Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Revolution WIthout A Theology

In the last few days I have heard from several priests who have either said to me something to the effect that the period since the last General Convention has beeon one of the worst in their entire lives, or that they are not sure they can take much more of what the Episcopal Church keeps dishing up. These are not selfish individuals, neither are they soft, indeed one of them is doing extraordinary ministry in the most ghastly circumstances. Each of these pastors has sought to be obedient to their ordination vows, but they have found themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place. Sharing much of their discomfort, I have spent much time in recent months attempting to make sense of this unparalleled time in our ecclesial life.

We are living through a crisis that has many dimensions, but at heart it is a theological crisis. What a church sows that also will it reap, and we are now reaping the 'benefits' of several generations that have been spent cumbering the church with theologies that have minds of their own, and have as good as disconnected themselves from the mind of Christ. After the General Convention in 2003 one of the things I did was to review the teaching of Scripture and read an array of publications on all sides of the sexuality issue, reasoning that perhaps there was something I had missed, something I had accidentally misunderstood.

I came away from that long exercise with a new appreciation of just how deeply imbedded in both God's revelation and classic Christian theology is the fact that humankind is made in the image of God, male and female, and complementary to one another. I also came away realizing that the materials I had read from the leading thinkers on revisionist side seemed to handle the Scriptures and church's received tradition in a one-sided, patchy, and entirely inadequate manner. They were skating over the surface, they were putting novel contemporary spins upon the text, and tended either to ignore or to discount approaches or exposition of the text that countered their own -- they seldom considered them important enough to answer.

The result has been that I have during the past three years consistently asked of those who have plunged the church into crisis to provide a consistent theology to undergird and justify the course that they wish the church to take. I have talked to clergy and laity, I have talked to church activists and politicians, I have spent time with seminary professors and academics, asking them to give me a defense of their actions that I can get my teeth into, when something has been forthcoming (and it hasn't be often) it has at the best been thin and anaemic.

To be sure, there has been fuzzy statements about rights, or about the superiority of our contemporary psychological understandings, but there has been little evidence of careful theological work. At the best, theological responses have tended to be the tired wriggles used to suggest that when Scripture talks it doesn't actually mean what the plainest interpretation of the text suggests that it does mean, or that this doesn't actually apply in 21st Century America. Indeed, there is little to make me think that much effort has been made to seriously address the multitude of questions raised by the likes of Robert Gagnon and others.

What I am hearing from the left of this argument is what might be described as a sticking plaster approach to theologizing. As objections are raised from a substantial theological, ethical, and philosophical perspective questioning the homophile approach, those who adhere to these views come up with something that resembles a sticking plaster that can be placed over a breach in their defenses here, and a breach in their defenses there. Ultimately there are so many pieces of plaster that they have started to overlap one another and thereby have provided a rickety 'wall' that they consider to be an appropriate response.

I am forced to conclude that while there could be a scad of theories that have been rustled up to legitimate this departure from Christian norms, there is no fundamental set of theological principles that can be configured to justify actions. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of Church History at Oxford, and an actively gay man, has admitted as much in an aside in his monumental work on the European Reformation. "Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity, let alone having any conception of a homosexual identity" (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe's House Divided, 1490-1700, page 705). This means the only way forward is to discount Scripture and historic theology, finding other justifications for actions taken.

If there was such a thing as a consistent homophile theology it would have been trumpeted from the housetops a long time age. While I have not kept up with every turn of the debate in recent months, and it seems that the left is bored by the thought of such intellectual discipline, and does not even consider it worth finding an overarching theology to justify their actions. Indeed, they are riding the tide of the zeitgeist, and right now that crowns them with glory, and separates them from those of us who used outmoded thought forms to pour scorn on this exciting adventure into an unknown kind of future.

Yet this radical, new, exciting approach to sexuality is the jewel in the crown of a whole a significant departure from the manner in which we have understood personhood and identity in the past, and the one who married the zeitgeist is soon widowed. What is taking place is nothing short of a revolution. The problem is that because these revolutionaries lack any consistent ideology, they are in fact allowing the currents to sweep them along. They are like the foolish man in Jesus's parable and are building their house upon sand. The wind and the rain will surely come and beat upon that house...

During the years since the General Convention I have become convinced that sexuality is merely the first salvo in a long and increasingly bitter battle about the nature of our humanity. Either we are made in the image of God or we are just another life form on the relentless continuum of evolution. If, as this latter approach implies, our culture considers that it has "liberated" itself from any notion of divine given-ness about the present status of the human race, then there is nothing of distinctive, permanent, or ultimately of any lasting value about us.

I posit that those who have taken us down the revisionist road have, perhaps unwittingly, aided and abetted deeply troubling trends that as they reach maturity could radically alter the nature of humanity forever, or in a worst case scenario lead to its liquidation. There are enough balls in play in culture and in the sciences whose trajectories could have consequences that are far, far beyond anything that those who are pushing the homophile agenda could ever dream, imagine, and believe to be acceptable. This then points up another component of this whole conundrum, and that is that under the influence of a non-rational prevailing mindset the 'progressives' seem to have severed the tie between actions and consequences, but that is a discussion for another day.


Father Doug said...

I'm not a courageous priest, I don't suppose, nor am I working in ghastly conditions, I'm just trying to bring people to Christ. My worst realization is that by bringing them to the Episcopal Church I may be making them "twice as much a son of hell" as I myself am. I'm enough of a high-churchman that I think one can't be a Christian without the Church, so I'm constantly asking, "Is this the Church?" It seems more and more to me that we belong to a backwater, a diverted stream that has strayed from the great river of God's redemptive work in history, that "river whose streams make glad the city of God." I believe that this is precisely the Bible's understanding of being cursed--to no longer belong to God's long work of redemption.

anthill said...

Richard--I've pinched one of your paragraphs (with acknowledgement). I hope you don't mind. See:

You think very well. And more than that, I do sense the Spirit of Christ in you.