Archive for Theology
Just as the Son, the living Word of God, does nothing on his own (John 5:19,30; 8:28), so too the Scripture, the written Word of God, can not and does not stand or work alone, but is interpreted and put into effect under the caring stewardship of the church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in its many members. The Word is meant to be productive as seed, and is thus inseparable from the mission of the church. The truth of the interpretation will be found in the fruit and harvest it bears. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
Tobias Haller’s “Thought for the Day,” June 18, 2008
And a comment from me: Why is it that so many of us cling to barren interpretations without ever stopping to evaluate them in the way Tobias suggests? What are we afraid of?
“We have seen Satan, and he is us!”
Writing at EthicsDaily.com yesterday, Dr. Miguel A. de la Torre (director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology) reaches that conclusion after a concise deconstruction of traditional responses to the Problem of Evil and the development of the concept of Satan:
The early shapers of sacred text found themselves in the position of having to protect God from accusations of being the source of evil. As it became less acceptable to have aspects of God represented in evil elements or events, independent evil figures had to be birthed. If Satan did not exist, then they had to create one so as to vindicate God.
One problem with their strategy is that the texts often place responsibility for human suffering squarely in God’s lap. De la Torre notes the story of Job, the case of Saul, and the words of Amos (“Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?“) as evidence. This is why systematic theologians have to walk such a fine line when they describe Satan. Attribute too much power to him, and you weaken your monotheism; too little, and you risk making God responsible for acts otherwise considered evil.
But there are other, more practical problems with our traditional conception of Satan as well, as de la Torre points out. (Emphasis here is mine.)
Here then is the ethical concern: seeing Satan in the other. It cannot be denied that evil was, and continues to be, committed. But to reduce the other to a representative of evil justifies cruelties and atrocities to be committed by those engaged in the battle to save humans from Satan’s corruption. No evil ever dreamed up by Satan or his demons can outdo the atrocities committed by good, decent people attempting to purge such evil forces from this world.
Hence de la Torre’s conclusion: “We have seen Satan, and he is us.” We unwittingly do evil when we see other community members as evil’s source and deal with them accordingly.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians regularly face this kind of treatment from their brothers and sisters in Christ. A mother and father force a gay child into a harmful reparative therapy program against his will. A family gives a lesbian aunt the “silent treatment” for years. A church ejects a long-time member who chooses to transition from one gender to another. This is what “love the sinner, hate the sin” has tended to look like.
Like the traditional theological conception of Satan, the doctrine of “love the sinner, hate the sin” forces adherents to walk a fine line. Stray too much toward love, and you risk enabling behavior you see as sinful. Stray too much toward hate, and you risk… Well, what, exactly? Most Christians, I think, instinctively sense that hate is dangerous, but would be hard pressed to say why. God hates, according to the texts at least, and Christians are instructed to hate (Romans 12:9 being the most general example). But the problem we recognize intuitively lies in hating the wrong things or hating for the wrong reason. Here the texts are often ambiguous, and that’s where the danger is.
This ambiguity means that Christians will err in their application of this doctrine, and so we’re forced to make some calculated decisions to minimize the error. Unfortunately, many seem inclined to err on the side of purity, and as a result, LGBT people are excommunicated from churches, ejected from families, and made to submit to exorcisms or rehabilitation programs. But the hypocrisy of erring on the side of purity is obvious–as both Testaments proclaim, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” When we reprimand some for alleged impurity without recognizing impurity in ourselves, we show our ethic to be arbitrary and self-serving. This hypocrisy is increasingly off-putting to those outside the church, and the LGBT people who are forced to endure it often leave the church and their faith behind, never to return. Above all, God’s feelings about hypocrisy are clear: “Woe to you.” Eight times, “Woe to you.”
So then why do we choose to err on the side of purity rather than on the side of inclusiveness and welcome? Perhaps, when God asks us that question one day, we can say, “The Devil made us do it.” It would go better for us, I think, if we remembered that Romans 12:9, the verse that instructs us to hate what is evil, prefaces that instruction with these words: “Let love be without hypocrisy.”
(Image courtesy gapingvoid).
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott graced last month’s Transforming Faith–Divining Gender conference not only with her warm and wise presence, but with a wonderful keynote address. In it she laid out seven reasons that religious groups should embrace their transgender members. Here’s a summary, taken from my notes:
- The scriptures are trans-friendly; people who value them should be as well. For example, note the Yahwist creation account, in which God’s original creative impulse is toward a hermaphroditic creation. Jesus speaks well of eunuchs and condemns the use of “Raca,” which scholarship has shown means “effeminate” or “sissy.” Once we shed our cultural proclivities, we can see an ethos in scripture that takes a favorable view of gender variance and diversity.
- Transgender members help congregations transcend gender stereotypes. The binary gender construct does not merely differentiate between genders, but unjustly elevates one over the other. Transgender people provide congregations with a unique reminder that stereotypes are not objectively concrete and need not bind us.
- Transgender members remind congregations to use diverse and inclusive language when speaking about God. In Mollenkott’s words, “If God is male, then male is god.” Transgender people are particularly sensitive to the injustices caused by gendering God inappropriately. Transgender people do congregations a great service when they insist upon more accurate language for God.
- Transgender people have traditionally been recognized in many cultures as bridges between the seen and unseen worlds. Mollenkott made particular note of how Milton genders his angel characters in Paradise Lost. There is tremendous depth to this tradition.
- Transgender people have often reflected deeply on the connections between faith, justice, gender, and sex. Our congregations’ hang-ups on these topics have distracted them from far more important matters. Transgender people can educate their congregations on our lives and issues; they are “particularly suited to teach congregations about the multiple connections between sex, gender, and justice.” As outsiders, we bring a perspective our congregations need. Jesus himself defied many gender norms, and yet in spite of his gender transgression, subordinationism holds sway in many congregations. (Mollenkott drew very interesting linkages between the lengths to which some churches and theologians go to justify subordinationism and the reappearance of Arianism.)
- As occupiers of the “forgotten middle,” transgender people can help congregations get over their addiction to certainty. Our dualistic, “good vs. evil” worldview threatens to destroy humanity and the world. (I was reminded here of Karen Armstrong’s work on the Axial Age, a period of history marked by terrible violence out of which arose today’s great religious traditions with their focus on selflessness and compassion.) “Sympathy cannot be confined to our own group,” Mollenkott said. Transgender people know what it means to occupy a middle that defies artificial dualism. This makes us particularly well suited to teach others to love the Other across dualistic divides; we’ve learned to let our pain express itself as support for others. (She made note here of the Drag Mothers who mentor young trans people in Chris Beam’s Transparent.)
- Transgender people demonstrate powerfully that just as all races share one blood, so do all genders. Mollenkott reminded us of the old “one drop” rule of race, by which anyone who had one drop of African American blood was considered African American and a legitimate target of bigotry. The same rule, she said, holds today for gender norms. One drop of femininity equals feminine or “sissy,” as opposed to the pure or normative male. If we lined up the entire human race from darkest skin to lightest skin, she asked, where would “black” end and “white” begin? Similarly, if we lined up from most masculine to most feminine, where would “masculine” begin and “feminine” end? And, more importantly, what would those distinctions even mean in that context?
I don’t think opposing fundamentalism requires that orthodoxy itself vanish. What it requires is that small space between orthodoxy and doubt that allows faith to breathe. When all such space is extinguished, when faith is about submission to an external authority tout court, when conscience is abolished or redefined as obedience, then we have exaggerated what we can claim to know about God.
Check out this surprisingly rigorous critique of the “New Masculinity” movement among evangelicals in this month’s Christianity Today. What scares me most about this kind of theology is not that it calls men to be bold, but that it implies women cannot and should not be.
No, wait. What scares me most about it is the way it blames women for everything that’s wrong with the church.
No, that’s not it either. What scares me most is how, by so blatantly defining Jesus according to marketing strategies (i.e. by what will bring men back to church) rather than allowing him to define himself, the “New Masculinity” movement actually contributes to the decline of the church rather than ameliorating it.
For those who would like to learn more about how the binary gender construct is screwing up the church (and basically everything else), I recommend Virginia Ramey Mollenkott‘s Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach.
(Thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog.)
This is how I responded to her:
Over the last several years the communion liturgy has really increased in significance to me, to the point that today I cannot receive communion without weeping. I’m worshiping now in a church where each individual leaves his or her seat and approaches the altar to receive (unlike my Baptist tradition, where the norm is to have it delivered to you in your seat), and where we celebrate communion at every worship service (the norm in my tradition being monthly or quarterly). I’ve found there is something so powerful in walking toward that sacred place each Sunday as a whole person, hiding nothing, unafraid and unashamed, knowing that I will truly be received “just as I am.” Thinking about it as I write makes me realize that I imagine God there, smiling at me, ushering me forward and into a supernatural intimacy with him that is beyond my words to describe. The experience nourishes something important in me, such that I can’t imagine going back to a less regular observance of the sacrament.
My understanding of what separates me (or what once separated me) from God has also changed in profound ways. Before I came to terms with my trans-ness, I imagined that I could draw significantly closer to him if I would just overcome my desire to be a woman. Now, having realized that my femininity never was a barrier between us, I’ve also learned that there was never really any action I could have undertaken that would have drawn me closer to him in any significant way. Only God is able to make up the distance between God and humanity, and he has made it up, “once for all,” in Christ.
All this has made me feel closer to God than I ever thought possible. In fact, it has completely altered my paradigm of proximity to the divine. Finally I think I understand–and really believe–what Paul meant when he said, “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
One becomes a member of a church by baptism. Those who advocate giving pastors the authority to determine membership ignore the significance of the sacrament.
Methodist theologian Gayle Carlton Felton, writing in a new pamphlet entitled Concerning Church Membership and the Authority of the Pastor
And a comment from me: Churches and leaders of all denominations and traditions that style themselves “welcoming, not affirming” of LGBT people must become aware of the ecclesiological and sacramental implications of that stance. I would wager that the vast majority of these churches and leaders have not yet done the theological heavy lifting Felton calls them to here.
Thanks to Religion Is a Queer Thing.