The Great Conundrum
May 3rd, 2010
Every so often there is an issue which challenges the core beliefs of Christianity. Sides are taken, scripture is quoted, accusations fly, indignant self-righteousness justifies positions, feet get dug in, and denominations schism. And in the past few hundred years, these battles have played out in the legislatures and courts of our nation as each side tried to force their neighbor to live according to their dictates of faith.
We have debated the right of women to own property, fought (literally) over slavery, marched about suffrage, banned liquor, allowed liquor, and argued over whether creationism should be taught in classrooms, all while both sides claim that God and the Bible clearly and unequivocally supported their cause. Even still today there are Christian Churches in which women cannot preach, evolution is denounced, and a glance demonstrates that segregation is still alive.
And church fights are not new; In fact, divisions and disagreements are as old as the faith. Even the Apostles didn’t agree among themselves and schismed over matters of firm conviction.
In the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles a drama unfolds about whether non-Jewish converts should be circumcised. Part of the church leadership – including Jesus’ brother – saw this as a clear commandment in Scripture, the one evidence of a covenant with God: It’s right there! In the Scriptures! There is no way around it!
Others argued that this was easy for them to say, they were circumcised as babies. But this church was growing among Greeks and other non-Jews, and adult male Greeks were not so quick to want to adopt a faith system that required them to lop off part of their penis. And how could it possibly be right and fair that a message that sought to break the ‘sin and punishment’ paradigm and replace it with a relationship hold so strongly to rules that discriminated against some?
So in one of the defining moments that conceptualized Christianity as a unique religion rather than a Jewish sect, pragmatism won. A series of revelations found that dietary laws, traditions of worship, and even the one true sign of the covenant between God and Man were secondary to the spiritual message that the Jesus followers wanted to spread.
And that first division was simply the precursor of those that have come up since. It is what I call the Great Conundrum: what do we do when that which is accepted as doctrine based on Scripture begins to appear to be unfair and immoral?
The conflict arises out of a handful of premises and goes to the very heart of knowing the nature of God and practicing faith.
Premise 1: God is good.
This understanding of the Deity as being primarily a being of good that loves, guides, and wants the best for his children is not as universal and timeless as we may think. Ancient cultures often feared their deities and made sacrifices of the most heart-wrenching sort to appease their anger and appeal for leniency and a bountiful harvest.
But while God as an angry old man in the sky is still a part of the faith (think Fred Phelps’ “God Hates Fags” signs), Christianity has, over the ages, come to see the Divine as being beneficent. Rules that appear taxing are for our own good, sacrifices are minimal and ceremonial, and tithes and gifts are necessary for the body of believers to worship in comfort.
And one of the core truths that Christianity has adopted is that God is fair. Unlike an Olympian who has all too human emotions, the Christian God will not tempt you beyond what you can stand and if you are on tough times or experience grief He offers comfort to match your sorrow. And if you look back in the sand along the rough patches of the path and see only one set of footprints, it isn’t because God left but rather that was where He carried you.
And whatever else may be believed about Him, Christians agree that God is not simply cruel and heartless, tormenting humans for His own merriment or providing rules and restrictions without purpose or for our own good.
Premise 2: The Bible is the Word of God
The Southern Baptist Convention says it this way:
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.
Other denominations use other language, but all – from the most liberal to the most conservative – place importance on the collected wisdom of the Bible and believe it to reveal or inform about God’s nature, plan, intent, and design for mankind.
Premise 3: The Scripture is revealed in doctrine
This one is a bit trickier, but basically it boils down to “the way I interpret scripture is the proper way to interpret scripture”. And it is, of course, the great differentiation between branches of the faith, denominations, or even congregations.
Most of these interpretations do not rise to the level of doctrine, and even fewer to creed. But those that seem to be shared by all Christians (or by all Christians who “matter” because your religious community considers them “real Christians”) tend to become so integrated into the faith as to appear essential.
And when something comes along that challenges this essential shared belief, then there is conflict. And the more “evident” it is that the doctrine is “clear” in Scripture, then challenges to long-held presumptions begin to appear to be an attack on God himself.
THE GREAT CONUNDRUM
And that is why the question about where homosexuality fits into the church, the community, and society has become today’s Great Conundrum. Modern understanding of sexual orientation has led to this paradox:
For millenia, church teaching has been that God is good and applying his rules leads to happiness. God has said that homosexuality is forbidden and abomination to him. This is evident in Scripture and it is abundantly clear that homosexuality is not to be tolerated. Those who are homosexual are vile and willful sinners who choose to defy God.
However, we currently know the homosexuality is a naturally occurring attribute of a person. One’s attractions are not selected and are based in part on genetics. Other contributors may include other biological or perhaps even social factors, but conscious choice is seldom involved at all and no manner of effort seems effective in changing homosexuality into heterosexuality.
Therefore, God has – through genetics and other factors under the control of his divine hand – created a group of humans which he condemns for being the way He created them. He rejects and punishes them (and endorses the human punishment of them) for the sin of existing, a sin over which they had no free will.
This is not conceivable to modern Christians. This is contrary to how they view the nature of God. And so, Christians are faced with the following options: Either
- The writers of the Scripture got it wrong, or
- Your understanding of Scripture is incorrect, or
- Modern understanding about homosexuality is wrong, or
- God is a bully.
This is not at all easy for Christians to address, especially conservative Christians. Those who ask them to change their doctrine about homosexuality are asking them to agree that either the Scripture has no authority, the Bible doesn’t mean what it says so clearly, or God’s a jerk. None of these seem like tolerable options.
So thoughtful Christians seek a way out of this paradox; they try and find a reconciliation. And basically, the responses I see fall into the following categories:
Response 1: Liberal interpretation of Scripture
Some Christian traditions have an easier time with conundra. They see the Bible as a living organism, divinely guided but not set in stone. The see the Holy Spirit as continuing to reveal truth and that Biblical Principles trump specific scriptures.
As the United Church of Christ puts it: “God is still speaking”.
To a more liberal Christian, the commandment to do justice and show mercy is the heart of God and the core principle of Christianity is to love your neighbor as yourself. Anything that conflicts with those principles is seen as entering the writing through the prejudice of the writers or relevant only in the context written.
These are the same denominations who found it easier to work around “slaves obey your masters” and “wives, submit to your husbands”. They find less conflict between God’s creation of all that is and the seven day timeline that is laid out in Genesis.
Specifically, in relation to homosexuality, they see Biblical condemnations to not relate to relationships but instead to be about prostitution, abuse of power, and pagan worship. It is wantonness and a lack of respect for God’s gift of sexuality that displeases Him, not the gender of the person with whom you mate.
Response 2: Rethinking Scriptural interpretation
Some literalists have delved into Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic to try and determine if the way in which English translations treat certain passages accurately reflect the original intent. Some confirm original thinking, some change dramatically based on their study.
As our readers know, the condemnations included in the writings attributed to Paul are unique. He selected, or perhaps created, terms that were not known to be otherwise used at the time of his writing. There are reasons to believe that these terms may refer to gay men and women, but scholars on either side who claim absolute certainty are probably putting their personal beliefs above their scholarly ethics.
And then there are other factors which suggest that Jesus and his earliest disciples may have bucked tradition – or as much as could be accepted at that time – in addressing eunuchs (a term for all sexual minorities) in ministry. Some note that the first Christian convert was an Ethiopian eunuch and see in this a message that Levitical condemnations are no longer applicable, especially of those who, like Phillip’s Ethiopian eunuch, are judged on terms of sex and sexuality.
Response 2a: Remaining in Conflict
Some people really struggle with this issue.
They believe gay people when they tell them that orientation is intrinsic and that to deny them a relationship would be cruel. But they also have studied scripture and cannot see that this is acceptable to God. But yet they believe in a God that is loving and fair.
So there they sit. Unresolved, conflicted and confused.
These are the people who “leave it to God” but find that they return to the subject and continued study and pray. Their basic decency is set against their long-held and deeply felt beliefs. This is perhaps the most heart-wrenching group of all, and the one’s who have my sympathy the most.
But I do see this response to be a transition for most. And usually a transition of incremental steps towards acceptance.
I find that many who respond in this manner do change their political and social responses. While they may continue to hold onto hidebound orthodoxy on the matter of sinfulness, they come to adopt a social position that gradually accepts the humanity and eventually the spirituality of gay people.
Response 3: Denying evidence
Christians have a long tradition of valuing personal testimony over scientific evidence.
In a religion in which “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”, those who believe the impossible are considered to be more in line with TRUTH than those who look for rational explanation. When miracles are an evidence of God, then the less empirical something is, the more holy it can seem.
This is reinforced in recent years by a Christian movement and way of thinking that has seeped into many conservative Christian communities to one extent or another; the “name it and claim it” movement encouraged the believer to step out in faith, to act on God’s promises, to see yourself in a place you have not yet reached and believe that God would make it true. Although the teaching has been denounced by some Christians, much of the underlying notion that if one sees things too closely to reality then one is denying God’s power is still alive.
And indeed, some branches of Christianity have come to see science as suspect. Scientific evidence threatens the notion that the Earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago. Scientific scholars are skeptical of seeing God’s judgment in storms, preferring to blame atmospheric conditions.
And when some Christians are presented with evidence that contradicts what they want to believe, they can be quite creative in reinterpreting the facts in a way that allows their presumptions to remain. This is called “having a Christian Worldview.” You start with the conclusion that God is good and holy and that the Bible is both true and beneficent, and anything which contradicts this is false.
So if God plans on punishing gay people with eternal torment, obviously they deserve it. And, as sin must have a component of free will, then gay people must be choosing to engage in sin and homosexuality must be primarily a choice.
You see this thinking frequently illustrated by claims that “there is no gay gene” and “change is possible”. In recent years, virtually every preacher who waved the Bible at legislators and demanded that they treat gay people differently from straight people has “met people who used to be homosexual but have left that lifestyle.” Ex-gays are trotted out to testify before denominational bodies to convince the faithful that Pastor Joe should be dismissed because if he really believed God, he would be straight now and married, just like all the ex-gays they see on the 700 Club.
It matters little that the most thorough study conducted by evangelical Christians who were seeking confirmation for religious ex-gay therapy demonstrated that gay people cannot be turned into straight people. This, and other evidence, is ignored because facts are irrelevant to TRUTH.
And it matters little that studies about twins, x-chromosome inactivation in mothers, spacial navigating, hair whorls, handedness, Rh Factor, birth order and a host of other issues all lead one to conclude that biology plays a role in the sexual orientation of at least some gay men. Many conservatives resolve the conflict by simply asserting that “no one is born gay” and – equally importantly – no one must stay gay.
Response 3a: Obfuscating by changing language
One subset of response 3 is to try and change the ideas about sexuality by changing or limiting the language.
The first step is to reject the notion that each person has a sexual orientation. Because only heterosexuality is ordained by God, then that is all that exists. Any sexual attractions that are inconsistent with heterosexuality are temptations, or trials, or other difficulties. So instead of orientation, some will talk only of behavior.
However, acts alone do not justify the opposition to homosexuality. Most conservatives are as offended by the gay person who is single and not having sex as they are by the happily married gay couple with a healthy and active sex life.
So they have decided that identifying as gay is sin; recognizing and acknowledging a fact about the direction of ones attractions is completely unacceptable. And to try and condemn identity, they play a redefinition game with the word “behavior”.
Look, for example, at the language for credentialing of ministers in the Evangelical Free Church in America:
While tragically, as a result of the fall, believers might experience sexual attraction to those of the same sex, Christ’s followers will not affirm this as part of God’s plan for their lives nor build their identities around such attractions. Therefore, persons will not view themselves, or refer to themselves as homosexuals, but rather define their identity as new creatures in Christ. One may (and indeed, honesty may demand that they must) acknowledge the reality of same-sex attraction, but must ground their identity in Christ, not in their sexual attractions. Thus, any person who embraces a homosexual identity, even if celibate, acts in rebellion against God’s created order of male and female, demonstrating that they have not fully repented from homosexual lust and behavior.
See the logic? If you call yourself gay then you are rebelling. Thus it is your behavior that is condemned, not your orientation (which doesn’t exist). In this way of thinking, those who identify as gay are, by so identifying, making themselves worthy of eternal damnation. And this has the added benefit of automatically discounting any testimony of gay Christians, even celibate ones; they are “unrepentant” and not to be trusted.
And they feel no remorse for their attitude. They are justified in their viciousness by “having great sympathy for those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions.” But no sympathy for you, you aren’t struggling.
Response 3b: Making excuses for God
Some are not happy with the difficulties of reconciling a just God with a judgmental God, so they make up excuses.
Gay people are deserving of judgment because they hate God. Or because they are a threat to the family. Or are promiscuous or militant or seduce children.
God is not condemning them for being gay, you see, but for being evil. Therefore they spend great amounts of time documenting and tracking and convincing themselves of every negative thing they can find about gay people.
Gay people “die 20 years earlier” and that’s why God condemns them. Or they get AIDS and see there, that proves it.
These are the winners of the LaBarbera Awards, the folks who run campaigns to “fight the homosexual agenda”, the Christian journalists who edit and editorialize so as to keep their stories subject to their dogma.
These are the folks who spend their life trying to convince you (and themselves) that they are not bigoted. You can recognize them by their stock phrase, “I don’t hate homosexuals.”
Response 4: Stepping away from the conundrum
It is my impression that the largest group of Christians when confronted with this conundrum just can’t deal with it. This is a tough contradiction and requires a response that is not easy to come by. So they walk away from it.
I see this response as taking one of a few different methods.
Response 4a: Abandoning decency and compassion
Some when confronted with the possibility that God is a cruel and petty dictator will just accept this as His prerogative. If there is a conflict between God’s laws and God’s mercy, they couldn’t care less; it’s not their problem. So they just choose to not see the conflict as a conflict at all.
This thinking is reminiscent of the bumper stickers in the 70′s which said, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”. Or, more recently, “God Hates Fags.”
It may seem like this is a large group because they are the ones that say outrageous things and get attention. You see them making comments to every on-line news story. They write letters to the editor denouncing “homosexual activists”. Unlike the excuse makers, they really don’t care whether God is fair to you or not so it’s no conundrum to them.
Fortunately, this is not really that big of a group. Most Christians don’t have a complete and total lack of compassion when it comes to their faith. Most do care if their neighbors appear to be condemned in Scripture unfairly. But unfortunately, those who really don’t give a damn about gay folk are very very vocal.
Response 4b: Abandoning faith
Some people reach a conundrum of faith, look at the paradox, and realize, “ya know, I don’t believe any of this crap.”
For many gay Christians, the challenge between what they have been taught to believe and what they know to be true has resulted in the wholesale dismissal of religion altogether. The evangelical zeal of some biblical literalists has converted many gay folk… to atheism or agnosticism.
Not only do they toss out doctrine, dogma, and tradition, they find that they don’t really believe in God at all, or at least not in a religious way. And if there are no gods at all, why spend time worrying about whether or not they are fair?
Response 4c: Waiting to see
I think that this is the response most often taken by Christians who are confronted with the Great Conundrum.
They don’t read Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. They are not scholars. They have not experienced divine revelation. So they’ll technically trust their pastor for the moment while waiting for the “religious authorities” to figure it all out.
This is often seen in people who attend church regularly, enjoy their spiritual life, but also like their gay friends. They avoid discussions about “sin” and “hell” because they don’t really know what they believe. Their preacher says that gay folk are sinners, but these folk are not get too caught up in that and they’ll just leave that all up to gay folk to work out with God.
That may seem like a cop out. It may feel like this person really needs to decide between their religious beliefs and their friends and get over it already.
But taking a time out for more observation is not unreasonable. Provided, of course, that it does not turn into blind obedience of tradition and dogma masked by ignorance and guided by a lack of concern.
Those who have no faith or who may have already dealt with this issue can sometimes be impatient.
C’mon. Look at the evidence. Let go of your bigotry!
But we should not be impatient. This is not an easy process for people of faith. And quite often they don’t really know who to believe.
But in our frustration at the snails pace that change can sometimes take, let’s console ourselves with this thought: Having fought through a difficult decision, having questioned their core beliefs, those who come to find that God has an abundant welcome which includes gay men and women are not likely to be fickle with their affections. They fought for this resolution and they will not give it up easily.
All we can do is try and live our lives with dignity, decency, and self-worth, to spread the truth about sexuality as it is further developed, and to be consistently compassionate to those who are caught in a conundrum.