What if I’m wrong about the clobber verses?

What if I’m wrong about the clobber verses? September 12, 2012

Excellent question. “What if you’re wrong?” is always an excellent question and I’m grateful to my inquisitors and critics for making sure I never forget it.

Even if I don’t always enjoy the tone of their full expression of this question, I thank them for the helpful reminder that I always might be wrong.

That’s the constructive aspect of this challenge, which comes up every time I discuss this topic of LGBT people and the church or make an argument — despite those clobber verses — against the intrinsic immorality of sexual minorities.

In it’s full form, that challenge looks something like this (I’m paraphrasing here, using more lower case and standard spelling, but this is the gist of it):

Oh yeah, Mr. Smarty-pants Liberal, did it ever occur to you that you might be wrong? And if you’re wrong, then you’re also leading others astray. You might be preventing others from finding their way to repentance. You might be damning yourself to Hell and dragging others down with you. Didja ever consider that? Huh, did ya?

First, let me agree that, yes, it is always entirely possible that I am wrong.

I do not think I’m wrong, obviously. My study, reason, prayer, conversation, debate and conscience all lead me to believe I’m right.

And, like most people, whenever I begin to think I’m not likely right, I take the expedient step of changing my mind until I once again am more confident that I am. I’ve changed my mind many times on many different matters. That experience confirms something I knew to be true already — I am fallible and incapable of either perfect knowledge or perfect reasoning.

That is the human condition. We can have greater or lesser degrees of confidence, but never certainty. The problem of human fallibility is inescapable. That is grounds for humility and thus for vigilant caution.

We Christians have a principle for accommodating such humble uncertainty: When in doubt (i.e., always), err on the side of love. When love seems in conflict with some rule or precept — she’s hemorrhaging and unclean, he’s an uncircumcised centurion, she’s a Syro-Phoenician dog — love wins.

But fallibility isn’t really the issue behind this question, “What if you’re wrong?” That question isn’t meant to remind me of human fallibility or of the imperative for humility, it’s meant to warn me to consider consequences.

They are asking me to reconsider my argument not on the basis of evidence or reason, but by weighing the potential risks against the perceived rewards. And that’s a bit odd.

Risk-reward analysis is a prudent and useful tool for many things, but not for ethics. If you’re contemplating whether or not to accept an invitation to go skydiving, then by all means contemplate the consequences, weigh the potential risks against the potential rewards, and then make your decision. But if you’re contemplating whether or not to do the right thing — whether or not to love — then such considerations really ought not to be part of the equation.

When this sort of calculation takes over ethical decision-making, I’m not sure it even counts any longer as ethics. It’s more like profit-seeking. That’s the dismal effect of the reward-and-punishment framework that has supplanted love as the defining crux of ethics for many Christians. When seeking reward and avoiding punishment shapes our decisions, then love is always displaced and diminished.

This is yet one more reason that Huckleberry Finn ripping up his letter and turning around his raft is, for me, a canonical text. Unless and until one can say, with Huck, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” then one will remain incapable of love.

When my inquisitors seek to remind me of the consequences of “what if you’re wrong?” they have a very specific set of consequences in mind. What they really mean, in other words, is not so much “what if you’re wrong?” but “what if we are right?”

So it’s not really a question as much as a statement — another reiteration of their claims in the hope that they might somehow become more persuasive by brute repetition. And along with that statement comes a kind of a threat: “Woe unto them that call evil good.” (Isaiah wasn’t talking about homosexuality there, but was condemning those who “join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you.” But the prophet’s phrase and his denunciation in the same passage of “you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight” are an apt summary of my inquisitors’ criticism of my argument here.)

I appreciate the severity and the gravity of what they’re suggesting, but I have a hard time following how this is supposed to play out. I’m trying to imagine the scenario of my standing before the throne of God on the day of judgment and hearing God say: “Depart from me, for thy mercy and love exceeded mine own, and thou has accorded too much dignity to these, my children.” Or would it just be, “Depart from me, for I was gay and you did not condemn me and demand I repent”?

I mean, I’ve read that scene, so I know what comes after “depart from me” in that story, but that doesn’t help me imagine the script here.

I’m also not frightfully concerned with the supposed spiritual danger to which I’m allegedly exposing LGBT people. I understand the argument — that I should be demanding repentance instead of offering affirmation, that my love must be more conditional. But let’s face it, if things work the way my anti-gay critics say they do, then those folks are already cosmically screwed and nothing I say or do will really change that. I suppose, if this crypto-Pelagian scheme is correct, that if we really crank up the misery in this world, then there’s a slight chance that a marginal few people might be coerced into the life of self-loathing celibacy that could save their eternal souls. I get the strategy there. But for the vast majority, that can’t and won’t change the unchangeable fact that they’re apparently predestined to God’s special Hell for Queers.

And, well, if that’s what inevitably awaits them in the next life, then the least I can do is try to reduce their misery a bit in this one. It seems kinder to extend to them here the grace that God will ultimately rescind and thus to allow them at least a measure of happiness in this world.

Well, not real happiness, of course. Real happiness is something gay people can never experience until they repent of being gay. So no matter how genuine they may claim their happiness to be and no matter how genuine such happiness may appear, we must defer to anti-gay Christians, who clearly have superior knowledge when it comes to evaluating the legitimacy of others’ happiness.

Sarcasm aside, I simply cannot accept that my critics are right because I cannot accept what their claims assert and assume about the character of God. My response is essentially that of Lloyd Bentsen: I know Jesus. I pray to Jesus. Jesus is a savior of mine. And this person you describe, sir, is no Jesus.

Ah, but what if I’m wrong? What if they’re right and I’m wrong and this is what Jesus is really like — fearsome, wrathful, strict, full of graceless truth?

Well, in that case, all I can do is quote again those sacred words: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

As long as I’m in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

"That comment section on Disqus: https://disqus.com/home/dis..."

Religious-right ‘prophets’ say Trump will cure ..."
"That's "tried for heresy" as in they dug up his corpse and sat it in ..."

LBCF, No. 210: ‘The second-biggest story’

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  •  Alright maaaybe I should have prefaced that with “If you don’t want to be an asshole” >_>

  • Gotchaye

     I guess you could put it that way.  It doesn’t strike me as senseless to be worried that one’s values aren’t what they ought to be.  Certainly we believe that /other people/ can have bad values, so it’d seem weird to treat our own as being unquestionable.  For eating animals in particular, anyone who thinks meat is tasty has to recognize that they’ve got an interest in finding that meat is also morally acceptable, so from the beginning there’s got to be at least some worry that one’s moral judgment is clouded by self-interest.

  • Gotchaye

    I have absolutely no idea what you’re getting at.

    The reason this sort of ethical cost-benefit analysis isn’t useful for abortion is that the ethical scales are much more nearly balanced.  If pro-lifers are right, terminating a fetus is like killing an infant, and is a very bad thing.  But “enduring pregnancy and childbirth against one’s will” is also a very bad thing, and much more bad than “not able to eat meat”.  “Forcing other people to endure pregnancy and childbirth against their will” is even worse.  So it’s quite possible to support legal abortion, or even choose to have an abortion, while under meaningful uncertainty as to whether or not abortion is morally permissible.

  • If God is an unloving deity, or one who’s love is conditional on me making others suffer, then I feel no obligation to venerate it.  To quote a certain man of great integrity and wisdom:

    If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are.

    Jean-Luc Picard, “The Encounter at Farpoint”


    Certainly we believe that /other people/ can have bad values, so it’d seem weird to treat our own as being unquestionable.

    It seems to me that when I believe others have bad values, I’m mostly observing that their values conflict with mine.

    And, sure, I sometimes observe that my values conflict with one another, which is similar, but not quite the same thing.

    But I suppose, thinking about it, that I can treat this notion of ethical doubt as a way of thinking about the state where my values conflict with one another.

  • I will bring desert with me!

    “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    I tried to substitute abortion for animals, but somehow, it doesn’t quite work the way I expected.
    Of course it doesn’t. Your substitution makes no allowance for the needs of the most, perhaps only, relevant person in any discussion of pregnancy (which any discussion of abortion necessarily is): the woman.
    Not that the original formulation was all that good to begin with. There are people who are allergic to so many different plant-based foods that basically the only way they can live is to be mostly carnivorous, at which point the ethics of eating animals kind of have to take a back seat to the ethics of human survival.

  • aunursa

    I have absolutely no idea what you’re getting at.

    Sorry I wasn’t clear. It was a macabre joke.

  • aunursa

    If you’re only tempted by the pro- death penalty side, you should probably adopt a policy of opposition to the death penalty out of concern for just how great a moral wrong it would be to have the death penalty if the death penalty is not actually ethical.

    That assumes that you cannot determine whether or not the death penalty is ethical.

  • Gotchaye

     Sure.  Like any cost-benefit or risk analysis, if you assign a 0% chance to some outcome, then that outcome gets a weight of 0.  If the answer to “what if you’re wrong?” is “there’s no way I’m wrong”, then you’re already done.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Count me in. 

  • Baby_Raptor

    (Please don’t take this as an attack on you personally, or on your beliefs. This is just me voicing my beliefs, and maybe getting some responses.)

    One of the reasons I left Christianity was that your god shows no real sense of justice.

    If the anti-gay ponies are right, then he’s sending ponies to eternal torture for how he made them. If they’re wrong, then he’s sitting back doing nothing as these supposed followers of his cause immeasurable damage to countless lives in his name, using his word. And then sending people to eternal torture for not believing in him due to being turned off by those people and their actions, while those people get forgiven and welcomed to paradise. (And homosexuality isn’t the only “sin” one can use in this example, just the one pertinent to the discussion at hand.)

    He does nothing to stop things like rape, starvation, disease, etc. 

    And then there’s the problem of the entire concept of sin. The Christian god is, according to the bible, all knowing. Meaning he knew that man would fall, given the opportunity, and that if man DID fall, he would have to punish us. And yet, he gave us free will anyway, essentially tying our hands. He created us to Fuck up, and then punishes us when we do so.

    I see no justice here. I don’t see bad actions getting punished, and good people being rewarded. To me, it seems to all hinge on whether or not you can muster the stomache to worship a being that is, at best, questionable. If you can’t, you suffer for eternity. If you can, welcome to paradise. What you actually DO with your life, how you treat others, your karma or whatever…None of that seems to actually matter.

  • arcseconds

     There was a great story i read when i was a kid about a boy who encountered all these elemental beings on his way to school,  who would give him gifts that during the school day would suddenly instantiate the element, so the classroom would suddenly be overrun by jungle, complete with ruined temples.  The teacher took it all in her stride and continued the lesson (“well, this is an excellent opportunity, children, to see first-hand”). 

    One of the creatures was a dust-devil/whirlwind thing who gave him a bottle of sand, which when the teacher mentioned ‘desert’ popped open and spilled out tonnes of sand, until they were essentially in the Sahara.

  • MK

    The ironic thing is, the assertion you’re combating here with a paradigm shift isn;t even functional on its own terms.

    “What if you’re wrong and you go to hell?”

    Okay, what if *you’re* wrong and you end up being reincarnated as a tapeworm? These two questions have equal value, and in fact have equal value to the question “What if you’re wrong about God wanting you to pray to him, and in fact you’re like an alarm clock he can’t snooze, and when you get to meet him he is going to be *super cranky*?”

    What if you’re wrong about pacifism, and as a result the Norse gods condemn you to an eternity of being some viking’s drinking mug?

    These questions are endless. These people think Pascal’s wager was between two options, one of which had little consequence and one of which had the largest consequence. But in fact he left out the millions of other options with unknown consequences that had as much basis in evidence as the one he bet on.

    The point is, you *can* do risk/benefit analysis on morality, but like any other risk/benefit analysis it has to be grounded in reality. You don’t make your decision solely on the *magnitude* of the risks and benefits, but also on their *likelihood.* This is why flood insurance exists.

  • Tricksterson

    Sounds like the teacher was related to Miss Frizzle.

  • aunursa

    I’m not talking about assigning a chance that an option is ethical (or unethical) as if the analysis involves an imprecise measurement.  I’m talking about determining whether an option is ethical (or unethical.)  You’re assuming that such a determination cannot be made.

    The answer is not “there’s no way I’m wrong,” but rather, “this option satisfies an ethical standard.”

  • aunursa

    Yes.  As Rabbi Tovia Singer of Outreach Judaism put it: According to Christian theologians, God created humanity as sinful beings incapable of keeping His commandments.  Then he gave (the Jewish people) a set of commandments that He knew we couldn’t keep.  Yet He told us that we could keep them.  He punished us over centuries for failing to keep the commandments.  And then 1400 years later, He said, “Ha! Ha!  The only reason I gave you the commandments was to show you that you couldn’t keep them.”  And on Judgment Day He will punish us with eternal damnation for failing to keep the commandments that He knew we couldn’t keep.

  • Carstonio

     I can understand that. My argument was about a natural impulse to be afraid of such a being, with the conclusion that challenging the being would involve fighting that fear. Whether a specific instance of challenging is righteous is somewhat of a separate issue.

  • aunursa

    An analogy that Rabbi Singer offers involves parents of a child with severe disabilities.  The parents take their child to the Boston Marathon, they take him to the starting line.  Then they tell him that they expect that he will finish the race and win the race.  If he doesn’t win the race he will severely punished.  When the race begins the child tries to go forward, but he only manages a few steps before collapsing.  At this point the parents begin to beat him mercilessly.  Rabbi Singer notes that the parents would be hauled off to prison for extreme child abuse.  Yet this is what Evangelical Christians expect us to believe about God.

  • The_L1985

    This, so much.  It’s one thing to say “We don’t show people that body part in public; it’s rude,” and another to actually say or imply that parts of your body are nasty.

    I got the former from my mother, and hints of the latter from CCD.  You can imagine how confusing that is.

  • The_L1985

    This made me literally LOL.  I think that may make me a horrible person.

  • The_L1985

     And that’s before you factor in ectopic pregnancies, or the additional issues that arise if a woman develops a cancer (uterine or otherwise) while she’s pregnant.

  • The_L1985

    Just wanted to let you know, you’re calling people ponies.

    Not that it isn’t nice to encounter fellow MLP fans on the Internet, just…we’re not actually ponies.

  • The_L1985

     I think I need a copy of this story.

  • Tricksterson

    And if we could be I’d prefer to be a cat anyway.

  •  Fair enough. I’d gotten the impression that you also believed there was an expectation otherwise; that the impulse towards fearing God was generally denied by others. Which is what I was pushing back on. But if you’re simply asserting that the impulse exists, I agree with you completely.

  • Hawker40

    “Live a good life.  If the Gods are just, they will see that you lived a good life and reward you.  If the Gods are unjust, you shouldn’t want to worship them.  And if there are no Gods, then you will have lived a good life and live on in the memories of your family and countrymen.” – attributed to Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor

  • Baby_Raptor

    *makes note to self to turn off Ponify when typing long rants*

  • vsm

    That’s a thing? Oh dear.

  • “In the case of a lawsuit for the threatened unjust punishment of eternal damnation, I am not aware of a downside.”

    That’s the funniest thing I’ve read today.

  • The Jesus I know counted prostitutes, Gentiles, and loan sharks among his friends and made no secret of the fact.  He sought out those who were shunned and looked down upon, and he showed them love and respect.  If that’s what Jesus would do, then that’s what I should do.  Anyone who has a problem with the fact I count members of the LGBT community among my friends can go take it up with Jesus.  Anyone who has a problem with the fact I choose to show love and grace unconditionally can take it up with God, whose own love is unconditional.

    One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received is being told by a gay friend that I’m the only conservative Christian he’s willing to listen to.   Another time, I was told by an atheist that they wished more Christians were like me.  How sad the way people seem to know Christians these days is by our *lack* of love. xp

  • WOW!

  • Adrienne

    But Jews call themselves the people of Israel, and Israel means ‘who struggles with G-d’, or ‘who argues with G-d’. The entire Jewish tradition is based on that — that they don’t just do what they are told, they ask “why”, and “how”, and “what the fuck” to G-d. I don’t think that necessarily speaks to a lack of fear, exactly, but to an entirely different conception of how you’re supposed to relate to G-d. Even if you’re afraid (you think Jacob wasn’t terrified, wrestling with an angel in the first place?) you’re supposed to do it ANYWAY.

    (Note: I am not Jewish, nor am i Christian. However, when speaking of Judaism, i prefer to use their convention for the name of the supreme being, never writing Its name or epithets in their entirety.)

  • Carstonio

    I wasn’t accusing Jews of doing what they’re told. I guess I’m suggesting instead that power itself is fearful and absolute power is absolutely so. Anyone is theoretically capable of flying into a rage at any time for any reason. With a being of that power, I might expect the natural relationship to be a desperate desire to placate the being, even if one is supposed to have a different relationship with it. Hard for me to imagine someone asking Why of such a being without stammering and becoming drenched with sweat, waiting for the almighty wrath to descend upon the person.