[This post has been bumped by request. This is the first of a five-part series that sheds reasonable doubt on the traditional view that Leviticus labels homosexuality as an abomination. Each section is linked through the table of contents.]
ETHIC OF HUMILITY
As someone who is strongly committed to Christian ethics, especially in conflict resolution, and to theological reflection as a defining characteristic of what makes a church a church, I am committed to the process of engaging in dialogue and conversation about the issues that divide Christianity. Honesty, theological reflection (both individual and communal) and knowledge are all essential components of Christian conversation. When scriptural evidence for particular stands or opinions is argued, experience has taught me that, many times, some or all of these components may be lacking.
With regard to scripture, many people know only what they have been told to be true over the course of their church-going lives, or assumed to be true from snippets of popular information or literature. It is difficult to be theologically reflective when we are unfamiliar with our primary source of theology, just as it is not easy to be self-reflective when we cannot admit that what we claim to know is actually based on the pronouncements of others. Many in the church claim to know with certainty that which constitutes Christian morality, true doctrine and scriptural teaching, while having little actual knowledge of the underlying theological details that under gird their arguments. Honesty, then, becomes equally difficult to claim as we tend to get more dogmatic and schismatic, while at the same time continuing to be reckless with what we claim as truth.
In an article primarily about an alternative view of church growth, Professor Lisa Withrow proposes a new ethic for the church of the future to combat the exodus of both liberal and evangelical Christians – an ethic of inquiry – a way of thinking that seems to mirror Jesus’ call to humility.
An ethic of inquiry involves an atmosphere of questioning,
a search for meaning and truth in sacred texts, traditions, exp-
eriences and knowledge. This ethic fosters curiosity in terms of
experience and theology. Inquiry invites movement from a univ-
ersal truth as claimed by modern church theology to truths claim-
ed by postmodern theologies: truth in context. (note 1)
Rather than just applying to church growth issues, this call for theological and intellectual humility is integral to the reconciliation process, generally.
Religious viewpoints – those that fuel the social/legal/religious debate about homosexuality – are not simply held along “conservative-liberal” lines, anymore. Even churches in the liberal tradition have polity statements defining marriage as between “a man and a woman”, or something similar, and most do not allow the ordination of GLBT people. While church doors may be open to homosexuals, they are considered by most within the church to be less than acceptable on moral grounds. Even within many of the most liberal and accepting churches the military policy of “don’t ask – don’t tell” seems to be in effect. The languages and concepts of culture and religion are intermixing, creating confusion and, at least the possibility of, manipulation.
Most of the attitudes in Christian churches derive from a very few scriptural references which reinforce cultural preconceptions about the subject. Several of the Bible passages are open to interpretation and have been the subjects of numerous books, articles and messages. Does Genesis language of “male and female [God] made them” institute a prototypical formula for marriage? Does the Genesis account of Sodom refer to homosexual relations or the sin/crime of gang rape to dehumanize strangers? Do the references in Romans 1 relate to homosexuality, or continue into the discussion of the hypocritical judgment of others’ behavior and sin found in Romans 2. Do 1Corinthians and 1Timothy relate to homosexuality, or cultic temple practices and abusers? The texts are ambiguous, at best, as are the various translations. Many good writers have shown that there is no definitive translation and, therefore, no “one right way” from which to carve out a universal truth. Humility requires that we each be gracious to those who hold different opinions and avoid creating theological absolutes and schisms.
At least on the surface, however, there appear to be two passages that outright condemn homosexuality – Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13. With regard to these passages, a plethora of articles and websites can be found that discuss the general nature of the sections within which each of these passages occur, but not a great deal about the two verses specifically. The traditional interpretation, that belonging to a wide range of theologians from biblical literalists to many in the liberal tradition, treats the passages as the last word of God on the subject of homosexuality. Same-sex relations are an abomination. Period – end of story! The general argument against the traditional interpretation has been that they are included in sections on ritual cleanliness and prohibitions against idolatry and, since Christians no longer follow the bulk of these rules, they are not binding. These proscriptions are simply specific to particular actions included in pagan idol worship and no longer apply to contemporary society. Again, there is a differing of opinions, but this time in regard to biblical passages that appear to be quite explicit in their condemnation.
One of the main difficulties I have with the second argument is that it is based on the definition of only one word that is commonly translated as ‘abomination’ and its meaning in a culture long disappeared from view. Interestingly, I have found no efforts to reconsider the basic translation of the entire verses from Hebrew and Greek to English; although that by no means assures that none exist. The following is just such an effort to revisit the question of translation and resultant interpretation, and then to consider the consequences for engaging in further dialogue more honestly, reflectively and knowledgably.
What does “as with a woman” mean? Or return to Table of Contents
Note 1: Lisa Withrow, “An Ethic of Inquiry for the Future Church”, Journal of Theology – Summer 2006, published jointly by Methodist Theological School in Ohio and United Theological Seminary, Trotwood, OH, p.85.