Making Sense of the Marriage Debate. Part Two.

Today’s discussion picks up from Part One on the topic of the image of God. This very idea, to be sure, is not without its detractors. Peter Singer, for one, argues very clearly that the very notion of mankind being made in such a fashion is one of which we must rid ourselves. In his opinion, one shared by many people in influential quarters, the very idea of humans being exceptional or qualitatively different from any other species on the planet is a hindrance to a proper ethical approach to the challenges we face. And he argues this in support of the “rights” of animals.

What has this to do with our topic of same-sex unions and marriage? On the surface, not much; underneath, however, there is a linkage when we consider this concept of “rights.” Much of the conversation about our topic has centered on the rights of gay people to marry. Sometimes it is described as “marriage equality.” I propose to consider these ideas in light of what was said in Part One about the created nature of humanity as described in the opening paragraphs of the Bible and assumed throughout the remainder of its message.

I wrote in the previous post that male-female difference is essential to understanding marriage and the divine intent. I also suggested on the basis of scripture and human experience, as well as scientific findings, that the differences are real and necessary. They are necessary in that both male and female are created in the image of God, but that they carry that image differently, such that a fuller representation of God is presented to the children born to them and raised by them. Simply stated, this is what marriage is all about. We must acknowledge that we have not done very well at the task; in all too many cases, for example, men have failed to honor women as being equally important to the understanding of God as they themselves are. And when that happens, the children see a distortion of who God is as they take in spoken and unspoken messages. This and other distortions, however, do not change the definition of marriage implied by the Bible and by combined human experience.

There are, of course, other accountings of human life in the world. And the alternatives are offered with varying degrees of compatibility or agreement and disagreement with the biblical-theological model sketched above. As thinking beings or, if one must say it, rational animals we can think of other ways. And it is our right to do so. That may seem like an odd thing to affirm, but I believe it follows from our being made in the image of God. We can think and draw conclusions, but our conclusions do not in any way change what is really the case, the way things were from the beginning. But to the extent that these alternative conclusions differ from the created order, they miss the mark. And they miss the mark with consequences following in their train. While this is true for all deviations (and there are many we could discuss), we are focusing on the specific matter of referring to marriage as another kind of union.

In our time, we have come to think of the essence of marriage as the love that has developed between two people. One of the questions inevitably asked when a couple seeks marriage is “why do you want to get married?” And just as inevitably, the answer will be “because we love each other.” It’s a good answer, of course, but it is not sufficient. It is not sufficient because it does not include, at least on the surface, a desire to represent God by the union of the differences between male and female, a union open to even if not always resulting in offspring. Note that this does not argue that other relationships, including homosexual relationships, cannot be loving relationships. As candidates for marriage, however, other relationships miss the mark; they cannot represent the image of God nor bear offspring.

Missing the mark, as more astute Christians will recognize, is the essence of sin. When we miss the mark, we are caught in the consequences that follow from living in a way out of keeping with the goodness planned by the Creator. I am not talking at this point about culpability or personal responsibility; I am talking about living in ways that miss the intention of the One who made us, whether those ways are personally chosen or are the ways that have been handed to us through no choice of our own. We all too quickly jump from the idea of sin to personal worthlessness and devaluation. I don’t think that’s what at stake here. It is tempting to draw out a theology of sin and redemption here that will likely differ from the typical evangelical model. But that full accounting is for another day. For now, when we miss the mark we bring consequences on ourselves and on those we influence, as individuals and as societies who establish those alternate ways.

The subject of rights was mentioned above. Two thoughts about rights will be presented before closing this installment of my thoughts upon the marriage debate. The first is this: everyone has the right to be married. A man can marry a woman and vice versa. Even those who have attractions to same-sex relationships are free to marry someone of the opposite sex. There is no issue of rights involved in this question. What is being sought, however, is a change of definition of marriage. That is not a matter of rights; it is a matter of truth. It is a matter pertaining to the nature of things and how we come to know them. It is what returns us to the discussion of philosophy in Part One of this presentation, asking the question of whether there is any truth about things other than what we decide to believe and impose on others arbitrarily.

The second thought about rights follows from the first and brings me back to Peter Singer. The assertion of rights has to include a source for those rights; they must be grounded somewhere. And this is where nominalism (or name-only-ism) fails. If things just exist, if people just exist without a purpose and without a knowable source, rights become nothing more than assertions of those who are in power. They can only come from a government, whose legitimacy can only be measured by whether or not we like it or find it agreeable.

I’m going to allow things to hang at that point until the third installment. In that next portion I will more directly address the questions of what we should and should not do as political people and as Christians.

Making Sense of the Marriage Debate. Part One.

Yes, I know. It’s either totally foolish or terribly audacious to suggest that one blog post from a barely known pastor-theologian will do what many have begged for and few have actually provided. So let me begin by saying I am not claiming to have the final solutions to anything, least of all how we should handle the questions surrounding what is described as same-sex marriage. And I acknowledge that I approach the matter as a Christian committed to the integrity of the biblical narrative and to the definition of Christianity provided by the ancient creeds; these are, after all, summaries of the doctrines implied by that narrative.

One of the most difficult tasks in an emotionally laden controversy is to separate the questions and the positions the questions imply. That is what I propose to do in this post. It will say too much for some readers and too little for others; it will ask as many questions as it will answer, but it will hopefully do so in such a way as to generate less heat and more thought. If any readers find that those with different answers to some of the questions do have a point to consider, we will have moved forward. As a Christian I want to honor Christ in the way I engage others in hard conversations just as much as I want to honor him by speaking the mind of the Holy Spirit. The first of those is always under my control; the latter is something about which I can be mistaken, strive as I might and shall to hear his voice through the scriptures, through reason, and through history.

What Are We Talking About?

On the surface, this seems a silly question. We’ve already stated that we are speaking about same sex marriage. But that’s just the problem for many people in this debate. What is marriage? And, more importantly, how do we know what it is, and who gets to say what it is? What are the grounds for saying it is one thing and not another, or that it can or cannot be different things for different people? We cannot be deceived on this latter point. To say that the nature of marriage is such that it can be different things simultaneously is to make a claim to know the truth about marriage.

This is a philosophical issue, something for which our culture has little time or training. And because we have not been taught how to think or reason well, we have fallen prey to a philosophy that says things only become something when we name them, and that the naming is arbitrary, performed as an act of power by those who have the upper hand. In other words, there is no true identity to anything, no essence to the things and even (or especially) the values or ideals by which we measure human actions and purposes. Beauty, truth, justice, goodness are just ideas we have created. They don’t actually exist. When it comes to something like marriage, or families, or pets, or humans themselves the same is true. There are no definitions until we supply them; in fact, they can’t exist until we make up words to apply to them.

If this is the case, there can be no debate. If we say marriage is anything we want it to be, and there is no question of whether it is true or not, then if we want two people of the same gender to have the same status as two of different genders, then so be it. Who could argue?

 

Nominalism, which is the position just described, can be adequately understood as name-only-ism; our values and our descriptions, our definitions of terms, our understandings of concepts, etc., have no grounding other than in the words we use to name them. There is no real or true answer, description, or standard against which to measure or assess what we call things. And the question before us then is a question of whether there is anything that can be true or false about what we decide what marriage–or anything else–is.

The Christian concept of revelation challenges nominalism. It tells us that all things exist in, through, and because of God; they have their meaning in God. And the concept further suggests that there are ways in which God communicates the nature of the things that have been created. While some people would limit revelation to the words of the Bible as God’s “special” revelation, even the Bible itself suggests that the nature of the world and our reflection on it gives us some insight into the true nature of things. It is my strong inclination to believe that reason, properly employed and honestly pursued, will not undo the picture of things which the Bible paints–provided that it, too, is honestly and properly understood. I say this because it is one thing to claim that there is ultimate truth, grounded in God; it seems a position Christians are bound to adopt. But it is quite another thing to say that we fully and finally comprehend that ultimate truth; that is something we should not say. That is, we cannot allow ourselves to deny the possibility of our being mistaken as individual persons or even as a corporate church. But our susceptibility to error does not invalidate the idea that there really is truth. All of this may seem a to be a tangent from what I first proposed to write about. But God’s revelation, if such there be, must be the starting point for Christian reflection on the nature of the world and the things in it, most importantly regarding the nature of human life.

When we seek God’s perspective on human nature from the Bible, we learn a few things very quickly from the first two chapters of Genesis. Let’s list them for simplicity and in order to refer to them at later points:

1. We are created in the image of God.
2. We are created male and female.
3. Man and woman are united by leaving parents and, at least in potential, creating offspring.

What we learn in these few simple statements from the opening chapters of the Bible is corroborated in many ways through human history and anthropology. All cultures have some way of recognizing and protecting the relationship between the parents and potential parents of the next generation; it is essential to the survival of the culture into the future, the protection and continuation of what they have made into a future beyond their own lifetime. In all cultures, a man has left father and mother in order to be united with his wife and create a family of their own.

With respect to the second statement, human psychology and physiology concur. There is difference within the bearing of the image of God. Male and female bodies are different; the brain chemistry is different, as science has repeatedly demonstrated. Yet these differences between male and female are complimentary; and both male and female characteristics have their origin in God. Some conclusions follow from this. As designed, humans are to be God’s image-bearers, that is, the icons of God. And since this image is born jointly by male and female, it is through their difference and in their combination that children born to them are to see God represented to them. It is how they learn of God. This is an idea primitively stated in Adam’s having a helper (better: compliment) suitable for him; it is one more sophisicatedly stated by research that demonstrates that children of two-parent (male-female) households thrive better than those in other situations. It is the reason all cultures, with or without the Bible, with or without the research, have protected in some significant ways the relationship between man and woman. It’s in our nature as created to do so.

Things have diverged from this creation pattern in many ways. That’s why we have controversies. But as we consider the challenges and brokenness of our lives in this world, we cannot do so without some strong sense of the place from which we have fallen. It is for that reason that I have begun this series of posts in this vein. What to do about our fallenness, what Christians do and should say to the culture at large, and how they should think of the matter of same-sex unions in their own company will be considered in subsequent additions to the blog. Thanks for listening.

Only the Lonely

I wonder if Jesus would have tweeted or updated his status when he faced the certainty of his pending ordeal. To whom would he have reached out? From whom might he have expected a reply? Who would have responded?

In spite of social media–or in some cases because of it?–there seem to be plenty of lonely people in today’s world. Ever notice how many of your friends post a status on Facebook to which no one responds; and the only way to deal with it is to post more desperate, meaningless details of the day, or even the life? Or have you taken note of the people truly lost in the crowd, walking with a mob yet by themselves, with no conversation partner? Or the ones who almost never venture out any longer for fear of so many things, such as non-acceptance, isolating ridicule (almost always less real than imagined), the pain of watching so many others having the enjoyment of companions, or even the fear of losing the one piece of identity they are sure of–that they are lonely. The Beatles’ song from long ago haunted me even then:

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie
Writing the words of a sermon that no-one will hear
No-one comes near
Look at him working
Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No-one was saved

All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong?
Lyrics from eLyrics.net

The Eleanor Rigbys and Father McKenzies are all around. Whether the original lyrics intended to mock the faith or not, they apply to many in ministry, who die in the church and dig the graves with no one coming. Jesus knows them all by name. Jesus knows them all by experience because he was willing to become one of them.

Early in his public ministry Jesus submitted to the baptism of John, a baptism of identification with humanity in all its faults and frailties. By doing so he was declaring, “I’m with them.” In referring later to the baptism he would yet undergo, that identification was made complete as he suffered humiliation, abandonment, misunderstanding, injustice, physical pain–and loneliness. No one came, no one got it, no one sat with him, no one prayed with him.

Because of the things he suffered, he is able to come to the aid of those who suffer, as the writer to the Hebrews declared. It is difficult to imagine the intensity of the loneliness, the isolation that the fully human Jesus experienced, so that he might come to the aid of those who find themselves outside the fold of any meaningful human interaction. Perhaps only the lonely ones can begin to grasp how much it matters that the Lord knows; and in spite of the lyrics above, he does come.

The Unimaginable God?

I am frequently asked by students how best to talk about God with atheist friends. Atheists, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, and from every direction. Some have not thought seriously about what the claims of Christian faith really are, and are happy to dismiss them as insufficiently sophisticated for people as bright as they; some have given a more serious hearing to the real claims, but have difficulty connecting the god they hear about with the unpleasantness of the real world. Some simply do not want there to be a god, thereby removing the daunting presence of one who might judge their attitudes and conduct. One of my customary responses to the question is suggest asking the atheist to tell them about the god in whom they do not believe; almost without fail, the answer can then be given: I don’t believe in that god either; let me tell you about the I do believe in.

But where would you begin with that descriptive task? It’s a question theologians/apologists have debated for a very long time: where does God-talk begin. Sometimes it’s with the philosophical arguments that appeal to the mind, hoping to demonstrate that God is the only sufficient explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. At other times one might point experiences which only an all-wise, all-powerful, yet loving God could possibly have arranged. While these may have their time and place, along with other approaches, the Passion of Christ suggests something else.

On two occasions during that holy week, Jesus invited people to interpret God on the basis of what they saw in him. The first time (John 12:44-46) was to those wavering between intellectual assent and life investment into the claims of Jesus. “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.” Later, in the privacy of his small group of close friends, he declared again, “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). So what is it someone sees when looking at Jesus? What does that glance do when one asks who God really is?

I would suggest that what is recorded between these two statements of Jesus has much to do with the answer. And it is related to yesterday’s post about the centrality of Holy Week for grasping authentic Christian faith. After his more public description of his relation to God, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, announces the betrayal he will soon experience, and then humbles the boastful Peter with the unthinkable idea that he, too, will deny his Lord. As the next few days would unfold, the glance at Jesus would be enough to turn the heads of virtually anyone in any other direction; it would be too ugly to behold. Do you want to know who God really is? Look at Jesus. Here. Now. Stooping. Washing. Accepting betrayal. Then dying.

It is often suggested in today’s world that while the idea of God is useful to us, in grounding morality, in providing some measure of hope and purpose, the supposed truth is that every construction of what God is really like is nothing more than God made in our image. We imagined Him as we would like to think He is, or so it is alleged. And it would be difficult to deny that there are ways we prefer to think about God, all of which are irrelevant to who he truly is. But it is very difficult to pretend that any of us would imagine the God revealed by looking at Jesus, particularly the Jesus portrayed in the climax of every gospel account. And when we find ourselves among the betrayers, as all of us must at times, we’d rather turn our heads, as Isaiah predicted centuries earlier. Maybe we don’t pay as much attention to Holy Week because we don’t want to have to look at this suffering God. To think that this is “the real” is, well, unimaginable.

Holy . . . What?

It started yesterday. And it ended yesterday for all too many Christians and non-believers alike. It started with an impromptu parade and will end with a tepid celebration of an event many people believe didn’t really occur. To an extent that last point is understandable, given the hidden nature of the most significant moment in human history. But I’m getting ahead of myself, which is just what today’s pep rally Christians tend to do so easily.

If we cannot find it within ourselves to observe the approximately six weeks of Lent, one might hope that surely we could be more aware of what once went by the name of Holy Week, that period throughout which our attention is to be keenly focused on the identity of Jesus with virtually every form of human suffering, whether emotional, mental, psychological, or physical. Even spiritual. When we fail to so focus we are in danger of losing our story, and the story loses its grip on us. What I sometimes dreaded as a child and even into teen years I now recall as a significant shaping of how to see the world. We called it Holy Week.

It wasn’t just a name in that small country church where faith was formed after its generation from my parents. We would observe the special week by having worship every night through Good Friday, each night recalling something about the Passion of our Lord. I don’t recall a single sermon, though I heard many. What I recall is our community of faith gathering to be reminded of who we are and what God in Christ did about it. By the time Thursday evening and Holy Communion came, it was a meaningful observance because of the honesty with which we could see our need and God’s sacrificial provision. By Friday folks were broken at he sight of the cross. By Sunday we were ready to celebrate life. Really ready.

It’s not just about nostalgia for a by-gone tradition. When one looks at the gospels recorded in the New Testament, one should be struck by the amount of space each of the writers devotes to the events between the Sundays of Jesus’s final week among the disciples. Matthew has 28 chapters, 8 of which describe events beginning with Palm Sunday; Mark has 16 chapter, with the final week beginning in chapter 11; Luke begins the Triumphal Entry in chapter 19 of his 24. John is more concentrated than any of the so-called synoptic gospels, with chapters 12-21 occurring on or after Palm Sunday. Even if one were to argue that some of the events and sayings, if they occurred at all, were relocated from their true chronology and placed into this week by the writer, one would have to conclude that doing so only reveals an authorial strategy that intends for the reader to see all of what is described in the light of this week.

There are some implications of this heavy emphasis on what happened in one week of history. Obviously, the movement of those events toward the cross cannot be ignored. This alone argues against any interpretation of the Christian faith that by-passes the crucifixion. Perhaps we betray our discomfort with the necessity of the cross when we skip the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry in order to say the nicer, more hopeful aspects of his teaching. But are they really as hopeful if they are not seen as the teachings of the crucified one?

I’m interested in responses to a couple of questions raised here. For one, are there reasons for which the Holy Week traditions have been largely abandoned? Should they be renewed, perhaps in different fashion? What sort might you suggest? Do you think our telling of the story is compromised by not acting out liturgically, in some fashion what that story really is?

Missing the Point? Lent Post.

There’s a theory in the philosophy of science that at first seems unduly skeptical. It says that scientific discovery is determined less by the truth about the physical world than it is by what we are looking for. In other words, we define what we expect to see, and by doing so we also place limits both on what we will find and how we will describe what we find. Could it also be that we face the same issue when we look at the Bible?

John 5:36-47
36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

Jesus had some very interesting exchanges with the people the gospel writer simply refers to as “the Jews.” The particular Jews in view, of course, are the spokesmen for the religious life of the Hebrew people, including a significant number of the teachers of the Law–the biblical scholars of the day. One might reasonably assume that they were good at what they did–dissect the received writings to uncover every detail and nuance of the text that might provide clues for what it is that God requires. Over time this endeavor turned into a way of maintaining a grip on the people whose spiritual lives rested in following the conclusions at which they arrived. The text became the data out of which their science of law discovery would operate. They “saw” what they were looking for. Their expectations of the text were met and satisfied. And as success in this endeavor continued, the guarding and revering of this text continued apace.

In my more skeptical moments, I wonder how different some of our Christian approaches to the Bible really are from those of these soon-to-be miffed “Jews.” Is it possible that we, like they, are prone to see only what we want to see when reading the inspired Word? The difficulty of standing back from previous interpretations, previous purposes for which to study yet again, previous conclusions is a decidedly difficult task. Conservative believers are especially vulnerable to the danger of thinking that it is the text that gives life, proving a kinship with the Jews and a similar susceptibility to rebuff for missing the point the Bible really makes: Jesus, the Christ. If we argue our interpretations more than we value Him, we’re guilty.

During Lent Christians are encouraged by the Great Tradition to reflect on the sufferings of Christ, and to examine their own lives in light of those sufferings being born for us and necessitated by our sinfulness. We then are called to repent, to turn away from the particular sins we have contributed to his agony. As we do so, our thoughts must always be less on the descriptions than on the person of that Suffering Servant. The Bible points to Him, or it has no value at all. And it is on him that we should focus our meditations, him that we hide in our hearts, to use the phrase from the Psalmist, that we might not sin against Him. The written word cannot save us any more than it could save “the Jews”; the Living Word, crucified, risen, and ascended can and will do so.

Now About This Judging Problem. Lent Post.

How careless we can be. It happens in just about every facet of human experience. We pay attention too little to the things that most matter and much attention to the details we think we are capable of handling. And before we know it, we’ve overlooked the obvious, complicated the simple, and forgotten the essential.

John 5:19-29
19 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. 21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

Yes, of course, we all make mistakes. Most of us even admit it, albeit more grudgingly in some cases than in others. For some the recognition of mistakes strikes at the very core of their being, making it all the more difficult to deal with while still maintaining a sense of self-worth. We all know the reasons for which we make mistakes, and most of the time we are so good at rationalizing what we have done that by the time we have completed the process our actions turn out to have been noble, and not blameworthy at all.

All of which makes it even more curious that we as Christians sometimes attempt to usurp the authority expressly given to the Son of God? The Father, as the source of life, is also its only rightful judge; but He grants that life and that authority to the Son because He became one of us; and by granting Christ incarnate the authority to judge, God forever removes our most basic excuse: “you should try living in a world with so many rotten people before you judge me.” He did. And because he did he has the perfect position from which to know and judge all of us. And we don’t.

There are times at which we wish to make the pronouncements of God instead the proclamations of His grace. And they come more frequently than we care to admit, whether we are in the conservative or the liberal side of things; we pronounce judgments on different criteria, not from necessarily different hearts. But pronounce we do, whether by direct word or by clear, not-so-well hidden implication. I expect there will be surprises on the Day of Judgment, and they may not be pleasant surprises for those standing ready for God to confirm the judgments they have already made. He gives his life to whom he will; and contrary to some seriously flawed interpretations of grace, it does have something to do with our deeds. Jesus said that, not me; so take it up with him.

All judgment goes through Christ, who went through life and death. For all of us. May we repent of any attempt to take his authority for ourselves. It’s the one huge mistake we cannot afford to make.