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Reading Gagnon: Morality and Sin [Scot]

Reading Gagnon: Morality and Sin [Scot] April 7, 2012

This week, Scot Miller is blogging about Robert Gagnon’s book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, which many readers of this blog are sure will convince Scot and me that we’re wrong about the gays. -TJ

I should probably quit while I’m ahead, but I would like to offer a final post on Gagon’s book before I shut up.

Again, thanks to Rev. Joseph Hedden, Jr., pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church of the United Church of Christ in Export, PA, for letting me borrow his copy of Gagnon’s book. I’ll return your copy in the mail next week!

Am I absolutely certain that same-sex intercourse is not a sin when the Bible apparently says it’s a sin? Why shouldn’t I defer to the “clear” statements and commands in the Bible? Who am I to judge God’s word?

I’m not absolutely certain about moral matters in general, since moral reasoning is not like reasoning in mathematics or logic. (About the only absolute moral principles I can think of are very specific, like, “Rape is wrong.”) While I’m convinced that some moral principles and values are objective, the moral conclusions we reach are never certain, and require ongoing reflection and re-examination. So while I’m no moral skeptic, I think it’s important that we have good reasons for our moral judgments.

At a minimum, I think that good moral reasons are determined within the community of moral agents who have to live together. Moral people may disagree between themselves, but we can all provide reasons for why we act morally as we do.

Then we need to ask whether our reasons are really good or not, whether they can stand up or not. As Paul said in 1 Thess. 5:20-21, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.”

So while I could be mistaken, I’m highly confident that the biological sex of the participants is irrelevant to the question of whether intercourse is morally good or bad. Heterosexual intercourse is neither inherently good nor bad, and the same is true for same-sex intercourse. Intercourse may be sinful when someone uses deception or coercion or violence, but it’s hard to see how the biology the participants is relevant.

But what if there is a clear command in the Bible? How can a Christian who wants to be obedient to God not do what the Bible says?

It would be nice if the Bible could be read like a moral rule book, outlining exactly what behaviors believers should do and believe. Some people, like Gagnon, seem to think that’s all we need to do when it comes to God’s prescriptive commands. They are prejudiced to read the Bible as if it were a moral rule book, and, surprise, surprise, they find the rules that they expected to find! Unfortunately, because they are unaware of their prejudices, they do not hear what the Bible really says, but only what they expect to hear.

If Gagnon were to listen to the Bible really says rather than force the Bible to conform to his prejudices, he would discover that there is no such thing as the One True Meaning of Scripture About Human Sexuality. Jennifer Wright Knust gives ample evidence that the Bible doesn’t have a simple story about sexuality, which allows her to correctly conclude,

Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways. And biblical writers held a much more complicated view of human sexuality than contemporary debates have acknowledged.

The truth is no believer can simply point to a scripture and say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Interpretation and understanding is inescapable for everyone. The texts about homosexuality can be legitimately interpreted in different ways.

The question for believers is not finished by asking, “What did the Bible say?” This is at best a trivial question about a historical document. (And it is a naive question, for it disregards the fact that we cannot escape the historically conditioned prejudices we bring to the text. The historical question hides within it prejudices that can obscure the meaning of the text.) The more significant question for a believer is, “How am I to understand what the Bible says?” This question opens up the possibility of theological reflection.

When the Bible says that God commands the Israelites to kill the babies of their enemies (which God does in Deut. 3:1-6 and 1 Sam 15:1-3), does this mean I’m supposed to believe that infanticide and intentionally killing noncombatants in war is good? Should I celebrate with the Psalmist when he takes pleasure in imagining the babies of his enemies being smashed to death on a rock (Ps. 137:9)?

Of course, not. These verses need to be interpreted in their historical and cultural contexts. Anyone who thinks that infanticide or intentionally killing noncombatants (or slavery) could be morally permissible because they are approved by God in the Bible is certainly mistaken. (And I know of nobody who would hold such an absurd interpretation.)

We believe these practices are mistaken because the moral arguments for these practices are recognized to be bad by our moral community. We can no longer imagine plausible justifications for killing innocent children. Neither can we justify the killing of noncombatants, a practice long forbidden by the just war theory, which was developed in part by Christian theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

And if the Bible’s acceptance of infanticide and killing noncombatants (and slavery, and the dietary prescriptions in the Holiness Code) are historically conditioned, then the Bible’s pronouncements on homosexuality may be historically conditioned, too.

Gagnon wants to say that the handful of passages in the Bible that condemn same-sex practices are universal and absolute. If you bother to read these passages, however, it is not so clear that the objections are as universal and absolute as he wants them to be. They are objections to particular sex acts in particular situations, and they are open to different interpretations.

So I’m not sure that faithfulness to the Bible requires me to accept its pronouncements uncritically.

Why is my interpretation of scripture not just a perverse rationalization for sin before God?

I think that Gagnon and I have two different ideas about what counts as sin. Gagon seems to believe that sin is about breaking certain rules that God has set up in creation. In particular, Gagnon thinks that the Bible considers same-sex intercourse a sin for two reasons: God said it’s a sin (which should be enough of a reason for anybody), and because it is a disgusting violation of nature. (In the last chapter, he adds that homosexual practices inflict untold harms on society and children, but it’s hard to take this argument seriously since it relies on the discredited work of Paul Cameron.)

(The “God said it” reason may work for people who already believe Gagnon’s interpretation, but it’s not very compelling for anyone else. And the “unnatural” argument fails on too many levels as an adequate theory, especially since nature is ambiguous, and body parts “naturally” have multiple functions.)

I think that sin isn’t about particular kinds of behaviors or actions. I think sin is more about alienation and broken relationships. Sin is our alienation from God, from our fellow human beings, from nature, and from ourselves. Salvation is the reconciliation and repairing of these broken relationships.

Can same-sex intercourse be a sin? Absolutely, especially if the act involves exploitation, deception, or using oneself or other people as objects. Of course, heterosexual intercourse can be a sin in the same ways. (And going to church can be a sin if your church attendance is used to alienate others or to elevate your spiritual ego in front of others. )

So I’m afraid that we have reached an impasse at the level of the prejudices and assumptions we bring to the Bible. I don’t buy Gagon’s approach to the Bible, and he would not buy mine. But it’s not really accurate to say that one of us is being biblical and the other disregards the Bible. We interpret the same Bible from entirely different frames of reference with different prejudices and different assumptions.

We are all subject to error in our interpretations, however, and I could be mistaken. But unless someone can come up with a better reason than, “My interpretation of the Bible and nature tells me homosexual practice is a sin,” it’s hard for me to buy the idea that homosexual practices are more sinful than heterosexual practices.

I may be making a mistake, and God may really be unhappy with people who act on their same-sex attraction. But I think it’s a bigger mistake to use one possible narrow interpretation of scripture to condemn people just because they want loving intimacy with someone of the same sex.


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