Christian Theology: a Congenital Defect

Am I fearfully and wonderfully made?

I learned at age 59 that I had possessed all those years a congenital defect in the aortic valve. My identical twin brother had a normal aortic valve. Why me?

Don’t think this isn’t consequential. My special valve will inevitably fail faster than a normal valve, and in failing it affects how I live now and in the future. I’ll face decisions others don’t face and will face challenges and dangers others don’t face. (It also put me in touch with a cardiologist who quickly identified and corrected another life threatening condition, so hmmmm.)

Why?

A central affirmation of the Bible is that humans are made by God in the image of God. The Bible says that God knows us in the womb and given the purported reach of God’s power is responsible for whatever emerges from that same womb. If there is a God at all God knew when a tiny glitch in the formation of a fetus led to a bicuspid valve. Maybe God chose to do nothing. Or alternatively God actively made it happen for purposes of God’s own.

I’ve mentioned a small congenital difference in my heart, but of course there are much significant congenital conditions. There are uncountable moments in the formation of a human in a womb when something can happen that has far reaching consequences for the child that emerges. Some result in fetal death before birth. Others prevent the child from surviving outside the womb, shorten life, or create conditions that make life within the norms of human society physically or psychologically difficult or impossible. Some are never manifest. Some cannot be hidden. And God may be justifiably regarded as culpable in every case.

Seeing a man born blind the disciples of Jesus asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents.”

The disciples recognized that God must have been present in womb, and saw blindness as a sign that God was a work exercising judgment on sin.

Jesus doesn’t deny that there is a theological issue here. God is involved. But the basis of Jesus’ theology isn’t forensic, its teleological. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1-3)

Jesus won’t buy the idea that God’s presence in the womb, God’s creative engagement with the formation of the human person, is dictated by any purpose other than the original end to which God created every human: to glorify God.

And that, I think, is the affirmation that we must make in the face of every single supposed “defect” in a human person, from a bicuspid heart valve to conditions far more challenging than even blindness.

When Jesus says that as long as as it is light we (he and his disciples) must do the works of the one who sent him, Jesus is saying that we must relate to that human that emerges from the womb in such a way as to move toward the end of all human life: bringing glory to God. Because that is the purpose for which a human life is created, and the criteria for judging all human actions in relation to other human persons.

For this reason in theology we must resist the forensic impulse to inquire into just how our human alienation from God has led to the present circumstance of ourselves and others. Knowing who sinned does not, in this or any other case, guide us in relationships that bring glory to God.

It does empower a certain kind of religious teacher/pathologist who makes a living by performing vivisections before a congregation of inebriates rapt with the belief that they will be cleansed by blood that flows from the exposure of the sins of others.

But leave them. Such as these will have their reward.

The question for us is how to live toward others so that their potential for glorifying God is fully realized in our relationships. And that in turn depends on what we believe brings glory to God.

One obvious way to glorify God is healing those who wish to be healed of their congenital condition, which is what Jesus does. But if you think that healing is the only way in which God can be glorified when we face a congenital condition then there are serious problems. Whatever Jesus and his apostles could do, the Christian church has largely been a failure at consistently healing the congenital conditions of humankind. In part because we simply lack the ability, even with the Christian cultivation of medical science.

Yet also in part because identifying a condition that requires healing, as opposed to one that requires acceptance and accommodation, means establishing a definitive norm against which ab-normalities can be identified. With a deepening understanding of both genetics and embryology concepts of a “normal” human person come into question. We know now that what persists over millennia aren’t sharply defined norms, but rather a range of human conditions along a wide variety of axis of ways in which to be human in both our natural and social worlds.

Perhaps this is why the church has done better in glorifying God through acceptance and accommodation; drawing people into the community of praise. Despite the forensic side-show that has accompanied the church through the ages most Christians have tried to accommodate and include those for whom healing was inappropriate or impossible. I know of no church that would deny its members access to the full range of spiritual comforts that it offers simply on the basis of having been born with a congenital condition. Indeed there are churches that make heroic efforts at  accommodation of conditions that require a sacrificial expenditure of resources.

But then there are those churches that have decided one particular set of conditions emerging from the womb, those related to sex, gender, and sexuality, cannot be accommodated so as to give glory to God. In these cases these churches maintain that God is glorified not by accommodation, but by the strict application of a set of presumed to be universal behavioral norms. These churches might well change the entire architecture of a church building to insure that a person in a wheelchair can come up the aisle to the altar to be married. But they will not accommodate a person whose congenital condition is that he or she finds sexual intimacy only with a person of the same sex and gender.

Why? The arguments found commonly in the case of United Methodists are twofold. First, that the scripture establishes a norm of two sexes (male and female) and one normal sexuality (a desire for intimacy with a person of the different sex and gender). The scripture doesn’t acknowledge the modern distinction between sex and gender, and specifically recognizes something like “sexuality” only in its condemnation of the desire for intimacy with a person of the same sex. So from a scriptural standpoint there really is a single norm for how God is glorified in intimate sexual relations.

The second argument is that scripture condemns intimate sexual relations between two persons of the same sex, making it impossible for them to glorify God. (Based on, among other things, Romans 1:21-32)

In short these arguments assert that against both scientific and emerging cultural understandings of a range of human norms there is a clear divine teaching asserting a single human ideal that glorifies God: sexual intimacy in a marriage between a man and a woman and outside that institution, celibacy.

Because scripture doesn’t make the distinction between sex and gender as understood in contemporary discourse these United Methodists have little to say about transgendered persons, and ultimately they borrow contemporary rather than scriptural language for sexuality. (Paragraph 161f in the UM Discipline provides an example; speaking of sexuality in a positive way and ignoring the oft-quoted Romans 1:26.)

The modern categories of queer and intersex are even more distant from theological consideration because they don’t appear in scripture. This leaves the church to fall back on generalities with regard to inclusion and accommodation, with the exception of condemning homosexual acts.

Groups like the Wesley Covenant Association affirm “We believe that every person must be afforded compassion, love, kindness, respect, and dignity. Hateful and harassing behavior or attitudes directed toward any individual or group are to be repudiated and are not in accord with Scripture nor the doctrines of the WCA.” A catchall generality intended to cover all those people whose congenital conditions aren’t treated by scripture.

Then in its statement about equality in the life of the church the WCA limits its affirmations to “No person shall be disqualified from becoming a member of a local congregation, holding a leadership position in the church, or becoming an ordained or licensed clergy based on race, color, nationality, national origin, marital status, or economic condition.” And its statement on “Gender Equality” it appears to confuse gender with sex, or like scripture simply equates them. (https://wesleyancovenant.org/wca-statements-and-beliefs/) No accommodation here for LGBTQI persons.

Thus it appears that the WCA believes that those who emerged from the womb as something other than a distinct sex, matching gender, and heterosexual sexuality must glorify God by conforming their behavior to the norm of monogamous sexual relationships within the social institution of male-female marriage, or live a celibate life. After all, what brings more glory to God than absolute obedience to God’s order and God’s law revealed in scripture? 

Opposed to the WCA and similar groups are those who believes that what glorifies God is accepting that the sex, gender, and sexuality of a person emerging from the womb are complex, and can be enacted outside the bounds of traditional marriage and/or celibacy. This is the progress of progressives. New understandings of human personhood lead to redefining the institutions within which that personhood is fulfilled. If God is responsible for the human life that emerged from the womb then surely God is glorified by asserting that God can make room for that human to enjoy the sexual intimacy that is central to human personhood.

Both groups face problems in justifying their position relative to scripture.

Taken at face value scripture is remarkably out of sync with modern conceptions of both the natural and social order. The scriptural assertion of the division of humankind into male and female is found deeply embedded in other understandings of the structure of nature that no modern person can believe are anything other than naive or (in the case of clean and unclean) purely arbitrary.

Why should we take “male and female God created them” more seriously than “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water” or  “the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night?” They are all part of a single passage of scripture and a single theological understanding of the creative process.

And it isn’t as if by the end of the writing of scripture, or even in period of formation of the Canon, Christians had any more sophisticated understanding of the natural world that would indicate an arc of progress in understanding nature in a more scientific way. From a contemporary standpoint Paul isn’t any more knowledgeable about the natural order than his ancestors who were putting Mesopotamian myths in a theological context under the influence of God’s Spirit.

What about marriage as a social institution, as it clearly is from the beginning? Some assert that there has been an evolving understanding of social roles and relations under the influence of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Still, early Christianity, and indeed canonical Christianity had primitive views of marriage relations relative to what is the norm across United Methodism today.

As a result both conservatives and progressives must look beyond specific scriptural models of nature and society to more general principles that will indicate what constitutes progress toward God’s Reign in understanding the natural and social orders. This is particularly tricky with regard to marriage because as Jesus says, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Matt 22:30) This is why Paul (who anticipates an immanent resurrection) can recommend against marriage.

There is no eschatological goal toward which a theology of marriage, in relation to the range of congenital conditions of sex, gender, and sexuality, might trace an arc so as to see what constitutes progress in earthly society. We can find that arc with regard to equality between men and women, the ending of slavery, overcoming racism, and embracing cultural and even religious diversity. We can’t find it with regard to marriage. Because we don’t know exactly how or even whether those aspects of humanity identified as sex, gender, and sexuality endure as the spiritual body replaces the physical body (I Corinthians 15, II Corinthians 5). We only know there will be no marriage.

(I recognize that marriage is called on analogically to describe the relationship between God and Israel and Christ and the Church. However, reading this eschatological vision back into the human institution is fraught with problems for modern concepts of agency and equality of men and women, as anyone who has preached on Ephesians 5:22-32 knows, and even Paul appears to realize at the end of the passage. )

And this leaves the two options we have today. Absent the most important tool for Christian ethical reasoning, a vision of God’s Reign relative to the matter at hand, conservatives can only seek to conserve the Biblical description of a natural order of male and female engaged in sexual reproduction and the social institution of marriage between a male and a female. They can set scripture against itself to overthrow the worst of its patriarchy and oppression so as to make the inner working of marriage amenable to contemporary cultural standards, but given reliance on a scriptural mandate there isn’t much more to be done.

Absent the same tool progressives, who accept contemporary understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality interacting in complex ways, can only let contemporary culture carry them where it will. Scripture becomes at best an anchor (by demanding fidelity, monogamy, and love) to hold marriage against the most oppressive and exploitative aspects of the sexual revolution and amoral biological reasoning.

So I want to be clear. Our problem isn’t a theological conflict, it is theological impasse. With regard to marriage in relationship to sex, gender, and sexuality Christian theology, on either side, has run out of tools.

And that, I think, is what we need to be talking about, even if we can do it comfortably only from different sides of a fence so we won’t be embarrassed by our theological nakedness.