Sunday, December 28, 2008

Virtually Catholic

Homo Superior features several quotations that come from Andrew Sullivan's blog, either directly or filtered through him. I've never liked Sullivan, but there's some interesting stuff here that I wanted to comment on. This, for example:
The essence of fundamentalism is not, it seems to me, the assertion that Christ is the same “yesterday, today and forever” (I believe the same and my faith is anti-fundamentalist); it is the assertion that every single aspect in the bewilderingly expansive and contradictory and over-determined texts we call the Bible are literally true in every particular and every injunction should be applied today as literally as possible.
Why are so many critics of fundamentalism obsessed with "literalism"? (Especially since so few people seem to know what "literal" means.) Conservative evangelical Christianity (which is what is generally meant by "fundamentalism" in a Christian context) shares with Sullivan's Roman Catholicism the postulate that the Bible is inerrant, which is not at all the same thing as taking it literally. Far from it, in fact -- to interpret the Bible so as to preserve it from error requires very non-literal interpretation. But I've written about this before. Now we get to watch Sullivan applying his own fundamentalism to the Bible.
So a vast document that has only a handful of opaque references to sex between two heterosexuals of the same gender and no concept of homosexuality as such requires interpretation. We cannot resolve this issue by the plain meaning of the text alone. The minute we do this reduction - with, say, the Leviticus proscriptions - we are required to explain further why the prohibition of eating shell-fish is no longer operable. And an attempt to insist on the eternal, literal authority of Scripture with respect to marriage in churches that accept divorce - plainly and clearly ruled illicit by Jesus himself - reveals the deep intellectual confusion among the fundamentalists.
First, of course, the Bible is not a document but a collection of documents; it reveals Sullivan's own theological preconceptions that he refers to it as if it were a single, unified text. The references the Bible contains to sex between males, though it's true there aren't many of them, are not really "opaque" -- they're clear enough -- nor are they about "sex between two heterosexuals of the same gender". (More on that in a moment.) Sullivan's claim that the Bible has "no concept of homosexuality as such" is false; what he really means is that its concept of homosexuality doesn't agree with his. The Biblical writers arguably didn't consider homosexuality to be an expression of an internal biological condition that shuts off heterosexual function and imposes same-sex expression instead, which is Sullivan's concept, but that doesn't mean they didn't have one, or several, of their own.

No reason is given for the prohibition of sex between males in Leviticus, except that such behavior is hateful ("an abomination") to Yahweh, so in that sense it's true that Leviticus doesn't develop a "concept of homosexuality as such." That hasn't kept either anti-gay or pro-gay Christians from reading their own obsessions into it. Pro-gay Christians try to explain the Levitical prohibition as being actually a prohibition of male-to-male rape, though there's nothing in the text to support this; or based on a belief that sex between males confuses gender, though again there's nothing in the text to support that theory; or that the prohibition refers to same-sex 'cult prostitution' in ancient pagan fertility cults, though there's nothing in the text to support that either, and how would two men bonin' symbolize fertility anyway? Sullivan's notion that Leviticus forbids sex between "two heterosexuals of the same gender" also has no basis in the biblical text. It's true that you can't just yank verses out of context without a "larger theological argument", but your theological argument has to make sense of the text.

What is probably the only New Testament reference to homosexuality, in the first chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, arguably does have a conception of homosexuality as such. It occurs in a diatribe against paganism which declares that even though human beings had good reason to see one creator God behind the world they lived in, they deliberately refused to worship Yahweh and chose instead to worship idols.
[24] Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
[25] because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
[26] For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural,
[27] and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
[28] And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.
[29] They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips,
[30] slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
[31] foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
[32] Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.
This passage treats homosexuality not just as isolated acts, but as the expression of desire, and indeed as desires inflicted by Yahweh as a punishment for idolatry. It's not what I'd consider a workable explanation of why some men desire others erotically, but it's a theory in its own right, and one which numerous modern Christian writers have not cared to abandon entirely. It doesn't explain why all pagan men didn't burn with lust for each other, or for that matter why some Jewish men did. But modern scientific theories are pretty inadequate too, which doesn't keep Sullivan from waving them around as if they were solidly proved. (For that matter, I've argued that contemporary science doesn't have a concept of homosexuality as such, only of tops and bottoms, penetrators and penetrated. Science may turn out to be correct -- time will tell -- but it doesn't support Sullivan's position.)

Modern pro-gay Christian interpreters have read some odd theories into Romans 1:26-28. Some, again, think it refers to 'cult prostitution'; others that it it refers to people who were constituted heterosexual by nature, but wickedly chose to engage in homosexual sex anyway. (This is probably what Sullivan means by "sex by heterosexuals of the same gender", drawing on the theories of D. S. Bailey as modified by John Boswell.) Some think that the payment in their own persons refers to venereal disease, as though STDs were unknown among heterosexuals. (See my comments on James Nelson's discussion of Romans here; he tries to save Paul's polemic against the gentiles while being pro-gay.)

It's odd to see Sullivan denouncing "fundamentalists" for their inadequate approach to scripture here, just as Pope Rat was getting ready to attack homosexuality in basically the same terms as Pat Robertson or Rick Warren. Back in the days when he was just plain old Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope John Paul's hammer of heretics, in Sullivan's 1995 opus Virtually Normal he fawned on Ratzinger as a fount of compassion and opposition to bigotry:
And the Catholic Church doggedly refused to budge from its assertion of the natural occurrence of homosexuals, or its compassion for their plight.

... the Church stood foursquare against bigotry, against demeaning homosexuals either by antigay slander or violence or by pro-gay attempts to reduce human beings to one aspect of their sexuality ... [while] simultaneously, it deepened and strengthened its condemnation of any homosexual sexual activity [page 36].
Doesn't that just make you feel loved? Sullivan is describing here Church documents which warned that the gay movement would, regrettably, cause decent people to lose control and attack us; which insisted that homosexuals were "objectively disordered"; and which opposed "unjust discrimination" against us, but considered most forms of discrimination against us to be just. The guys in funny hats who wrote these documents had both a concept of homosexuality as such and a larger theological argument; Sullivan wrote in Virtually Normal that what he called "prohibitionism" has "a rich literature, an extensive history, a complex philosophical core, and a view of humanity that tells a coherent and sometimes beautiful story of the meaning of our natural selves" (23) -- yet despite all these qualifications, the Vatican's position on homosexuality is hardly distinguishable from that of Sullivan's "fundamentalists."

Besides, Andrew Sullivan is a layman, so why should I take his analysis of the Bible or of Church teaching on sexuality to be authoritative? Better thinkers than he, including the gay Catholic theologian, Mark Jordan, have shown the flaws in his, um, reasoning. (See Jordan's The Silence of Sodom [Chicago, 2000], especially page 29ff.)

For me the most memorable Christian response to homosexuality has always been a 1973 article by a Methodist clergyman named Robert L. Treese and published in Loving Women / Loving Men: Gay Liberation and the Church (Glide Publications, 1974), an influential collection edited by Sally Gearhart and William R. Johnson. The article, "Homosexuality: a Contemporary View of the Biblical Perspective", begins with these words:
What is God trying to tell us about homosexuality? About sexuality? About creativity and the redemptive community today? These are the questions this paper attempts to face.
I've never been able to read or think of this opening without thinking of theology as a game of Charades, with Yahweh jumping about in his white robe and long beard, gesturing theatrically: First word -- sounds like -- abomination! The situation hasn't improved in the past 35 years. On one hand we have those who advise us to turn up our hearing aids so that we can hear what Yahweh is 'trying to tell us'; I have little doubt that an omnipotent deity with firm ideas about human conduct could find a way to make himself heard if he wanted to. On the other hand, we have the fundamentalists of various positions, antigay or pro-gay, who have Yahweh on the cell phone and know exactly what he wants of us.

I'm far from the first person to notice that Yahweh tells his different human intermediaries diametrically different things. First they need to sort out how I'm supposed to tell which one of them is telling the truth about their hotline to heaven. As for Yahweh himself, as Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax said, even if the gods exist that's no reason to believe in them -- it only encourages them.