Tuesday, October 23, 2018

With a Sincere Heart, with Real Intent

In the early 1990s I was involved in an increasingly heated discussion within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America about homosexuality. I participated in a couple of dialog events where information and perspectives on homosexuality were presented that were participated in by liberals and conservatives -- across the theological spectrum within Lutheranism.

At one point I remember having a conversation with a conservative evangelical Lutheran pastor. What he told me, I felt, was very revealing. He believed that the "biblical" position on homosexuality was that it was a sin. If that position were shown to be wrong, then he would lose faith in his ability to get any truth from the Bible. He said, "If we can't count on the Bible, what do we have left?"

My gut reaction came from the spiritual wellsprings of my upbringing as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I said to him, "We have God, of course!" I thought, "Where do you think the Bible came from?"

Thanks to my Mormonism, my faith as a Christian didn't depend on a view of scripture as 100% inerrant. I believed in a God who could reveal (and had revealed) himself to me personally, and who could give (and had given) me direct answers to the most perplexing questions in my life, even (or especially) when the words in a book didn't seem to do that very well. As Joseph Smith put it, "for the teachers of religion... understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible."

Of course I've run into the same problem among Mormons. A lot of Mormons want to do the same thing for "living prophets" that a lot of Protestants have done for the Bible. "Living prophets" are not "inerrant" for the same reasons that the Bible is not inerrant. This gets us to the root or the heart of the problem -- whether you are a Mormon or a conservative Evangelical.

If what you want is some "never wrong" external source of authority, you will be disappointed (traumatically disappointed even!) time and time and time again. The search for Truth with a capital T requires more personal engagement than just believing that some interpretation of scripture or some doctrinal pronouncement is infallible. It requires us to engage in a personal quest that requires risk.

"What if I'm wrong?" is one of the most painful questions to emerge from this messy human experience we are all having. And lots of us try to avoid that question by believing (wishing?) that some external authority can take away from us all risk of being wrong. If THEY'RE right 100% of the time, then I can always be right by just following them 100%.

I actually have become profoundly convinced that that's not God's plan for us (another insight that comes from deep within the spiritual wellsprings of my faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). I absolutely believe that God intended for this experience to be challenging and messy and to demand of us the utmost personal risk in learning how to become like Him.

In other words, there's no way for us to avoid being wrong once in a while.

*****

From this I also learned something important about the painful conflicts many of us are experiencing around LGBTQ experience and the church.

It was painful for me to feel that my experience as a gay man was invalidated or not believed by other Christians. But when I had this conversation with this conservative evangelical pastor, I realized that for him this was not about me personally at all. It wasn't about LGBTQ people in general at all. It was about him trying to hold on to a particular type of moral and spiritual compass. It was about this big question of how do we know truth and how do we make our way through the world.

In other words, it was not that he was a bad person. Quite the opposite. He was a very, very good, admirable person, wrestling with big questions about truth and how to find it and how to live by it. And for that, I was able to forgive him for not "getting" it, for not seeing things exactly the way I see them, as I hope others will forgive me for not seeing things their way, and even for being wrong on important matters that affect them.

What I believe is that we all have a better chance of getting to that place of perfection and truth we're all striving for if we have patience, if we go about it with a lot of love and forgiveness, and if we seek truth "having faith" that we can find it, "with a sincere heart, with real intent," and with more humility than we've had in the past.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

1 Corinthians on Sex and Marriage

1 Corinthians 6 contains one of the texts typically used by Evangelical Christians (and some Mormons) to condemn homosexuality.

A lot of energy in the debates over this scripture focuses on the proper translation of a couple of terms in verse 9 that have been translated in the King James Version as "effeminate" and "abusers of themselves with mankind." A footnote in the LDS edition claim that the word translated as "effeminate" here means "catamite" in the original Greek. (I don't think that's true... I think the Greek word here is "malakoi," which means "soft". Who knows whether Paul was referring to "catamites" or "boy escorts" that were common in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.) Another footnote links "abusers of themselves with mankind" with "homosexuality." In some versions, this gets translated as "homosexuality," in others not.

But, read in context here, I think the translation really doesn't matter. How we render some of those terms into English is moot, since Paul follows this list of sins with this declaration: "All things are lawful unto me."

What does this mean? It means that the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not consist of a list of do's and don't's.

Look at the context of what Paul says here, from verse 9 through the end of the chapter in verse 20. He's talking about "fornication," about "harlots." He's talking about a way of life in which we allow ourselves to be governed by worldly appetites rather than by the Spirit. If Paul is talking about homosexual behavior here, it's clearly homosexual behavior that's out of control, that involves prostitutes or random hook-ups, where sex is being pursued for sex's sake. He's not talking about relationships of commitment and love and trust. Assuming that to be the case would be the same as assuming that a condemnation of harlots is the same as a condemnation of sex between heterosexual married individuals.

Paul says, "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I WILL NOT BE BROUGHT UNDER THE POWER OF ANY." In other words, the question here is: Are we ruled by our lusts, or are we ruled by the Spirit?

Gay and lesbian folks historically have been so shamed and beaten down and have so much had inculcated in us that any feeling of attraction toward a member of the same sex is "grievous sin" that we often find it difficult to distinguish between "bridled" sexuality that is an expression of love and out-of-control lust. But that distinction exists for us just the same as it does for all of our Heavenly Parents' hetero children.

Paul here is saying "All is lawful"; it just needs to be governed by love and by the Spirit.

The context of the entire chapter here is the condemnation of legalism! This discussion is occasioned because the Saints in Corinth are actually taking each other to civil court and suing each other! And Paul insists that the Saints should be governed by the Spirit, and a people governed by the Spirit should not need to solve their problems in this kind of legalistic manner.

So ironic that a letter condemning legalism should be twisted into a set of rules that members of the church have used to condemn homosexuals.

*****

1 Corinthians 7 gets real about sex and marriage. And all of it is very relevant to LGBT believers. Read the chapter carefully for yourselves and tell me what you think. But here's what it looks like to me:

In the eyes of God, whether we are married or unmarried doesn't matter. It's up to us to decide what works best for us. (As Paul stressed in chapter 6, "All is lawful.")

If we have the gift of celibacy (like Paul did), that's great! It means we are free to focus all of our energy on service to God and to others!

If we don't have the gift of celibacy, we shouldn't try to force ourselves to be celibate. If our libido is too strong, we won't be able to resist the temptation of falling into "fornication," which will cause us to lose the Spirit. If we have a strong libido, we need to constructively channel it within marriage.

Marriage is a good thing. It can give us an opportunity to give ourselves completely to another human being. Once we make that commitment, we belong to our spouse! That requires a certain discipline! We have a mutual obligation to provide each other with the physical solace of sex. If we don't meet our spouse's sexual needs, we run the risk of libido driving our spouse to fornication. It's OK to go without sex in marriage for a time, especially for purposes of prayer and fasting, but it needs to be by mutual consent! One spouse can't just arbitrarily decide to stop having sex... That's unfair to the other spouse.

(Men's obligation to women here, by the way, is identical to women's obligation to men!)

Whatever state we are in when God calls us, it's all good! If we're married, it's good to stay married. Don't leave a spouse for the sake of the Church! (I found it very interesting what Paul says about believing spouses married to unbelieving spouses...) If we're single, it's good to stay single. But, that doesn't mean single people can't get married. They can! It's all good! It's up to us to discern what works best for us when it comes to these things. Paul is not trying to tell anybody they must do this or they must do that... He's offering advice. What matters is keeping the Spirit and channeling our sexuality in constructive ways.

We're all different! Some of us have different gifts than others. It's all for the good!

*****

Paul is adamant that celibacy should NOT be forced on people. To do so endangers their spiritual well being! It's best to find the right balance. Some of us don't really need sex. If so, that's great! If we do need sex, channeling our sexuality within a relationship will teach us mutual love and surrender.

I'm not sure these principles apply any differently to gay people than they do to straight people. I've seen the harm that comes from forcing people to be celibate. I've seen the harm that comes from pushing gay people into marriages with straight spouses, where the gay spouse simply can't reciprocate in the way that married partners are supposed to reciprocate. I've seen the good that comes from gay individuals constructively channeling their sexuality into loving, committed, same-sex relationships.

Is there a better argument than Paul's here for why Christians should accept and celebrate same-sex marriage?

Thoughts?