July 10, 2005

Inside and Outside

A reflection on Moral and Ritual — Tobias S Haller BSG

At my most pessimistic I sometimes feel that the utility of Scripture in helping us better to understand our current situation may have reached its limit. Over the last several years I have grown weary of seeing texts tossed back and forth, twisting in the air as they fly, stretched beyond their capacity, or shrunk to insignificance. When I consider how little the Scripture actually says about the presenting issue, and how much of what it says is in a limited vocabulary of half-a-dozen Hebrew and Greek words — some so rare they are only understood by conjecture, others so capable of a range of figurative and literal application that they can mean almost anything one wants — and then take account of the energy of the debate, I begin to despair of Scripture’s providing us with a settlement to the matter.

I agree with Luther when he said that we cannot simply make any word of Scripture mean whatever we might like it to mean. But at the same time I have to affirm that the meaning of any given passage of Scripture is necessarily subject to interpretation; that the process of understanding what a text means isn’t optional — on the contrary it is the object of the exercise.

Contrary to those who assert the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Scripture does not (indeed cannot) interpret itself, although we may use one portion of Scripture better to understand another. But Anglicans do not allow the Scripture to stand alone, apart from reason, and the record of the church’s wrestling with those sometimes difficult texts. As Hooker put it,

The force of arguments drawn from the authority of Scripture itself, as Scriptures commonly are alleged, shall (being sifted) be found to depend upon the strength of this so much despised and debased authority of man. Surely it doth, and that oftener than we are aware of... Even such as are readiest to cite for one thing five hundred sentences of holy Scripture; what warrant have they, that any one of them doth mean the thing for which it is alleged? Is not their surest ground most commonly, either some probable conjecture of their own, or the judgment of others taking those Scriptures as they do? (Laws, II.7.8)
I do, however, think that there is a hermeneutical key to unlock the treasury, so that old and new can be brought forth. It lies with Jesus, and he left it to the church. Jesus was confronted by a number of religious questions concerning right and wrong. Some of it was presented in ways designed to trip him up; others seemed genuinely interested in finding the right way. So how did Jesus apply Scripture to these questions? As the wristband puts it, WWJD?

When Jesus set aside the dietary laws this was not simply meant as an end in itself. The dietary laws symbolized for him a whole approach to discerning morality that was based on “the outside.” (It should be noted that although Mark understood Jesus as “declaring all foods clean,” the question that was presented to him actually had to do with hand-washing, not food.) In any case, Jesus used this incident as an opportunity to reflect upon the locus of morality. Morality, he says, is not about what goes into one from the outside, but about what comes out of one, from the heart. In this, Jesus is advocating an ethic of disposition or intent, as opposed to an ethic based primarily upon a list of externally exercised do’s and don’ts, which finds its most primitive form in moralities based on taboo and purity. As I also noted in an earlier comment on God’s Shellfish Argument, this contrast was addressed in Peter’s miraculous vision of the sheet let down from heaven; and he rightly understood that this was not about a change in the dietary laws, but about how people are to be treated — not as unclean because of practice or nation, but as capable of receiving the love of God. It is abundantly clear that Jesus had little patience with the focus on external purity as a means to please God; and Saint Paul continued this teaching — see Col 2:21-23 and 1Tim4:3-5 — although, given his Pharisee training even he occasionally slipped from grace into law!

The other locus classicus for Jesus’ teaching on morality resides in the summary of the law and the “Golden Rule.” Jesus reduces the specifics of the Decalogue to the love of God and neighbor, with the rather subjective touchstone of doing as one would be done by. Even his critics recognized the wisdom in this approach.

So, bearing these two keys in mind, when I return to the actual text (this is the vitally important task) and look at the passages that are traditionally advanced against any allowance for same-sex sexuality, I have to ask, are these moral prohibitions, based upon the disposition of the heart, or are they rather primarily ritual or cultic matters related to external acts? Do these prohibitions take account of either the love of God and neighbor, or the subjective judgment of mutuality and responsive care, or are they simply absolute and categorical?

If I may give one last parallel example, How did Jesus relate to the question of the sabbath? The text of the law is rather abundantly clear; it is explicitly categorical in listing all the categories! Yet Jesus recognized circumstances in which this clarity was forced to bend to charity — the rigorous interpretation that one could do no work of any kind is bent to allow the doing of works of love and care. The sabbath exists not as an end in itself, but as a means to the rest and refreshment and betterment of human beings.

This is where I and some of my colleagues have been trying to pitch the discussion. The various arguments from a surmised “complementarity” of the sexes are still to my mind too much concerned with the “outside” — the sexual dimorphism that we share with most of the animals and some of the vegetables — rather than with the “inside” which is what truly makes us human, and wherein resides our similarity with God: in the capacity to reason and to love. The dismissal of all same-sex relationships, without regard to anything other than the gender of the parties, the explicit declaration that all this talk of love is irrelevant to the question, does not strike me as being in keeping with the ethical world of Jesus Christ.

Although I am loath to add to Scripture, the following application of what I’ve said above occurs to me, purely as an imaginative exercise:

Some lawyers came to Jesus and said to him, Teacher, we found two men who have set up household and live together after the manner of a man and wife. Shall we do unto them as it is written in the law of Moses? And he said unto them, For your hardness of heart Moses gave you this law. But it was not so at the beginning, when God made companions for Adam and allowed him to choose the one suitable to him, the one who was most like him. And they said to him, but was not that Eve, the mother of all living? And he said to them, Do not be deceived, ‘the Lord does not see as mortals see’ — you lawyers and Pharisees look only to the outside, and do not look to the heart. But God knows what is inside a man, and it is from inside that true love flows. And do you not know that when Jonathan looked upon David his soul was bound to him, and he loved him as his own self, and gave up his life for his friend? David spoke rightly when he said there is no greater love than this. If these two should set up their lives together, what is that to you? Love the Lord your God, and do not judge.

As I say, this is purely imaginative. But it does strike me as in keeping with the Gospel.


Caelius said...

Interesting. How do you deal with the apparent dimorphic argument in the Gospel of Matthew?

Tobias said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tobias said...

(My first effort to post a response was garbled... Here it is again, I hope.)

Three things strike me about the passage in Matthew 19.

First, Jesus' concern appears to be more about the "di" than the "morph" -- more about number than form: the "two" becoming "one." This is perhaps clearer in the Hebrew (and Aramaic, which Jesus would have been familiar with) than in the Greek and most of the English translations that follow the Greek in seeing "male" and "female" as adjectives. The Hebrew and Aramaic read as nouns: "a male and a female he created them." Although the phrase comes from Genesis 1, Jesus does not include any further reference to the procreative function of marriage in his argument, but rather stresses the unitive function evident in his longer citation from Genesis 2. His argument, as the conclusion shows, is about unity: that which has been made one by God's blessing is not to be split in two.

Second, the context of the discussion is marriage and divorce, not sexuality in general. It offers no direct guidance on the question of homosexual relationships, but rather clear guidance on the permanence of marriage. It might well be read as requiring fidelity in all relationships, and that is how I would take it.

Finally, in that light, allow me to mention one more connection of the David and Jonathan story with these passages in Genesis 2 and Matthew 19. In 1 Samuel 18:2, immediately before the covenant joining of Jonathan and David in heart and soul, the text reminds us that Saul "took David and would not let him return to his father's house" -- preserving the concept of departure from the household of birth, and entry into the new household of love.

The Anglican Scotist said...

Surely, as Haller says, Matt. 19:1-12 has a special context, distinct from that of sexuality in general. If one wanted to use the passage to infer some general ethical principle, (P1) "A male is Permitted to marry a female" follows straightforwardly. But P1 is logically distinct from P2, "A male is Forbidden from marrying a male." In fact, prima facie P1 is logically consistent with the negation of P2. It is a great mystery to me how some of ECUSA's right wing read Matt. 19 as implying P2--some sort of strong argument is needed for that, in addition to the Scriptural text.

Caelius said...

Great. I hate to push you, but you have the substance of a fine argument to which I know some of the counterarguments.

1. "Jesus' concern appears to be more about the 'di' than the 'morph.'" But you cite the Hebrew and Aramaic as more authoritative for Jesus, yet the etymologists will say that "male and female" in Hebrew (in an image common to peoples emerging out of the Neolithic Revolution) "piercer and pierced." Jesus could be emphasizing the "morph" as well. Your point about no further talk of procreation might get you out of this, but you will have to talk about the role of celibacy in the vision of the Kingdom, which I think explains the omission.

2. From Scripture (1 Samuel and possibly the Gospel of John) and tradition (SS. Sergius and Bacchus, SS. Basil and John Chrysostom (though the latter case involves a polite refusal to enter into such a union, vide the last sections of Peri Hierosynes), I see precedent for same-sex unions. But David and Jonathan's union could not be legitimately sexual under the Law before Christ. And I think I would claim the same for Sergius and Bacchus (and surely for the Two Hierarchs whose ideas of ascetic brotherhood may give the impression of same-sex union to me that really wasn't there.) In other words, can same sex unions have any sexual component as defined by say, Aquinas (kissing allowed according to the custom of the country)?

And if you need to think about it or need clarification, feel free.

Tobias said...

Thank you Caelius, for the continued thoughtful response. I welcome this as an opportunity further to explore the matter. On your first point, I think it is a bit dangerous to rely on ancient etymological origins of words as necessarily in the mind of a present speaker. That the Hebrew words for male and female mean roughly "worth remembering" and "has a hole in it" would be, I think, rather far from Jesus' mind, just as, for instance, most people today don't hear "woman" as meaning "wife-person" even though that is the Anglo-Saxon root. As a less hot-button example, how many people who use the phrase "lock, stock and barrel" have any knowledge of its source in gunsmithery?

On the question of celibacy, not enough is made of the fact that this was not simply an "option" -- it is an eschatological response, as you note: a sign of the kingdom. Celibacy, while not unknown in Jesus' day, was not looked upon favorably in mainstream rabbinic Judaism, which regarded the "first commandment" to be the Genesis 1 "be fruitful and multiply." That Jesus skips over this commandment and jumps to the Genesis 2 emphasis on the unitive nature of sexuality is telling. In the passage in question, the disciples immediately propose celibacy as a solution ("if there can be no divorce it is better not to marry"). Jesus responds by seeming to say that celibacy is not for everyone, and then begins to use that language about eunuchs. There are a number of difficulties with this passage. The Law, which said that no eunuch was to be allowed to enter the assembly, was somewhat mitigated by Isaiah - - and it is true that Jesus shows a preference for the prophets over the law! The second question must be, did being a eunuch render all sexual activity impossible, or only procreation? It could be argued that, if Jesus is speaking here of the inability to procreate rather than the inability to have sex, he would still be speaking to the context in which the divorce question arose in the first place. The rabbis understood divorce to be mandatory if a man's wife did not have a child within a certain number of years (in order to fulfill that "first commandment"); and this may be in part the "hardness of heart" to which Jesus is referring, i.e., it would be better to remain married and childless than to divorce, again emphasizing the unitive over the procreative function. (One thinks of the touching words of Elkanah to Hannah, 'Am I not more to you than ten sons?')

On your second point, certainly there can be no question of the licitness and morality of non-sexual brotherhood-type relationships.

However, I ruling out an erotic relationship for David and Jonathan, particularly on the grounds that it was illegal under the Mosaic Law, will not stand. First of all, the Law (if it even existed in its redacted form at the time in question) was in abeyance. Since the days of the Judges the Mosaic Law was hidden, awaiting "rediscovery" in the days of Josiah. So it is that David can have a "household god" - - an idol, an extremely grave offense indeed under the law - - which Michal uses to deceive Saul. The sometimes addressed argument that Jonathan and David are simply very good friends fails on several grounds, not the least of which is, What was the ground of their friendship, and why is it virtually instantaneous. One can well imagine love at first sight, but friendship at first sight is quite a stretch!

A similar case might be made concerning Sergius and Bacchus. We also, in this, have to face the reality that even where laws exist people often pay no heed to them. There is, in human history, in the church as elsewhere, a capacity not to see what one doesn't wish to see. This clearly stops short of affirmation, but it is a reality nonetheless. One of the great ironies of the last century is that while most English boys in the public school system encountered same-sex sexual activity, to such an extent (if we are to believe CS Lewis as he describes the situation in his biography) that it dominated the social life of the institution. Yet this was something that outside of this hothouse environment was simply never spoken of. Gay men (I am speaking of men here) quietly and invisibly filled the ranks of MI5, the civil service, and yes, the church. At one level everyone "knew" this, but didn't ask and didn't tell, and as long as they avoided open scandal this was tolerated, if not encouraged.

So it is not at all impossible for me to think that Sergius and Bacchus may indeed have had an erotic component in their friendship; and that such relationships continued to exist within the church and society for centuries. After all, even in the explicitly anti-homosexual Roman Catholic Church, gay clergy and bishops continue to function, some at a very high level. A friend of mine last year attended the institution of a new auxiliary bishop in one of our larger cities and was invited to sit with the bishop's partner of many years. So the mere existence of a negative law or an official opprobrium is certainly no proof that a given behavior did not or does not exist.

So, in answer to your final question, I would say that same-sex relationships can and indeed do have a sexual or erotic component, and are to be judged by the same standards one would apply to heterosexual relationships, that is, as I said above, not on the basis of the "outside" but on the quality of mutuality and fidelity.

Caelius said...

Well, I guess it turns out the etymological fallacy is probably even more fallacious than usual in this case.

But I have a few points:

Barring utterly authoritative evidence on the exact origin of the Torah, we're still left with Five Books of the Law, which contradict the literal truth of Creation, clearly went through some judicious editing, and instruct the Israelites in complex ritual practices which we don't have to do. As much as I know we as Anglicans are still not yet at a consensus about the first two of these points, I hope we're in agreement about the third (it's in the Articles after all). So I would say the Law was in force in the case of David and Jonathan, but we can excuse them on account of ignorance. But yet the Law as we have received it still retains some moral authority. One of the most ancient theological problems concerns the exact nature of that moral authority. By returning to Jesus as our main source in this debate, you are making headway.

So you are right to point out that David and Jonathan probably had sex in a faithful and mutually fulfilling way. But I still argue that they are poor exemplars in support of the legitimacy of same sex relations, the interiority of the parties wafting sanctity notwithstanding, since the Law was in force without Christ fulfilling it. Or is it a proposition of your argument that Christ merely clarified the Law rather than transforming its nature or moral authority through the Cross?

And again, I understand that behavior since the time of Christ often has contradicted theological norms. I think of St. Anselm, who refused to send out a pastoral letter concerning homosexual acts condemned by the Council of London, because "the sin was so common." Or rather because he would feel justly convicted of hypocrisy if he did so. But I'm less interested in what people do than in what can make it legitimate and whether it can be made legitimate at all. I'll do a little thinking about this on my own blog in the next few days, if you don't mind. I've been taking up too much of your comments.

J.C. Fisher said...

This is outstanding, Tobias: maybe your best entry ever (and I very much appreciate the dialogue you and Caelius are having).

Thank you!