Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Rules vs. Relationships - Lars

Post #18 Understanding Homosexuality meets Straight Into Gay America. A dialogue with author, pastor David Glesne and author, pastor Lars Clausen. Today Lars continues the discussion on theology, revelation, and faith with thoughts on living by Rules or Relationships.

Dear Dave,

About Church and Not Knowing Much:
As we continue this discussion of what we can know that we know, I want to start by admitting that I know very little. I’m running on faith, best guesses, accumulated attempts at life, whatever someone wants to call it. I’m doing this because it seems the most realistic and faithful response to the world – admitting that I don’t have a bulletproof revelation about ultimate things – realizing that I must take responsibility for my own tentative words – and shaping those words, as best as I can in the context of present culture, the accumulated testimonies of history, philosophy, and science, and with an awareness of our 10,000 year old agricultural worldview, and the hundreds of thousands of years of hunting gathering wisdom that preceded agriculture.

One of the reasons I’ve left serving a parish and preaching every Sunday is because I’ve grown more and more concerned that we’re claiming to know too much. I’ve grown scared of saying the word God. Such a twistable term.

The second of the major reasons that I no longer serve a parish is a sense of urgency for justice combined with my doubts that church is going to be the forefront of creating the conditions necessary for human survival in an overpopulated, overwarmed and undercompassionate world.

These are the reasons that I treasure this conversation with you, because we have core differences, and I can learn from you. I’ll stick for now with our conversation of what we can know that we know.

Relationships vs. Rules:
Another way I wonder about how we come to hold our “subjective” or “objective” worldviews is with the word “relationship,” and the word “rules.”

I’m sure there are shades of grey on this spectrum, but I have a sense that if you push a woman or a man to the precarious end of the plank, to the very precipice of life, we ultimately choose to cling to the world being ordered by rules, or else by relationships. For many people, the end of the plank is when their child announces to them that they are LGBT. Some parents stick to their rules and denounce their child’s proclamation of their identity. Others stick to their relationships and learn that their child can live out compassionate LGBT relationships.

Here seems to be one of the beauties of our dialogue. At the precipice, I choose relationships – experience. I hear you saying strongly that you choose rules – revelation. When you write to me about Jesus I read you writing of a man-god who came to earth to use compassion to bring people back to a right and rules based relationship with Father-god. I hear you noting compassion and forgiveness in God, but for the purpose of bringing us back to the revealed rules. I surmise this is part of why it’s relevant for you to quote Gagnon about the unambiguity of the sinfulness of homosexual sexual action and to write in your own words of “serial, unrepentant sin which can sever us from God.”

As I wrote in Straight Into Gay America, I use a different way to interpret Jesus – the consummate outsider who comes to convincingly expose this rules-based way of looking at reality that you espouse. Of the examples you give about Jesus who calls sinners to repentance, one can alternatively understand Jesus as boldly moving BEYOND the rules to engage the conversation about what it could mean in this PARTICULAR instance to be compassionate, loving, and caring. What does it mean to live out of this compassion. A truly compassionate encounter seems to me to require an openness to the rules changing--otherwise there can't be a real communication, only a one-sided diretive. I believe Jesus chose this kind of two-way open compassion, even at the cost of crucifixion? What does it mean to hang on the cross and say to the oppressors, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do?” What does it mean to envision new creation in these particular lived experiences, throwing out all that doesn’t point toward compassion, and embracing all that seeks the direction of compassion? And maybe coming up with something new?

For you, for some reason, it appears to make sense to interpret Jesus as a pathway back to living the right rules, and therefore being in a better position to receive the blessing of God.
For me, for some reason it makes sense to interpret Jesus as the outsider to the system who came to say precisely that reliance on rules is sin, because it risks the destruction of compassionate relationship. This, I’d argue, is what Jesus great commandment is about, “to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

“All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” Law and prophets hang on love. It seems a betrayal of Jesus to say this backwards, that love hangs on the law. That’s my take on things.

Note: I accept the importance of rules. No need to ask me what would happen if we didn’t have order in our society. Yes, we’d have chaos. I accept the importance of rules, but rules, for me, are always subject to the critique of compassion. And when rules lack compassion, rules must change, even in the face of what some are currently calling authoritative revelation. Depending on the magnitude of the rule (women can’t be priests) it can take a long time for rules to give way before compassion (thousands of years). Even today, the Catholic church and some other denominations still claim that the revealed word of God forbids women priests.

Again, I’m thankful for this dialogue, because I can read your statements and see consistency in them… as long as…

1) One assumes that Revelation really can be received with absolute surety, and that one’s personal absolute is more sure than another person’s absolute. I remember standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon and looking down at the millions of years of geological layers, and the layers of human culture, and losing the last vestiges of surety in revelation. The loss of my reliance in revelation was the beginning of my deepening faith in compassion.

…and as long as…

2) One’s absolute sense of revelation is more important than what one experiences in life. I can see revelation and rules holding up until the point of existential crisis: a self-realization that one is gay, or the news that a child or a spouse is gay. Here, on the end of the plank, will one choose rules or relationships? Would you choose the same or differently if Mona told she’s lesbian or your children told they are gay? These are the stories that I’ve listened to over and over again.

Some people choose rules, even at the cost of family relationships. Others, out on the plank, choose relationships as did Joan when her transgender son revealed his identity as female and started her transition to becoming Sara (Straight Into Gay America: 251-256) Joan’s advice to other parents, “Don’t lose your relationship with your child. That’s the most important thing. Do everything you need to do to learn and understand your child.”

This question about whether we choose rules or relationships, subjective or objective realities, experience or revelation… this is life and death for me.

You write about the Corinthian;
“Paul rebukes the Corinthian Christians and urges the excommunication of the
incestuous man not to be punitive, but in the hope that once outside the church,
this man would get roughed up by Satan and wake up to the serious consequences
of his sin, and would return and be restored to the kingdom.”

I agree with you that there are times when I need to face my sin and change, and there are times when others need to help me see sin and change my ways. No question. I disagree strongly with you when you put all homosexual relationship and sexual activity in this category.

This kind of rules-based interpretation reminds me of a story my seminary professor told when I was in seminary. It was during the time of the AIDS crisis. A faithful Lutheran family from the Midwest came to San Francisco to visit their dying son. After the visit with the son, the doctor met with them and the mother told the doctor, “Don’t give him too much pain medication. He needs to know that he has sinned.”

I believe we’d both feel saddened by this response. I’m further saddened that a rules-based approach can so easily lead to this loss of compassion, replaced by a dismissal of the human person in favor of keeping the kingdom pure. I feel the same sadness when you write that the only faithful response for a homosexual person who "chooses" or feels compelled to remain homosexual is -- celibacy.

I hear you arguing that your adherence to the rules is more compassionate than my adherence to experience. My sense of life is that your rules-based approach to living works as long as you’re willing to keep out existential doubt and to keep out the real experience of outsiders (e.g. persisting in calling homosexuality a pseudo-identity).

And maybe you’re right.

I’ve had a few run-ins with despair and existential doubt. Not fun.
  • As a student at the Air Force Academy I questioned my purpose in life.
  • As a student in seminary, kicked out for living “in sin” with Anne, I questioned those professors who claimed the gospel and were yet willing to kick me out for the sake of rules but never talk to me about the WHY of Anne’s and my living together.
  • As a pastor in Nome, at the confluence of hunting gathering and agricultural traditions, I watched the invading agricultural reality in the process of wiping out 12,000 years of hunting gathering culture – my friends.

From these experiences I can imagine brushing off the context and retreating further into rules, objective reality, and the security of revelation. But for some reason I didn’t do that. Despite the temptation, I somehow knew that would have meant a smaller sense of reality for me, and either denying myself or denying someone else to maintain my preexisting sense of world order. Some people choose that route. Some people don’t. I’m not sure why I chose to stick with relationships, with accepting subjectivity, with giving up an insistence on objectivity.

Living with this uncertainty mostly feels realistic, and mostly I’m fine with it…but sometimes…it’s scary as hell. I remember the old Lutheran scientist at Michigan State who came to my pastor’s office. At the age of 70, he’d finally reached this plank point. He was crying, sobbing at the big wide-open world he was seeing anew for the first time. In Luther’s terms, freedom and responsibility were no longer theological advice; they were existential realities. He was fully free to plumb the depths of doubt and fully responsible for what shape, if any, he wanted to try and give to the world. And he realized that there was no absolute shape he could claim, he could only make a statement of faith. I remember sitting quietly, listening carefully to his words, and wondering, in the back of my mind…why now? Why open his world to the uncertainties of faith at this point. Why not just stick with his certainties and assumptions after all these years. Why change your go-to position when you reach the end of the plank after all those years of professorial prestige?

Any thoughts?



ace said...

I have been able to hang on to my ability to claim to be Christian (often by my fingernails) by having as rock-bottom, Jesus' Great Commandment. I have often puzzled at how many Christians can seem to interpret Scripture to require beliefs and positions so far from my own. I think, Lars, that you have finally clarified this for me in your comment: "It seems a betrayal of Jesus to say this backwards, that love hangs on the law. That’s my take on things."

If one's experience and understanding of God is that God is the center and source of all Love, it follows that to love God with all one's heart, soul, etc., would require that any rule or law be tested by the standard of this Absolute Love. If, on the other hand, one sees God's Love as controlled by a spigot, one that gets turned on only if the rules are followed, this would allow all the examples of failure to love the "other", displayed by so many "Christians", which to me are the real abominations and perversions. For these perversions to be held up as God's Will suggests a view of God where Love is not Universal and Absolute, but subject to being bestowed, or witheld for failure to comply. Anyone who has ever had the experience of being melted in God's Absolute Love would immediately recognize how truly wrong this view is! In my experience, God is incapable of witholding God's Love, and that is an understanding not easy to determine by reading Scripture. If you start reading it from that place, though, it changes everything, starting with the realization that many of the writers of Scripture, and those who later determined what was/wasn't "Scripture" really didn't get it.

emmabeth said...

This discussion of rules/relationships reminded me of a poem by theologian and poet Gerhard Frost.


When your options are either
to revise your beliefs
or to reject a person,
look again.

Any formula for living
that is too cramped
for the human situation
cries for rethinking.

Hardcover catechisms
are a contradiction
to our loose-leaf lives.

I was raised in a church that reflects closely the viewpoint of Pastor Glesne. I always wondered how we could be so sure we had it all right. I now find myself struggling (along with Lars) to reconcile the loving and compassionate Jesus revealed in the scriptures with the rigid rules the institutionalized church still promotes. If our understanding of God requires us to "count someone out" because they don't fit our understanding of the scriptures, perhaps we don't understand either God or God's word.

Patrick said...

I just finished reading the entire blog conversation between you and Dave. My frustration is running rampant at the moment. It is as if I was reading the collected works of Sears and Osten ("The Homosexual Agenda") and anything by Paul Cameron. From the blog I perceive that Dave relied solely on fundamentalist sources for his information on homosexuality and did not actually examine the scientific sources.

Regarding where do we go if we cannot reason with the irrational: my strategy has been to reason with them in public. Let me explain. I see American society in three parts on the issue of homosexuality. There is the part (roughly 1/3 of the population) that fully accepts homosexual people - these are represented by the approximate 1/3 that support gay marriage; there is the part that tolerates/accepts people, but not necessarily approves or understands - these are the roughly 1/3 of the population that oppose gay marriage but accept civil unions; there is the part that oppose homosexuals - represented by the roughly 1/3 of the population that oppose both marriage and civil unions. I choose to used reasoned arguments in public when debating the anti-gay crowd because representatives of the second group are usually watching. The second group are the people who listen to reason, but simply haven't heard the arguments yet. All they know is what their pastor, another Christian leader, or other influential people (eg parents) have said - much of which is blatantly and demonstrably untrue. That middle third can be won over, and frequently are, when they hear both sides of the argument. In particular, using reason with the irrational highlights to the middle third just how irrational the anti-gay arguments are. For example, when people argue 1 Corinthians with me I point out that "homosexual" is not found in any Bible prior to 1952 - I then invite all to look at the King James version, or any other version. The KJV, as you know, "neglects" to even say "sodomites" there. If they use Sodom against me, then I just point out Ezekiel 16:48-50. The bystanders watching all this quickly see that the fundamentalists do not have a leg to stand on. If they argue from nature, I simply show them pictures from Bruce Bagemihl's book "Biological Exuberance", and the point is made that animals frequently engage in homosexuality - it is entirely natural. I then ask them if the 6-10% of rams which demonstrate exclusive homosexual behavior do so because of poor parenting or name-calling by their peers? Those are just a few examples. The person who is in the middle usually are won over fairly easily. More importantly, it helps them to treat homosexuals with dignity and respect. In sum, I think yes, it is a bit of a power struggle. But then, not knowing much history, I'm guessing the civil rights movement for African-Americans and the Women's rights movement was also a power struggle.

Tim Fisher said...


Dear Dave,

The scientific discussion, while perhaps seeming a bit clinical and arcane to some, is not peripheral. If it's true that the vast majority of gay men are pedophiles, as you have said (75% you told me), then it hardly matters what anyone thinks the scriptures say about homosexual relationships.

"Pedophile!" What more does anyone need to know?

But really, Dave, if the scientific materials were actually peripheral, it seems doubtful you, Gagnon, Strommen, and so many others among the so called traditionalist camp would have bothered with the social science material in the first place.

You wrote:
>> we can quickly move into a low-land fog in which one interpretation can always look as good as another. This scientific study is more valid than that scientific study. This person’s experience counters that person’s experience. “We sink into the quicksand of opinion and interpretation that loses sight of the particularity of the claims at issue which cannot cope with the passion and tenacity with which these opinions and interpretations are argued and held.” It can become a stalemate that ends up trivializing the debate. I have learned much through the discussion . . ..>>

So, after speaking of promiscuity, pedophilia, and all sorts of sexual ickinesses-—from which only a "very, very few" homosexual people are free—-now you just throw up your hands and say, "Oh well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree"? If you've learned a lot from relatively random strangers blogging on the internet, just think what you might have learned if you'd actually done the real, hard work of reasearch *before* publishing.

I find your response here very problematic. It feels as if you've walked into a room full of people you don't know, insulted them, and then walked out so you don't have to listen to them. If you didn't really know what you were doing with the scientific material in the first place, what business did you have broadcasting your almost entirely negative "research" to the church, inserting your book into every ELCA congregation?

Furthermore, how can you think that if the scientific questions lead us into a "quicksand of opinion and interpretation," the theological issues won't?

Actually, I don't think we've lost the "particularity" of the claims at all. Rather, some of us have gone into the particulars of the scientific claims with some precision and clarity. There is certainly an aspect to the scientific debate-—a "level," if you will—-where judgments of truth and falsehood become difficult, where concrete conclusions are elusive. But in your chapter 3, with its use of Paul Cameron and other such ridiculous sources, you have not come close to that level.

I find your statements here highly dismissive of the people who have been hurt by your slap-dash scientific work. Your work in chapter 3 is irresponsible. The church needs and deserves far better.

Grace and peace,

Tim Fisher
Minneapolis, MN

Paul Frerking said...

Post #18 was truly beautiful! "Rules vs Relationships" is, to me, the ultimate reason why I operate best with the Lutheran hermeneutic. To me it is the old question of life under law or under grace.You have made this crystal clear and I deeply appreciate what you have said. The beginning of my "journey" to live in the freedom of the Gospel began in a course I was taking in Seminary, The Pentateuch.We were required to translate a number of verses, one of which was based on the question of who wrote the Pentateuch. I was rabidly in the "Moses wrote it"and would "stand guard" daring anyone to challenge Mosaic authorship (a reflection of my LCMS background and parents' teaching). I came to Genesis 36:31 and my world fell apart! "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites."Just plain logic (your "experience?") told me this verse was written AFTER kings ruled in Israel; this eliminated Moses! My Hebrew prof, Holland Jones, asked me when I scheduled an appointment with him, "Does your faith rest on Moses writing the Pentateuch, or on Jesus Christ?" This was the beginning of my "awakening." I was very much afraid because my anchor had fallen; I saw the beginning of all the warnings I had been "primed" to believe, start crashing to the ground; the tiny "hole in the dike" had burst and the water was drowning me. Life would never be the same for me; but I also found the freedom to breathe and think. It was almost a "life after life" experience.

I didn't mean to go on and on, but your Post #18 brought this to mind. I REALLY appreciate where you are "coming from." I feel I have found a "soul-brother!"

Again, thank you.
Paul Frerking

one spirit said...

Lars,I must write something because it has been hanging in my mind since I received your last post.I have decided the reason I find these comments so alarming is because I have allowed the ego to take control,and lost sight of the truth.That being this;Father,unless I judge I can not weep nor feel pain,or feel abandonned or unneeded in the world.

If I just step back and watch what is happening,and become aware that this is his ego talking,and not the truth of who he is with out judgement,I am able to see how harmless and meaningless his assertations are.My mistake of placing a judgement on his comments is making it seem real,and giving what apears to be real.By not judging I am able to see the true spirit that lies with in him,and have compashion for him because at this level we are brothers,free of preceived differences.I can then see that we are at different levels of experience of life.It also frees me from the illusion of right and wrong.I Believe that God,Love,and forgiveness are one in the same,and the truth that He created us in His image provides me with the knowkedge that I am One with Him,as are we all.Love contains no hate,and there are no degrees of love,and since God is Love there can be no hate coming from Him.Hate comes from fear created by the ego,and not from God as asserted by Dave.Your experience with judging the fellows in Alaska is an example of this in action.I believe if the world could remove judgement,peace would become a reality.Your efforts at sharing your experience,strength,and hope are doing much to change the worlds illusion of seperation from our true source.

When my intentions are based out of love,I have nothing to fear.There is no need to justify or prove my truth,because truth needs no justification.There are not levels of truth as with love.It is either true or it isn't.I am beginning to see that this conversation is helping me discover what is true for me,and that love and forgiveness is the path that I need to be on,and it is none of my business what other people think of me.What is important is what I think about myself.