Credo in…quid? Who is an orthodox Christian?

Pope Francis’s visit to American shores unleashed a storm of breathless reporting and commentary that transfixed the press in the United States for a full week. (I would link, but it’s hard to know where to begin.) Yet amidst the musings on issues both profound and mundane that his journey spawned, one thing was again very clear in the coverage of the pontifical progress: the media are generally flummoxed when they attempt to comprehend and articulate the nature of the factions and fractures within Christianity, particularly when it comes to understanding what an orthodox Christian might actually be.

Exhibit A was this New York Times piece, which begins by airing the views of a representative from the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church [bold emphasis mine]:

[Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller], a conservative German in black clerical clothing, said neither the pontiff, nor his church, cared whether “Obama says the pope is a very good man” or whether a “fallible” Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. And if papal proclamations of Catholic doctrine on core issues of family have eroded Francis’ global standing, so be it.

But Cardinal Müller is no objective papal observer. He is a leading voice in the orthodox wing of the Catholic Church that worries that outsize attention on Francis’ welcoming, pastoral style could distract from the church’s core beliefs.
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Christian Theology and Homosexuality

 Since I’ve been writing for a while now about the Bible, Christian theology, and homosexuality, I’m intending to move on to other discussions, especially about the place of the church in the political world. But this recent post by Rod Dreher, which builds off another article by Lawrence Farley, has compelled me to get out one more observation on the subject. What I’m concerned about in both of these articles is not the opposition to gay inclusion in the church (although obviously these authors and I are on opposite sides of that issue), but that the framing of the problem reveals a pernicious but common category mistake that plagues most discussions of Christian sexual ethics and the church.

The gist of both Farley’s and Dreher’s arguments is that revising Christian disciplinary conventions about homosexuality (in response to rapidly changing social and scientific understandings of human sexuality) is problematic because it poses a challenge to fundamental precepts of Christian theology and what Dreher terms “Biblical orthodoxy” or a “Biblical view” of humanity. First, the claim that this argument is theological in nature is incorrect in a way that fatally compromises its premise. Second, positing either that there is such a thing as “Biblical orthodoxy” or that the Bible is capable of presenting a fixed model of human anthropology are dangerously mistaken claims.

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The Indiana RFRA: An Assault on Christian Religious Freedom and Integrity

In the days since Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed and defended Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a storm of outrage and offense has rippled through the political and business worlds, decrying the law’s rather obvious anti-gay discriminatory intent. In the wake this public anger over the law, a variety of disingenuous or just mistaken defenses of the law have emerged. All of these defenses revolve around the idea that the Indiana RFRA isn’t really different than either the corresponding federal legislation, or statutes enacted in nearly half of the other states.

However, the Indiana law departs significantly from existing federal and state “religious freedom” statutes, for two reasons. First, it has specifically extended religious freedom protection to for-profit businesses that have no religious purpose or connection. Second, it allows a “religious freedom” legal defense for an individual or corporation that is sued by a private party (i.e., not the government). (See Garrett Epps’ excellent explication of these issues here). The relatively plain purpose of the law is to explicitly allow businesses to enact a variety of doctrinal tests governing their business, and then to be able to defend themselves in court from the inevitable discrimination claims on the basis of exercising their religious freedom. The Indiana RFRA was passed for a very different purpose than its federal cousin, and it is the underlying discriminatory motivation for the legislation – an intent that is clear in the alteration of its language – that makes it so pernicious.

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Paul, Romans, Pagans, and Gays

I’ve been writing a bit recently on a somewhat personal note about where the church stands (or where I would like it to stand) in its response to gay Christians who are asking for full inclusion and acceptance in the church. That was motivated in part by David and Maria’s outstanding reflections on their own experiences, and a desire to step a little outside of the pure theological realm and address the real people that I see around me every day. But today I want to get back to some more exegesis, breaking down further why I think the biblical arguments against homosexuality in the church are untenable.

st paul homosexuality romans

Hmmm, what would be the best way to demonstrate my scorn for those filthy pagan idolaters?

I haven’t done a thorough search to confirm this, but I’d wager that Romans 1:24-27 is easily the passage that is most frequently cited as a biblical warrant against permitting, or even embracing, open gay and lesbian relationships within the church. It’s a powerful source for several reasons. It’s not from the Old Testament, and so can’t be disregarded as a legal demand that should no longer hold sway within Christian communities. (I don’t love these kinds of dismissals of the Old Testament, but they are a reality in the thinking of many Christians.) It’s quite explicit in its language, and so difficult to ignore on account of vagueness. And finally, it’s a substantial part of Paul’s opening argument in Romans about the nature and quality of Christ’s gospel. Romans, and particularly its first few chapters, is inarguably one of the great theological bedrocks of Christian theology; its logic and rhetoric have been central to the articulation of the faith since its beginning. (It is, indeed, a theological tour de force.) So the attention paid to these verses is understandable, since if Paul condemns homosexual actions and orientations here, then surely such a rejection cannot be elided from the church’s teaching. Right?

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Great Lent, Exile, and Spiritual Discernment

Today is the first week of Great Lent for the Orthodox Church. I think it’s fair to say that Lent is associated in the minds of most people, Christians and otherwise, with its “negative” features: fasting, an increased discipline of prayer, longer and more penitential liturgical services. But these are only the outward appurtenances of the season. The spiritual purpose of Lent, the biblical model that Christians enact for the season, is the experience of exile, of longing for the Kingdom of God. Outside the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem, we keen to belong to the place that we understand to be our true home.

We feel the pain of exile because of the sins that have put us there, and Lent is a time to reflect upon and make a special effort to repair the big and small things we all do that make this world that was created for us just a little bit worse. Of course, in order to begin a process of repentance, we have to understand where we have been in the wrong. That’s never an easy thing; discernment of our own actions is one of the most difficult intellectual and spiritual challenges for any person, much less anyone who is trying to understand and give an account of their actions to God.

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Leviticus, Gay Sex, and Christianity (II)

 A couple of weeks ago, I gave a thumbnail sketch of the literary and theological context of Leviticus’ condemnations of same-sex male intercourse, and promised to talk about how those things should be understood in the context of Christian theology. So today I’m going to talk a little more about the metaphysics behind Leviticus’ cultic structure, and what Christ and his gospel have to do with all of that.

The writers of Leviticus faced a theological conundrum. They needed a way to communicate with God so that they could be sure that their actions were in accordance with God’s directives. However, they also postulated a God who was so utterly different from the humans under his protection – in a way that transcends our understanding of nature and being – that sending and receiving information from him was rendered exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. God, for these writers, is different from humans, not in size or power, but in kind. Most importantly, God is holy, whereas humans, for the most part, are not.

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Straight Talk about Gay Christians

 Like many of you, I’ve found the personal reflections that David and Maria have offered us this week to be profoundly brave and moving. I had planned to post something more today on Leviticus and gay Christians, but I feel that I can’t let my colleagues’ posts go by without addressing them directly.

Of the three of us at UTS, I’m the only who has a “church-approved” romantic life: straight, married, with children. As far as my private life is concerned, I have no reason to care about where the churches (and, in particular, the Orthodox Church, my ecclesial home) stand on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or any related issues, because, on the sex front, nothing about either my public or private life contradicts its explicit teachings or implicit expectations about how a good, God-fearing Christian should live. But that doesn’t mean that I’m unaffected by questions about the church’s traditional theology concerning homosexuality, or by the way that it treats community members who are also gay. Insofar as these are challenges to very nature of the Christian community – not simply regarding who gets to be “in,” but what our answer to this query means about who we all are, both as individual Christians and as a community based on love and care for each other – they are pressing for everyone.

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Leviticus, Gay Sex, and Christianity (I)

In my last post, I made a few observations about how important it is to comprehend the theological framework of biblical regulations. This time, I want to get into the weeds a little bit by discussing two verses of the Old Testament, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, that directly address sexual relations between two people of the same sex.

These passages are nestled in a portion of Leviticus generally known in biblical scholarship as the “Holiness Code,” which is concerned, as its name suggests, with rules designed to conform Israel to God’s own holiness. Holiness is important so that the land can be kept ritually and morally clean for God to dwell in, and so that Israel’s priestly representatives can continue to communicate with God. (The moniker “Holiness Code” is taken from Leviticus 19:2 and its demand, “You [Israel] will be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”)

This theological school is deeply concerned with creating precisely established categories. Its authors’ theological imagination is motivated by a natural, social, and political world in which boundaries are easy to understand and neatly delineated. The best of all possible worlds – the world that God has created and tries to sustain – is one where all things have a proper box that they fit into. This imperative is especially evident in a related text: the creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:4. As most readers will recall, each day of this narrative involves God taking some element that was previously undifferentiated and splitting it into categories. The ordered creation that we inhabit is the result of God creating very elemental distinctions: dividing darkness from light, waters from waters, water from dry land, day-time from night-time. Creation is about dividing the stuff of the universe into categorical spaces within which life is able to thrive. After the categories are established, God puts into them the creatures that are proper to each space; these creatures can only live and thrive if the proper boundaries that God has ordained are respected. If the borders that separate them begin to blur, creation itself is threatened.

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Homosexuality, the Bible, and Christianity (I)

In my first post in our new series on Christianity and homosexuality, I want to start with a little reflection on what we’re actually doing, or should be doing, when we read the Bible. It is necessary to understand what the Bible is, what it claims to be, and not only what information and guidance it is capable of giving us, but just as importantly, how it provides those things. I’ll get in a moment to how that affects the question of rules governing sexual behavior, but there are a couple of general principles that will guide all of my discussions on this topic.

First, the Bible as an entire collection is a uniform source for Christian theology; that is, all portions of it are foundational, first-order texts for Christian theological reflection and argument. Biblical texts are the raw material out of which Christians are required to construct any theological argument, because they represent the common fund of experience that Christians of different cultures, classes, and background may use to talk to each other. There is a reason that Bible and liturgy are the two most fundamental sources of Christian theology: they are the only two elements that all members of the Christian community experience in common.

That does not mean, however, that the Bible itself is theologically uniform. Indeed, critical portions of the Bible not only have different theological emphases, but actively contradict each other’s theology. Some, in fact, were expressly written in order to oppose the theological views of other biblical texts. (Leviticus/Numbers and Deuteronomy are prime instances of this latter phenomenon.) One of the reasons that the Bible, and particularly portions of the Pentateuch, can be so confusing for readers is that the viewpoints of particular texts so frequently clash with others that are not only part of the same canonical collection, but frequently positioned directly next to each within the very same book. (Genesis and Numbers, where multiple sources are interwoven throughout the books, provide excellent examples of the conceptual whiplash that this can create for a reader.)

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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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