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?