Homosexuality and Why You Can’t Remove Love From Exegesis: An Appeal to Tim Keller and Matthew Vines

Sunday, August 16, 2015

With the major shift in our country’s laws affirming marriage equality, homosexuality has become a hot-button issue within Evangelicalism. We have seen both Evangelicals who are speaking out in favor of acceptance of their LGBT brothers and sisters (often losing their jobs in the process), and at the same time we have seen a doubling-down from Evangelical institutions and leaders in rejecting this shift.

Those Evangelicals who see homosexuality as wrong tend today to argue this point based on the “authority of Scripture alone,” meaning they present no actual evidence that would lead them to conclude there is anything harmful with people in loving same-sex relationships, other than that “the Bible says so.” In other words, their position —and this is by far the most common position among conservative Evangelicals today— is essentially that it does not matter what you or I think, it does not matter what we can observe, it does not matter what gay people tell us... all that matters is what the Bible says. The Bible condemns it, that settles it. All we need to do, they argue, is to look to what Scripture clearly teaches about homosexuality, and regard this as the final and authoritative word on the matter.

As I demonstrate in Disarming Scripture, there is a major flaw in this kind of reasoning. Using this exact same approach to the Bible has lead Christians in the past to support both slavery and child abuse based on the “authority of Scripture.” Let me clarify here that first of all, I am not referring to spanking, but what would be considered criminal child abuse—beating children bloody with a whip or rod. This type of child abuse was common among Christians (as well as the broader culture) for centuries, and was justified based on the “authority of Scripture.” Likewise, slavery was justified for centuries on the “authority of Scripture.” We should not have any romanticized notions of what slavery was like in the ancient world—it was brutal and inhumane. Slaves in the ancient world were not only commonly beaten, but raped by their masters.

We can see from these examples that this approach to Scripture—which is the predominant approach taken by Evangelicals today—has led in the past to justifying things that are terribly damaging, immoral, and abusive.

Now, that of course does not mean that just because some things in the past were hurtful and immoral (like slavery and child abuse) that therefore anything we object to in the Bible is automatically wrong. However, it absolutely does mean that we cannot rely on “what the Bible plainly says” alone, detached from any sort of moral evaluation, ignoring our conscience, ignoring people telling us they are being hurt. If we do not question, and in fact ignore our conscience screaming at us “this feels really wrong,” and ignore everything we can observe about how humans work, including people saying to us “this is hurting me!” pressing on despite all of that “standing on the authority of Scripture” this is a virtual guarantee that we will arrive at abusive and hurtful interpretations.

Evangelicals Who Can’t Remember Their Past

So how do conservative Evangelicals respond to this? One example is Tim Keller who in his “The Bible and Same Sex Relationships: A Review Article” in response to books by Matthew Vines and Ken Wilson, attempts to deny that Christians ever endorsed slavery. Keller writes,

“Up until very recently, all Christian churches and theologians unanimously read the Bible as condemning homosexuality. By contrast, there was never any consensus or even a majority of churches that thought slavery and segregation were supported by the Bible.”

Keller cites a number of authors to back up this claim. For example he claims that “historians such as Mark Noll have shown the 19th century position some people took that the Bible condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly controversial and never a consensus.” However, this completely misrepresents what Noll actually says. Of course there was not a consensus. That’s why we had a Civil War. The point is not that Keller can find progressive-leaning American Christians who opposed slavery. The point is that those who read the Bible like Keller does now were the ones who supported slavery then. Listen to what Noll actually has to say on the issue,

“[F]or over thirty years Americans battled each other exegetically on the issue, with the more orthodox and the ones who took most seriously the authority of Scripture being also the ones most likely to conclude that the Bible sanctioned slavery.” (Noll, Civil War as Theological Crisis, 115)

As Noll illustrates with multiple case studies, it was much easier for those on the pro-slavery side to make a direct appeal to the “plain meaning” of Scripture. Theirs was the stronger and more self-evident biblical argument, Noll observes. Yet that very focus on “correct” interpretation led them to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and barbarity— all done in the name of submitting to the authority of Scripture.

Further, as Matthew Vines points out in his response to Keller's review, this is not only a matter of slavery in America, but slavery practiced by Christians for centuries upon centuries. Slavery was vigorously defended by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. Keller’s characterization of history is just flat out wrong here. The reality is, the church has a long history of endorsing slavery based on the authority of the Bible. The same is true of the church’s endorsement of what we would now regard as criminal child abuse, again based on the “authority of Scripture.” The issue here is that history shows us that reading the Bible in this unquestioning authoritarian way has led Christians to defend and maintain these deeply hurtful and immoral practices.

As the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” What Keller is not facing is that Evangelicals such as himself continue to read their Bibles today in regards to homosexuality in precisely the same way conservative Christians read it in the past in regards to slavery. Nothing has changed in this regard. The hermeneutic of unquestioning obedience is identical. Evangelicals have apparently learned little from their past in regards to how they read the Bible.

I'll never forget the first time I visited the Gedaechtnis-Kirche (Church of Remembrance) in the city center of Berlin. The pastor, seeing that I was an American, came to me and said, "I want to ask your forgiveness for what my people have done." I was only 22 at the time, and pastor couldn't have been much older, meaning that at the time of WWII he was not even born. Yet here he was asking for  forgiveness on behalf of his country. As an American that never left me. It was so... what's the word I'm looking for?... Christian. Yet in my own country,  a country where its citizens often refer to it as "a Christian nation," such a statement seems nearly unthinkable. I wish that we American Christians could take responsibility for the past sins of our country like that young German pastor did. I wish we Evangelicals could learn to care less about defending our doctrinal camp or our Bibles, and a little bit more about the marginalized and the "least" among us. I wish that was not so foreign to us.

Reading Morally

Referring to 19th century Christian abolitionists, Noll writes, “[T]he stronger their arguments based on general humanitarian principles became, the weaker the Bible looked in any traditional sense. By contrast, rebuttal of such arguments from biblical principle increasingly came to look like a defense of Scripture itself” (45). The same could be said today. The reason Evangelicals like Keller so adamantly oppose acceptance of same-sex relationships is because they see this as tantamount to the defense of the authority of Scripture. Likewise, the strongest arguments of those Evangelicals who are gay affirming such as Matthew Vines or Ken Wilson are those based on humanitarian principles—noting the harm that is resulting among gays due to the rejection and condemnation they experience.

The overwhelming majority of social scientists and mental health practitioners today would maintain that there is simply no evidence that same-sex relationships are destructive or harmful in and of themselves. Conversely, what we can observe, as far as harm is concerned, is that statistically the LGBT community has a higher rate of drug abuse, mental illness, and suicide than the larger population— alarmingly higher in fact.

The reason is quite clear: the rejection they experience. Being kicked out of their homes, hiding who they are, being threatened and hated, etc. can easily make a person sick, depressed, broken, and even drive them to suicide. As their voices have begun to be heard, we have seen story after story of how gay and transgender kids have felt hated, at times even hating themselves.

This matters tremendously. This is what we need to pay attention to. This needs to factor into how we read the Bible. As I say repeatedly in  Disarming Scripture, if we recognize that our particular interpretation and application of Scripture is leading to observable harm, this necessarily means that we need to stop and reassess our course. Scripture, as Jesus read it, needs to lead us to love God, others, and ourselves. If we find that it is leading instead to causing harm then we are getting it wrong.

I appreciate very much the work of Vines and Wilson. My concern, however, is that the approach taken by left-leaning Evangelicals like Vines continues to affirm the authority of Scripture but argues that we have just misread it. The basic argument is that we just need to understand the context, or know the Greek better, and we will see that the New Testament is actually not condemning homosexuality.

Vines says his book God and the Gay Christian “envisions a future in which all Christians come to embrace and affirm their LGBT brothers and sisters— without undermining their commitment to the authority of the Bible” (3). That’s certainly a laudable goal. However, the problem is that this ultimately plays into the hands of conservatives like Keller who want to restrict the conversation to solely “what the Bible says,” and discount any discussion of what is good and loving based on paying attention to our life experience and relationships. It acts as if the problem was simply one of correct exegesis, and that all we need to do is find that right reading to settle the matter. Again, this leaves out the necessity of a moral evaluation of the text, and connecting our reading of Scripture to our life experience.

In his book, Vines tells how his father changed his mind “persuaded by biblical scholarship, historical evidence, and reason” (19). This surely plays a vital role, but I would like to underline (and I think this is something Vines knows) that the reason for his father’s change of heart was surely not because of exegetical arguments alone, but also because his father loves his son. Love is not a factor that can be removed from exegesis. When love is there, those exegetical arguments can build a bridge. For all the parents and loved ones of LGBT Christians, the exegetical arguments in Vine’s book could be the glue that works towards love and reconciliation. But when those same arguments are encountered by someone like Keller who feels the need to defend Evangelicalism’s doctrinal front-line, those appeals to relationship and love are simply discounted, and the focus is placed solely on “what the Bible has to say.”

For such Evangelicals, the issue of homosexuality is tied to their understanding of the authority of Scripture. However, with the issues of slavery and child abuse that understanding of “the authority of Scripture” has been shown to be deeply flawed, leading to advocating things deeply hurtful and wrong. That immoral understanding of Scripture has to change. We Evangelicals need to find a way of reading the Bible that leads us to Jesus-shaped love, not a way of reading that is divorced from love and relationship.

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Fear, Fundamentalism, and Moral Development (part 2)

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Last time I discussed human moral development, and how fundamentalism functions to keep people at underdeveloped levels of moral development, characterized by black and white thinking and fear. This time I wanted to look at how we can work to move ourselves and others away from moral immaturity and towards higher level moral thinking, based on understanding Jesus' message of enemy love.

Consider what goes on in our heads when we get mad: I stop seeing things in terms of "us" and instead see everything as me against you. I feel the need to defend myself, not to hear you. I need to have my side validated as "right." If I am accused of doing something to hurt you, my focus will not be on expressing care for you, let alone remorse. Instead I will focus on justifying myself. You misunderstood, I didn't mean it. I'm innocent, and I am the focus.

All of this is me-focused, rather than we-focused. When we feel threatened, our brain shifts into self-defense, self-protection mode. That self-focus has a valuable function (it preserves your life when there is danger), but it also means that if I switch into this mode when I'm having a disagreement with my wife that I will see her as the "enemy" through the distorted lens of my self-protective bubble. 

Sociologist Christian Smith has described American (conservative) Evangelicalism as "embattled and thriving," and both of these are true. In fact, Evangelicalism thrives precisely by fostering feelings of outrage and fear. Perhaps that's why it's growing, while the Catholic church under pope Francis is shrinking. Remove the fear and everyone heads for the exits. Sad but true.

Fundamentalism is all about maintaining that self-protective bubble. Those on the inside are good, those on the outside are seen as a threat. There is a strong need to be right. Because outrage and fear are fostered in a fundamentalist environment, being in that environment for an extended time is very much like being angry all the time. That us/them thinking has the positive function of creating a deep sense of belonging and identity within the group, but at the same time it moves those inside further and further from empathy--which is at the very heart of how Jesus saw those who were considered "outsiders" by the fundamentalism of his day.

In short, fundamentalism is a form of tribalism that fosters and perpetuates this anti-social self-focused state, stunting a person's moral growth. The longer a person spends in that environment, the more morally impaired they become--like living in a building filled with asbestos. Asbestos is meant to protect you from fire, but poisons your insides. Fundamentalism is the same.

This self-protective reaction can be a response to physical danger, and it can also come as a response to perceived threats to our self-worth--feeling disrespected, shamed, rejected, abandoned, unloved. Both of these are core needs. We might even call them primal. So when we feel that either of these are threatened we can "freak out." 

This "freak out" response is our body's response to perceived threat. When we are triggered, the social part of our brain (called the cerebral cortex) gets shut down, and our brain is driven by its fear center (the lymbic system). That's why you can't see the other, and become so self-focused when you're triggered. It's physiological. This physiological emergency brain shut-down function may be good for a caveman being chased by a woolly mammoth, but it's not so great for relationships.

We need to develop morally and socially beyond that caveman response. We can all become triggered when we feel our value is threatened--when we feel disrespected, shamed, rejected, abandoned, unloved. What we need to do when we feel triggered like this is learn to break out of our self-protective bubble. 

That begins by learning to recognize when we are triggered, and taking time to calm down so we can "see" socially again. This is again physiological. We need time for our brains to come back online. But what we can do is develop self-awareness, like a person who recognizes when they have had too much to drink and hands over their car keys, we can learn to recognize when we are socially impaired due to a lymbic reaction of our brain.

The next step is to seek to see the perspective of the other, too, to move from "me" to "we." That's empathy--which is both central to both moral development, and to the way of Jesus. If this is with someone we love, that empathy can kick in as soon as our cerebral cortex comes back online. So all we may need is to allow time for this. If we are talking about an "other," then we need to work to develop that empathy, to move from seeing them as an "enemy" or "threat" to seeing them through the lens of love. Jesus was all about pushing us to widen our circles to include those we put on the outside.

That's how we can work on ourselves, but what about when someone else is triggered and emotionally reactive? How can we help a person who is morally impaired to break out of that self-focus? To put it in gospel terms: How can we rescue them from the dominion of fear, and reconcile them to Christ and his kingdom way of love? Again, when a person is reactive, this is a response to a perceived threat to their value and worth. So communicating to them that you genuinely value them, and value their concerns can create a safe space for conversation rather than defensiveness. Love disarms. 

Of course a person needs to have insight and self-reflection themselves. They need to take responsibility for their moral growth. But "disarming" a person by affirming and validating them can create the safe space to help make that possible.

What also is often necessary when seeking to reconcile two parties in conflict is the help of a trained mediator. A mediator, who is both neutral and validating to both parties, can work to repair trust. 

That's pretty much the opposite of the approach of Christian apologetics which is not set up to seek to understand the other, to disarm with love, or to reconcile the other. Apologetics seeks to win an argument, but in the process loses the person. Again, that whole antagonistic "I win, you lose" approach is one of low moral development. We need to learn to win people, not win arguments. 

Here's an amusing thought experiment: Imagine a debate--say between an atheist and a Christian-- where instead of each  speaker attempting to "win" the debate by "proving" that their position was superior, the moderator instead worked to get them both to understand and validate the other's feelings and concerns, so that in the end the two grew closer.  I want front row tickets to see that!

"God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:20).

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Fear, Fundamentalism, and Moral Development

Saturday, August 01, 2015

There's a great clip from Richard Rohr by my buddy Travis Reed at Work of the People. In it, Rohr discusses how a major problem with the Bible has to do with who is reading it,

"If you put the word of God in the hands of an angry young man, they're going to misuse it, abuse it, distort it, murder the text, to make it fit their own agenda...  The Bible is best put in the hands of mature human beings who are not filled with anger and fear and agenda."  -Richard Rohr
The reason that we will never get to a time where there will not be fundamentalism is because fundamentalism has to do with a lack of human moral development. It is a reflection of  immaturity, and unfortunately, to turn a phrase, you will always have the immature among you. 

The real problem is not with the Bible, but with how we read it -- whether we read it like Jesus did as a vehicle to move us towards compassion, or read it like the Pharisees did in a spirit of unquestioning obedience that leads to hurt. In other words, the problem is not so much with the Bible as it is with people who are at a very low level of moral development which is characterized by black and white thinking and fear.

The theory of moral development, pioneered by Lawrence Kohlberg in the 1950s, observes that as humans we go through stages of development morally. The morality of small children is characterized by black and white thinking and motivated by avoidance of punishment. As we grow older, and our brain develops, we become capable of higher forms of morality such as empathy, understanding the perspective of another, and doing things not to avoid punishment, but because we care for others.  

Little kids exhibit low level moral development because their brains are not developed enough yet to be capable of these higher moral functions (which is incidentally why children should not be tried as adults in our legal system). When adults exhibit low level moral development, this is a problem. It's moral immaturity.
It is important to stress here that by the term “fundamentalism,” I am not referring to those with conservative or traditional beliefs (many of which I myself affirm), but rather to a way of approaching belief that is authoritarian, judgmental, self-righteous, and ultimately fear-based. Such a fundamentalist environment encourages people (by means of shame and fear and threat) to remain at a low moral developmental level. Fundamentalism fosters fear, rather than helping people overcome it. It consists of indoctrination that stunts a person's moral development, and the more time a person spends in that environment, the more their moral growth atrophies. 

The same is true with watching Fox News, or spending time in other toxic environments like internet comment boards filled with viciousness. Fundamentalism takes many forms: There's religious fundamentalism (including atheist fundamentalists), political fundamentalism, and so on. Basically, any ideology or belief system can be approached in a morally immature way, characterized by otherizing, fear, and black and white thinking. The more you feed on that diet of fear and anger, the more it stunts your moral growth, the more it shrivels the soul. When they say "you are what you eat" that's not talking about food.

The problem is that, rather than recognize this black and white thinking and fear as indicative of low level moral development, fundamentalism instead upholds this as moral virtue. Compromise is seen as failure, compassion as weakness; hate and judgment become virtues.

We need to recognize these things for what they are, and that is an underdeveloped morality. To the extent that we foster staying at that low level of moral development, we make people less good. That is what a fundamentalist church does. 

But it is not just churches. Our public discourse -- whether this is grandstanding politicians, shouting pundits on the news, or the toxic posts on the comments section of any big internet site -- is characterized by people who exhibit very low level moral development: fear based, black and white, otherizing, incapable of understanding complexity or finding compromise. This moral immaturity is so prevalent that it feels like the norm, but it is not normal to have so many morally stunted adults (let alone is it the ideal), it's very broken.

To put this in typical Christian terms, it is a sin. I don't say that to place shame, but simply to underline that fostering moral immaturity as a virtue is bad. It hurts people because of how it otherizes and reacts in fear, leading to violence -- especially when we have morally immature people in positions of power and influence. Jesus in the Gospels spends quite a bit of time confronting this in the Pharisees. So while it is uncomfortable to be "negative" and to point out the problems, it is important to do so for the health of our ourselves and our society. So I want us to take note of moral immaturity that masquerades as a virtue.

Next time I'll talk about how we can work to move ourselves and others away from moral immaturity and towards higher level moral thinking, based on understanding Jesus' message of enemy love. Here's part 2.

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