29 August 2007

Luke Timothy Johnson on scripture and human sexuality

We progressives are often accused (with good reason, sadly) of biblical ignorance. We're told that we are ignoring the "plain words" of the Bible. Too often, we do indeed state our case based on rights or experience, without reference to the Bible.

I was very interested then, when I saw (over on the Anglican Centrist) a link to a piece with analysis by Luke Timothy Johnson on human sexuality and the Bible. Johnson, as you may know, is no Bible slouch. He's a serious academic, well respected by people of many points of view. Here's a bit of Johnson's writing:

Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?

The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience-through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists-and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts. To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture. ...

The Pharisees’ sin has come to be called “scotosis,” a deliberate and willful darkening of the mind that results from the refusal to acknowledge God’s presence and power at work in human stories. If the neglect of Scripture is a form of sin, John suggests, a blind adherence to Scripture when God is trying to show us the truth in human bodies is also a form of sin, and a far more grievous one. Both our own sense of integrity as Christians, and our hope of entering into positive conversation with those who disagree with us, obligate us to engage Scripture with maximum devotion, love, and intelligence. If it is risky to trust ourselves to the evidence of God at work in transformed lives even when it challenges the clear statements of Scripture, it is a far greater risk to allow the words of Scripture to blind us to the presence and power of the living God.

Amen. Let's all open our Bibles, and let's also open our hearts, our minds, and our arms.


Huw said...

Interesting. LTJ argues against an "Authority of Scripture" POV - which makes sense, given our current situation in the Protestant world. Eve, however, argues from a Catholic POV which has next to nothing to do with "Authority of Scripture".

The two essays seem to talk past each other. In fact, the answer to LTJ's question - how is it we no longer listen to the texts about slavery? - is that we have mostly all become Catholics in our understanding of those texts.

I'd not expect a Roman Catholic to have to argue (pro or con) using fundamentalist-style proof text. But I think Anglicans and other Protestants need to move past simply undercutting those who do. We need to be offering more positive, Catholic arguments for our position rather than simply against theirs.

Eve cites the theology of the body - which I think also includes Pope John Paul's magnum opus of the same name. From the other side, "The Church and the Homosexual" (1976), by Fr John McNeill, was a classic of this Catholic style, touching on many theological aspects concluding in such a gay-positive voice that the RCC had to silence him.

What is our theology of the body? How do we, speaking of the incarnation of God, say more than simply "there is room at the table"? How can we bring forward a more positive and assertive theology today?

Scott Gunn said...


Thanks for your comment.

Well, to answer your (possibly rhetorical) question... I think we'd begin by speaking biblically or theologically, rather than from a priori positions based on politics, experience, or (ironically) natural law. As you say, we seem to be eager to undercut one another or to ignore the very premises of those with whom we are speaking. Too often, we wander adrift from the moorings of ancient Christianity -- and that charge applies pretty equally to both conservatives and progressives in the present debates, I think.

Hmm. Maybe we'd do well to crack open our bibles and also maybe read some theology.

What do you think? What do others think? Can we engage in a positive, empathetic, thoughtful debate?


P.S. Your point about moving beyond "there is room at the table" is well taken, even if it's close to home, as I re-read my posts. :-)

Michael M said...

Re: Huw's response, see the essay by Tom Woodward on Episcopal Majority. It's about third down as of today.

Scott Gunn said...

Thanks, Michael. To access the Episcopal Majority post that you mention, just click this link. That's helpful.


Huw said...

Scott - thanks for your reply. It wasn't a rhetorical question... I think it's important that we continue to phrase our points in positive ways: proactive rather than reactive.

Michael - thanks for that link. I look forward to where it goes.