Monday, November 23, 2009

ELCA's theological fail

The repeated judgment of those upset by the ELCA’s decision to permit noncelibate gay clergy is that the church has rejected the teaching of the Bible. For Lutherans taught the principle of sola scriptura at their father’s knee this is, of course, the worst possible theological infraction. 

As I listen to the endless loop of biblical arguments and counter-arguments, I keep asking myself if the past century and more of biblical studies really happened. The conversation has such an antique feel, including the responses of those supporting the August assembly’s actions. It could have happened two or three centuries ago. It shouldn’t be happening now.

Somehow, the most important question has been missed in all of this wrangling. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Answer: Nothing. Not a word. Why? Because the concepts of homosexuality and sexual orientation did not exist until the 19th century. Writing centuries earlier, the Bible’s authors knew nothing about them and so could say nothing about them.

In this, of course, homosexuality is like countless other scientific and academic concepts and discoveries which came into being in the modern era. For this reason the Bible has nothing to say about infectious disease, mental illness, democracy, gravity, genetics, electricity, free market capitalism, plate tectonics, relativity, climate change, cellular biology, labor unions, organic chemistry, and on and on and on.

The proponents of gay clergy have attempted to fight the battle on their opponents’ field—always a bad tactic. Well meaning scholars have taken apart the various Bible passages which seem to condemn same-sex relations, showing that they actually referred to specific situations involving abusive and exploitive relationships. Their analysis is very likely accurate—but no one cares. Supporters didn’t come to their beliefs because of such analysis and opponents are never persuaded by it. That’s not how they read the Bible and their eyes glaze over.

What has never been decided is WHAT ARE WE ARGUING ABOUT? Is this a theological and biblical issue or is it a scientific question? In the Bible, when someone begins behaving erratically or collapses on the ground in a fit it is assumed that they are possessed by an evil spirit. In the Middle Ages, when a community experienced a plague outbreak authorities looked for a moral cause: God's rejection of the king, the townspeople’s sinfulness, blasphemous acts by local Jews or gypsies, and so forth.

We know now that the analysis of these situations was wrong, not because people misread the Bible but because they lacked any understanding of mental illness or organic and infectious disease. In fact, the Bible had nothing to say to say about them. And this should have been the first question asked by the ELCA sexuality task force or any other group studying this issue: not WHAT does the Bible say about homosexuality but DOES the Bible say anything about homosexuality?

The historical critical study of the Bible was championed by 19th century European Lutherans and widely adopted by American Lutheran seminaries and colleges after World War II. It was, of course, the cause of the 1970s split in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the departure of most of the faculty of its premier seminary. Knowing this I have been stunned by some of the things I have heard coming out of the mouths of clergy opposing the new ELCA policies. Where did they go to school? What did they hear in their Bible classes? What did they learn about modern church history?

The answer is the sad story of mainline Christianity and its unwillingness to grapple with awkward and difficult theological questions about the Bible. What thousands of pastors did with their biblical training is…forget it. Confronted by the naive biblical realism and literalism of many of their (often most vocal) parishioners, they quickly learned to keep their own beliefs to themselves, preaching and teaching “around” such questions often with amazing creativity and dexterity. Others who were never completely persuaded by their professors in the first place, found it easy to revert to their own previous literalism. It has to be admitted that one of the appeals of fundamentalism is that it’s so much easier to have a Bible that is the definitive authority on what God thinks about every issue or problem.

Just as in secular universities, it’s a well-known paradox (and embarrassment) how little the various departments of most seminaries have to do with each other. As a result, it’s hardly a surprise that new pastors would have trouble creating an integrated and consistent message given how little coordination there is between the Bible, theology and homiletics faculties of most seminaries. In some cases, they’re barely on speaking terms.

It’s a common observation that the discoveries of the past two centuries of biblical scholarship have had little penetration in the average congregation. The reality, in fact, is much worse. Modern biblical scholarship has had little penetration in most clergy and most seminaries, even in mainline churches.

Instead, even the church’s theological authorities compartmentalize their minds. They “know” the fictional and mythical nature of the Bible but keep this from having any real impact on the rest of their beliefs or behaviors. What can’t be accepted or recognized is that modernity and the corresponding transformation of how we understand the Bible has also transformed the authority and mission of the church.

Mainline churches have resisted embracing the discoveries and conclusions of critical biblical and theological studies out of fear of losing disgruntled and disillusioned members to more conservative churches (current example: the Book of Faith Initiative). The ELCA’s train wreck over gay clergy, however, shows that trying to live in two different worlds has its own problems. Our bifurcated theology is serving only to pull us apart. The church today is like the cartoon character riding two horses which are about to go around opposite sides of the same tree. It’s time to pick one horse and let go of the other. Otherwise we’re just going to end up lying in the dust feeling really sore. 

Follow up: I have blogged several time before about the problem of the use of the Bible in the ELCA and the Book of Faith Initiative. The last two posts include an exchange with BOFI's director, Luther seminary professor Diane Jacobson.

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