We recently got new windshield wiper blades for our car. The old wiper blades were so bad that on one snowy day my husband had to stick his head out the window to see because the windshield was so covered with salt and slush. As I’ve been reading about the ongoing battle waged by the Religious Right against gay marriage (including last week’s introduction of the Congressional Marriage Protection Act of 2011) it suddenly struck me how sometimes, trying to understand God’s will by reading the Bible is similar to trying to see through a dirty windshield: you know there’s a road out there, but it’s hardly visible through the detritus that’s been kicked up along the way.
So here’s the thing: I don’t think the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God. I embrace the viewpoint articulated by Christian scholar Marcus Borg in his book The Heart of Christianity:
- The Bible is the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement.
- As such, it is a human product, not a divine product. This claim in no way denies the reality of God. Rather, it sees the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to God.
- As their response to God, the Bible tells us how they saw things….It is not God’s witness to God…but their witness to God.
- As a human product, the Bible is not “absolute truth” or “God’s revealed truth,” but relative and culturally conditioned. ..“relative” means “related”: the Bible is related to their time and place….the Bible tells us how our spiritual ancestors saw things–not how God sees things.
So how does this view of the Bible help in thinking about homosexuality and gay marriage? Well, the Religious Right’s opposition to gay marriage (or to any homosexual act), is based on statements in the Bible that condemn homosexuality. Based on these statements, some religious people believe that homosexuality is against the will of God. As Dennis P. Hollinger writes in The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, “When we look honestly at the teachings of God’s Word, including those of Jesus, it is evident that Christians and the church cannot legitimize same-sex relations.” Hollinger spends much of his efforts critiquing revisionist attempts to reinterpret the relevant biblical passages so that they can no longer be used to oppose homosexuality. I actually agree with Hollinger (maybe the only way I agree with him) that these attempts mostly fail. Biblical statements such as Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them” are pretty hard to interpret differently. However, what seems much more crucial is to remember that these statements are related to the time and place in which they were written – which is very different than our own time, in at least four relevant ways:
- It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve begun to understand the biological, and particularly the genetic, underpinnings of sexual orientation. We now recognize that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice, not a pathology, and not something that can be ‘cured’ (despite extremely disturbing attempts to do that in even the recent past). Ancient communities had none of these insights. All people knew back then was that homosexuality was different and didn’t do much to accomplish a crucial societal goal at the time:
- Procreation. Back in Christ’s time, infant mortality rates were astronomical (as they remain in the poorest nations of the world). Just to sustain a community, it was important to encourage procreation, since it took a significant number of babies just to ensure that one person would survive to adulthood. In contrast, in the modern developed world, infant mortality is now rare. For most of us, if you have one baby, you’re stuck with that kid till they reach adulthood (or beyond) – at great financial cost to you and your spouse, which brings me to the third point:
- The Biblical authors lived in agricultural societies, where you needed to produce lots of children who could help you work on your farm. Having a large family in ancient times was usually an economic blessing. In contrast, having children in a post-agricultural economy is a bit of a different story. Still a blessing, no doubt – but kids today are mostly a negative hit to ye’ old cash flow.
- Taking it a bit further – not only are children in modern society expensive at the individual family level, but the significant resources consumed by people in the developed world is leading to real questions about what current population rates are going to do the health and sustainability of our entire planet. The Biblical authors couldn’t possibly imagine a future world where planetary overpopulation or depleting the earth’s resources would be real concerns. But the earth’s population is approaching 7 billion, and expected to grow by another 1.5 billion by 2030, while the fossil fuels consumed by developed and developing nations are leading to a range of environmental disasters including record melt of the polar icecaps. It seems that, if God were making a new covenant with Abraham today, His blessing might be a bit different: “You can still be fruitful, but do my creation a favor and cut down on the multiplying, OK?”
So, bottom line: the culture in Biblical times was one in which it was crucially important to encourage procreation. So is it any wonder that it became part of the mores of that time to oppose sexual activity that had no hope of producing children? And shouldn’t the fact that we live in times that are so different lead us to a different understanding of the role of sex for our society?
Now, I’m sure some of you out there are thinking, well isn’t this a slippery slope? If we just decide to reject any part of the Bible that doesn’t fit with how the world is now, then what’s to prevent us from throwing out the whole damn thing (and by using the word “damn” just now haven’t you just made it clear that you’re really an atheist?)
Right. Well anyone who’s read my last few posts will know that I’m not an atheist, and I wouldn’t be participating in two separate Bible studies right now if I didn’t think the Good Book was, well, good. So here’s why I don’t at all believe that what I’m arguing for leads to a slippery slope (and I also strongly recommend reading almost anything by Marcus Borg since he has written so much on this subject):
- There are many parts of the Bible that do stand up to the test of time (and the test of different cultures or even worldviews). I am constantly in awe of how powerful some parts of the Bible are – and how these ancient words resonate today. For example, Paul’s words in Romans 7:14 “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” is something that perfectly expresses how I frequently feel (more on that in future posts).
- Typically the parts of the Bible that do not stand up as well to the test of time are parts that are not ‘core’ to the Biblical message. For example, I love the fact that Hollinger, who is trying to make the Biblical case for rejecting homosexuality, says that there are seven relevant passages in the Bible about the subject. Seven. OK- for those of you who may not know, the Bible is a really long book. Seven passages is a teensy portion of the Bible – less than one tenth of one percent. It is remarkable, therefore, to consider the significant percentage of time being spent on this issue by supposedly devout followers of the Bible. The word ‘disproportionate’ comes to mind.
- By rejecting the Biblical passages in question, I believe we will be able to more effectively follow those parts of the Bible that are core. Obviously there’s much debate about what the ‘core message’ of the Bible is, but when it comes to ethics I tend to listen to Jesus:
When asked “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He (Jesus) replied “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 23:36-40).
I should note that there is an almost identical story and message told in the Jewish tradition, except that the teacher is Rabbi Hillel rather than Jesus.
So –given what we now know about sexual orientation, and given our current context – it seems to me that supporting gay marriage does a better job of following these two greatest commandments. First of all, I know that if I was gay and was in love with another woman, I would want to be able to marry my true love in a church (given that I am religious) and have my marriage acknowledged by society and be able to get all the same financial benefits available to heterosexual couples. I also know that being told that the only way to truly follow Jesus would be to reject some of my deepest desires and attempt to be something that I’m not would destroy me. It also seems to me that if any two people truly love each other and want to make a life-long commitment and provide a stable home for children (especially orphans or foster children in need of a home) that this celebrates our God-given capacity to love and nourish others. How could it be anything else?
4. Finally, there’s always that great question: What would Jesus do? In Hollinger’s book he acknowledges the fact that Jesus has squadoosh to say on the subject of homosexuality (squadoosh being my term, not his). However, he argues based on other statements by Jesus that he almost certainly opposed homosexuality. Well, given that he was a 1st century Jew, of course he would. What’s more interesting to me, is what would he say if he were a 21st century Jew. And that we know: 76% of Jews support legalizing gay marriage.
So, looks like all we needed was some new windshield wiper blades, and maybe a refill on wiper fluid. The road ahead looks a bit clearer now…