior. For many others, having a child come out has provoked a rethinking of their prior convictions. It is telling that nothing seems to change people’s minds like having a gay son or a lesbian daughter.

But mostly, I am haunted by stories like that of Stephen who occasionally attended my congregation, St. Barnabas, in the mid 1980’s while a student a Wheaton College (an Evangelical school in a nearby suburb). Though I did not arrive here until 2000, according to the newspaper clipping in my files, Stephen, who was gay, left the college campus one day and stepped in front of a train. According to witnesses, he assumed a posture of prayer as he waited for the train (where, I wonder, did he hope it would take him?). I do not know if he was consumed with self-loathing, if he despaired of being able to contain what he considered to be sinful desires, was rejected by his family, feared that rejection, or some combination of the above, but the burden seemed unbearable and led him to a drastic and tragic means of resolution. I have spoken with more than one person who knew Stephen and it is clear that his struggle with his sexuality played a part in his suicide.

This is not a unique story. Most testimonies I have heard from brother and sister Christians who are gay and lesbian have included deep and abiding anguish. Though not universal, suicidal thoughts or attempts are a common theme. At the very least, Christians must be sensitive to the reality of these stories.

I do wonder if these are stories of the collateral damage of maintaining the traditional teaching. That teaching has much to commend it. But, is it the shadow of that teaching that many are consigned to lives of despair and death? Are we calling gays and lesbians to a living sacrifice for the sake of their souls or to a sacrifice of death for the sake of our being able to hold onto the way we have come to understand scripture or theology or ourselves?

If, as scripture charges, we are to fulfill the law by bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), we are obliged to listen carefully and sympathetically to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters when they plead for a hearing in the Church. Many have sought to live into the traditional discipline and have found it to be not a dying to self that leads to life but a dying that leads only to death. If "liberals" have not always done a very good job of explaining how SSU fit into the logic of Christianity, "conservatives" have not always done a very good job of demonstrating how the traditional discipline is really good news for their brothers and sisters who are gay or lesbian. The resistance on the part of many conservatives to engaging the questions being asked by gay and lesbian brothers and sisters has been as much a part of the problem as the obstacles I mentioned in the previous post. 

When Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for humans rather than the other way around, I wonder if part of what he was declaring was a rejection of moral calculations that find such collateral damage acceptable. Perhaps we need to “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

This is not so much an argument as an explanation of why I have been willing to rethink the argument. I concede that this does not necessarily require coming to a more affirming conclusion. For me, though, these testimonies raise questions about the goodness of the traditional discipline expected of gay and lesbian Christians and make me willing to reconsider that discipline.

Next: Part 3. Positive Testimony


Previous: Part 1. Obstacles

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Eternal Life - Ooh Ahh

A sermon on eternal life.

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (1 John 5:11)

There is an old Dilbert comic in which the character, Ratbert, observed that it is the people with the most experiences who die. So he decides to live in a coffee can experiencing nothing – guaranteeing immortality. A week goes by and Dilbert asks Ratbert how the whole immortality thing is going. Ratbert responds, “So far, it’s overrated.

Immortality is overrated.

A few years ago a philosopher, Todd May, also suggested that immortality is overrated. He suggested that living forever would eventually become dreadfully boring and eventually unbearable.

I suppose he’s onto something. If immortality is just mortal life extended indefinitely there might not be much to commend it. Our limited mortal selves cannot bear immortality in that sense. It would just get tiresome and boring after a while.

But that is not the Christian hope. We do not hope for mere immortality but for eternal life. Eternal life as it is presented in the Bible and the Church’s tradition is not just about an infinite length of life but about an infinite quality of life. To get at the, we have to start at the beginning.

In the beginning there was God and there was nothing. Then, BANG!, where there was nothing there was something – stars planets, galaxies, super novae – the whole spectacular universe in all its majestic glory. It was amazing. And angels and archangels and all the company of heaven said, “Ooh Ahh.”

And then out of that something that had been nothing, one little planet (at least one) God created life – grass, trees, flowers, algae, banana slugs, pelicans, humpback whales – the whole three-ring circus of life on earth. It was beautiful. And again, angels and archangels and all the company of heaven said, “Ooh Ahh.”

But God wasn’t done yet. Where there had been nothing, now there was something. Out of that something there was now life. And then, out of that life, God created a particular form of life that could respond to God’s love and enter into relationship with him and one another and the rest of creation. A form of life that could represent God and care for his creation – life created in God’s own image. God created humans. Fantastic!  And again, angels and archangels and all the company of heaven said, [signal congregation to join in] “Ooh Ahh.”

But God intends even more. With the sending of God’s Son in the incarnation, God has testified to a still more fabulous design. From the beginning it was God’s intention to catch us up into God’s very own life, to make us “partakers of divinity” as 2 Peter has it. Out of nothing, something. Out of something life. Out of life, men and women created in God’s image. But, God intends to fill us with himself and make us divine beings in deep communion with himself. And when that happens, angels and archangels and all the company of heaven will for all eternity say, “Ooh Ahh.”

In the Incarnation, God has joined himself with us and intends to join us to himself forever. This is what St. Irenaeus of Lyon, an early Church theologian, meant when in the 2nd century he wrote that the divine has been made human so that humans may be made divine.

That is what eternal life means. Not just some version of this life extended forever beyond death. Eternal life is the eternal sharing ever more fully in God’s eternal love, joy, and peace.

Have you ever had an experience that caused you such joy, you felt like it was more than you can bear? Most of us have. If that is true of earthly joy, how could we bear divine joy? How can we bear the complete joy Jesus talks about in this morning’s Gospel? Another early theologian, suggested that God, making us divine, will eternally expand our capacity to bear and share more and more and more of the love and joy and peace that is God’s own life. God is eternal and infinite. Eternal life is an eternal sharing in the glory of that life.

Eternal life can begin now. In this morning’s Epistle we hear “whoever has the Son has life.” Through Jesus Christ and his Spirit we begin even now to experience some of his love and joy and peace in anticipation of the fullness of eternal life.

We get more of a glimpse of this in those saints – those who have been more fully sanctified in the truth – who have been able to love the finite things and people of this world as icons through which they have loved God who is infinite and infinitely desirable. Seeing things and people as icons of the Eternal, the saints have engaged the eternal desirability of others.

By God’s grace, following the example of the saints, we can hope not just for life beyond death, but for foretastes of eternal life even now. And we can begin to engage our lives, the lives of others, and our surroundings as means by which we enjoy and are enjoyed by the God of Eternal Life. When we do that, angels and archangels and all the company of heaven look on and say, “Ooh Ahh.”

We were made for eternal life. We were made to become fully human, in deep communion with God and one another. And by God’s grace we were made to become more. We were made to share in God’s own eternal, to be caught up in divinity, to become in some sense divine ourselves, eternally sharing in God’ infinite life of love and joy and peace.  

And when that happens, angels and archangels and all the company of heaven will say, “Ooh Ahh.”


Friday, May 15, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 1. Obstacles

For years I have wrestled with questions about the faithful options for Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to others of the same sex. It has been a topic of conversation and debate in the church for decades and has consumed the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion for the last ten to fifteen years. I have long described myself as ‘on the fence’ – open to considering a rethinking of the interpretation of scripture and tradition, but not persuaded by the arguments for doing so.

There are people who I respect who have come to differing conclusions. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, "Some of my friends say this, some of my friends say that, and I always agree with my friends." But over the l years I became increasingly uncomfortable with fence-sitting. Though cautious by nature, I knew I had to risk a more definite position on the subject however complicated, confusing, and contentious.

This all came to a head in the summer of 2012 when, as a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I was called upon to vote for or against a provisional rite of blessing for same-sex unions (SSU). I voted yes. I could be wrong, but I am persuaded that same-sex relationships can be blessed and that such unions can be a means of sanctification (becoming holy, fully human, more like Jesus).

There a number of obstacles that made reaching that conclusion difficult:

1. It is no small thing to adopt a position that is counter to what has been the consistent teaching of the Church and remains the understanding of the vast majority of Christians. Any scriptural argument affirming the bless-ability of Same-sex Unions (SSU) is less than straightforward at best, as even some of its proponents have admitted, e.g., Walter Wink and Luke Timothy Johnson.

2. Most of the arguments for SSU seem tendentious and thus convincing only to those who are already convinced or want to be convinced.

3. Many biblical scholars and theologians I hold in high esteem who have commented on the topic have argued against the bless-ability of SSU, e.g., Raymond Brown, N. T. Wright, Richard B. Hayes, Oliver O’Donovan, Wolfhart Pannenberg.

4. While it is true that, one way or another, the topic of same-sex sexuality has been discussed in various contexts in the Episcopal Church for some decades, I have seen little evidence of genuine conversation, engaging the questions and concerns of those who disagree, and precious little deep and sympathetic listening. And much that has passed for conversation has been manipulative.

5. What exactly is our teaching? The argument in favor of SSU in the Episcopal Church has been ad hoc and uneven. It has been ad hoc inasmuch as there are multiple and not altogether compatible attempts at making the case. And it has been uneven inasmuch as the quality of the argument has varied considerably, much of it frankly, quite bad. This makes it hard to know just what the Episcopal Church actually teaches on the subject.
What is that teaching?

Is it the same as John Spong’s (Living in Sin?), rooted in a reductionist, rationalistic rejection of anything like classic Christian doctrine and discipline?

Or maybe it is more like William Countryman in Dirt, Greed, & Sex, who reduces biblical sexual ethics to ancient obsessions with purity and property (simplistic and misleading in my opinion). In that case, do we agree that, “[T]he gospel allows no rule against the following, in and of themselves: masturbation, nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, bestiality, polygamy, homosexual acts, or erotic art and literature [i.e., pornography]” (p. 243)?

Or is our affirmation ultimately based on modern individualistic, consumerist notions of self-actualization, disdain for limits, and individual rights? One gets the impression that for some in the church any argument that leads to the ‘right’ conclusion is acceptable – because that conclusion seems so obviously right to them that it needs no real defense.

Or are we advocating something more like Eugene Rogers who, in Sexuality and the Christian Body:Their Way into the Triune God, approaches the question in terms of what leads to the holiness of disciplined, self-sacrificial love conforming with the way of Jesus?

It is hopeful that Rogers was one of the authors of ,and his approach was reflected in, 'The Liberal View' (beginning on p. 40) in the document on Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church submitted to the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 2010. If this is closer to our 'official' position, it would be helpful if our leaders publicly articulated it in those terms and, just as importantly, made it clear that we reject the other arguments.

6. The Episcopal Church has done a clumsy job of it. Consecrating Gene Robinson before/without revising the marriage canon was an end-run around the hard work of building a new consensus that such revising was meet and right so to do. However uneven, difficult, and drawn out it seemed, there was a conversation that might have led to more of a consensus if that conversation had not been prematurely cut off.

One does not need to be narrowly conservative to wonder if some inconvenient bits of the Book of Common Prayer and Canons got ignored or finessed. I am convinced that the exercise of more patience and prudence would have avoided much of the turmoil and division we have experienced over the last ten years. As Aquinas would say, how we achieve something is as important to it's being virtuous as what we achieve. And while those who have resisted or pursued schism as a result share the blame, the general dismissiveness by ‘progressives’ toward ‘traditionalists’ has belied their talk of inclusivity. Schism can be provoked as well as pursued.

7. Too often, those arguing for SSU offer no comprehensive sexual ethic that has any continuity with what has heretofore been considered faithful Christian discipline. Indeed, much is dismissive of anything like that discipline or has been indistinguishable from what one might expect to hear from Oprah or read in the heirs of Dear Abby.

8. Given the Episcopal Church’s seeming inability generally to discern the difference between a gospel imperative and liberal/progressive prejudice it is no wonder many suspect us of merely accommodating one segment of worldly culture. As I have written elsewhere, there is a sort of idolatry in the Episcopal Church that compromises our witness (the fact that “conservative” Christianity is just as culturally compromised does not change this).

9. The giveness of male and female and their sexual complementarity cannot be dismissed – as even some advocates of SSU acknowledge, e.g., Jeffrey John.

10. I respect the sacrificial self-discipline of those like Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet who have embraced celibacy in their determination to live faithfully according the traditional Christian sexual ethic.

11. Our understanding of abstractions like love, holiness, justice, etc. is provisional. So is any interpretation of scripture This side of the kingdom they will be incompletely understood, let alone lived. Thus, it is in the widest communion possible that interpretations and definitions of Christian faithfulness, however provisional, are best discerned. As an Anglican, I take the Anglican Communion to be the most adequate body for such discernment.

12. Being part of the Anglican Communion– a trans-national Christian body– is a basic reason I am an Episcopalian. The actions and reactions on this issue have done great harm to that communion. This has perhaps been the most significant obstacle for me. I have been an advocate for the Anglican Communion Covenant. I would still like to see something like the Covenant adopted – even if that meant that the Episcopal Church might serve some time on probation or something.

So . . .