The Endangered Art of Theological Humility

The following post was written by Kevin Harris, Director of Community Relations at The Marin Foundation.

What often happens to be missing in conversations about faith & homosexuality is not just tact and love, (take a quick look at just about any comments sections after a blog post on homosexuality and the bible) but humility. As I continue to work for The Marin Foundation and regularly interact with and read thoughts by individuals coming from very different ends of the spectrum as it relates to beliefs on the topic, I continue to find myself caring less and less about what each respective person professes to believe and more about how they profess those beliefs in word and deed. While beliefs have the capacity to influence how we behave, they are not always an indicator of right motivation, action, interaction with others, etc. In looking at 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, I think it is safe to deduct that right belief without love is…..well…..worthless/nothing. We seem to forget that even if you have your hermeneutical approach down to a science and your biblical exegesis is flawless, you can still be a jerk. This is a trait that is not the sole possession of one ideological camp, but is shared by both conservatives and progressives. The overbearing and adamant certainty that many people profess makes it seem as if they have had a personal audience with God and fully heard God’s heart and perspective. And really, the material reality of our operative beliefs (how our functioning beliefs are played out in our daily circumstances) say a lot more about what we truly believe than does what we hold to be true about ourselves and our convictions.

When you think about it, are we really capable of comprehending the divine? Our incapacity to fully comprehend God, and dare I say truth, should lend itself to developing and expressing ourselves with humility and love in our theological discussions and interactions with those whom we disagree. God is infinite. We are not. A lack of humility with truth claims indicates little awareness of our own finitude. It also entertains the notion that we can fully appreciate truth. This perpetuates the epistemological arrogance that seems to be running rampant in faith circles, especially when it comes to discussions about homosexuality. Our goal should not be to make a distinction between whether truth exists, (at least on this blog as I’m assuming the readership is not made up of nihilists) but between how much we can comprehend. I have come to believe that truth is best conceived on a spectrum, not in categories of true and false. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that you should not develop convictions or that ‘truth’ does not exist, but rather that we are either going closer or further away from ‘truth’ as if on a spectrum depending on what we’re claiming considering that we are not God. We can approach and develop certain degrees of truth, but final and normative claims often reek of arrogance that will typically cause other parties to become put off and defensive, diminishing the probability for productive dialogue.

One of the trends in popular culture is the declining trust for spiritual authority figures. This trend is also prevalent among the youth in the church. There also seems to be ample evidence that younger generations are more comfortable than previous generations with entertaining questions and even leaving some of them unanswered. Definitive answers may do more to push away those with genuine and difficult questions if they are not approached with a sense of humility that acknowledges our intellectual limits. In looking to scripture, while Jesus did offer some very definitive statements we see that he asked more questions than he answered even though he was one with God and thus not only understood but embodied truth. This example seems to allude to their being more important goals than just ‘speaking the truth’ (even if we do have a grasp on it) and highlights the importance of utilizing questions.

There is a vast array of conclusions that individuals have arrived at while earnestly seeking God’s heart on the matter of sexuality. The hundreds of books that have been written to tell us ‘what the Bible really says about homosexuality,’ is evidence of this. Given this reality, we do ourselves and others a great service by approaching the topic with a humility that is wary of simplistic designations of truth that disregard the complexity at hand. In her post Certainty & ConvictionWendy Gritter of New Direction states:

I think anyone who has been willing to enter the complexity of exegetical disagreements among scholars, who has studied the variety of hermeneutical methods within the Christian community, who has considered the particularities of history and culture on textual context, has set face-to-face with gay, same-sex attracted, and ex-gay Christians for long haul conversations over years of friendship, and who have wrestled to apply their understanding of God’s character to this deeply human question of the application of grace for this particular situation in our broken world will avoid black and white simplistic and reductionistic answers like “the Bible is clear”. I think anyone who has done this homework with an open heart and spirit, who may indeed have their own convictions about God’s best way forward for a same-sex attracted disciple, will also have the capacity to say they could be wrong.

Aside from the complexities within faith and sexuality, we also need to acknowledge that our theological beliefs do not develop in a vacuum. We all need to take ownership of the respective ways outside influences shape our beliefs. This allows us to have a working understanding of the biases we bring into each conversation. Only then can we begin to approach issues and topics with a sense of intellectual honesty and humility. We are all influenced by family (in whatever form that may take), early childhood experiences, race, socioeconomic status and background, personality, and the denomination or school of thought we were brought up in. We are also influenced by, among other things, the popular culture as well as those we currently surround ourselves with. Even though we are autonomous individuals capable of independent thought, I feel that we (or at least myself personally) often fail to step back and examine how the plethora of influences manifest themselves in our thought processes, how they shape our conclusions and predispose us to arrive at certain ends. I’m not sure if it’s universal, but I often find myself selectively limiting the outside influences that are within my control. Let’s be honest, it is comforting and it builds up my ego to surround myself with similar individuals (in an ideological sense) and books that reinforce aspects of my particular worldview. It does not help that in the United States we live in a culture that does not naturally lend itself to getting to know ourselves deeply. Living in a time where we are constantly bombarded by short sound bites and we often receive and communicate information in 140 characters or less, a mild form of ADD has almost become the norm.

So what are we to do with this? Maybe we should make a habit of just being quiet and listening. With such a value on being busy (often translated to mean important) it is not seen as desirable or even feasible to just be still (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves so we don’t have to face what might actually come up in our mind and heart if we allow ourselves to stop running, slow down, and just be). If we do not cultivate the practice of silence and learn to evaluate our thought processes and know ourselves, our attempts at moving towards intellectual honesty (though it may not be possible to fully reach) will continue to allude us.

Given the complexity and entrenched disagreements regarding faith & sexuality in the broader church, I hope that we can continue to move forward with our convictions in humility as we are all seeking to understand and be conformed more and more into the image of Christ. May we guide individuals, heterosexual and LGBT alike towards holiness as God has not said “be heterosexual for I am heterosexual”, but “be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Leviticus 19:2)”. It is time for the idol of heterosexuality to come down as the (often discretely communicated) belief that heterosexuality is some type of a holier state of being in and of itself continues to foster shame and cripple LGB individuals spiritually, mentally and emotionally where it is communicated. And let us do so with accountability in the context of committed relationships where our on-going conformity to Christ, in knowledge, word and deed, constitutes the degree of proximity to truth. If we are to err, given the complexities of faith and sexuality, let us err on the side of grace as we strive for right understanding and action with humility in our journeys with Christ and one another.

Much love.

www.themarinfoundation.org

 

About Andrew Marin

Andrew Marin is President and Founder of The Marin Foundation (www.themarinfoundation.org). He is author of the award winning book Love Is an Orientation (2009), its interactive DVD curriculum (2011), and recently an academic ebook titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility can Save the Public Square (2013). Andrew is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets and frequently lectures at universities around the world. Since 2010 Andrew has been asked by the United Nations to advise their various agencies on issues of bridging opposing worldviews, civic engagement, and theological aspects of reconciliation. For twelve years he lived in the LGBT Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, and is currently based St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is teaching and researching at the University of St. Andrews earning his PhD in Constructive Theology with a focus on the Theology of Culture. Andrew's research centers on the cultural, political, and religious dynamics of reconciliation. Andrew is married to Brenda, and you can find him elsewhere on Twitter (@Andrew_Marin), Facebook (AndrewMarin01), and Instagram (@andrewmarin1).

  • http://theviewfromher.com j a n

    Thank you for a particularly significant post. The idea of “theological humility” is an excellent perspective – whether one is discussing homosexuality, politics, roles of women in the church, pastors’ controversial new books, or even the end of the world.

  • Kevin Harris

    Thanks Jan…..I appreciate it!

  • pm

    Your comments remind me of the passages:

    Colossians 3:14 NLT
    Since God chose you to be the holy
    people he loves, you must clothe
    yourselves with tender-hearted mercy,
    kindness, humility, gentleness, and
    patience. Make allowance for each
    other’s faults, and forgive anyone
    who offends you. Remember, the Lord
    forgave you, so you must forgive
    others. Above all, clothe yourselves
    with love, which binds us all together
    in perfect harmony.

    I have wrestled with the line of reasoning that asks the question: how can a believer ‘walk in humility” and a sense of harmony in a society that appears completely dedicated to it’s own competitive advantage with the tools of divide-and-conquer?

    Seems like we live in a social environment that flourishes the notion of one-up-manship or brinkmanship taken to the extreme and also justified as self-preservation. The notion of practicing the lost art of humility seems offensive to a world that views a humble heart as if such a one was standing still on the busiest walk-way of human endeavours.

    Those who practice ‘Theological Humility’ need to mentally set their internal compass based on love, acceptance and forgiveness. It ain’t easy or for the faint-hearted.

    1 Timothy 1:5-6 ESV
    “The aim of our charge is love that
    issues from a pure heart and a good
    conscience and a sincere faith.
    [v6] Certain persons, by swerving from
    these, have wandered away into vain
    discussion …”

    These are deeper matters of the heart far removed from the world in which we live. To walk in these humble clothes is to become uniquely different from the inside out. This is why it has been said, The Kingdom of God is near, is within you, and is found with power from on high not based on ourselves.

    Mark 10:24
    And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God.”

  • http://ashleighfhill.tumblr.com Ashleigh Hill

    “The idol of heterosexuality.” Wow. Thank you so much for this reminder. Amen.

    • http://jontrouten.blogspot.com/ Jon Trouten

      In recent months, I’ve often marvelled at what I see as the idolization and even the deification of heterosexual relationships in our culture and in the Church. I’m really glad that Kevin introduced the concept in this blog article.

  • SheilaG

    Any time I hear a man use the word “humility” I run! I think that we cannot compare this word to what it does to women, and how men describe it.
    An oppressed people need never be humble or subservient to their oppressors, they need to right back and rise up. Any church that degrades lesbians and gay people needs to be called aggressively to account. I get so sick of “humble” being used…. maybe because I don’t see men as humble at all, I see them ramming this down the throats of women who won’t put up with male arrogance, which can be found in spades in churches around the world.

  • SheilaG

    The idol of heterosexuality indeed, or as a gay male friend once told me “it’s the most heterosexual time of the year” to the tune of the famous christmas song. Yes, it is idol worship of “the family” the hetero male domineering patriarchal family. It is trumpeted just about everywhere, Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson, most male pastors in pulpits that I can’t stand the arrogant voice of the golden calf of heteronormative bible babble… you know the drill. Golden calf, hey, perhaps the heterosexual idol is really fools gold.

  • http://jontrouten.blogspot.com/ Jon Trouten

    I finally took the opportunity today to sit down and read your latest, Kevin.

    “As I continue to work for The Marin Foundation and regularly interact with and read thoughts by individuals coming from very different ends of the spectrum as it relates to beliefs on the topic, I continue to find myself caring less and less about what each respective person professes to believe and more about how they profess those beliefs in word and deed. While beliefs have the capacity to influence how we behave, they are not always an indicator of right motivation, action, interaction with others, etc. In looking at 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, I think it is safe to deduct that right belief without love is…..well…..worthless/nothing. We seem to forget that even if you have your hermeneutical approach down to a science and your biblical exegesis is flawless, you can still be a jerk.”

    How true!!! This is something for all of us to remember when he connect with others in life and online.

    Thank you very much for sharing, Kevin!

  • SheilaG

    The deification of heterosexual relationships… hey, now that is a good one.
    How about the deification of a 16 year old girl who marries a 51 year old man… in the US? How about a boy who gets a girl drunk, rapes her, than then it’s all ok to get married and have the kid? Or decide not to marry the guy? Hetero marriage is so screwed up as an institution that I think we should ban hetero marriage for awhile, let them sort it out, and fix it, and then maybe if they are real real nice, let them have it back again? What say ye?

  • Brian Bates

    Yeah man! Good stuff Kevin. Seems almost “obvious” after reading your well-crafted muse that we would/should be theologically humble. I am optimistic that many faith-driven people are quietly starting to see & believe & act this way. I’m seeing many open to learning and a more redemptive dialogue, as ones like us step up to be dialogue starters. So I say the talking heads and extremists are the minority, and God is doing a new thing. Call me naive.

    Thanks again for a great commentary!

  • Blake

    Despite coming out, being gay, dating- trying to keep my walk with God intact- the church’s stance is Orwellian in its extreme- “Four legs good, two legs bad”. Ie straight is good- gay is bad.

    It goes beyond “right” or “wrong” to being gay means you’re a pervert who has sex anywhwre and everywhere.

    Yet in London, the clubs and scene here is just as immoral as the worst gay indulgence. God isn’t anti-gay. He’s anti-holiness, and maybe that’s the issue.

    You can be celibate and a jerk, or dating and showing the love and character of Christ.

  • http://gayhomophobe.wordpress.com/ Sans

    I wish some of this humility would rub off on the deacon who threw me out of church on a night when all I came to do was say good bye to a friend. Thank you for your post and for your compassion.


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