Thursday, June 28, 2007

A New Thing?

Is God doing “a new thing” with regard to the issue of sexual orientation?

This was the phrase Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, used in an interview with Beliefnet before his election as the church’s first openly gay bishop had been confirmed by the General Convention in 2004.

I am uncomfortable with the notion of God doing “new” things. Yes, I recognize that Christian doctrine regards God’s historical relationship with humanity as existing in two stages: old and new covenants, with the arrival and sacrifice of Jesus fundamentally changing the dynamic between the Creator and creation, though I admit I am not wholly on board with that idea. I see God and his relationship with humanity as essentially constant, and am more apt to argue that much of the Old Testament is rooted in misunderstanding which the prophets bemoaned and Jesus later came to correct.

While God remains constant, humanity’s relationship with the Divine is clearly one that evolves. Whereas the Old Testament not only authorizes but requires the stoning of disobedient children and the beating of slaves, the world has largely – through the influence of the Spirit, I would assert – come to understand such notions as at least counterproductive and more generally amoral, contrary to the will of God.

Judeo-Christian thinking over the years has experienced massive paradigm-shifts on several issues, notably with respect to issues of race and gender, and now sexual orientation. Maintaining a “But the Bible says…” stance is not always helpful, as Scripture has historically been invoked to justify slavery and anti-miscegenation (which thinking still finds adherents, in places like Bob Jones University) and the subjugation of women. We haven’t all come to the same conclusions, but it is inescapable that regarding people with black skin as bearing “the mark of Cain” is now a ludicrous fringe position, and mainline protestant denominations, as well as both Reform and Conservative Jewish traditions, regularly ordain women. It’s not about ignoring or discarding Scripture, but rather reading it in a new way, with an objective approach to context. It is about believing that the period of revelation didn’t end with the book of that name; God is still speaking.

Martin Luther King, Jr. – who knew a thing or two about having Scripture cited as justification for oppression – remarked that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That arc is plain to see. A movement that has heeded Jesus’ radical welcome of traditional social outcasts as a permanent call for expansive inclusion has used it as a mandate for racial and gender equality and is now pondering sexual orientation.

At the same time, the visibility of gay and lesbian people of faith has dramatically increased, along with straight supporters. They are virtually coming out of the woodwork, in every faith and sect, to testify about their walk with God; indeed, in this year’s New York City Gay Pride parade, special prominence was given to religious groups, turning the conventional wisdom that homosexuality is incompatible with religious belief on its head. Yesterday, three former leaders of the “ex-gay” ministry group Exodus International apologized “for the psychological harm they caused,” and disavowed the notion that sexual orientation can be changed through prayer. A recent CNN poll indicated that a majority of people believe that people cannot change their orientation.

What is going on here? Is God doing a new thing? Is he reaching out to His gay and lesbian children for the first time? Or is it that we’re just starting to listen?


Gino said...

not with a ten foot pole.

The Law Fairy said...

Thought-provoking post, as always, Andy.

I think maybe it might center around what we mean by "new"? I think it's clear that we humans are constantly struggling and evolving and growing and learning more about God and his will. So obviously we're going to make "new" discoveries.

But that's more an individual thing. As you note, there seems to be a broader, more social level. What does it mean when you have a spiritual awakening of sorts in the general populace? Does that mean something "new" is happening? Have humans fundamentally changed? Has GOD changed? Is evolution contagious once it reaches a certain critical mass?

I definitely think this is worth asking... what does it mean when we all start to embrace Christianity in a way (most) Christians previously thought impossible? What does this say about our faith?

Kind of cool, along these lines: my priest said something the other day that really resonated with me. He said that faith is all about asking questions, and all about doubt. The opposite of faith isn't doubt; it's certainty. I totally agree with this. I remember being in evangelical churches and always being made to feel guilty if I didn't KNOW I was going to heaven... yet my philosophical side (I was way too smart for a teenager) INSISTED there was no way I could really KNOW. So I sat there in youth group feeling like a failure as a Christian, and convinced I would go to hell for not having enough faith.

It seems to me that the church could undergo an evolution much like an individual, just on a broad scale. Maybe we're seeing a major step in that -- we've done enough questioning as a body that we're learning something new. And finally understanding that this has been a Christian Truth all along.

Yoiy... sorry for making this comment so long and rambly. You always make me think, damn you ;)

Steve Boese said...

The apology by former ex-gay leaders was done in support of a larger project which didn't get covered in the media pieces about the apology.

Check it out:

It seeks to be a new thing -- a community formed by and for former ex-gay people, their family, friends, and supporters. The work begins with healing, understanding the nominal good and greater harm experienced at the hands of ex-gay. For many it also involves unpacking much of what faith has meant, the messages that religion and non-straight orientation could not coexist, and seeking out what is next. It's not unusual that folks are also building new families of choice and social networks because coming out as openly gay instead of ex-gay has fractured other relationships.

In the long term, though, it is expected that vibrant healing and learning to tell the stories of ex-gay experiences effectively will also help trigger shifts in public perception of what it means to be gay or ex-gay.

Full disclosure -- I'm no neutral bystander on this project. While not a former ex-gay myself, I am the web developer for the project.

Take care...

Overpriced Designer Man Bag said...

Don't Christians have a different definition of gay anyway? As long as you don't act upon your "feelings", you're not gay, according to them.

Andy said...

Ummm...while conceding that there are some Christians who argue that homosexuality is, as you say, entirely an issue of "behavior," I would have to disagree and say, no, that is not an accurate characterization. There is a wide, wide range of viewpoints on the issue of human sexuality in Christianity.

kr said...

God doesn't, to my understanding, "do new things" per se. Not sure how to read what's going on, but yours is a reasonable reading of course.

(I started to write more, but I cut it, because it was very initial thinking on the concepts of change and evolution--would have been babbly and not too pointful. I need to take it away and think on it. I'm sure pieces will show up in future comments.)