Last month the Nashville statement was released causing a flurry of mostly the same conversation about the church and LGBTQ issues. A few statements arose from it but probably the most important one that I’ve seen so far is the http://www.christiansunitedstatement.org/ Christian United Statement. It’s worth reading.
The statement is a confessional document that tries to articulate and delineate the signatories’ convictions regarding the Christian faith and cultural changes arising around LGBTQ liberation. I think it is an important step forward in the church in North America having a confessional conversation about these issues.
The Evolution of the Conversation
The statement I think rightly marks that those seeking “inclusion” have moved on from looking from the older position that I think is summed up in “marriage equality” towards the destruction of gender binary. The conversation in the CRCNA up until this point could be summed up in this way.
- Most people are born heterosexual and will be mostly attracted to the opposite sex therefore the church expects that marriage will be between one man and one woman.
- A small group of people are born with (exclusive) same sex attraction and the church should either
- a) ask them to remain celibate
- b) afford pastoral accommodation (the Lew Smedes argument)
- c) expand our definition of marriage to include them as same sex couples
While a lot of the fault lines in the unstable alphabet LGBTQAIK+ are covered over for political reasons this effort reflects a theological effort to be as expansive as possible in order to reflect the diversity of human sexual experience and desire which is increasingly not only afforded cultural permission but also affirmation.
“Diversity of Sexual Desire is a Created Good”
Article 1 gets things moving right away in simply equating determined sexual desire manifest as expression as a created good rather than a result of human brokenness as posited by the traditional Christian sexual ethic. The gender binary is denied. The political interpreting of gender with race is complete. The assembly of Revelation 7:9 either includes gender diversity or presumes it is intentionally excluded.
Article 2 is more subtle in that room is given for the poly-amorous and I suppose polygamous arrangements. In the denial any attempts to limit the ability of humans to covenant in any way is itself an affront to the created order.
You can read the rest of the articles yourself. There is plenty there for conversation and commentary beyond my intent for this posting. The direction of document is decidedly liberationist in terms of refusing to limit the creativity and scope of human beings in their sexual expression and ability to create new institutions and relationships.
Is This Itself an Expression of a Deeper Confessional Rift?
I am increasingly convinced that the debate about sexual minorities isn’t itself the next dividing line that will split the church, but rather a deeper perspective on given-ness of human nature and our perfectibility through social re-formation.
It in some ways tracks with the nature/nurture debates that are popping up all over the cultural war landscape. To what degree are the social injustices and inequalities derived and addressable from social constructs rather than from biological constructs? In other words is the pretty clear Biblical assumption about the gender binary a part of the cultural baggage of the Bible that we need to look beyond. This was similar to the point David Gushee made at City Church San Francisco.
Theologically the fallen human nature has been a hallmark of Christian, especially Reformed theology and according to the old joke the only element of TULIP that was empirically verifiable. By relocating the roots of many of our sufferings and deep disappointments into the sphere of social constructs we elevate our expectations that social tools employed even by state coercion can lead to joy and flourishing in this present age.
This division is opening up across on many fronts over this issue especially with respect to science and biology. “Biological essentialists” are considered by some to be beyond the pale because they make claims about the relationship between biology and practice.
Spanning the Epochs
Now as we reach the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation we might pause to consider the change in epochs. In some ways the CRC has always been an uneasy span over the pre-modern period and the modern period. The CRC’s tradition of trying to hold together the tensions in issues such as Genesis cosmology and women in office express that desire to work those tensions.
The pre-modern was a text-based, tradition based epistemology comfortable with hierarchy and a rather monarchical view of the world.
In the Reformation a more scientistic approach to the text was embraced (sola-scriptura) while still trying to love a tradition without necessarily being mastered by it. Individuals examined and re-examined texts feeling free to update “The Bible” what we today call the Latin Vulgate. Councils were preferred to a man who sat on a golden chair with a golden staff. A more democratic approach to ecclesiology was embraced. The enchanted world of the pre-modern gave way to the material world of the modern. We were taught to study the text “scientifically”.
What way may be seeing is in fact the progression of the attempt to span the modern/post-modern transition where the material world is attempting to be transcended as we claim physiology does not matter or can be changed to suit an imaged individual truer self. Science and technology are embraced if they are tools to afford the realization of personal desire but denounced if they cut against cherished narratives or threatened internally imagined non-constructed identities.
On one hand it looks like a Brave New World, on the other it could at the same time be a return to a re-imagined older one. CS Lewis believed that humanity’s “natural” religion is a devolution away from the cultural embrace of Christianity. How strange that it might now be creating a strange alliance between evolutionary scientists and Christians.
In the first place it is usually based on a quite fanciful picture of the history of religion. According to this picture, Man starts by inventing ‘spirits’ to explain natural phenomena; and at first he imagines these spirits to be exactly like himself. As he gets more enlightened they become less man-like, less ‘anthropomorphic’ as the scholars call it. Their anthropomorphic attributes drop off one by one—first the human shape, the human passions, the personality, will, activity—in the end every concrete or positive attribute whatever. There is left in the end a pure abstraction—mind as such, spirituality as such. God, instead of being a particular entity with a real character of its own, becomes simply ‘the whole show’ looked at in a particular way or the theoretical point at which all the lines of human aspiration would meet if produced to infinity. And since, on the modern view, the final stage of anything is the most refined and civilised stage, this ‘religion’ is held to be a more profound, more spiritual, and more enlightened belief than Christianity.
Now this imagined history of religion is not true. Pantheism certainly is (as its advocates would say) congenial to the modern mind; but the fact that a shoe slips on easily does not prove that it is a new shoe—much less that it will keep your feet dry. Pantheism is congenial to our minds not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are. It may even be the most primitive of all religions, and the orenda of a savage tribe has been interpreted by some to be an ‘all-pervasive spirit’. It is immemorial in India. The Greeks rose above it only at their peak, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle; their successors relapsed into the great Pantheistic system of the Stoics. Modern Europe escaped it only while she remained predominantly Christian; with Giordano Bruno and Spinoza it returned. With Hegel it became almost the agreed philosophy of highly educated people, while the more popular Pantheism of Wordsworth, Carlyle and Emerson conveyed the same doctrine to those on a slightly lower cultural level. So far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, under the influence of priestcraft and superstition, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long. Platonism and Judaism, and Christianity (which has incorporated both) have proved the only things capable of resisting it. It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself. No wonder we find it congenial. If ‘religion’ means simply what man says about God, and not what God does about man, then Pantheism almost is religion. And ‘religion’ in that sense has, in the long run, only one really formidable opponent—namely Christianity. Modern philosophy has rejected Hegel and modern science started out with no bias in favour of religion; but they have both proved quite powerless to curb the human impulse toward Pantheism. It is nearly as strong today as it was in ancient India or in ancient Rome. Theosophy and the worship of the life-force are both forms of it: even the German worship of a racial spirit is only Pantheism truncated or whittled down to suit barbarians. Yet, by a strange irony, each new relapse into this immemorial ‘religion’ is hailed as the last word in novelty and emancipation.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). Miracles: A Preliminary Study (pp. 130–133). New York: HarperOne.
Let you imagine Lewis is not at home in a world of modern science note this tidbit from Screwtape.
Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable ‘real life’. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
Your affectionate uncle
Lewis, C. S. (2001). The Screwtape Letters (p. 4). HarperOne.
An indication that Lewis might be our guide will be if we increasingly see “progressive-evangelicals” (meaning those who want to differentiate themselves from evangelicals on a number of these issues. See Gushee’s farewell column.) increasingly embracing more pantheistic partners and language in the conversation as we’ve seen with the mainline.
Progressive Liberationism as a proselytizing exclusive religion
John McWhorter wrote an interesting piece in the Daily Beast about anti-racism as the new religion. Religions are in many ways defined by that which is not permitted. Communities are created and maintained by their practice and their prohibitions. McWhorter’s point is that what we might see developing is in fact a new movement which operates (much to the chagrin of many of its advocates who are decidedly against “organized religion”) as a religion. We keep hearing “we need to have a conversation” whether it is about race, or sexuality but so often it seems a conversation is not really what is intended. This isn’t different from a lot of evangelistic “conversations” I’ve seen where the point isn’t really conversation in a traditional sense but rather conversion.
I always felt badly for the folks who came forward at the crusade because “all they needed was Jesus” only to discover that on the other end of the “only” were a lot of expectations including church attendance, tithing, sexuality, smoking and drinking, dancing, movies, and what friends you are no longer safe to have around. All of life IS religious and holiness of confession, whether on race or sex or money or power gets involved fairly quickly.
This promise, one that transcends the theist/atheist divide, is that this world right now, this life right now can be made right. It is within our grasp if only we can get the politics and the sociology right and those who stand against it are not simply the serpent in the garden but more the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
Even though levels of melanin in the skin are, compared to XX vs. XY, biologically and genetically insignificant it is the social constructs and their consequences that are, in the final analysis, that which governs history, society and therefore the individual according to this new creed. We’ve seen over the last 10 years the determined wedding of the race conversation with the gender one and this is its fruit.
However, what begins as liberation but as Wilfred McClay pointed out absolution is harder to achieve.
There is another powerful factor at work too, one that might be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This proceeds from a very different set of assumptions, and is a surprising byproduct of modernity’s proudest achievement: its ceaselessly expanding capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.
In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects yields increasingly to human understanding and manipulation, and in which human agency therefore becomes ever more powerful and effective, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, also steadily expands. We like to speak, romantically, of the interconnectedness of all things, failing to recognize that this same principle means that there is almost nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible. This is one inevitable side effect of the growing movement to change the name of our geological epoch from the Holocene to the Anthropocene—the first era in the life of the planet to be defined by the effects of the human presence and human power: effects such as nuclear fallout, plastic pollution, domesticated animals, and anthropogenic climate change. Power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt.
I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could. Although if I did so, I would be a well-meaning fool like Dickens’s ludicrous Mrs. Jellyby, who grossly neglects her own family and neighborhood in favor of the distant philanthropy of African missions. Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.
Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.
Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. To be found blameless is a pipe dream, for the demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imagination’s ability to conjure them. And as those of us who teach young people often have occasion to observe, it may be precisely the most morally perceptive and earnest individuals who have the weakest common-sense defenses against such overwhelming assaults on their over-receptive sensibilities. They cannot see a logical place to stop. Indeed, when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence.
The questions involved are genuine and profound; they deserve to be asked. Those who struggle most deeply with issues of environmental justice and stewardship are often led to wonder whether there can be any way of life that might allow one to escape being implicated in the cycles of exploitation and cruelty and privilege that mark, ineluctably, our relationship with our environment. They suffer from a hypertrophied sense of guilt, and desperately seek some path to an existence free of it.
Is the modern immaterial sacrament of “owning one’s privilege” really sufficient to remake the world? Will the future of universal wokeness be any swifter in coming than Jesus with the clouds of heaven? Will it be sufficient for those of us who only live 80 years or so never mind the previous generations?
In the conversation between these two men I think the two confessions become evident.
Can the Two Tribes Cohabitate Confessionally?
This will have to be seen. It is an eschatological question. The post-millenial progressivism awaiting political social liberation bringing heaven on earth will make obvious practical demands on the other confessionalists who assert that we are broken and will not be restored until death parts us from this world or Jesus parts the skies.
One might expect the divorce to come from the liberationist side, tired of having its witness muddied by unevolved pietists and literalists. Then again, their missiology assumes the LGBT-POC-ally’s burden of finally convincing the late adopters to get on board. Church work becomes increasingly the work of political proxies. It’s not really so important if they share Jesus with their neighbors as much as whether or not the voted for Trump. The church finally becomes a special interest group like the NAACP or the NRA which finds it telos in the state. This after all the post-mortems about how the Evangelicals spoiled their witness by being wed to the Religious Right in the 80s. There is no shame being the bride of Christ when the Jesus we expect to descend is revealed in our nation’s capitol.
Confessions finally answer the question “where is your hope found?” Maybe this is a good place to start our conversation.