Tuesday, November 10, 2009

THE BIBLE, THEOLOGY AND EXPERIENCE


Alan semi challenged me to write a blog about Mark Achtemeier’s speech at the Covenant Network’s recent convention.  I wasn’t going to do so.  After all I do actually have a job, a family and other stuff.  But I did read a transcription of Mark’s speech.  This isn’t going to be what Alan expected.  But I think it’s important.

Several Evangelical colleagues have commented on Mark’s speech saying that he made a mistake (well, maybe they weren’t quite that polite) by placing experience over Scripture.  And while I continue to disagree with Mark on the subject of sexual relationships between people of the same sex I think there is an important point here.  That is when we come to reading anything; and for that matter when we come to any event in life we always come as ourselves.

Over the past year or so we have had more and more African immigrants attending Tully Memorial.  I find as I talk with them, at least those who lived in small villages, that they understand the gospels and particularly the parables much better than I do.  I understand the parables through much study.  My friends from Africa understand the parables because the cultural situation in which they grew up was so much like village life in Jesus’ day that the parable is automatically clear to them.

So when I approach the Bible, wanting to understand what it means I take with me a lot of baggage.  Some of that baggage is cultural.  I grew up, for the most part, in New Jersey in the 1950’s and 60’s graduating from high school in 1970.  Believe me; anyone who went through the late 60s in their teens or early twenties was marked by that experience for good or ill.   But on top of that I’m white.  My African American friends’ approach the Bible from a whole different cultural background than I do.  I’m in my late fifties now which gives me a different perspective than I had in my twenties.  The list goes on and on, some things that I know consciously about myself and some things that are in the dark reaches of my unconscious. 

Some of that baggage is theological.  I tried out Bultmann, Altizer and a bunch of other for lack of a better term liberal Biblical scholars and theologians back in the early 70s and ultimately found them spiritually unsatisfying.  I could at this point make all kinds of arguments about why they and others were wrong, and some pretty good arguments too but the fact of the matter is that when I needed a path to God in a time of darkness they provided no help at all to me.  At that time the God described by the Evangelicals – Calvinists, of course – gave me the comfort and hope I needed. 

So while I could say that I think those theologians are wrong, and I do, part of my statement that they are wrong grows not out of my intellect but out of my experience of the love of God when I desperately needed God or better, my experience of God from a particular theological viewpoint.

Now we Calvinists aren’t followers of John Wesley.  (OK everyone now you can say “Duh!”)  What I mean to say is that we don’t accept the Wesleyan quadrilateral that theology grows out of the Bible, Tradition, Reason and Experience.  We Calvinists have looked down our noses at the followers of Wesley over the years saying that Wesley put tradition, reason and experience on a level with the Bible.  That isn’t actually true.  While Wesley held the Bible above the other three he realized that the Bible doesn’t speak about everything and for that matter the Bible has to be interpreted.  We Calvinists have suggested that the Bible stands alone.

But the Bible cannot stand alone for humans.  One of the great truths we have discovered as Modernity has fallen apart is that there is no independent place to stand and observe the world.  Modernity claimed that one was able to approach a subject with objectivity.  At the end of Modernity we have discovered that we always bring our own prejudices to every observation we make. 

So part of what we need are different voices from different cultures reading the Bible to help us all to get the true message and flavor of the Bible.  We shouldn’t abandon the attempt to get the message right.  I don’t want to descend into the form of post Modernity that says we each have our own truths and perspectives and each is true for the individual.  The following two sentences cannot both be true in this world.  Jesus is fully divine and fully human.  There was never a man called Jesus in the Augustinian and Tiberian Roman world that taught and was ultimately crucified.  From a logical point of view both of those sentences may false but both of them cannot be true. 

In any case I think this part of what Mark Achtemeier said is true: our experience colors our reading of Scripture.  And when Mark got to know gay and (possibly) lesbian Christians and discovered that they loved the Lord Jesus and, in some cases, were “better” Christians than he was Mark was faced with what for him was a crisis.  He had believed that gays and lesbians were sick, disordered or willfully sinful people.  Or maybe I should say he didn’t really see them as people.  And his experience drove him back to Scripture asking the question, “How can these people be such wonderful Christian brothers and sisters and sick, disordered or willfully sinful at the same time?  His conclusion was that he had misunderstood Scripture and he was man enough (to use an antiquated phrase from my childhood) to stand up in public and say so knowing full well that he was going to lose friends and be counted as a traitor.  After all, Mark had watched what happened to Jack Rogers when he decided that lifelong same sex relationships that include sexual loving were gifts from God.

So let me be – well probably not the first – to say that I respect Mark Achtemeier.  He is a man of conviction.  He changed his mind and had the guts to say so in public having first counted the cost.

Second and I think this is very important; we all have something important we can learn from Mark.  We all bring our experience – our baggage – to the study of Scripture.  Mark went back and studied Scripture again because his experience did not match what his subculture told him Scripture taught and implied.  I would add to this that none of us can bypass our baggage.  We need to study Scripture together and humbly point out each other’s baggage.  We particularly need to study Scripture with Christians who disagree with us about particular issues as they have much to teach us whether they are right or wrong (or maybe we are both wrong).

Now, what some are waiting for: here is my reaction to what Mark said.  Mark brought a very important point forward, one that I have never heard put quite the way he said it.  “It is not good for the human to be alone.  I will make a helper. . .”  In other words God created us as people who are intended to be in relationship.  As Paul points out, some are created for the single life.  Most of us are created to not just have good friends but to have that one special relationship that is marriage.  God created most of us with sexual desires.  Yes, some deeply desire such a marital relationship and never find it and mourn.  Others in our overly sexualized culture jump from bed to bed and never discover the sense of oneness that can be had with one special partner.  God created most of us to be in lifelong partnerships that celebrate love sexually.

Mark went on point out that some people, a minority certainly, desire to have that one special relationship with someone of their own sex.  They don’t know why they feel that way.  They know that life would be much simpler if they didn’t feel that way.  Many who are Christians sought to pray away or get counseling to drive away those feelings, to become good Christian heterosexuals.  And it just didn’t happen.  Some a minority, to be sure, came to their desires through traumatic experience in childhood: sexual abuse.  Most however don’t know how they came to desire another of their own sex.  And as far as I can tell from reading the scientific literature we should all admit that for now we don’t understand why some desire a lifelong marriage with someone of the opposite sex and others desire a lifelong marriage with someone of the same sex.

Mark raises a good, indeed an agonizing point.  God says, “It is not good that the human should be alone.”  God didn’t say “It is not good that most heterosexuals should be alone but those gays and lesbians are on their own.”  And God is a God of love. 

As far as I can tell from his speech this is what changed Mark Achtemeier’s mind.  And we Evangelicals did to Mark what we did to Jack Rogers and to all who have not toed the party line.  We borrowed from the Amish and shunned them.  Worse, we talked about them in little whispering circles and then in bigger circles and then in print.  Brothers and sisters that is not something we learned from Jesus.  Such shunning and hatred is of the devil.

I freely admit that Mark Achtemeier has caught my emotions.  Who am I to say that I get to be married because I am heterosexual and a wonderful woman (who must also be rather foolish because she loves me) is my wife but someone who desires a similar love with someone of their own sex must go without?  Sorry, there is something wrong with you; you can’t have a lifelong love.  You get to burn with lust but never be fulfilled.  You get to long for married love but never find it.  I can feel what Mark feels.  I cannot go beyond that to feel what homosexuals feel.  I can observe but I cannot see or feel the world as homosexuals do.  I carry my own baggage.

BUT – and it is a large but – Mark didn’t finish the quote from Genesis 2.  God made a helper and at the end of the story there were a man and a woman.  I try to listen to the story the way Mark hears it but I keep tripping over the stone of heterosexuality in the story.  Maybe that is part of my baggage that makes me read the passage in a way that God does not mean for it to be read.  Maybe I’m reading the passage correctly.  Obviously I think I read it correctly or I would either be a man and stand up with Mark or crouch down in a quiet corner and keep my mouth shut.  I hear the story as part of a heterosexual theme in the Bible.  It certainly isn’t the main theme.  But I believe it is there.

Two things I know for sure.  It is time for us Evangelicals to stop hating those who do not walk in lock step saying all the same things to each other.  Jack Rogers is my beloved brother in Christ.  We disagree but we are still one in Christ.  I don’t know Mark Achtemeier very well but he also is my brother in Christ.  We are one in Christ. 

And I have many homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ.  Some will not like what I have said.  Some may be tired of hearing the same old schlock.  Others may be angry or just give up on me.  But we are one in Christ.

And I still need to hear those other voices.  After all a lot of my baggage isn’t from God.

18 comments:

Aric Clark said...

One of the reasons I continue to read your blog and converse with you after I have given up in many other places - you are demonstrably capable of empathy.

I think finding a heterosexual theme in scripture is like straining out all of the meat and vegetables to point at the gnat left floating in the bowl.

Marriage is absolutely NOT the pinnacle of human relationship for Christians. Jesus expects us to deny our family actually, and be reconstituted anew in the Body of Christ. Koinonia - fellowship in the communion of saints is the pinnacle of human relationship. Love itself is defined as giving up your life for a friend. Not a spouse. A friend.

Is there a place for marriage? Sure. It is where Paul says - as a way of meeting human needs for companionship and intimacy, almost a compromise. Marriage according to Jesus, ceases to exist entirely in the Kingdom. As such, who are we to deny what God promised Adam (a companion) to anyone? It is ancillary to God's ultimate purpose for them which is participation in the Communion of Saints - the Body of Christ.

Pastor Bob said...

I will agree that the heterosexual theme in Scripture is not a primary theme. Nevertheless it is there.

I will also agree that marriage is not the pinnacle of human relationships for Christian. Nevertheless it certainly seems to be one of humanities driving needs. While the fellowship of the Church is the primary human relationship marriage certainly is a felt need for most humans. I would suggest that the Genesis 2 creation narrative points to a two person relationship as a gift from God. Romantic love mixed with the sexual expression of that love is a gift from God.

Alan said...

Keep talking like this Bob and the busybodies, fusspots, tattletales, and scolds are going to come after you.

Alan said...

BTW, my comments on your previous post were not a challenge for you to write about Mark Achtemeier at all. Instead, they were a serious warning that, if you count "evangelical" folks as friends, this is a sure fire way to loose those friends, and that's something to be prepared for. As we've seen many times, they will tolerate no deviation from their groupthink.

Pastor Bob said...

Alan

Clearly I'm not controversial enough. Only 5 comments including this one? Either that or no one but you and Aric read my blog.

Alan said...

Your friends are probably too busy filing charges. ;)

Arthur said...

Alan,

Cut the guy a break. I think his friends are already here.

They just don't quite know it.

Alan said...

:) Though I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek, Arthur, I am giving him a break, in fact, I'm trying to be helpful by pointing out that he needs to be careful and prudent.

I wonder if he's considered how desperate his evangelical friends are to demonize and shun everyone who fails to tow the party line on the icky gays. They've always been about going after the icky gays, but as they've become increasingly desperate, we see them now going after *anyone* who dares disagree with them, doing whatever they can to malign, insult, and attack.

LGBT folks know very well what the busybodies, fusspots, tattletales, and scolds are capable of doing and we've developed thick skins. I wager that the sorts of tactics and soul-killing bigotry that we have experienced at the hands of some "evangelicals" in our denomination are things that Pastor Bob has perhaps witnessed from afar, but never experienced up close and personal.

My point is that, if you're going to stir up a hornets' nest, be sure you're not allergic to the stings. And these days, given their panic, it takes very little to get them buzzing.

Arthur said...

Bob,

You said, "So part of what we need are different voices from different cultures reading the Bible to help us all to get the true message and flavor of the Bible. We shouldn’t abandon the attempt to get the message right."

That seems to place you squarely in the true Reformed, Biblical camp. I applaud you for this. Those "friends" of yours that Alan refers to seem not to see it the same way. I suspect you have much more in common with Calvinists such as Alan and I are than you do with those Alan refers to.

Thanks for this post. Many others should read it.

"Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est"

Pastor Bob said...

Alan

I have had some minor experience. I was an overture advocate (against the AI in the PUP report) at the 2006 GA meeting. Three members of the PUP TF are friends of mine. Another OA asked why I was talking with them. I said they are my friends. We may disagree but that doesn't mean we aren't friends.

I have no problem telling my friends I think they are wrong and still being friends. After all, isn't that what being one in Christ is all about? I know, I'm a hopeless idealist. I hear that from church members here too.

Alan said...

"I have no problem telling my friends I think they are wrong and still being friends."

I think that's commendable, but I'm not sure your friends agree, given that most of their outbursts about Jack Rogers, Mark Achtemeier, et. al. start out with some sort of encomium about what great folks they used to be until they slipped down the slippery slope of heresy. It may be particularly galling for them if/when they realize that your view of Calvin's understanding of experience is far closer to what his actual view was than their nonsensical stance that experience is evil.

(Calvin, in fact, had a very high view of both reason and experience and while he didn't formulate it in Wesley's easy-to-remember quadrilateral, their views weren't that far apart, actually. And, as you point out, the only thing we cannot do when we approach Scripture is leave our experience at the door. Not to mention that we Calvinists do, after all, believe that *experiences* such as communion, baptism, and the hearing of the Word are all means of grace.)

One wonders how the faux-Calvinists around us navigate the world without "experience" though it is clear that they strive to navigate the world without reason.

Pastor Bob said...

Alan

While baptism, the Lord's Supper and hearing the Word are all experiences I would add a clarification to what you said. Too often the word "experience" in America today means emotions. baptism is baptism, communion is communion and hearing the Word is hearing the Word no matter what we feel. I believe when we come to the table with faith while feeling nothing of the presence of God is approaching the Lord's Supper with greater faith.

I suspect you use the word experience in the truer meaning of the word, something that happens when we are present.

And if people don't get angry at me and think I have misinterpreted the Word sometimes when I preach I'm not doing my job.

Alan said...

Don't discount emotions, Pastor Bob.

Was Jesus not emotional upon hearing about the death of Lazarus?

Was Jesus not emotional during the clearing of the temple?

Was not Jesus emotional when he took pity on his flock because thousands of them came to hear him preach and did not have food?

Was Jesus not emotional in Gethsemane?

Jesus felt emotion during those times and others and was compelled to act. He was compelled to act by those emotions, those experiences, even in situations that seemed to violate the Pharisaical interpretations of the Law at that time.

Compassion is not a sin, and in some of the most remarkable moments in the Gospel we see Jesus in fact making crucial decisions while emotional.

Yes, those who come to the table without feeling faith, but understanding that their actions can make faith (as CS Lewis describes in Mere Christianity) is indeed something to be commended. But the very purpose of those actions is to eventually, hopefully, produce the inward feeling of comfort, compassion, and love that the Lord's Table represents.

Faith is not about laying pipe and cold calculation and reason alone.

"1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."

Where in the Bible does it say that the emotion I feel when I look with compassion on someone who is in difficulty is not the working of the Spirit. Is it not the case that, in fact, there are plenty of places in which such emotion is commended AS the work of God?

So let's not discount emotion. I believe that sometimes the Spirit can even work through emotion as well including love. To believe otherwise is to place limits on what God can do.

(Frankly I think the whole faux-evangelical argument about emotion is simply an obviously thinly veiled cliche sexist argument, because rational men, of course, don't make decisions based on emotion. But that's another topic for another time.)

Pastor Bob said...

Alan

I'm not against emotions. In fact it is at the Lord's Supper that I feel the Lord's presence most completely. But I am comforted that when I don't have that feeling I believe the Lord is still present. I'm all for emotions in faith. I just don't want people to think because they don't feel like God is present that God doesn't love them.

And on top of that I got a lecture from a retired professor from Austin Seminary on the subject when I joined Philadelphia Presbytery. So in case he reads my blog, this one was for him. ;)

Cecilia said...

I heard Phyllis Trible speak on the Genesis passage just a few weeks ago, and she is not convinced the passage speaks to the issue of homosexuality at all. In order for that to be the case, there would have to be two people of the same gender in the passage. There are not. Yes, the passage, at the end, has two people of opposite gender, but it is asking the passage to carry more weight than it can to say that it is prescriptive in the way it is often assumed to be.

I very much appreciate your reflections here. Trible speaks to the passage in "God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality." (With much greater nuance than I am able to reproduce here.)

Pax, C.

Alan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan said...

BTW, Bob, have you read the recent editorial in the Layman, entitled "Time for a millstone?"

Yes, the editor of the Layman appears to be publicly suggesting that we tie a millstone around Achtemeier's neck and throw him into the sea, and the busybodies, fusspots, tattletales, and scolds applaud.

Disgusting.

Pastor Bob said...

Yes I read the article. While I hadn't read it before my most recent foray into no man's land my last blog is my answer.