Wednesday, March 2, 2011


I should be spending more time recuperating and convalescing. I took an extra day off work to rest a little more. And yet, thanks to the Internet Age, work finds me at home, and I've been dealing with students and college matters off and on throughout much of the day.

I've also found myself in the midst of an ongoing argument over at Thinking Anglicans over religious authority. It's being described as a personal authority versus authority of Scripture argument, which is not quite how I see it, but how it's being framed regardless of my insistence otherwise.

If you want to follow the argument, then go here.

I'm a terrible arguer. I try not to get sucked into these things, but I do anyway. I can be very impatient and temperamental. Plus, I do not feel all that confident going up against folks with years of Scriptural and exigetical reading behind them. My seminary experience consists of a couple of campus visits and that's all. However, I stand my ground, confident in the rightness of my cause. I doubt that I make my case, but I do hold my ground, through being stubborn if nothing else.
The people I end up arguing with can be more than a little irritating. They always argue in a tone of unctuous concern, or a kind of patronizing superiority. That refusal to take me seriously common to both is a like a red flag in front of a bull. I've also noticed over time that they rarely if ever read my comments all the way through.

I'm becoming convinced that the whole argument over gays and Christianity is but a flashpoint in a conflict between 2 fundamentally different forms of Christianity. One that is legalistic and another that is, for lack of a better word, prophetic. I usually identify the legalistic type of Christianity as including everything from Penal Substitution Atonement to Biblical Literalism (of course, one does not inevitably mean the other, but they are very compatible). The other more prophetic Christianity is more anti-legalist, more interested in the spirit of the whole message and less interested in its letter. On the matter of Atonement, this second type of Christianity is closer to Scotus than to Anselm. Prophetic Christianity is less interested in the exclusive claims of the Christian religion and more in the universality of the Christian message. I most emphatically belong to that more prophetic type.

I reject the whole idea of the Gospel as a legal contract. I reject the whole idea of the Wrathful Patriarch in the Sky that comes with it. I reject the whole idea of a divine father demanding the blood of his own son as the price to pay for an ancient slight that contaminates all of the world. I reject the idea of a Bronze Age book written by a nomadic pastoral people 3000 years ago as legally and absolutely binding upon 21st century humankind. I reject the idea of the Bible as God's oracle.

I believe that the Bible is what it says it is, testimony. It is the Muslims who claim that God wrote their holy book. Some Muslims believe that the Quran is so holy that it is uncreated, with God from before the Creation. No one in Judaism or Christianity has ever made such a claim for the Bible or for any part of it (at least until recently). The Bible was written by mortals with all the partiality that comes with a mortal point of view. It is the witness to God's actions in history. Though divinely inspired and recording or commenting upon divine actions, the authors are very singular and partial witnesses, as are witnesses to anything. Anyone who has spent time on a jury knows that no 2 people see the same event in exactly the same way. The Bible is the witness that we have inherited, and as such is the touchstone of our faith. It is not a legal contract, nor is a script that God should feel in any way obliged to follow.

A loving and just God acts lovingly and justly, not like an arbitrary tyrant. We know God is just and loves us because He acts that way toward us, not simply because some text tells us so.
God gave us our wits to find our way in the world and to find Him. We are His children and not His lobotomized automatons. We are His children with all the complexity that the term "children" implies. A God who demands absolute and unquestioning obedience to archaic laws that mean nothing anymore would be a monster, a Moloch, not a loving parent.

I chose to be gay in exactly the same way that my antagonists chose to be male (it's almost always men). My gayness is exactly as pathological and sinful as their maleness. It is a natural variation no different than left-handedness or red hair. On that subject, that Bronze Age text has very little to say (truly very little, only the 6 "clobber verses"). And none of what it says about that subject means anything in the light of reason, experience, and evidence. When I was very young, I couldn't just willfully ignore the growing conflict between what I was told and what I experienced. A just and loving God would accept each of us as we are, as we would our own children.

I've often wondered sometimes why I haven't completely chucked this obscurantist religion called Christianity behind me. Like most religion, Christianity too often plays the willing spiritual enforcer of the Established Order. I often think of Marx's quip that the priest is the landlord's best friend. Too often the Church seems to be the refuge of the bigoted and the superstitious, and I wonder why I waste my time with it.
What keeps me with Christianity is the radical nature of its promise, the idea that the salvation of all people who have ever lived and ever will live has already been accomplished for them by God Himself. The very idea that God became incarnate and became not just human, but fully human and even less than ordinary, is extraordinary. The Muslims are horrified by the whole idea and begin many of their prayers with "O God who begets not nor is begotten ..." The idea that a God Man came out of nowhere and lived as the least among us, and willingly accepted failure, defeat, and death as the path to victory over the world is about as radical a rebuke as I can think of to the whole grim algebra of power vs. powerlessness, success vs. failure, strength vs. weakness by which the world has always worked. Salvation is no longer a test, an ordeal, a quest, a trial, but a free gift to people who could not possibly achieve it on their own. It is no longer heroes, moral, spiritual, or otherwise, who gain eternity. God took on our flesh and in our full humanity in solidarity with us, took that full humanity into His eternity. God knows our joys and our sorrows because He lived them with us. In that radical rejection of power and success is our hope.

Piero della Francesca, Resurrection


Murdoch Matthew said...

a Bronze Age book written by a nomadic pastoral people 3000 years ago

You give the scriptures too much credit. The Hebrew scriptures were gathered, if not written, in sixth century Babylon, as an exercise in identity building by Canaanite refugees. There's no historical or archaeological evidence for anything previous to the Judean kings of the time -- David and Solomon are about as historical as Arthur. Abraham, Joseph, and Moses are sheer storytelling. It's a great national epic, but the virtues are literary. The Christian writings are notoriously short of eye witnesses or consistency. Christian communities were dissipating into various forms of gnosticism before Nicaea and imperial power imposed an official version.

I wonder what is your definition of "salvation." Life goes on regardless of opinions ("beliefs") and organisms are temporal. Community and tradition are great supports for the individual, but what's the difference between someone saved and not-saved? Just asking.

I admire your spirit (the fruit of your vision) and your art. My discovery that the tradition, its counselors and confessors, were clueless about my sexuality makes me less respectful toward its pretensions.

kishnevi said...

No one in Judaism or Christianity has ever made such a claim for the Bible or for any part of it (at least until recently

Actually, the idea that the Torah preceded the rest of Creation has been relatively standard among Jews since at least Talmudic times. Proverbs 8:22 and the verses immediately following is the usual reference to Scripture on this point, since 'wisdom' and 'understanding' are interpreted as alternate names for the Torah, and the Torah is identified with what Christian theology terms the Logos. As my Hebrew School teacher once explained the idea, The Torah is the set of blueprints God used to create the universe. And the idea that Torah is uncreated and directly linked to God is an almost unwritten premise of Kabbalah.

There is, btw, some solid archeological evidence for the existence of David and Solomon, if not necessarily the pomp and international importance ascribed to them by Scripture, and also some solid evidence that the Scriptures existed in some fom before the Exile.

JCF said...

I reject the whole idea of the Wrathful Patriarch in the Sky that comes with it.


Links up nicely w/ IT's post on the Tea Party (and Lakoff) at FOJ's.

I swear, Fundamentalist Religion (of whatever brandname God, G_d, Allah, Brahman, even certain flavors of Buddhism. I bet there are Fundy Pagans, too!) perpetuates itself in the same way as does child abuse . . . and by some of the same people.

I want to say "Look, I'm REALLY SORRY your parents/guardians beat the cr@p out of you [Probably spouting "Spare the rod, Spoil the Child"?] But that DOESN'T mean I'm going to bow down to your Abusive Parent Deity, OK?"

In taking violence UPON himself (instead of PROJECTING it upon others), I believe Jesus overturned such structures of domination and violence. [Not that the word "GeeZus" couldn't be coopted by the violent as well as any other word, unfortunately. :-(]

Unknown said...

I reject the whole idea of the Gospel as a legal contract." I'm with you! This whole angry God thing gets the mean in people to do much more than surface, they get all self-righteous and arrogant.

There is no Jesus in that kind of attitude.

Murdoch Matthew said...

The archeological evidence for David seems to be an ambiguous line in an ninth century inscription. Archeologists have found no evidence that Jerusalem, the city of David, was occupied at the time of David. All this is summarized in the Wikipedia entry, "David" -- scroll down to "Historicity of David."

Doug, I felt after I posted first above that I was off-topic. You got the blowback from my frustration with "David" (no relation!) at Thinking Anglicans. I wrote a response to his wallowing in shame and forgiveness over his sexual orientation (been there, done that!) but didn't post it because you and many others had called him on it, and he doesn't seem to take in others' experience. I was primed to lash out at the tradition when I read your good posting about arguing with him. Whatever your faith, I like the social stands and art it leads you to.

JCF said...

Of course, I jumped (back) onto that thread (at TA). I love a good argument! ;-)

Counterlight said...

I wrote a response to David Sheperd's last post this morning. If Simon doesn't post it on TA, then I will post it here.

Peter Schweitzer said...

Re: the main post here, what an excellent statement of faith!

Frank D. Myers said...

It occurred to me at some point that Jesus had left the building so far as much of the institutional church is concerned, closing the doors behind him so quietly that many of those busy discussing irrelevancies have failed to notice.

Why argue? He lives, grace is universal and authority rests with the indwelling spirit --- not in print on paper or in tortured legalism. That thought always cheers me up.

Counterlight said...

The argument over there has become exasperating. Talking to the 2 Davids is like talking to 2 brick walls. They refuse to listen to anyone else's testimony about actual lived experience, though curiously they pay close attention to more abstract arguments. To my mind, that in itself is very revealing. Despite their stubborness, their own answers are very revealing about themselves, 2 very deeply unhappy men troubled by their own sexual longings. Closet sisters make the worst kinds of homophobes.

Pr. Jim Harbaugh said...

Dear Doug,

Out of the mists of time and prairie North Iowa, I must make a solemn pronouncement about your original post:

Yes,. . .Yes,

You sound like a Lutheran!

Not to put words in your mouth, but my tradition continues to be troubled by the idea of a formal authority ascribed to the Bible. The Bible's authority has to come, not from being a book of oracles or laws, but by being a book of (the) promise: its "material authority". The Magnificat and Benedictus (BCP, Canticles 15-16) of the Gospel of Luke make that clear!

From my perspective as Lutheran clergy, our little stubborn branch of Christianity lives a deep tension between authority of the written Word and the proclaimed word, text and context. Might be the way it was meant to be.

Btw, Mr Schweitzer's is "right on"!

Counterlight said...

Herr Pastor Harbaugh,

It's been a long long time.
Delighted to see that you've found my little crayon scribbling blog.

As for resembling the Lutheran view of authority, off to the dungeon with you sir and fifty lashes with some over-cooked spaghetti!
You realize that our two churches are (officially anyway) not that far apart on so many things.

Greetings to you from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the hipster Mecca.

JCF said...

Talking to the 2 Davids is like talking to 2 brick walls.

Well, they're very different.

I have compassion for DavidW (the closet case in search of "healing"). David S is a little snot who gets off on playing the race card, and citing STRAW MEN to get his way. Feh! [Neither is an authority on authentically Anglican faith though]

rick allen said...

I have left off internet arguing to a large extent, but I don't see it as entirely without value.

I think it, first, a good way to learn, and to test one's own assumptions. So much of what passes for political and religious writing seems to me really aimed at simply confirming the reader's own prejudices. It's a proven revenue strategy, but it doesn't exactly promote growth.

Over the past few years, for example, I have gone back and forth quite a bit with Fr. Tobias Haller over at his blog. I doubt that I've convinced him of anything, nor has he done much to move me off of my opinions. Yet he has certainly made me think about why I believe as I do, on questions like tradition and natural law. And though the last thing I am interested in is Catholic/Protestant polemics, I have come to conclude that many of these current controversies, at least for Christians, do in fact come down to the normative value one gives tradition in trying to understand and live Christian revelation.

Another value of arguing, though it often gets lost in the argument, is the necessary encounter with one's "opponents" as human beings. This can get buried in our eagerness to score points, and in the temptation to get snarky, but at least it's a person to person encounter, sometimes leaving bad feelings, but, I think, over time, forcing us to see that it's about persons rather than positions. That doesn't of course change our opinions, but I think it may sensitize us to how important such seemingly trivial things as tact and manners are. I find that those blogs which are most dominated by one position are the ones in which contempt is most clearly demonstrated for opponents in their "discussions." Differences can easily give rise to hatred. But I don't think they must.

Erika Baker said...

I think Murdoch puts his finger on the core of it all - some people just don't have a shred of imagination and compassion. If you haven't got empathy you cannot possibly engage with the reality of other people the way you would need to to see their point of view.

You try to intellectualise your points completely ignoring that you are talking to people who may experience genuine suffering because of your opinions.

Ultimately, I don't think anything is to be done about it. You cannot teach empathy - or can you? Maybe that's the big question.

rick allen said...

"some people just don't have a shred of imagination and compassion."

Only if they aren't really people.

I think the question must be, if we are tempted to think such things, what exactly are they imagining, and on whom is their compassion focused?

Erika Baker said...

I have discovered in many conversation with people that their compassion and empathy is usually focused on themselves and the things/people they hold dear.

That, precisely, is the problem. That they are unable to step out of their own view of things and truly enter into the reality of something or someone else.