What Role Experience? Same Sex Marriage Blogalogue

What Role Experience? Same Sex Marriage Blogalogue November 24, 2008

Rod, thanks for your last post; actually I agree with you: our government does legislate morality.  In fact, that’s why I think that it’s imperative that we seriously consider the moral implications of denying same sex couples the right to marry.  In doing so, we are missing an opportunity to decrease STDs, HIV, and promiscuity in general, not to mention stabilizing the home life of the many same sex couples who are already adopting and birthing children.  So, I guess I’m arguing that it’s immoral to do nothing to encourage monogamy among same sex couples.

But today I’d like to dig a little deeper into what separates our perspectives.

Many of my commenters have expressed frustration over my initial post in which I narrated my story on this issue.  It seems that for many of our readers, my own experience of life and my friendship with and compassion for gay and lesbian persons should play no role in the formation of my opinion regarding their rights.  Many of these commenters, for instance, feel that posting a Bible verse, or telling me that God never changes is sufficient to show how faulty is my thinking.  (If it’s okay with you, Rod, I’d like to finish up with government action this week, get into issues philosophical next week, and then tackle the theological/biblical messages after that.  (Not to tip my hand, but I will be asking why they are so impressed with Leviticus 18:22 but not 19:27 or 20:9, 10, and 18!))

Back to our different starting points regarding how experience bears on the same sex marriage debate.  I watched an interesting TED talk today in which Jonathan Haidt addressed the real difference between liberals and conservatives.  His thesis is that liberals are open to letting their experiences affect their reasoning, while conservatives are not.  That made me think not only of my earlier post, but of your response to that post in which you wrote of your own journey regarding same sex relations, and you wrote an honest line that jumped out at me: “I am temperamentally inclined to be conservative, and suspicious of innovation.”

I’ve heard other conservatives tell me, “I’d like to be pro-gay rights or pro-gay marriage — in fact it would be easier — but I just can’t because of _________.”  (Maybe the Bible or natural law or some other firmly held conviction.)  What’s interesting to me is that when I repeat a line like that to persons more liberal on this issue — as I did tonight at dinner to a straight woman and a gay man — they almost shout back at me, “Well if they want to be for it, then they should be for it!!!”

I’m not writing any of this to place one of our views above the other, but simply to get your opinion on Haidt’s thesis.  Do you think this is a valid way to differentiate conservative reasoning from liberal reasoning?

And I in no way want to dismiss history and tradition — in fact, I’ve written several books on ancient Christian practices and, like you, pray the Jesus Prayer on a daily basis.  I’m just looking for a way of reasoning that is faithful to the past but also receptive to experience.  I’m admitting, as I did in that earlier post, that my personal interactions with gay and lesbian persons has influenced my opinion, though I don’t think it has clouded my judgment.

Further, I read Ross Douthat’s essay at the end of your post, and I know what he’s saying.  In fact, his critique of liberalism is one of the reasons that I don’t apply that label to myself.  But I do wonder if there’s a way to progress in the granting of individual rights but still have those rights chastened by Christian faith.  Then we would not think that we “shall be as gods,” but we might in fact do a little something that aims us in God’s direction.  Am I utopian to believe that reason and experience — rooted in scripture and tradition, with faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit — might act as our guides in these matters?

In the end, I guess I agree with Andrew Sullivan in his response to your Culture 11 piece: The dream of modernity has died, and we need to be realistic and pragmatic as we plow into the future.  I guess I just find it strange that Douthat refers to liberals as utopians when I often find conservatives to be the uptopians — it’s just that conservatives are longing for a utopia of the past.

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  • Tony,
    I am ashamed that again we are resorting to the false argument that homosexuals cannot be committed and monogamous without government recognition. That is blatantly false and it doesn’t take more than a second of thought to see that.
    As far as experience and emotion go, I think that it is unfair to say that conservatives are not affected and/or effected by their experience. The difference is, many conservatives (at least theologically) believe in an absolute truth that they believe in more strongly than they do their own fallen emotions. I think it paints an uncharitable picture of conservatives to think that they are not grieved by the gay people they know and are just cold-hearted legalists.
    Take for instance John Piper. I do not think anyone in American Christianity can claim to have a more broken heart over sin of any sort, and yet it’s what he does with that brokenness that separates him from the liberals such as yourself. Instead of transferring that brokenness into compromise and wiggling to let those in sin slip through, he uses it to motivate him in preaching the gospel and proclaiming God’s glory to as many people as he can.
    Does that mean that every conservative behaves that way? No. But I think that those who do fit the mold that you are trying to throw over all of us are in the wrong. Not that they are wrong about their view of homosexuality as a sin, but that they are wrong for not being broken and committing to share Christ and his changing power with every homosexual they know.
    The problem with liberalism, which I think you are disingenuous not to label yourself as, is that it just throws out the belief which might cause legalism, instead of working to reform the application of what has been absolutely declared.

  • Your Name

    Tony – I have friendships with gay and lesbian people – many of them, and what’s interesting is that most of them are just fine with civil unions and that the sacred marriage vows are reserved for men and women unions. I believe it is a minority of gay and lesbian people who really give a rip about marriage in the first place.
    You sound as though you’re very confused. Perhaps you should reconsider that your judgement has been impacted. You make me laugh when you use the work “progress” when just the opposite is happenning – it’s all deteriorating in front of your eyes, and to compensate, you universalize and blur the lines. Where’s your hope?
    Conservative longing for the utopia of the past – of course they do! Utopia of the future? Read your bible… again!

  • Good response Tony.
    You asked, “Am I utopian to believe that reason and experience — rooted in scripture and tradition, with faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit — might act as our guides in these matters?”
    You are not Utopian, but you might be a little more Wesleyan than Princeton students are permitted. Keep rocking the quadrilateral.

  • Old Friend

    As a gay man myself and an old friend of Tony’s I can respond to the “Your Name” post above – most gay/lesbian people DO give a rip about marriage and the rights that it provides (or doesn’t, at this point). It is improper to make blanket assumptions because your friends do not feel talking to someone as conservative as you about their right to marry due to their fear of your response and judgment.
    My apologies for the tone of this comment but it amazes me the ignorance of some conservative Christians over what is ultimately a civil issue, not a religious one. It is a contract between two people – nobody else.
    See you in heaven.

  • Tim Chambers

    Good, good question:
    “Am I utopian to believe that reason and experience — rooted in scripture and tradition, with faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit — might act as our guides in these matters?”
    Anglicans, inspired by Rev. Richard Hooker, a Puritan leader in the late 1500’s, say there is talk of “a three-legged stool” or a “three stranded cord”…for guidance of God’s ways: including Scripture, Tradition and Reason.” I’d think “experience” is a key part of reason.
    My understanding is that this line of thinking was that Scripture would have a prime place in this mix, but that Scripture was supported by one’s Reason and Experiences, as well as by Tradition – which in essence is past Christian’s stories of their reasoning and experiences on a topic…
    And like a stool, or an intertwined rope made of three strands – you needed all three.

  • Rev Dave

    “Keep rocking the quadrilateral” Ha! +1 tripp!
    As a transplanted Methodist, I had a similar thought (and we were just this week teaching the quad to our Confirmation class).
    Though I wasn’t brought up in that tradition, it seems to me that the quadrilateral is the most honest depiction of how we determine our beliefs. The four exist in tension, and all are needed. As much as some would like to believe otherwise, it is just not possible to base our beliefs on scripture alone. We always filter what we read through these other lenses. Even when we don’t know we’re doing so.
    Anyway, I appreciate Tony’s thoughts here on experience. I won’t bore with extensive details, but my mind and heart were completely changed by an experience I had (in a seminary classroom no less!). In a pastoral care class I met several gay men. As they talked about their faith, one said – and I hope I never forget this – “This is what I know for sure: I am 100% a man, 100% a Christian, and 100% gay.”
    It was, in the ineffable way of such times, a holy moment; an intrusion of God’s Spirit on my entire being. I gained a new understanding of what it means to follow Jesus that day, and I’m a completely different person, a completely different disciple, a completely different pastor, because of it.
    I say it would be inhuman not to include experience in this discussion. For experience is a valid, important, age-old (you might even call it traditional!) teacher.

  • Unfortunately, any time you have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, you run into the problem of who is the loudest voice. Our heritage has paved the way for marriage to be defined heterosexually, which in many cases stems out of a Judeo-Christian belief. So it isn’t a reach to say that morality is a part of government since the people who started the government had a sense of morality to do so.
    There was that whole, “What England is doing to us isn’t right, so let’s have a revolution” is steeped in morality, is it not?
    Since that whole thing is worked out, why should we be surprised or objectionable when morality continues to be a factor? Granted, the sinfulness of man keeps creating a snowball of obliviousness to our own blind spots and rationalizations, so why shouldn’t we grab back onto the very values that started this country to begin with? Again, values in many cases have their roots in a Judeo-Christian belief?
    As a Christian, I have no issue with realizing that the sinfulness of man will always rationalize manufactured rights while only an unchanging God gets to call the shots on what does and doesn’t qualify. It’s our understanding of God that changes, and sometimes that change isn’t always for the better… other times it is.
    I wonder which one this is.
    Thanks for the dialogue.

  • Tony,
    I am one of those that’s concerned about the role you are giving experience in this debate. However, I never claimed that experience should have *no* role. I clearly think that experience does and should influence human beings. My only question is: “how much of a role should we give it?” My concern with you is that you *seem* to be giving it a primary role. I see signs that you made up your mind before coming to the Scriptures. Of course I could be wrong in that last judgment; all I’m saying is that I see signs of that right now.
    Experience and emotions, as JP Moreland puts it, are wonderful slaves but terrible masters. If you give experience the reigns, it leads you in all sorts of wacky directions. Does this mean that it you should just disregard it? No, please don’t pidgeonhole me in that corner. All it means is that you’ve gotta have the horse of Scripture and reason before the cart of experience and emotions.

  • PS–I wrote a blog post about this here.

  • Gerry

    I think it’s important we ask questions and challenge why we read the Bible the way we do. We definitely don’t have the luxury of doctrine and theology which are firmly upheld by the scientific community, archaeologists, geologists, historians, etc.
    With such wide variety of beliefs about our faith, and even things such as salvation, baptism, the divinity of Christ being challenged and different depending on your denomination or what century AD you live in, we must keep asking the questions.
    We are ignorant to accept things as “truth” the first time we read them, we have to go back and check it over, seek God. Thus I think it’s good to ask these questions about gay marriage. Tony has done well.
    For all the laws of the old testament, there seems to be a direct benefit to the Israelites for following them, or a direct harm for not following them. It appears that all sin is “harmful”. Adultery breaks up families, a society that is filled with lust and fornicating relationships, is equally filled with people who never learnt how to build good relationships. We see spiralling loneliness, suicide rates, even drug misuse to obliterate pain. Marriage it seems is a massive solution to these ills and clearly of God.
    So the natural question is; if marriage is from God and homosexuality is sinful (ie harmful), What actual physical harm does gay marriage cause to either an individual or to society?
    Spiritual harm cannot really be measured here on earth. Depending on your pastor and what he teaches, defines what will or won’t cause you spiritual harm.
    If it causes no physical harm, why would God oppose it?
    As many people on this site, I’m never keen on the “because he said so” argument either, from that stand point women shouldn’t be in church ministry, only 144,000 are getting into heaven and any man that has ever thought a woman is attractive should have gouged out both their eyes.