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.)

Why is all that important to thinking about the Bible’s understanding of homosexuality? Well, because in order for us to evaluate what the Bible is saying in any particular place, it’s necessary to comprehend the substructure of its argument. That doesn’t just mean that we have to look at the historical setting and culture of the authors. Instead, it means grappling with the entirety of their theological project, creating a map that expresses their view of the cosmos and the divine-human relationships that they are attempting to articulate. The cultic and behavioral rules that biblical authors propose aren’t placed there for their own sake, because God has some random things that he wants us to do (or avoid). Instead, they’re the scaffolding that allows the world to function according to the authors’ cosmological conception, and that permits God and humans to interact with each other. Breaking those rules isn’t bad as a general principle; indeed, a long-running theme in both Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation is that many of the biblical laws are intended only for Israel. Instead, their violation by members of the community gnaws at the highly specific theological artifice put forward by the text.

So, the Bible has a lot of rules. But they are not rules that are necessarily applicable to those who live outside of the Christian community, nor are they particularly helpful for those in the community who don’t perceive how they support the text’s theological substructure (and it is very easy not to understand this). As an example, take almost any of the sacrificial regulations from Leviticus. These regulations are critically important in constructing and upholding a specific priestly understanding of how Israel and God are supposed to maintain communication with each other without Israel being overwhelmed by God’s ineffable holiness. They are vital elements of a very coherent, powerful vision of what God is, what humans are, and how they must relate to each other in order to remain in communion (and so that Israel can remain under God’s protection).

Applying that sacrificial theory to Jesus was a crucial part of early Christian hermeneutics (and provided a critical theological shorthand for arguments about who Jesus is and what he represents). But these sacrificial regulations have been almost entirely ignored in Christian discourse for centuries, because they have become for the most part irrelevant to Christian worship or daily behavior, which is not governed by the same theological ethic that is central to Leviticus. They are rules that Christians routinely put aside, because they do little to inform or advance Christian life or worship as it has been lived for centuries. When some of these conventions (such as the resurrection of canons against menstruating women receiving communion) have been brought back into Christian practice, they do not appear as crucial elements of the church’s theory of worship (however much some proponents would like them to be). Instead, they are simply tangible reproductions of some of the scriptural symbols of God’s covenant with Israel, which is why, outside of fundamentalist circles, their abandonment has usually proceeded without significant controversy.

Still, as long as mostly irrelevant biblical rules don’t clash with prevailing social norms, there’s not much of a cognitive problem for Christian communities. Indeed, the reality of longstanding social practice will tend to inflate the religious importance of biblical regulations that Christians might otherwise have put aside; the fact that we’ve found something that is biblically proscribed to also be socially unacceptable helps to validate in our minds the importance of the biblical regulation. As long as we lived in a society where homosexuality was generally frowned upon – where the assumption of most people was that same-sex attraction was not only a bit . . . off, but also made a person’s moral fitness generally suspect – then the claim that biblical proscriptions from Leviticus that we otherwise wouldn’t have cared about were in fact reference points for acceptable Christian behavior didn’t seem so odd. But at least in the West, we have moved in fewer than forty years from a nearly-universal public condemnation of homosexuality to a general (though certainly not yet universal) acceptance of gays and lesbians and an increasingly determined dismantling of the social and legal barriers that have kept them from full participation in civic life. Our cultural environment now no longer coheres with biblical regulations that we’ve assumed were crucial religious precepts; the change in our social world now makes it appear that we may have just been following these regulations by default.

I think that’s the nub of the problem that the Christian community faces now, or at least an explanation of why the role (and even proper existence) of gay and lesbian Christians has become so fraught in the past ten years. In my next posts, I’ll take up the issue of the biblical prohibitions against homosexuality that are so frequently bandied around in our debate: where do they come from, what do they mean, and how should we deal with them today?

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