It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

20130614-012013.jpgIn the end, it just hit me.

A single sentence, in an article not even about homosexuality or theology, not about Leviticus 18 or Romans 1, not about the Boy Scouts or the Southern Baptists.

In the end, what got me was a New Republic article by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz.

“The Lethality of Loneliness” describes how psychobiologists “have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Loneliness is defined as “want of intimacy.”

The story is fascinating and well worth reading. Shulevitz reports that scientists rank emotional isolation as highly as smoking among risk factors for mortality, and those most likely to feel emotionally isolated are those who are most rejected – as Shulevitz puts it, “The outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different” (emphasis hers). The lonely experience higher levels of stress, which injects the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the chronic overdosing of which leads to numerous maladies, the most serious being heart disease.

Since those who are rejected feel lonely more often, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the biggest studies into loneliness have occurred among those who are gay. Scientists studying HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s discovered this incredible fact: “The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly … was whether or not he was in the closet.”

Closeted men were more sensitive to rejection, more fearful of being outed, and therefore less intimate with those around them. Their lives were more stressful, and stress hormones feed the AIDS virus. And then came the sentence that stopped me cold:

[Researcher Steven] Cole mulled these results over for a long time, but couldn’t understand why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease: “Did God want us to die when we got stressed?”

The answer is no. What He wanted is for us not to be alone.

And there it is. Is it really that simple?

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Summit Days 2-3: Putting Away the Traditional Teachings on Divorce

The final two days of Summit last week, I attended a class given by Barron Jones, whom I’ve mentioned before. The title of this post was the name of the class. Barron presented his material in a way that kept a serious subject light – lest it become too serious – and certainly made me want to study the issue more. He probably needed one more hour (he only had two), as he ran out of time both days, and as such, left me a touch unconvinced.

“This is about people,” he began. “This is not about theology. … It’s about people’s lives, and they get messy.”

The first day he devoted to simple defining the traditional teachings and poking logical holes in them.

“If I can get you to say, ‘I don’t know,’ then we’ve made progress,” he said. “We need to embrace that phrase and understand it does not mean weakness. It means humility. This topic is about pride and humility as much as it is about marriage and divorce.”

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Why Did Monotheism Win?

Most scholars would probably agree with the following summary of Israelite history:

After emerging from the semiautonomous tribes and villages of the Palestinian countryside, several loosely affiliated tribes periodically banded together for protection and mutual aid, eventually formalizing the compact by appointing the warlord who most recently united them as their ruler. His name was David. Under his heir, Solomon, the tribes officially became a kingdom, but the majority of them dissolved the compact after his death, and the rival kingdoms – Israel, the larger, wealthier north, and Judah, the smaller, poorer south – moved on parallel tracks for the next 200 years or so. These kingdoms were mostly polytheistic, worshipping a pastiche of local and regional gods, as well as a national deity named Yahweh. Over time, voices advocating worship of Yahweh alone arose, represented most vocally by men calling themselves his prophets and less vocally by the priests of Yahweh’s temple. Historians sometimes call this faction, though that label probably overstates the unity between the prophets and priests, the monotheistic party.

But a question could well be asked: How did monotheism win? Given the tragedy that befell both of these Yahweh-worshipping nations – Israel’s annihilation by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. and Judah’s destruction by Babylon in 586 – how did his worshippers retain their faith in a culture where the defeat of a nation was viewed as a defeat of the nation’s god?

Enter William H. McNeill, who has the first essay in a fun book I just picked up, What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. As the title implies, it’s filled with essays by historians telling an alternate history. What if just one or two chances of fate hadn’t happened in any given event? How would the world have changed from that point?

McNeill argues the most important event in the history of the western world is the failure of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E. It’s told in 2 Kings 18-19, 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 36-37, and it’s confirmed by Sennacherib’s own inscriptions, in which he boasts of shutting Judah’s King Hezekiah up in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage,” an accurate enough boast that nevertheless indicates Sennacherib couldn’t finish the job.

And why not? Well, the Bible says that after praying to Yahweh, Hezekiah received a message from Isaiah predicting Jerusalem’s safety. and the next morning, “the Lord’s messenger went out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand soldiers in the Assyrian camp. When people got up the next morning, there were dead bodies everywhere. So Assyria’s King Sennacherib left and went back to Nineveh, where he stayed.”

A plague had raced through the Assyrian camp and decimated its ranks – McNeill points out that 185,000 is an exaggeration, as that figure is larger than any ancient army – sparing Jerusalem from the rapacious hand of Sennacherib, who had otherwise decimated the kingdom of Judah.

Hezekiah was a monotheistic reformer, who took the side of those wanting to centralize worship in the Jerusalem temple.

Destroying “high places” where other rituals prevailed was part of the program. So was respectful consultation with inspired prophets, among whom, Isaiah, son of Amoz, was then the most prominent.

He also, seeing the growth of Assyria in the east, fortified Jerusalem’s walls, carved a tunnel to provide water to the city even in the event of a siege – and perhaps most important, appears to have diverted the natural sources of water away from the fields where a sieging army would need it. McNeill wonders if this forced the Assyrian army to drink tainted water, which led to the disease that wiped it out.

As McNeill notes, “such a miraculous deliverance showed that both King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah were right to rely on God’s power and protection. More than that: It proved God’s power over the mightiest ruler of the age. Who then could doubt that the prophets and priests of Judah, who so boldly proclaimed God’s universal power, were telling the truth?

Of course, monotheism wasn’t exactly there to stay. Hezekiah’s own son, Manasseh, was an inveterate polytheist, if perhaps not as evil as the biblical text portrays him. Yet his son, Josiah, returned to monotheism, thanks to the discovery in the temple of “a book of the law,” which most scholars think was Deuteronomy, perhaps written during Hezekiah’s reign or sometime earlier. The collapse of Assyria in the east paved the way for a peaceful, successful reign of Josiah and, by affiliation, Yahweh.

Less than 40 years after Josiah’s death, the conquerers of Assyria marched against Jerusalem and destroyed it. Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar deported most of the population, but unlike the northern kingdom of Israel, Judah’s exiles retained their faith in Yahweh, using the time among the Babylonians to refine, explain and justify their faith, particularly in light of their defeat. Thus much of the Old Testament was written – explaining the exile not as Yahweh’s defeat but as his punishment for their sins, particularly the sin of polytheism.

McNeill puts it this way:

The pious party of Yahweh had to figure out why God had allowed such a disaster to take place. But by then the idea that God did in fact govern all the world was so firmly established that abandoning Yahweh, as the Israelites had done after 722 B.C.E., was inconceivable. Instead, long-standing prophetic denunciations of the sins of the Jewish people made it obvious that the Babylonian exile was God’s punishment for the failure of Judah’s rulers and people to observe his commandments to the full.

On the shores of the Euphrates, “the Jewish religion ceased to be local and became an effective guide to everyday life in cosmopolitan, urban settings, fit to survive and flourish across succeeding centuries into the indefinite future.”

And with the survival of the Jewish religion came the births of two others – Christianity and Islam, which together count among their adherents more than half of the world’s population. Which is why McNeill considers the salvation of Jerusalem from Sennacherib to be a singularly important event.

Which isn’t to say that monotheism would not have emerged in some other way – Greco-Roman culture was already moving in that direction before Constantine’s conversion to Christianity – but in the way things did happen, God used the events of history to bring about his plans in a way that was not clear for more than 700 years.

 

Our Postmodern God

This post is a response to Tony Jones’ call for progressive theological bloggers to write a post about God. So here goes …

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s struck me lately that the best way to think of God is to compare him to an elephant.

Specifically, I think of God like the elephant in the old South Asian tale of the blind men who each grab hold of a piece of him and describe the animal they think they have. One has the trunk and thinks he’s holding a snake; another has an ear and thinks he’s holding a fan, etc. Each of them is attempting to accurately describe what they know, and some do a better job than others, but none of them is exactly right – indeed, being exactly right would have been impossible if they had never seen or felt a whole elephant before.

Which is why I call God postmodern and why it would serve the church well to stop running in fear from the notion of postmodernism. Perhaps no era in the history of the world better suits the God we worship than the one that openly and completely questions the ability for anyone to fully grasp and explain truth.

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Why Don’t Christians Support Polygamy?

The question might seem to have an obvious answer, but I’m not so sure.

I was having a little Facebook discussion about homosexuality and, typically for me, pushing back against some folks’ notion of a completely inerrant, universally applicable Bible that unequivocally condemns homosexuality as we know it today. If by now you haven’t figured out I don’t think the Bible is inerrant as evangelicals use the term, nor do I think all parts of it are universally applicable (and neither does anyone else, even if they say they do), nor do I think we can so easily draw a straight line from “homosexuality” as used in the Bible and the kind practiced and debated today.

Nevertheless, over the course of the discussion, someone threw out the template argument. I would call it the third leg of the stool used to support Christian opposition to same-sex intimacy (I try to avoid using the “h-word” in this context because some Christians, after all, have moderated on scientific grounds to allow for people being gay and celibate, which means they are not opposed to homosexuality as an orientation, just acting on those same-sex attractions).

These are the three legs:

  1. Leviticus – Yes, this is still used as an argument despite its obvious weaknesses.
  2. Romans – A much stronger argument, though in my opinion the passage is heavily culturally conditioned, evidenced by Paul’s Stoic-influenced appeal to the “natural” and “unnatural” and the fact that homosexual behavior is not the sin he’s condemning but rather the consequence of the true sin of idolatry.
  3. The Template – This is the argument that the creation story of Genesis 2:4b-3 serves as a template for God’s ideal relationship. Its arguers then use Jesus’ citation of it in a completely different context to counter the notion that he never said anything about same-sex relationships.

You could add the vice lists to these arguments, but they seem to fall in the same area as No. 2, only with less detail or certainty as to what Paul is actually discussing.

Here’s the thing, though. As weak as they are regard, none of these arguments even applies to polygamy. Continue reading

A Radical Feminist Rabbi Named Jesus

Jesus Christ is the true and final Word of God, in relation to whom scripture is God’s secondary, written word of witness and testimony. – Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible

When Rachel Held Evans last put out a call for bloggers to discuss the nature of men and women in the church, I responded with a discussion about the radical femininity of Christ, which was mainly a few observations about the actions of Jesus and the testimony of the early church from a historical perspective.

This week, Evans has proposed a “synchroblog” on the same issue, calling it “Mutuality Week.” Which seems like as good a time as any to look some more at exactly how the gospels record Jesus treating women. Because lost in the big debates over what Paul thought about women is what should be a more important question: What did Jesus think about women?

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The Myth of ‘God-Given Rights’

“We were endowed by our creator with our rights. Not the king, not the state, but our creator.” – Mitt Romney

I heard this quote on the radio last week, and it’s been gnawing at me ever since.

The conservative/libertarian reliance on the Declaration of Independence as all but coequal with the Constitution is annoying from a historical perspective – the two documents have different aims, different authors and a different set of signers. The Declaration was written to abolish the current government, while the Constitution was written to set up a government. As a result, many of the Declaration’s signers, including its author, Thomas Jefferson, and “give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry refused to endorse the Constitution. They thought the government it created was too big.

So citing the Declaration of Independence as a relevant document for the current American government is annoying. Citing the deistic Creator formulation Jefferson included as a synonym for “nature” as if he really meant the all-powerful, directly involved God of the universe who is intimately involved in the lives of his children is frustrating.

But what really gets me about that line from Romney is that it’s entirely wrong.

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