Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Same Sex Vows, Theological Crisis

In today’s Belief Blog at the CNN website, a professor of law in Minnesota makes an argument for gay marriage from the perspective of his religious faith. Mark Osler argues that

What I see in the Bible’s accounts of Jesus and his followers is an insistence that we don’t have the moral authority to deny others the blessing of holy institutions like baptism, communion, and marriage. God, through the Holy Spirit, infuses those moments with life, and it is not ours to either give or deny to others.

Not surprisingly, his column has given rise to a wide range of comments, the majority of which offer some version of the rather simplistic question raised by a writer identified as Buck Mast:

            Is the Bible the Word of God or not??

Theological Crisis

Notre Dame scholar of religion Mark Noll recently published an informative book about American religion and its response to the question of slavery prior to and during the Civil War. In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Noll found that evangelical Protestant preachers and theologians who favored slavery – on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line - tended to cite specific excerpts of the Christian Bible, often taken out of any kind of context as evangelical are prone to do, to argue that not only did G-d permit slavery but even commanded it. Ending slavery required disobedience to G-d, they said. And they argued that to ignore one piece of scripture was tantamount to tossing out the entire faith – where did the selective process end?

Conversely, abolitionist theologians and preachers often resorted to a big picture approach to scripture which saw theological and ethical development as one moved through the Bible ending in the life and example of Jesus as paradigmatic for Christians. Abolitionists argued that slavery was simply incompatible with the Golden Rule and the Second Great Commandment, Jewish teachings placed on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels. As Noll somberly notes, in the end it is the Union Army and not the superior theological argument which resolved the question of slavery.

It’s interesting to note how these same patterns play out in the current arguments about same sex marriage. It is certainly possible to cite isolated passages of scripture, taken completely out of context, to argue that somehow G-d opposes same sex marriage. As Shakespeare observed in the Merchant of Venice, even “[t]he devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” Of course, such approaches by definition presume that G-d shares one’s own foregone conclusions, a presumption skewered by religious writer Annie Lamott’s observation ““You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out
that God hates all the same people you do.”  

Ironically, it is precisely the selective use of scripture evangelicals decry that has resulted in their own “one man, one woman” mantra since the vast majority of Biblical history with its patriarchal polygamy hardly reflects that understanding. As Jessie Jackson is prone to say, “A text without a context is a pretext.”

A Bigger Picture

But it is also quite possible to look at the bigger picture of the faith tradition, to note as President Obama recently argued that discrimination against same sex couples seeking to marry is simply irreconcilable with the Golden Rule. One simply cannot love their neighbor as themselves and actively discriminate against them, particularly in this most intimate area of human existence. Indeed, it is salient to note that without an evolution of understanding of the faith tradition and the use of its scripture, including its failure to resolve the crisis of slavery prior to the Civil War, the pronouncer of that opinion would not be sitting in the Oval Office of the White House today but rather working without pay on its janitorial staff.

American default to pragamatism – and thus to the status quo with its innate conservatism - has historically produced a wide array of myopic understandings that have not well served America. No doubt, big picture arguments fly right by the opponents of same sex marriage immediately focused on a given excerpt of scripture legitimating their foregone conclusions that they are willing to see as somehow binding and final. Yet, the Golden Rule reflects the principle of reciprocity that underlies most ethical systems in the world, most notably Kant’s categorical imperative in the West. And as Lawrence Kohlberg has noted in his work on stages of moral reasoning, when the principled post-conventional reason of Stage 5 with its focus on justice confronts the tribal conventional reason of Stage 3 with its focus on the approval of significant others, the post-conventional arguments are largely unable to be heard by the holder of the lower level conventional moral reasoning.

But, the inability – often mixed with the unwillingness – to see a bigger picture rarely means it doesn’t exist and can’t be seen, it simply means it hasn’t been seen yet. Big picture moral reasoning has a way of winning out over the course of history, as Noll’s work so well documents, albeit often in the wake of a bloody trail of epic struggle.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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