Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Another major theological point that derives from Genesis 1, and one which I only addressed in passing in my previous post, is that of the image of God within each of us that makes humanity the pinnacle of creation. But what exactly is the image of God? Theologians have speculated and debated over this for millennia without ever reaching a solid consensus. Various attributes of God have been proposed, but in the end it would seem that it's more important for us to know that we are created in God's image than it is for us to understand what that entails.

Some Christians would insist that gender is an integral component of that image. After all, Genesis 1:27 says "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." The wording of the verse opens the possibility that members of each gender hold a different half of the image of God and that each of us must unite with a member of the opposite sex to fully reflect that image. That is, however, an extrapolation from what the text actually says, and a questionable one at best. In fact, there are four major problems with the assertion that gender is part of the image of God.

First, it makes sexual intercourse a religious activity that draws its participants closer to God. Most of the societies surrounding ancient Israel would have agreed with that assessment; their view of sex as a sacred act is a reason they made it the centerpiece of so many of their temple rituals. But given the almost obsessive amount of attention that the authors of the Old Testament focused on condemning those religions and all of their practices, how likely is it that those same authors would have found common cause with the objects of their ire on such a major theological point?

Second, gender is not a unique trait to humanity; animals possess it as well. Few Christian theologians would argue that the image of God is present in even the most intelligent animals, yet that is precisely what we argue for if we assert that gender is a component of the image of God. And given the reverence that some Pagan religions hold for some (or even all) animals, this would once again muddy the lines that the Old Testament authors were trying to draw.

Third, if male and female must come together to complete the image of God (as they must if gender is integral to that image), then celibacy must necessarily be an inferior state to marriage, if not inherently sinful. Given the high regard that the New Testament authors and the early Church had for the celibate lifestyle, this seems implausible.

Finally, the New Testament authors suggest that gender is primarily a temporal concern. In Matthew 22:30, Jesus says "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven," and in Galatians 3:28 Paul says that in Christ there is "no male and female." Though these statements fall short of suggesting that gender is meaningless, they do imply that it is of limited importance when it comes to spiritual matters.

Some would argue that Paul was merely establishing spiritual equality for men and women without abolishing gender roles, just as Paul made slaves the spiritual equals of their masters without abolishing the institution of slavery, but that's a separate debate. The point to be made here is that if we accept that race ("Jew nor Greek") and social class ("slave nor free") will be irrelevant in the eternal state, the most consistent conclusion we can reach is that the third pairing in that verse ("male and female") is equally temporal.

Given that one would reasonably expect any aspect of the image of God that resides within us to be as eternal as God is, that creates a dilemma. If marital union completes that image in this lifetime, it's not unreasonable to expect that couples would remain married in the next - and that those who remained 'incomplete' in this life would find a partner of the opposite gender waiting for them in heaven.

And once again, there remains the problem created by the existence of intersexed human beings. Do these individuals reflect the image of God more perfectly than the rest of us, or are they spiritually marred in a way that implies that not all people are equal before God? Can a human surgeon correct any such spiritual deficiency by choosing which gender they will outwardly appear to be? Conversely, does the doctor's knife have the power to distort God's image within a person?

There are many other attributes that one can make a better case for as aspects of the image of God within us, including dominion over God's creation, spiritual immortality, the capacity for rational thought, creativity, and the need for community. And again, the fact that we bear the image of God is more important than the details of what constitutes that image.

So why mention gender in the same verse that confirms we are created in the image of God? Taking the worldview of the ancient peoples Genesis was written for into account, one very revolutionary point stands out: both men and women bear the image of God. Given the inferior status women were relegated to in most ancient cultures, the radical significance of this point cannot be overstated. The idea that women are the spiritual equals of men is accepted even by some Christians who still hold a patriarchal view of the world, but it would have been all but unheard of in Old Testament times.

Does this negate the fact that women are different than men in significant ways, or that there is something special and mysterious about gender? Not at all. But it does help us put things back in perspective by dethroning an idol that many Christians today treat with a reverence that only God Himself deserves.

Every one of us reflects the image of God from a slightly different angle. As such each of us is equally important to our efforts to put together a more complete picture of the One who created us, regardless of gender, talents, spiritual gifts, social class, race, sexual orientation or any other consideration.

How people so vastly different from us could be of equal value to God may be a mystery to some, but perhaps that's for the best; whenever we get ahold of what we think is a moral absolute, we immediately wield it like a club to beat down those who don't conform to our visions of perfection. And that's more disrespectful of the image of God that lies within them than anything they could do to themselves.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Okay, so Peterson has tagged me to share five of my favorite quotes on any topic. Hopefully this isn't too much of a cheat, but all of mine come from The Lord of the Rings (book and/or movie versions). So while they're thematically linked, I don't have a simple label to apply to them aside from their source...

"I will take it. I will take the Ring to Mordor... though I do not know the way."

-Frodo, The Fellowship of the Ring

"I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened."

"So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought."

-Frodo and Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

"Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."

-Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring

"Go back, Sam! I’m going to Mordor alone."

"Of course you are, and I’m coming with you!"

-Frodo and Sam, The Fellowship of the Ring

"It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here, but we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
"But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
"But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going, because they were holding on to something."

"What are we holding on to, Sam?"

"That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for."

-Sam and Frodo, The Two Towers

So there you have it. I guess I'm supposed to tag some people now - so I hereby pass the baton to Christine, JJ and Eric

Monday, March 12, 2007

Duty and Obligation

Timothy Kincaid at Ex-Gay Watch posted this insightful critique of some recent comments by Exodus Youth spokesman Mike Ensley.

Ensley's perspective on marriage matches what I recall from my days in ex-gay programs. "God isn't going to replace one form of lust with another," I was told more than once, which only begged the question of what God was going to replace my same-sex attractions with. Unfortunately that question was never clearly answered. Supposedly I would gain some sort of attraction to the opposite sex, but apparently it would not be a sexual attraction. Presumably it would be more than just liking women as friends, since that was already fully within my capacity.

The implication that underlay everything that I was told on the subject was that all forms of sexual attraction were inherently lustful. Those group members most committed to pursuing "change" seldom talked of merely experiencing a physical attraction to another person; it was always and automatically lust even if that acknowledgment of the other person's attractiveness was immediately set aside before it could grow into fantasy.

In theory, lust is defined as an action; one can be tempted to lust without actually lusting, just as one can be tempted to commit any sin without actually sinning. In practice, though, lust was frequently conflated with temptation, as if merely noticing the attractiveness of an individual (particularly one of the same gender as the observer) automatically caused the observer to sin.

Perhaps there really is some form of non-sexual sexual attraction that an ex-gay can develop over time for an opposite-sex partner that's somewhere beyond mere friendship-level attraction and that makes sex within heterosexual marriage desirable and mutually rewarding even though actual sexual desire is still absent. Or maybe the entire exercise merely exposes the double standard that the church is defending so fiercely on the issue of sexuality.

Read just about any modern Christian book on the subject of marriage, and it will quickly become clear that sexual desire is regarded as a valid and important precursor to a healthy marriage. Once a couple is married it's their responsibility to keep the romance alive, of course, and (under normal circumstances) to remain married even if that desire fades over time.

It would be exceedingly rare, however, to find anyone who would counsel a heterosexual couple to marry in any case where the attraction was not mutual, with the promise that sexual fulfillment will eventually come if both husband and wife faithfully carry out their marital obligations to one another. And yet that is exactly what Exodus and Focus on the Family advocate for any ex-gay individual who isn't sold on remaining celibate.

So is sexual attraction an important prerequisite to marriage or isn't it? If heterosexual marriage is the faithful ex-gay's duty even when sexual attraction is completely absent, does that make it a sin for the ex-gay's spouse to want what she (or he) would otherwise be allowed to expect from a heterosexual spouse - namely that their spouse desire them sexually?

And where does that leave the celibate individual? Historically the church has regarded celibacy as a superior state to marriage, going so far as to brand those who considered marriage to be equal to celibacy as heretics. Marriage was regarded as a concession to those who were too weak to control their sexual urges, but even within marriage sexual desire was seen as inherently sinful. It's only over the course of the last several centuries that the church has begun to elevate marriage above celibacy and even more recent that it has started to celebrate sexual intimacy as a positive component of the marriage bond.

Today, of course, nearly all evangelical Christians (and probably some Catholic Christians as well) hold marriage in worshipful esteem and regard celibacy as though it were a pitiable state. As the evidence has begun to mount in recent years that few gay individuals have any hope of ever developing heterosexual feelings, some evangelicals have begun to view celibacy as a necessity for such individuals, even though most of them would react in horror to the suggestion that lifelong celibacy might also be a desirable option for some of them.

That raises another question, though. If the historical church's low opinion of sexuality even within marriage - a stance that was universally held for over 15 centuries (at least in the Western church - I'm less familiar with the Eastern church's view of sexuality) - really was as backward and wrong as most modern Christians consider it, why should we view church tradition as a reliable authority on any issue regarding sexuality? I present that question without suggesting any answers, but it's one that deserves to be taken far more seriously than most Christians are likely willing.

Interestingly, the Exodus stance as put forward by Ensley comes closer to matching the historical church's position on sexuality than that held by the modern church, at least when it comes to homosexuals. But it's hardly too much to ask that those who see God's rules as being rigid, unambiguous and without exception should display consistency in their proclamations. When, then, can we expect to see Exodus begin to market its vision of duty-driven, desire-free marriage to a heterosexual audience?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


The creation account, and particularly Genesis 1, gets a significant amount of attention in modern theology. From the creation/evolution controversy to the debate over human sexuality, few biblical passages get trotted out more frequently for apologetic purposes.

But was the creation account really meant to be taken literally, as most evangelical Christians interpret it? Do the early chapters of Genesis present a History Channel-style account of where humanity and the physical universe came from? Given how far removed we are today from the mindset of the ancient cultures that the Bible was written for, it's far from a given that we can answer either of those questions with a 'yes.'

One item of particular interest to this discussion is the Babylonian creation myth, which displays some striking parallels to the Genesis account. Most scholars believe that the Babylonian account predates the biblical account by several centuries. Conservative Christian scholars who believe Genesis was written first base their assertion primarily on the belief that the Pentateuch was authored by Moses.

Historically speaking it seems more likely that the biblical account was based on the Babylonian account than the other way around, but we can't be absolutely certain which came first. It's also possible that both accounts were conceived separately, based on some older creation myth that existed primarily in oral tradition.

In any case, Genesis 1 takes on a whole new meaning when read as a counterpoint to the pagan myths of the day. Rather than being byproducts of the actions of various warring gods, the world, the sun, the stars and everything else in the universe are shown to be specific, intentional creations of the one true God. Mankind, far from being the slaves and playthings of capricious deities, represents the pinnacle of God's creation.

Viewed in this light, the creation account fulfills a purpose different than the ones we commonly ascribe to it today. It is truthful, inasmuch as it points us away from the false gods of antiquity and toward the one Creator of everything, but it is not necessarily a literal account of how the world came into existence.

Similarly, it's questionable at best whether these passages can be taken as an instruction manual for how God intends for us to order our lives. Advocates point to the fact that Jesus and Paul both reference the creation account in passages related to marriage, while quietly ignoring the fact that Paul also appeals to the creation account in his argument that women should keep their hair long and men should keep theirs short.

"Male and female He created them" (Gen. 1:27) has become a rallying cry for the 'pro-family' movement, but what does it really tell us? Taken in the context laid out above, it reasserts God's role as the creator of everything, including both men and women.

The modern argument that this statement proves that each of us was specifically created to be heterosexual stretches the passage far beyond what its context can support. Not only does it require reading an incredible amount of subtext into a single verse, but it's a demonstrably false statement when extended beyond God's original act of creation.

The primary biblical passage that is used to support the assertion that God specifically designed each of us down to the last genetic marker is Psalm 139:13-16, which speaks of God forming the psalmist in his mother's womb. But do a few lines from a poem, biblical or not, really provide adequate support for what is ultimately a fairly elaborate theological position? It's a comforting passage that speaks to how intimately God knows and loves us, but how literally is it meant to be taken?

Are we really ready to face the ramifications of saying that each of us was directly designed by God? Not only would this mean that God intended for some individuals to be intersexed (in direct contradiction to the conservative reading of Gen. 1:27), but it would make him directly responsible for every genetic anomaly, including a host of physical and mental disabilities and more than a few chronic ailments.

Many Christians would respond by stating that such suboptimal genetic variances are a byproduct of Adam's sin, but that then requires us to adopt a nonliteral reading of Psalm 139:13-16, which in turn removes our support for the assertion that each of us was specifically created to be heterosexual. (One can still argue that heterosexuality was programmed into the original template, but it's an enormous leap from there to the claim that all homosexuals are therefore just repressed heterosexuals who would have turned out straight given better childhood circumstances.)

Of course, the topic of what we attribute to Adam's fall opens up another giant can of worms, so it's probably best for me to put up the "To Be Continued" sign and leave it at that for the moment...