Friday, August 14, 2009

NW Minnesota Bishop: Squandered Opportunity

Shrimp here. In February we posted reactions of several ELCA Bishop's to Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, the ELCA's proposed Social Statement on Human Sexuality. We've now discovered (thanks to the Editor of Forum Letter) a response to the statement by Bishop Larry Wohlrabe of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod and posted on his blog on Wednesday.

You'll want to read the whole thing, but we want to highlight the latter part:
... Make no mistake: sex is a big deal!

So, I ask, how have we in the ELCA done in formulating a social statement on human sexuality? Has our great church produced a great document that does justice to the gravity and grace of human sexuality? Have we in the ELCA addressed as powerfully and as richly as possible the real social issues that arise from our life as sexually-differentiated human beings? Are we now poised to be a church that has something powerful to say to our society in the early 21st century about the wonder of human sexuality and the tremendous possibilities of well-ordered sexual lives, for the sake of our human future? Are we ready to speak confidently, compellingly to our society as a church that still believes that “the Lord God in his goodness created us male and female, and by the gift of marriage founded human community in a joy that begins now and is brought to perfection in the life to come?”[2]

Alas, as I read Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, I cannot honestly say that we have done our best to plumb the heights and depths of human sexuality so as to say something meaningful and compelling to the society in which we live. As a colleague in ministry put it, only we Lutherans could take something as exciting as sex and write about it in such a pedestrian way.

Let me name three deep concerns that I have about Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.

1. Framing the Issue. Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, although proposed to us as a theological teaching document consistently fails to exhibit a deep engagement with and thoughtful appropriation of the Lutheran theological treasury. The rich law-gospel dialectic for which Lutherans are known is not the “operating system” in this teaching document. The document sets aside—in a footnote, no less![3]—our time-honored understanding of “orders of creation” as deep, dynamic, caring structures that God has built into the Creation to bring forth and sustain human life in all its multi-form abundance. In the place of such profound theological and ethical categories, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust sees everything sexual through the sociological lens of “trust in relationships” or “social trust.” (The word “trust” shows up nearly two hundred times in the document!) Now, to be sure, social trust is a very good thing! Even thoughtful pagans will agree to that. But “social trust” is scarcely a suitable “lens” for a distinctively Christian or churchly word about human sexuality.

2. Sidestepping the Question of Form. The Western Christian tradition has consistently held that human sexuality has about it a normative shape or form. By privileging one form of sexual expression—the one-flesh bond of a man and a woman united in marriage—the tradition has ruled out every competing form of sexual expression. Although this strikes our modern sensibilities as being unfair, the heterosexual structure of human sexuality is actually a divine gift, intimately bound up with the civilizational task of bringing forth and rearing the next generation of human beings. Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, however, sidesteps the notion that there even is a normative form of sexual expression. All that counts is the quality of sexual relationships (be they heterosexual, homosexual or whatever)—that they be loving, committed, monogamous, lifelong, etc. Driven by the desire to normalize gay and lesbian relationships, this document effectively removes our grounds for critiquing, let alone ruling out, other forms of sexual expression. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised that the following words don’t show up even once in this document: bestiality, bisexual, incest, masturbation, or polygamy. (By the way, “singles” are mentioned only three times in the document!)

3. Downplaying the Fruitfulness of Sexuality. Although Human Sexuality: Gift and Task speaks often of families (the word “family” shows up nearly fifty times), it says little about just how such families come into existence. An extra-terrestrial could read the section on Marriage: Shelter and Context for Trust (lines 607-750) and still not realize that procreation is integral to marriage. Again, the vocabulary of the document is telling: the words “conceive” and “intercourse” each show up just once, “birth” appears four times, and “mother” and “father” are each mentioned three times. It is amazing to me that a proposed social statement on sexuality can speak so often about intimacy but so seldom about generativity. What a rare opportunity we are missing to teach our young ones about the marvelous crucible for begetting and nurturing children that God graciously gives to us in the “first institution” of holy matrimony!

So, with regret, I must register my deep disappointment with this proposed social statement. Our church has invested tremendous “capital” in this project—both money and human capital—with precious little to show for our efforts. The fault here should not be laid solely at the doorstep of the task force that has drafted this document. They are good and decent people, charged with a daunting task, and asked to discharge their duties in the unsettled atmosphere of a society-wide debate over one small aspect of human sexuality, i.e. the place of persons who identify themselves as gay and lesbian within our church and our society. For far too long, our over-focus on homosexuality has been the “tail wagging the dog”—making it hard, if not impossible, for our church to address adequately the whole gamut of human sexuality.

By dwelling on peripheral matters, we have squandered the opportunity to speak compellingly to the heart of the most important issues of human sexuality in our time. We have failed to muster the maturity and thoughtfulness needed to address adequately the issue at hand. We as a Lutheran church body are capable of doing so much better than this!

[2] Liturgy for marriage, Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 203.
[3] Footnote 11 in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.

Again, read it all. Shrimp out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good statement. Would be truly helpful and perhaps ultimately persuasive in the ELCA if it were not the minority view in that church body's leadership. Sad.

Peace in the Lord Jesus Christ!
Rob Buechler

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