Talking Otherwise

As my author’s blurb will tell you, I’m a Ph.D. student in theology. This means that I spend an inordinate amount of time with books and my laptop. Still, I do talk to people once in a while.

Although I try to keep the topics of these conversations limited to cats and literature, theology inevitably comes up. And then all bets are off. A perfectly friendly discussion can degenerate into an acerbic, and even abusive, argument. A room full of lively banter and laughter can suddenly become permeated by near-catatonic boredom or dire seriousness. My perfectly intelligent, capable, and balanced friends can momentarily forget that I am not an oracle or a walking summa and demand a comprehensive, true, and binding answer to, say, the problem of evil. And then someone will embarrassedly change the subject.

I’ve learned a few things from these conversations.

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Is Homosexuality A Sin?

I don’t know about you, but every conversation I have about homosexuality (well, at least in the Christian context) inevitably circles back to one issue.

Sin.

We’re all familiar with the spectrum of opinion. There are those who vehemently argue that the very desire for someone of the same sex/gender is sinful. There are those who – no less vehemently – insist that queer love and physical intimacy, like all love and physical intimacy, is God-given and, therefore, intrinsically not sinful. And there are those who uneasily hold a middle ground, saying, for instance, that it’s not sinful for a woman to be in love with another woman, or even to live with her in friendship and companionship, so long as they don’t, um, “act on it.”

No matter where they fall on this spectrum, however, most Christians think that homosexuality – and, for that matter, all sexuality – has something to do with sin.

In my next few posts, I’m going to probe a bit deeper into this common assumption. I believe that our thoughts on homosexuality reveal something important about our usual notions of sin. They reveal – to put it bluntly – that our theology of sin is often not really Christian. This is because, when we talk about sin, we habitually begin with nature and law, not with Christ and the gospel.

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Here I Speak – I Can Do No Other

I’m bi, I’m Christian, and I think it’s important to say this out loud.1

I’ve often heard well-meaning people muse (in a conciliatory tone): “I’m not against gay people, myself. But can’t they just live their private lives quietly? Why do they have to talk about them? To put it bluntly, I don’t talk about what I do in my bedroom, so why should they? And doesn’t this merely add fuel to the fire? Live and let live.”

They have a point. I, too, would love it if my sexuality were a non-issue. I would much rather live quietly – date and break up, fall in love and maybe get married – without anyone but my friends and family knowing anything about it. I would love it if the simple fact that I date both men and women could be just one part of who I am, like my blond hair or my love of detective stories.

But the thing is – I can’t be quiet about my private life and have integrity at the same time.

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  1. I’ll use the term “bisexual” throughout these posts simply because I’m relatively ok with it. I do, however, think that binaries, sexual or gender, are not something set in stone. And I think that we need to pay attention to the words we use. But these important issues are not central to the questions I’m raising here. []

A Gay Ol’ Time

Over the next little while UTS is going to take up the issue of homosexuality. We’re doing this for several reasons.

First, we at UTS have all been personally – and negatively – affected by the church’s traditional stance against homosexuality. So, it’s something that has been bothering us.

Second, we feel that, despite the topic’s great currency, much still needs to be said.

Third, we’ve realized that this one issue serves to encapsulate much of what this blog has set out to address [Ed. note: this link refers to the introduction to the first version of this blog]: how to remain Christian in a world where many elements of the traditional Christian synthesis now seem exhausted, problematic, or even destructive.

Our position is simple: we think the traditional teaching is wrong. Many Christians have said as much for some time. But we want to explore in-depth why it’s wrong. We don’t think that a superficial mistake has been made in one area of contemporary social ethics. We think that this error is symptomatic of much deeper problems in how we read the Bible, how we do theology, how we relate to the state and society, and, ultimately, how we understand the gospel itself. In fact, at UTS we believe this issue has become explosive precisely because it exposes systemic deficiencies of the traditional synthesis – and that this is something that none of us really want to face.

Each UTS author will approach this topic in a different way.

David is going to speak a little about his own experience of coming out, and the costs to himself, and others, of the church’s traditional teaching. By doing this, he wants to provide a concrete, real-life platform for exploring the dynamics and consequences of the church’s teachings. His ultimate concern, however, is to reflect on how the church’s error on this question is a consequence of much deeper theological and ecclesiological missteps – missteps that he feels reach to our very understanding of the gospel. David will also suggest that the question facing the churches is no longer really “did we get it wrong?” (yes), but “what responsibility do the churches now bear in light of the fact that we got it so wrong?”

Maria will also begin by speaking about her personal experiences – both her coming out and her complicity in the church’s traditional stance. These reflections, however, will underpin a more direct engagement of what she sees as the central theological and moral issues surrounding the debate. Does human sexuality have anything to do with theology? Must the church, for instance, take a stance on whether homosexuality is a sin or not, and what do we mean when we say ‘sin’ (especially in light of the distinction that Christians must make between law and gospel)? Maria will also suggest that our customary recourse to the Bible in arguments either for or against homosexuality betrays our (sinful) rejection of Christ’s radical grace, and will explore how our everyday choices – to speak out or to remain silent, to stay or to leave – disclose our failure to live out Christ’s gospel with integrity, frankness, and freedom.

Tim will be exploring how homosexuality is presented in the Bible, and what these presentations mean when formulating contemporary theology. Since Christian theology is ultimately governed by our appropriation of biblical texts, he will investigate how the Bible’s negative depictions of homosexuality can be understood when constructing contemporary Christian theology (and how that might be different from the way in which it is often done). Since Tim is also very concerned with the relationships between religious conventions and state enforcement, he’ll also be writing about the civil debate over same-sex marriage, and what (if anything) it has to do with the church.

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He Will Not Go Away

He came to be with us. That’s the long and the short of it.

He’s like an annoying lover. He can’t live without you. He knows you don’t want him. He knows you will reject him – again, and again, and again. He knows you would really prefer it if he just cleared out of your life. But he won’t.

He’s like an annoying brother. He sees that you’ve gotten yourself into a mess. He knows that you don’t see it that way. And you’re stubborn. And you have your dignity. And you will hate him for meddling. But the mess is too big. So he just picks up the pieces anyway.

He doesn’t want anything in return. He doesn’t want your faith, or your obedience, or your love, or your good deeds, or your gratitude. He knows he won’t get them from you. Still, he won’t go away.

There is really nothing we can do about this. In fact, we’ve already tried everything. We’ve ignored him, laughed at him, shrugged our shoulders, rejected him, killed him. We’ve believed him, understood him, praised him, built churches in his honor, performed feats of asceticism and loads of good works, got pretty proud of him, killed in his name. We’ve lost our delusions, grew up, and finally almost forgot him. Still, he won’t go away.

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Jesus Is A Failure

We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Nice phrase, right?

We, Christians, usually assume that it means something like this. If you, Jews and Gentiles, think that Christ is a failure and a fraud, you’re wrong. He really is powerful, wise, and successful, only he’s chosen to hide it for the time being. Those “in the know” (i.e., us) understand this. And, at some point, you’ll discover that we’re right – only it might be too little, too late.

Except that the ancient Jews and Gentiles – and the modern non-Christians and atheists – have got it right. Think about it. As a man or as a god, this Christ of ours is a failure and a fraud.

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