Friday, May 25, 2007


Does truth exist? Is it absolute? If God is who Christians of nearly every stripe believe he is, then the answer to both questions is yes.

It's after we've established that general conclusion that the problems begin. Our modern assumptions steer us toward the belief that truth is something that we can contain; truth, like everything else, can be labeled, dissected and neatly tucked away in little boxes in the corners of our finite minds. "All truth is God's truth," after all. If one were to engage in a drinking game involving the number of times that an evangelical speaker appealed to "the Truth," chances are you'd have a good buzz going within the first ten minutes of your average sermon or radio program.

But is it really that simple? If we truly serve an infinite, all-powerful God, can we ever reach a point where even the best of us can honestly say that we fully understand him? At this point many evangelicals will backtrack just enough to acknowledge that we are limited in our ability to know God (and, by extension, his truth), while simultaneously asserting that a believer can nonetheless know everything that's important for us to know about God and his truth.

Setting aside the implication that anything pertaining to God could be unimportant, where did we get the notion that truth is that simple? Ask any number of Christians to define "truth," and as soon as you move beyond the abstract you end up with as many answers as you have answerers.

And there's a big difference between God telling me what I need to know to live my life, and God telling me what I'd need to know to effectively run everyone else's lives. It's understandable why we want to have all of the answers; it can be frightening living in a world where so many things are beyond our control - and yet isn't giving up our right to be in control central to the Christian life? Why, then, are we constantly trying to come up with capital-A Answers that would enable us to control everything (and everyone) around us?

We're so desperate to maintain control that we try to turn the Bible into an instruction manual that will give us a black-and-white answer to every problem we encounter in our lives (and in everybody else's lives). Yet the world wasn't created in black and white; it contains an almost endless assortment of colors, hues and patterns - and even more colors that aren't visible to the naked eye. The only way the Bible can truly remain relevant thousands of years after its writing is if it's not a mere instruction manual. If the Holy Spirit is not free to speak through the pages of Scripture in a way uniquely tailored to each individual reader, then the Bible is just another finite, two-dimensional work.

Nature itself teaches us just how complex the world we live in really is. A single living cell is as complex as a city. Even subatomic particles, once thought to be the smallest building blocks of matter, are made up of smaller things. Yes, there are fundamental physical laws that enable all of these myriad details to work together, but even those laws aren't nearly as simple as we once thought. Add on top of that the myriad ways that those laws interplay as we move from protons and electrons to atoms to protein molecules to living organisms, and the human mind can scarcely comprehend it all.

Human relationships are certainly no simpler. Each of us brings along a unique combination of experiences, memories, opinions, vocabulary, cultural preferences, blind spots, relationships and relational baggage, in addition to the endless ways that biological and environmental factors can shape us, and all of those details complicate our relationships with one another.

Even if one managed to come up with a complete set of basic truths, those truths interplay in countless different ways in our lives, and inevitably they end up in conflict with each other from time to time. Who among us is truly wise enough to declare which truth is more important in any given circumstance? Given that our own perspectives are so finite, and further limited by our own experiences and prejudices, who but an all-knowing God could be capable of sorting it all out without making things even worse? Not that it stops us from continually trying to meddle in matters that aren't nearly as simple as they appear to us.

And who's to say we know anywhere near as much as we think we do? The Medieval church had an elaborate, biblically-based cosmology worked out to explain everything about our relationships with each other and with the physical world, the cosmos and the spiritual realm. It was all very logical and very scriptural, but it had one fatal flaw: it was based on the assumption that the Earth was the center of the universe.

When scientific observation proved that the Earth revolved around the sun, it didn't just shake up a few theologians in their ivory towers - it demolished an entire worldview, which many thousands of highly intelligent thinkers had based all of their assumptions on. The ramifications shook the theological realm to its core, and the church permanently lost a portion of its influence as the Western world advanced into the Renaissance era.

So how do we know that the same can't happen again? For that matter, how can we be certain that it isn't currently happening again? How can we be so positive that we have it all figured out, just because our scientific knowledge and our exegetical methods are more sophisticated than ever? What does it really say about us when we insist that we can't possibly be wrong about the "important" stuff?

That's not to say that the Medieval church was wrong about everything, but it was nonetheless completely wrong about something very significant, and the ramifications of that error played out over the course of centuries.

So why are we so afraid of exercising a little humility in our dealings with others (both outside of and within the church)? Do we really think that Christ's message can't be effectively conveyed if we admit that we don't have all of the answers to everything? Paul didn't seem to think so:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. (1 Cor. 2:1-5)

Granted, it would be absurd for a person to go through life claiming to know nothing at all, but there's a major difference between that extreme and humbly acknowledging that what we don't know is far more than what we do know - and that we could be wrong about much of what we think falls into the latter category.

Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to serve as our guide through life. With that assistance, I can proceed through my daily life with just enough confidence to carry on. Where another person's life is concerned I may be able to provide helpful advice or some other form of assistance, but for me to claim to know what's best for them (either because of my own experience or because "the Bible [allegedly] says so") would be to usurp the Holy Spirit's role in their life.

If taking over a task that God has reserved for himself isn't a sin of pride, it's hard to imagine what could be. I suppose by my own standards I could be wrong about that, but I wouldn't want to place a wager on it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


I noticed this morning that I somehow clicked the "don't allow comments" button when I posted "The Letter of the Law" the other day, so I've fixed that. Not that this blog has ever been a high-volume comment generator, but just in case you did have something to say, now you can.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Letter of the Law

Originally posted at Ex-Gay Watch

Read through the materials of just about any Christian organization that speaks out against gay relationships, and you'll almost certainly find reference to Leviticus 18:22. The wordings of our English translations of the verse appear very clear, and at face value lend weight to those groups' political crusade against gay rights. One can, after all, hardly speak positively about anything that God called an 'abomination.'

Of course, there are many other 'abominations' listed in the Old Testament, shellfish being the most famous example, so conservative theologians have been forced to refine their arguments to explain why some of Moses' commands are still applicable today and some are not. To facilitate this, a third category was added to the Law; in addition to the ceremonial laws and the purity laws, they argued, there are also universal moral laws.

Whereas the ceremonial and purity laws are easily distinguishable based on context, the primary criterion for determining whether a command falls into the universal moral law is whether it appears to be something that most Christians would agree ought to be considered wrong under any circumstances. Since such acts as murder, theft, adultery and incest are clearly wrong regardless of whether one is an observant Jew, then commands found against those activities must be exceptions to the freedom that the New Testament grants Christians from the Law.

The problem with this approach is that it requires one to pick individual verses out of the Pentateuch while in many cases ignoring other verses immediately before and after. Not in every case - one can make a reasonable case for placing the Ten Commandments in the category of universal law, and few Christians would dispute such a claim - but even here we have a command (observing the Sabbath) that carries little or no weight in many churches.

Of course, the Ten Commandments say nothing about homosexuality, unless one makes the questionable stretch of expanding the definition of 'adultery' far enough to include it. Such a stretch is necessary, we are told, because one wouldn't want to be forced to defend acts of incest and bestiality just because they weren't specifically mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

Conservatives do have one option for supplementing the seventh commandment ("you shall not commit adultery") without cherry-picking individual verses; Leviticus contains two chapters (18 and 20) filled with prohibitions that even many outside the faith would agree with: adultery, various forms of incest, bestiality, human sacrifice and, of course, (male) homosexual sex. Chapter 19 has to be excluded from this context, due to the hodgepodge of odd commands it contains, but one can always go back to cherry-picking to rescue its one relevant command ("Love your neighbor as yourself").

Unfortunately, we're still left with one odd prohibition in the mix: Lev. 18:19 and its echo in 20:18, which forbids a man from sleeping with a woman during her period. Some modern-day Christians probably aren't even aware of this command, and it's certainly not taken seriously by the majority of those that are. But contextually it cannot be separated from the rest of the commands in those chapters; in chapter 18 it falls between the commands against incest and adultery, and in chapter 20 in the middle of the incest prohibitions.

Granted, offenders don't receive the death penalty, but exile was only a marginally better fate in ancient times. Exile was also the punishment for several different forms of incest, so clearly this command isn't to be taken any less seriously just because the death penalty isn't called for. And granted, it isn't repeated in Deuteronomy (as most of the commands in Leviticus are), but neither is the prohibition against men lying with men unless one ties it to the command against male and female "holy ones" (Deut. 23:17). Since such a connection would place the Old Testament's only direct reference to homosexuality firmly within the context of pagan fertility rites, it's clear that we can't afford to put too much weight on what is and isn't repeated in Deuteronomy.

And the command against sex during menstruation is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible; Ezekiel does so twice (Ezek. 18:6 and 22:10), both times in conjunction with other moral issues (adultery, incest, idolatry and various economic injustices). No doubt the first instinct of most readers would be to dismiss this particular command as a relic from the purity laws, but the contexts it's mentioned in rule out that possibility.

Some might argue that having sex with a woman during her period must not be a big deal since it wasn't mentioned in the New Testament, but bestiality isn't mentioned there either, and it's hard to imagine bestiality advocates finding many supporters within the church. Furthermore, as we so frequently hear in the debate over homosexuality, just because an issue wasn't mentioned by Jesus (or, for that matter, Paul) doesn't mean it's unimportant. The authors of the New Testament may simply have considered it so obvious that didn't need to be repeated to their audience. In fact, they probably did; most premodern societies contained strong taboos against sleeping with a woman during her period.

Defenders of the sex-with-my-wife-whenever-we-want-it lifestyle would probably fall back on the biblical principle that "the marriage bed is undefiled" to defend their proclivities, but allowing generalized principles to override clearly stated biblical commands opens the door to a potentially endless flood of exceptions and qualifications. A law like this one may not make sense to us right now, but surely God would not issue a command without good reason. If we truly believe that the Bible contains explicit instructions for how we are to order our lives, then the believer's duty is to obey every one of God's commands even if we never understand why in this lifetime.

And some researchers have determined that sex during menstruation may have negative side effects. Some others may disagree, but again, God undoubtedly has a good reason for issuing a prohibition.

Furthermore, church tradition was unanimous on this issue all the way into the mid-19th century. Many of the church fathers and major theologians, including Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, St. John Chrysostom and Thomas Aquinas condemned the practice, and none tried to defend it. It's only in modern times that some Christians have begun to go astray and abandon this universally-held position.

Or could it be that combing through Leviticus for relevant commands causes us to miss the point entirely? Perhaps, by creating arbitrary categories within the Law to satisfy our desire for a rules-based approach to faith, we run afoul of Paul's admonition in Galatians 3:10-12:

All who rely on observing the Law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the Law, because, "The righteous will live by faith." The Law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them."

As followers of Christ we are free from the Law - all of the Law - not because morality is unimportant but because morality is diminished when we reduce it to an arbitrary set of rules. True Christian morality flows outward from the heart; one can appear devout on the surface, consistently obeying every last command issued by their church, and secretly remain an enemy of God. One can even use the letter of the law to justify actions that blatantly violate its spirit.

And strict adherence to the "plain language" of the Bible has caused problems of its own. American and European defenders of the institution of slavery had the letter of the law on their side whenever the Bible was brought into the debate, while abolitionists were forced to argue from abstract principles, yet how many Christians today would defend the notion that slavery is ever acceptable?

That still leaves plenty of room for debating what does and doesn't fall within the bounds of Christian ethics, but if some of the commands in Leviticus are central to that discussion, then all of them are - shellfish, management of slaves, menstrual cycles and all. Jesus may not have abolished the Law, but he did fulfill its requirements and free us from them all the same.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Reading Materials

1. Jim Burroway continues his in-depth exploration of the dark (and seriously chilling) psyche of Paul Cameron. The article is available at both the Box Turtle Bulletin and at Ex-Gay Watch.

Jim is also compiling a list of sites that still cite Cameron's "research." If you come across any other examples for his list, be sure to pass them along.

2. Christine talks about the "helpful" feedback she's gotten from ex-gays and other conservative Christians in response to her interview in Glamour magazine and her appearance on Good Morning America.

All of which leads me to address a question to any conservative evangelicals who might stumble upon this post: Do you seriously think that treating people with condescension and casually dismissing all of their life experiences in favor of your personal opinions about their "lifestyle" somehow advances the gospel? Have you ever taken even a moment to reflect on how callous, arrogant and thoroughly unChristlike you appear to every non-evangelical who comes across your words?

3. David at Resolving Realities offers a defense of his 'Side A' beliefs on the issue of homosexuality. It makes me wonder how my life might have been different if I'd taken the time to do my own thinking on this issue at a younger age.

4. As I was compiling this, news of Jerry Falwell's death hit the internet. While it's true that I won't mourn the passing of a voice whose words, on many occasions, were deeply hurtful to many people, I'm not going to celebrate his family's loss, either.

In the final analysis only God knows what truly lies in the depths of another person's heart. Falwell was beginning to soften his message in recent years, and any speculation I offered regarding his motives would be pure conjecture.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I've heard it said that one of the paradoxes of the Christian church is that the larger and more successful it becomes, the more it loses its true power. The more influence Christians gain in the world around them, the more they seek to wield their newfound power at the expense of the self-sacrificial love that first drew them to the faith.

It seems odd to suggest that the church might be losing its power; after all, the evangelical church is arguably more influential than ever, at least in the United States. But with that political power has come a reputation for nastiness and self-righteousness that has soured many people on Christianity and on organized religion in general. Most of the evangelical church's growth in recent years has come at the expense of mainline Christian denominations, however; those leaving the church altogether in most recent years outnumber the new converts coming in.

It's a cycle that's been paralleled more than once in church history. At the beginning the church was a tight-knit community, a tiny outgrowth of Judaism that might well have stayed small and eventually died out. It had the power to transform lives, however; those on the outside saw the love that these Christians had for one another and for others, and the church's message quickly began to spread across the Roman Empire.

With the introduction of Gentiles into the faith, the church's leaders faced a dilemma. They opted not to place these new converts under the burdensome requirements of the Jewish law, but felt that some standards were necessary lest the term 'Christian' cease to have any meaningful definition. Those standards started out simply enough; a few general admonitions accompanied by a short list of specific commands was all that anyone needed. Believers were united by their faith in Christ and their commitment to loving God and each other.

Over time, though, that list gradually grew longer as subsequent generations felt it necessary to require conformity of belief and behavior on the church's diverse membership. Soon church councils were being formed to agree on basic doctrines, with those deemed heretics expelled from Christendom entirely. The church as a whole continued to prosper, as it was still largely demonstrating love of a sort seldom seen elsewhere in the world, but doctrinal and personal purity were gradually replacing compassion as the church's primary distinction.

As the church expanded further, it eventually became a political power with influence over laws and other matters of public policy. Long gone was the humility that early Christians had demonstrated in all of their dealings; believers now knew what was best for everybody, and they had the power to force others to accede to their convictions. The Bible was now a rulebook, its narratives, poems, parables and conversations reduced to a patchwork quilt of detailed instructions for regulating every aspect of life.

The Holy Spirit was no longer seen as sufficient to the task of guiding individual believers or bringing the wayward to faith; failure to conform to the church's ever-lengthening list of doctrines and rules was viewed as evidence that an individual was rebelling against the Spirit and in need of disciplining. Soon heretics and pagans were being executed and those that violated "God's moral law" were subject to punishment by civil authorities.

Although some individuals remained committed to the path of self-sacrificial love, their quiet example was largely drowned out by the din of those whose concept of love had taken the form of a stern parent tasked with scolding and disciplining her wayward children. The church's reputation became every bit as ugly as that of the heathen rulers it had supplanted - worse, even, since its depredations were carried out in the name of a supposedly loving God.

Over time the church's influence gradually waned, but not before events like the Crusades, the Inquisition and any number of witch hunts became permanently ingrained in the public consciousness as examples of the dangers of organized religion in general and of Christianity in particular.

That's an oversimplified summary of church history, but hopefully it serves to clarify the correlation that some have observed - namely, that the church can only increase its political authority at the expense of its spiritual power. Coercive power is a corrupting force, and even the purest of heart can't wield it for long and come away untainted.

A growing number of evangelicals are starting to recognize just how badly the religious right's various crusades have blackened their reputation over the last 20-30 years and are beginning to back away from political activism as a result. Whether they'll also take a step back from the legalism that creates such a strong temptation to strive for political power remains to be seen.

"It's a relationship, not a religion" is a popular catchphrase among evangelicals. It's also a slogan that rings hollow when that "relationship" turns out to be defined primarily by the substitution of one set of rules for another. As long as conformity is a requirement for inclusion, it is indeed a religion and not a relationship.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Items to ponder on a lazy afternoon...

Paul Tillich on the essence of Christianity:
The Yoke of Religion

The problem with trying to legislate private behavior:
The Paternal State as Producer of Immorality

The very real result of denying legal recognition to gay couples:
The M-Word

Finally, do you write like a man or a woman? The Gender Genie knows for sure.

For the record, it certified that I am indeed a man. Just in case there was any doubt.