Monday, May 16, 2005

"I’m still very much learning in this area"

Last year the Rev. Dr. Ralph Klein, commenting on Scripture that addresses homosexuality, "I’m still very much learning in this area. But that is my provisional judgment."

Apparently he passed the provisional stage when he signed the Lutheran theologians petition supporting the Task Force Report and Recommendations.

From Last year:

The ELCA has decided to address the issue of homosexuality. What guidance does the Bible give on this question?
I’m glad you asked. The answer is complicated. First of all, the biblical passages that speak about this question are few in number. Jesus never mentions the subject, one way or another. And where the Bible does discuss it, there are always issues of interpretation or other extenuating circumstances. We are faced with many challenges in deciding what these passages meant and what they might mean today.

But does not the Bible condemn Sodom precisely because of homosexuality? That’s why certain homosexual actions are called Sodomy.
God told Abraham that the sin of Sodom was very grave, without going into details (Gen 18:20), and much later the prophet Ezekiel accused Sodom of pride, excess of food, prosperous ease and failure to take care of the poor and needy (16:49). When the two angels visited Lot in Sodom, all the men of the city threatened them with homosexual rape. That’s why God struck them with blindness. Clearly, homosexual and heterosexual rape are wrong and sinful, perhaps expressing violence as much as lust. No one ever claimed that heterosexual rape made heterosexual sex wrong. That’s why this story doesn’t address modern homosexuality, which we assume is participated in by consenting adults.

I know Leviticus deals with details of the sacrificial system and a kosher diet that don’t apply to Gentile Christians, but doesn’t it discuss homosexuality and aren’t its ethical words normative even for us?
Leviticus 18 deals with forbidden sexual relations, such as with one’s father’s wife, one’s sister, daughter-in-law or with both a woman and her daughter. And then, within a paragraph consisting of vv. 19-23, it exhorts: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.”

Isn’t that clear enough?

The trouble is, that paragraph mentions two other issues. First, it says that a husband and wife should not sleep together during a woman’s menstrual period. While that is understandable in antiquity, when both semen and blood made a person ritually unclean, few modern couples consider this an ethical question. We recognize it as a culturally conditioned, time-bound prohibition. Couples today decide on esthetic or other considerations whether to make love during a woman’s period. Secondly, the paragraph also rules out sexual relations between a human being and an animal. Here the believing community and the wider society are in absolute agreement. We recognize such sex as ultimately selfish and exploitative. People who do such actions are wrong—we would probably either arrest them or require extensive counseling for them.

But what does this have to do with homosexuality?
I mentioned two other actions were discussed in this paragraph from Leviticus: the prohibition about a couple sleeping together during a woman’s period is now considered by us as time-bound, almost irrelevant; the prohibition about sleeping with an animal is totally endorsed by us. My question: is the prohibition against homosexuality more like the first case (sex during menstruation), or more like the second case (sex with an animal)? If a person is free to disregard the first prohibition, could not a person in principle consider the prohibition against homosexual actions similarly outdated?

But doesn’t Paul forbid both male and female homosexual actions in Romans 1?
Yes, but, once again, it’s a complicated issue and deserves more space than I have here. In Romans 1-3 Paul argues that both the Gentiles and the Jews have rejected God and need the salvation offered by Christ. He finds the sin of the Gentiles to lie in their idolatry, for which God has consigned them to the lusts of their hearts, to the degrading of their bodies….

That is, to homosexual actions?
Yes, but, there are at least three extenuating circumstances that call the direct applicability of this passage into some question. First, Paul speaks of people’s “passions.” Some scholars have proposed that Paul and many ancients thought that everything, sex included, should be done within limits, without excessive passion. Paul infers that homosexual persons surrender to their excessive passions. We might call them sexual addicts today. Did not Luther himself say that whatever we fear, love and trust is our god? All of us, gay and straight, could turn sex into our god.

O.K. That’s one point. But doesn’t Paul consider homosexual actions “unnatural”?
Yes, but, what does he mean by unnatural? Does he mean that male and female genital organs just naturally fit together? Does he mean that natural sex is about reproduction? Paul’s understanding of what is natural and our understanding of what is natural are not necessarily the same thing. In 1 Cor 11:14, Paul argues that nature itself teaches that if a man wears long hair it is degrading and if a woman wears long hair it is her glory. Look around your congregation. There are a lot of long-haired men and a lot of short-haired women. We don’t consider that unnatural at all; “nature” teaches us something different. Could Paul’s observations about nature and homosexuality also be time-bound?

But doesn’t he condemn people for choosing to be homosexual? Paul says they “exchanged” one form of intercourse for another.
Yes, but, since the late 19th century, Western science has observed that some people are primarily or even exclusively attracted sexually only to people of their same gender. We call this “sexual orientation.” No one fully understands the reasons for this: Is orientation the result of nature (genetics) or nurture (upbringing) or a combination of both nature and nurture and other things? Whatever the reason for their orientation, people do not choose to be gay or lesbian; they simply are that.

But shouldn’t such people just be celibate?
Some of them will no doubt choose to be so, just as some heterosexual people never have sexual relations with another person. Long-term sexual abstinence for religious reasons is called celibacy. But Lutherans have long observed that celibacy is a gift received only by a few and should not be required of clergy or of others. Is it not logical that the majority of homosexual people would not have the gift of celibacy?

Granted that we haven’t looked at every passage, but you seem to be saying that with every passage in Scripture relating to homosexuality, there are extenuating circumstances or contextual reasons to question its applicability to the modern discussion?
Indeed. I’m still very much learning in this area. But that is my provisional judgment.

Sounds Confusionist to me. I'm looking for clarity. Something like, I don't know, Sola Scriptura!

the document

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