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Thursday, September 14, 2017

What is "Unnatural": My Defense of LGB Relationships Part 5



Note, this post is Part 5 in a series (which starts HERE) on my Christian defense of LGB relationships and sex, however it is my hope that this piece in particular can also stand alone as a response to what I believe is the larger impetus behind much of the Evangelical (and Roman Catholic) church's rejection of LGB sex.

For my series in defense of the identities of transgender folk click HERE 






Introduction

"It's just unnatural."
It is fascinating to me that this is what much of the discussion over the sex lives of LGB folk so often seems to come down to. In the case of most non academic and theological types the discussion can get there pretty quickly, when it comes to discussions with people who do focus on academic and theological arguments, it can take a little while but if you stick around long enough, work through the "clobber passages", the exegetical discussion, and the examination of hermeneutical principles(1) you will get to this point eventually as well, albeit with a significantly different emphasis.

In the case of the non academic "regular person" the phrase "unnatural" seems to mean basically something that is "weird and makes me uncomfortable". It isn't particularly complicated, a straightforward smattering of socially acquired homophobia or unease with deviations from what the person thinks of as "the norm". That doesn't justify it—it is still deadly to the LGBT folks who regularly suffer hate crimes and discrimination here and around the world—it just accounts for it. However, in the mouth of an academic or theologian, the phrase unnatural or maybe counter to natural law means something very different and actually forms the foundation on which all of the other interpretations of the bible and exegetical conclusions often turn out to have been built. It all goes back to "Natural Law", Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle.

Some Background


Feel free to read past this is you are familiar with Aristotelian and Thomist theories of Natural Law and sexual ethics.

I wanted to point out the separate ways the term natural is used when talking about LGB (and T) folks in order to say that I am not going to be talking about the non academic or theological use of the term—that use is about feelings and what people are exposed to so the proper response doesn't have a lot to do with formal arguments, it has a lot more to do with experience and actively engaging with people. What I want to focus on in this piece, is the argument that academics, theologians, and philosophers are making when they say that homosexuality is unnatural or that it is contrary to natural law(2).

Natural Law Theory is a way of thinking that dates back to the famous Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas who, in turn, built much of his thinking about this subject on the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In brief, natural law theory argues that we can know how a person ought to behave based on our knowledge of what humans exist for. In pretty much the same way that a good knife is a knife that cuts well, and a good light bulb is one that provides illumination, a good human is one who humans well. The theory that Aristotle put forward starts by asking why we do things generally and then rather elegantly moves to the observation that if we keep asking "but why do you do that?" we end up working our way to the answer "in order to flourish (3)". From there Aristotle wants to ask what flourishing looks like for a human person and his conclusion is that flourishing for humans means something like "doing human-specific things as well as possible".

For Aristotle, the method you should use to figure out the particular flourishing of a being is to examine what characteristics or powers are unique to that being. So living things live (in contrast to inorganic things) and so to flourish as a living thing is to live; further, animals are distinct from plants in that they can move on their own, so moving well is part of flourishing for animals; skipping a bunch of stages here, humans are the reasoning animals, so for humans flourishing means reasoning well. With that said, reasoning for Aristotle could (if we are generous) include what we think of as emotion and relationship (4). Ultimately then, for Aristotle Natural Law would say that a person ought to do those things which are particular to them as well as they can without violating the doing of things that are particular to their other, broader, identities (human, mammal, animal, living-thing, existing-thing).

But when most Western Christian people talk about Natural Law they are generally talking about the version of the theory that St. Thomas Aquinas adapted from Aristotle, or at least they think they are. St. Thomas was willing to look to more sources that merely reason and his environment when it came to determining what a thing (or person) is for. For Aquinas the Bible, and Church tradition also get a voice (5). So when Aquinas thought about human sexuality, he thought about it in terms of its purpose—at least he sort of did. If we back out a little, Aquinas (following Aristotle and the general attitude of the church in his day) understood sex and sexual arousal to be an unfortunate development. Aristotle criticized sexual attraction and sexual intercourse for interfering with clear thinking. Aquinas focuses mostly on this same aspect of it when he categorizes sex as an activity (and a drive) which can be put to some good uses, and is not therefore wholly bad, but ultimately comes up short in comparison to total celibacy. Sex for him isn't quite evil but is a compromised sort of good, specifically it is something which can only be made good when it is put to the right uses within the right context. (6)

It is worth taking a minute to notice that this view is in pretty stark contrast to the way most western Protestants (conservative or otherwise) tend to have taught about sex. In western Protestantism, sex is generally thought to be fundamentally good, but subject to being used wrongly. The results are similar (both groups conclude that sex should only take place within marriage) but the orientations towards it are mirror images. Where Aquinas sees sex as a redeemable thing which is otherwise unfortunate, western Protestants have historically seen sex an inherently good thing which can be corrupted by wrong use. It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about contemporary Evangelical use of Natural Law theory.
This image is brought to you as a reminder that LGB folks
can and do raise children

For Aquinas then, sex can be redeemed by putting it to two specifically good uses, both of which he thought supported the purposes of marriage. So of course, we need to look at what Aquinas thought was the purpose of marriage. In broad terms, Aquinas thought that marriage could be good if it served the purposes of providing a context for fully rearing children, and of providing other-serving-fidelity between the spouses (7). Correspondingly, sexual intercourse becomes a good, in Aquinas' thinking, when it serves the purpose of raising healthy children and of uniting spouses in intimate fidelity. The procreation mandate is "according to natural law" in Aquinas's view because it is good for humanity to extend as a macro level application of the fact that it is good for people to keep living (8). The intimate fidelity mandate is a little harder to for Aquinas to pin to any distinct natural law reasoning and Aquinas sort of punts to some circularity (sex is only good within marital fidelity and marital fidelity is good because it provides a context wherein sex can be good) but seems to be derived from the observation that sex does, in fact, help/cause partners to form a bond with one another. From there Aquinas argues that sex should be oriented towards bringing the spouses together as a couple and toward providing pleasure for one another. He sums this up with the word fides but to make sure it stays clear, I will use fidelity/intimacy.

In summary, Aquinas taught that in order for a given sex act to not be sinful it had to be oriented towards raising healthy children and towards increasing the fidelity/intimacy of the married couple.

Evangelical Culture-War Modifications to Natural Law Theory


Insofar as contemporary biblical scholars and theologians are referencing the sexual ethics of natural law they are referencing this. It is a rigorously Roman Catholic view of sexual ethics, closed to non-procreative sex acts, to all birth control, and to any sexual intercourse or expression outside of marriage(9). It is, quite notably, not a particularly western Protestant view of sexual ethics(10). In fact, most western Protestants (and most notably Evangelicals) have been accepting of birth control and of marriages wherein the couple chooses not to have children for between 50 and 90 years depending on the denomination. This move was facilitated theologically by two distinct steps: First, during the Protestant reformation, the reformers shifted from a view of sex as basically-bad-but-able-to-be-redeemed-by-marriage to the view that sex is basically-good-but-is-corrupted-when-it-happens-outside-of-marriage. This didn't change their view of birth control as such but it did position them to make the second shift during the middle of the 20th century (and if that seems recent, keep in mind that birth control wasn't really available in the US until 1938 and the pill didn't show up until 1960; in that context western Protestants were early adopters, not holdouts) when they justified the use of birth control on the theological grounds that sex was a good thing within marriage and served the fidelity/intimacy purpose.

This is actually a really big deal because Western Protestants on the whole have not held to Natural Law theory when it comes to sexual ethics (they have used other ethical models—predominantly variations on utilitarianism, Kantian deontological ethics, and divine command theory—to think about sexuality). It is hard to read their recent attempts to recover Natural Law Theory as anything but an after-the-fact desire to shore up their disapproval of same-sex marriage. Fundamentally, traditional Natural Law Theory sees sex as something which has to be justified whereas Protestants traditionally see sex as something to be celebrated.

This is Al Mohler
There is actually pretty solid evidence for this after-the-fact response by Evangelicals (11).  Up until the prospect of same-sex marriage became a significant likelihood within the US, the legitimacy of birth control was all but assumed by most public Evangelical (and Western Protestant) theologians and ethicists (12). There were concerns and debates over birth control but they were centered around the question of abortion and generally started from the assumption (or explicit argument) that all birth control forms which work by preventing conception are perfectly legitimate within a Christian marriage. But it was only when the US started what turned out to be final push towards legalizing same sex marriage that, Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and self-appointed spokesperson for conservative Evangelical sexual ethics, published an article (which he later recapitulated in his culture-war book against LGBT Christians) questioning Christian acceptance of birth control and explicitly arguing that
In reality, the Pill allowed a near-total abandonment of Christian sexual morality in the larger culture. Once the sex act was severed from the likelihood of childbearing, the traditional structure of sexual morality collapsed.
or as he put it in his 2015 book/culture-war-manifesto We Cannot Be Silent (13)
 In more recent years, many evangelicals have begun to reconsider the morality of birth control and contraception and, on the positives side, have come to affirm the unconditional goodness of the gift of children. Even when evangelicals do not accept the Catholic admonition that each and every act of marital sex must be equally open to the gift of children, at the very least, evangelicals must affirm that every marriage must be open to the gift of children and that , should pregnancy occur, it is to be seen as an unconditional gift rather than as an imposition. (emphasis in the original) 
He did not (and does not) try to shift fully to the Thomist Natural Law view that each and every sex act must be open to procreation but tries to carve out a position wherein the marriage itself is "open to procreation" in principle. I would submit that he has to land there because the broader protestant understanding of sex (that it is a good thing to be celebrated within marriage) doesn't really leave space for the full Natural Law approach—in fact I suspect that it would be something of a catastrophe for Southern Baptists if the people studying in their seminaries all read Thomas Aquinas. Mohler seems to be trying to tie Evangelical theologies of sex back to Natural Law without erasing the distinctions between Roman Catholic and Evangelical views of the subject. The problem is that this isn't a particularly coherent approach; Mohler and his fellow conservative evangelicals want to use a Thomist purpose based Natural Law approach to ethics without actually accepting all of the logical implications of that view. Instead they dismiss the full Thomist implications of Natural Law theory as "too Catholic" without providing an explanation of how they still support their modified position. Complex and detailed systems like Aquinas' Natural Law Theory can't be modified on a whim; any modifications have to be justified in a way that demonstrates how the overall modification still fits with (doesn't contradict) the theory as a whole. Conservative Evangelicals have not provided the necessary careful justification of their modifications and until they do, this appropriation of Natural Law should be treated as incoherent (14). As it stands, people in the Mohler position have to somehow argue either that procreation is the purpose of marriage but not of sex, or that marriage must be judged by how well it fulfills the purposes they assign it but that sex should not be held to this standard—either argument would seem to be a really big theological/philosophical lift and I don't see how they would/will manage.

Bubblegum Rejoinder


In any case, my response to both of these positions (the Roman Catholic Thomist argument and the conservative Evangelical culture-war modification) is that they are wrong in shifting from the claim that "procreation is a purpose of marriage/sex" to the conclusion "procreation is an irreducible purpose of marriage/sex". In the first case, a defensible claim is being made. But that first statement simply isn't the same thing as the second. As someone who is reasonably fond of Natural Law theory on the whole, I don't have any problem with an ethical methodology which works to figure out what things are for and uses those conclusions to work on thinking about how those things should and shouldn't be employed, so I don't have a particular problem with saying that marriage/sex exists for the purpose of child rearing/procreation among other things. You see, both groups recognize that while procreation/child rearing is a purpose of marriage/sex, it is not the only purpose. Intimacy/fidelity (in the Roman Catholic version) or intimacy and mutual delight (in the Evangelical culture-war modification) are also recognized as a vital purpose of marriage/sex. That being the case, a given sex act, or a full marriage which serves to create or enhance intimacy/fidelity between spouses is fulfilling one of its purposes. Put another way, while it is true that procreation/child rearing is a purpose of sex/marriage, it is also true that intimacy, fidelity, and mutual delight is a purpose of sex/marriage. What is happening is that these theories are sneaking in an assumed premise, that things which have more than one purpose but do not fulfill all of them are sinful  Or in other words, we need to apply this argument to the act of chewing in order to know whether or not bubblegum is sinful.

Now, we know that chewing exists for two purposes: chewing (more broadly mastication) exists as one stage in the digestion process, and chewing exists to bring out the taste and pleasure of food. So one purpose of chewing is the nourishment of the body. The second purpose of chewing is enjoyment of the good world God has made. Most examples of chewing that we voluntarily engage in are able to fulfill both of these purposes. We eat things that taste good. However there are some things we choose to chew which serve only the first purpose, they may even contravene the second purpose (kale for instance, nourishes the body but tastes bad). Other things we choose to chew fulfill the second purpose but not the first. This is where bubblegum comes in. Bubblegum does not serve to nourish the body at all (in fact our mothers will collectively remind us that moving it to further stages of digestion is a bad idea); it does, however, serve to provide taste and pleasure. If the Roman Catholic and Evangelical culture-war modification assumed premise—that it is sinful for a thing to fulfill only one of multiple purposes—is correct, then it must be sinful to chew bubblegum. And as this is ridiculous in the case of chewing bubblegum, it is also ridiculous in the case of sex and marriage.

If same-sex sex/marriage is able to fulfill the purpose of fidelity/intimacy and mutual delight, then same-sex sex/marriage is able to fulfill the purpose of marriage by the standards of Natural Law theory if they are consistently applied, the Christian who wants to object to them will have to find other grounds.

The Academic Evangelical Use of Natural

There is still another use of the term Natural in connection to arguments over LGB sex and relationships which I have seen employed by evangelical academics who are more theologically moderate than their conservative culture-war modification counterparts. While they use the phrase Natural Law and the term natural they don't seem to be referencing Aquinas or Aristotle but what they take to be Paul's understanding of natural.

The clearest example I have encountered of this was by Scot McKnight in his book A Fellowship of Differents (15). The argument is that, in Romans 1, Paul's use of natural (the Greek word in question is phusis φύσις) represents the idea of a created design which was intended to be perpetuated and not deviated from so that any deviation from said design would have been wrong. When people take this approach they often do not directly reference Natural Law Theory and usually stay away from directly associating questions of procreation with the concept of natural. Instead the focus is on the Genesis account of creation (a concern I have addressed HERE) and on what is usually referred to euphemistically as the "physical complementarity" (McKnight uses the phrase "anatomical design" which could suggest an oblique reference to Natural Law "purpose" thinking) of male and female bodies i.e. the fact that a penis can be inserted into a vagina. In effect this approach seems to want to understand the word natural (phusis) to mean something like "the way it was made" or "the way it was designed".

There are two distinct problems with this view, and either would be fatal to the position. The first problem is that such a definition of natural is wildly anachronistic. It is the way a modern, post enlightenment person might use the word natural but it is not at all the way 1st century Greeks and Romans would have used the term phusis. C.S. Lewis has actually provided a careful etymological and philological analysis of the history and meaning of the term. He explains that in the first century, the most common usage of the term phusis was to talk about things developing in an un-interfered-with way. If something developed on its own, without being messed with by an outside influence, that meant it developed according to its phusis, its nature. We actually still use the term nature  this way when we say that a particular food is natural. We mean that the food in question wasn't altered by humans.

The second problem with the "moderate" evangelical usage of natural is that it doesn't reflect the way Paul actually uses the term in Romans 1. Paul is clearly using unnatural to denote "interfered with" and not "contrary to anatomical design" in Romans 1 since he is specifically talking about behaviors people engage in as the result of a cause, namely denying God. In fact, the example he gives as unnatural in verse 26 is a first example of the full list which follows in verses 28-30 (16). The first example and the rest of the list are connected by the phrase "and just as" in verse 28 which indicates that Paul is going to give further examples of the effects of denying God. All of these actions are characterized with a word which Paul treats as synonymous with his verse 26 use of unnatural: unjust/unrighteous (adokimon/ἀδόκιμον). This is the un-doing of the righteousness/justice (dikaosune) (17) which Jesus calls us to in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:10). It is the impact of people warping or interfering with the way of being they would by nature have otherwise inhabited. Thus, what Paul is clearly not talking about is a person who, of themselves and their own healthy development, developed into a person who is attracted to those of their own sex. He is instead working off of the contemporary dominant understanding of most homosexual activity which was understood to be an outcome of hyper-sexuality and unbridled lust (18). McKnight's interpretation of natural as "different from some original design" or "nonconforming to anatomical design" just isn't based in 1st century usage of the term; nor is it compatible with Paul's actual usage of the term in the passage in question.

Conclusion

So I think it is pretty clear that while the term unnatural has had (and I am sure will continue to have) a significant impact on the way Christians think and write about homosexuality. Despite the fact that, as I have tried to show, the word does not in fact condemn or in any way count against the real attractions and relationships of LGB people who marry and are intimate in as loving and beloved-honoring ways as their heterosexual counterparts, its use against them and their relationships has led to incredible harm and pain. To tell a person that they themselves, or that their most intimate one-flesh, unions are not only unnatural but are especially sinful because of it, is to dehumanize and devalue them. The unconscionable outcome of this thinking has been all too predictable. From the Church's historic persecution and sometimes torture of people who engaged in LG sex, to the dire mental health impact on LGB youth who are raised in non-inclusive communities, the designation unnatural together with its Old Testament derived counterpart abomination (19) has enabled and even encouraged a homophobia and dehumanization of the LGB community for which the Church must repent.
He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for
one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

Footnotes:

(1) I don't mean to be flippant, I think those discussions are important.
(2) To those of my readers who are part of the LGBTQ community and have had this term leveled at you and used to degrade, deride, and dehumanize you, I want to say that I am sorry and that I hope my exploration and attempted rebuttal of the use of this term in connection to your lives and relationships can be helpful in a way that justifies the pain of this conversation and term.
(3) Aristotle's term was eudaimonia or "good-soul-ed-ness".
(4) Aristotle did have a significant hyper-cognitive bias but that need not interfere here.
(5) Though he did really like to take it back to merely observing nature and reasoning whenever he could.
(6) I am working, largely from the Summa Theologica Questions 49153, and 154
(7) Aquinas' third justification for marriage was that, at as a sacrament it has an intrinsic good, but he conceded that non-church marriage could still be good if they fulfilled the other two requirements, so I will focus exclusively on those.
(8) This is the reasoning by which Aquinas is able to shift from sex having to always be procreative to sex having to always be "open to procreation". The procreative purpose of sex (or at least of marriage since Aquinas doesn't do much to distinguish "marriage" from "the context of legitimized sex) does not end at conception but continues on to include the full healthy rearing of a child.
(9) Aquinas does work out a way to excuse nocturnal emissions (it isn't sin if you didn't mean to do it, so don't worry about it unless you went to bed fantasizing about something arousing—then it would be sin)
(10) Anglicans were the first major Christian group to give the official OK to birth control in 1930
(11) I shift my focus here from Western Protestants to American Evangelicals largely because it is Evangelicalism which has presented to most strident opposition to LGB relationships from within the larger Western Protestant community. Mainline and other Protestants have taken a somewhat different approach, in some cases standing in partial or full support of LGB relationships.
(12) For a good overview of pre-culture war Evangelical sexual ethics I would recommend Stanley Grenz' Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective.
(13) Mohler Published the book in October of 2015; the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June of 2016.
(14) If anyone is aware of such a justification please link to it in comments and I will look forward to interacting with it and updating this post.
(15) I have responded to McKnight's argument directly over at the Third Way Newsletter so a portion of this post will recapitulate the arguments I made there.
(16) It is worth noting that this puts "disobedient to parents" (verse 30) on the same moral footing as the activity Paul discusses in verse 26.
(17) For my thoughts on this incredibly rich word, you can read THIS PIECE
(18) I have covered this in PART 2 of this series but Sarah Ruden also does an excellent job demonstrating it in her book Paul Among the People.
(19) Part 3 of this series contains my analysis of the OT texts and one of the many ways in which they have been misunderstood and misapplied.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Book Review: Still Christian

I love it when I get to review books which I can recommend without hesitation or caveats and am glad to say that David Gushee's Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism is one of them. This is a book which should be of interest to quite a few different people for different, if compatible, reasons. Before I get to that though, let me start by describing the book a little. Still Christian is in the format of a memoir, Gushee isn't trying to persuade his audience(s) to do much of anything other than maybe to be more aware of what Evangelicalism is, and how it has come to be what that. It is a fairly short memoir because it focuses with pretty laser-like intensity of the single story of the role of Evangelicalism within Gushee's life. Thus it isn't the sort of full-orbed analysis of Evangelicalism as a historical, social, theological phenomenon of the sort that we are all probably waiting for Mark Noll to write. Instead, this book is important because it will provide you with a narrative (and if you spent any part of the 80's, 90's, 00's or 10's as an Evangelical it will likely be a decidedly relate-able narrative) through which many of the beauties, thorns, and ultimately rot of evangelicalism can be more easily recognized.

In terms of style and readability, Gushee has a warm and winsome style and the book is tremendously easy to read. I blew through it in less than 48 hours (probably 4-5 hours of reading time over two evenings).

So who will benefit from and enjoy reading this book and why?

Ex-Evangelicals:

For those of us who grew up or spent significant time as evangelicals this book is incredibly easy to relate to and will almost certainly give you that "you are not alone" encouragement—particularly given Gushee's status as a Christian Ethicist and president of the Society of Christian Ethics and of the American Academy of Religion. Of course much of that has to do with shared experiences (his comfort with Evangelicalism was shaken by the "Women in Ministry" debate and by the Evangelical right's celebration of torture and his final break occurred over his affirmation of the full inclusion of LGBT folks), but it has a lot more to do with his carefully recorded process as he worked and lived through those experiences. Throughout the book he is unwaveringly gracious towards those with whom he has disagreed. Where people come across negatively he nearly always has something positive to say about them as well and even though Al Mohler does not come off especially well, he refuses to engage in any personal denouncement of him. Neo-Calvinism receives his single full-throated denouncement in chapter 7 Finding a Home and Leaving It  where, when discussing the various perspectives operating at Evangelical colleges (and specifically Union where he taught) he says:
This is my best chance to say that I believe the resurgence of a doctrinaire Calvinism in contemporary evangelicalism is among the most odious developments of the last generation. I abhor its version of God and most of its version of Christian ethics, and I believe it could only have emerged among relatively privileged, hyper-cognitive, compassion-challenged white men, as it has. But I digress
That passage stands out because it is such a total break with the otherwise irenic tone he takes throughout the book. I am not condemning him for including it, but thought the fact was worth pointing out.

I think what gave me hope in reading this was not just that I could identify so much with Gushee's experience, but that he seems to have managed to get through it with so little bitterness and so few scars.

Evangelicals:

I am frankly not quite certain whether evangelicals will enjoy reading this, I do know that those evangelicals who seek to be well informed will appreciate reading this. This is a memoir by someone who was one of you, who experienced the "tent" of Evangelicalism shrinking around him (though his ultimate exit did involve movement to a place you had told him you would not go), and who will describe to you, winsomely and charitably, what it was about you that has caused him to feel relief on leaving. Surely this is something Evangelicals want to know.

Successful organizations need to conduct exit interviews. When someone leaves them, if they do not take the time to find out why, they are almost certainly doomed to eventual collapse. This is a charitable and kind voice (though he doesn't pull punches either) who will tell you what is going on and will challenge you to think about your culture as well as your practices. I don't think the goal of this is to convince anyone to leave or stay within evangelicalism, but it is a vital perspective for anyone who wants to understand evangelicalism as it is today.

non-Evangelical Christians:

If you are not and have never been an Evangelical, you are likely nevertheless well aware of them. As one friend of mine put it: "The thing about Evangelicals is that they do things". For better or worse, Evangelicals have come to "represent" much of Christianity, or at least Protestantism, to the western world. While there are many great resources out there to help you understand the genesis and theology of evangelicalism (I have mentioned Mark Noll haven't I?) this book will be your best tool to date in understanding the experience of Evangelicalism from the inside. It is rare to get a reflections from someone who was so recently a member of a "tribe", is now excluded from that tribe, and is nonetheless, compassionate, gracious, and fair towards them. 

non-Christians:

Remember how 81% of Evangelicals (who voted) voted for Trump? If you think that understanding that dynamic is important to navigating the world. Or more broadly if you realize that political Evangelicalism is still a major power player in US politics and in globalizing culture, then you probably already know that it is important to have an accurate understanding of this group of people. This book will provide some stunning insights into what is really going on with that. It is, for you, serendipitous that Gushee is a professional ethicist as his perspective is one you will find particularly enlightening.

A Final Addendum on Fortuitous Timing

I can't think of it as anything but God-given grace that this book was released the same week as the Nashville Statement. Still Christian provides a lens on what is going on with the so called Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the rest. It is no coincidence in my mind that Al Mohler figures prominently in both works (his is the seventh signature on the Nashville Statement). In Chapter 6 Finding a Voice While Not Losing a Soul Gushee recounts his experience with Mohler at Southern Seminary:
Al Mohler, only thirty-three years old when he was named president, turned out to be a relentless implementer of the conservative agenda for Southern Seminary. He was committed to purging any faculty who strayed from conformity to the seminary's doctrinal statement, elevating faculty voices that would take visible conservative stands on key culture-war issues, and moving the school to a traditionalist position on the top question of the moment—namely, whether the Bible permitted women to be ordained or to serve as pastors in local churches.
...
...a new policy came down from the administration, one that would change everything at Southern. At an epic, miserable faculty meeting, the president [Mohler] declared that those who believed that women should serve as pastors would no longer be hired, promoted, or tenured at Southern Seminary. While some details of this policy remained to be addressed, the implications were clear enough. A school that had, over the years, worked its way around to a largely egalitarian understanding of gender roles was now, by decree, overnight, a place that required faculty both to believe and to teach that Holy Scripture clearly bars women from the highest office of church leadership. Dissenting tenured faculty members might survive but probably ought to leave, untenured faculty members who held the now-erroneous belief had no future at the school, and no new faculty members would be hired who were egalitarian. 
This meant the end for pretty much all female faculty members. I vividly remember one of my younger female colleagues getting up from the meeting in which the policy was announced, running from the room, and throwing up in the hall. It's not every day that you are professionally executed by public decree. It just might make you physically ill. 
If that doesn't frame the context for the recently released Nashville Statement I don't know what does.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Being a Pacifist and False Moral Equivalence


So I am a pacifist. Let's get that out up front. I am an Anabaptist, and my reasons for being a pacifist can be characterized as religious: I do not believe that violent coercion is commensurate with the Way of Jesus, and I certainly do not believe that killing a person can be part of the Way of Jesus. I believe that violence is wrong.

With that fact in mind, I want to clarify some things about moral equivalence. This last weekend, when a bunch of alt-right, Nazi, White Supremacist, White Nationalist groups gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a confederate monument and to terrorize the town with their hate and in the process murdered Heather Heyer and engaged in many acts of terror, intimidation, and violence, a number of groups met them to engage in counter protest. Among these groups were Black Lives Matter, SURJ, clergy from around the nation, and antifa (anti-facists). Some of these counter protest groups chose to engage in beautiful, courageous, and non-violent means while others fought back violently against those who attacked them.

It took the President three days to call out White Supremacists, White Nationalists, racists, and Nazis as evil. Today he made the case that the racists and the anti-racists are morally equivalent (he avoided that phrase and instead said that both sides "bear responsibility"). As a pacifist I think it is really important to make the following as clear as I can manage:

While I believe that violence is never the right choice, that fact in no way creates a moral equivalence between those who would use violence to spread their hate and to oppress their fellow humans, and those who resort to violence in defense of the innocent and oppressed. Not to understand this represents moral blindness of the highest order.
In the second world war, the Nazis used violence to commit their atrocities and to wage war, the allies chose violence in response. This does not make the allies morally equivalent to the Nazis. The sword is often an option for those who are oppressed; when the oppressed chose to wield the sword they are not becoming the moral equivalent of their oppressors. As a pacifist I lament all violence, I pray that I would have the strength to resist committing violence if it ever seemed like the only option. I am inspired and in awe of those who manage to lay down their lives in defense of others, whether they lose their lives while committing violence or while refusing it—placing themselves between danger and the oppressed—the courage to risk and lose ones own life in defense of others is more courage than I can claim to have and it is, in itself, a great nobility.

There is a basic moral tenet that the morality of an act depends on both its why and its what. It is in recognition of this that manslaughter and murder are different things. It is in recognition of this that a surgeon is not charged with assault. Violence chosen for noble reasons is not the moral equivalent of violence chosen for heinous reasons and not to see that betrays the moral ignorance of the man who cannot tell the difference between a surgeon and a sadist.

If the White Nationalist, White Supremacist Nazis in Charlottesville get to share guilt with people who believe that violence is warranted in resisting them then honoring Dietrich Bonhoeffer is as morally reprehensible as honoring John Wilkes Booth.

And if the President of the United States is so morally blind that he would seek to share responsibility between those who fly the Nazi flag and those who resist it, well that is probably the best evidence I have heard that he is morally incompetent to lead a country.
Clergy standing against Nazi Militia in the US

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review of "The Body Keeps the Score"

We are on the verge of becoming a trauma conscious society
This is the opening line to the epilogue of Bessel Ven der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score. I think he is right, and I believe we need to shift from "on the verge" to "are" as quickly as possible. Furthermore, I think that the information in this book is going to be critically important for anyone who wants to work with other people. Teachers, pastors, public servants, councilors, and even simple friends of other humans will benefit from what is in here. This book—which I think was first recommended to me in a "Science" Mike McHargue podcast—resonated with me on so many levels. It is, truly, a must-read.

A little under a year ago I was at a small conference of church people who were and are trying to figure out what it means to be the body of Christ to the world both in and beyond Christendom. As a part of that process we heard from Angie Thurston an "Innovative Fellow" at Harvard Divinity who is doing research into the ways in which Millenials seek out and find spiritual community. During the question and answer time, she was asked (quite naturally I suppose) why Millennials are so rarely interested in Church and what churches might do about it. Her answer confirmed a lot of my own suspicions *pause to acknowledge the grain of salt* that it has a lot to do with the Western church's historic marginalization of people who are already oppressed by society. One of the hosts later summed the problem up neatly as "We need to recognized that we live in a society which has been traumatized by the church". I think he was spot on and speaking as a person who wants to see the church work to undo the harm she has caused, not to mention as a teacher who wants to do everything he can to help his students learn, I suspect that The Body Keeps the Score will be a critical resource in that effort.

As a thinker who is becoming more an more interested in developing a theology and discipline of delight in the physical world, this book spoke to me on a philosophical and theological level as well. In contrast to the common stereotypes of psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists as focusing exclusively on the mental world (whether or not that is the mental world as structured in our brains or a mental world understood in less physical terms), Van der Kolk affirms the body as both the subject of, and a potential partner in healing, psychological trauma. He recognizes and affirms the diminished capacity of trauma victims to actually enjoy the exquisite goodness of life a tragedy of trauma and in doing so he makes it clear that the assorted drugs which are often used to treat trauma by "numbing" pain and experience, while sometimes utterly necessary, cannot be understood to provide a solution. Van der Kolk's vision is of a treatment for trauma which brings the traumatized individual back into the full experience of her life.

Van der Kolk organizes the book in a straightforward and accessible fashion. He deals with the causes, effects, and history of treating trauma and then goes on to discuss the various treatments he has used. The language is clear and the writing is compelling; the author mixes anecdote with statistics and research with compelling efficacy. The book does a great job of communicating on a popular level (I never felt beyond my depth while reading it) without seeming to compromise its relevance to professionals. As I am not a mental health professional and have no training in that field beyond a few undergraduate and a single graduate level developmental psychology course, I will not presume to comment on medical/psychological accuracy (here is a link to the professional positive reviews of the book) other than to say that I found his arguments and account compelling.

I would recommend this book to practically anyone, and I sincerely hope that you will read it.

Resources:
The Liturgists: Spiritual Trauma Podcast
A powerful sermon a friend of mine gave on his own experience of Spiritual Trauma

If you have additional resources to recommend, please leave them in comments and I will take a look.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of "Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected 2nd - 5th Centuries"

Before you pick up Empire Baptized it is important to know that it is really a sequel to Wes Howard-Brook's Come out My People!: God's Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. This does not mean that you will have to read Come out My People in order to understand or appreciate Empire Baptized—Howard-Brook provides a helpful summary of his necessary arguments in the introduction—but it does mean that you will most likely want to read Come out My People! by the time you finish Empire Baptized.

Most important for the purpose of reviewing the book, however, is Howard-Brook's big thesis: that the history of Jesus, Jesus' precursors, and Jesus' followers up through the present day can be modeled as a tension between what the author calls religion of empire and the religion of creation. This book is, effectively, a strong attempt to trace the development of that tension out of the first century and the writing of the Bible, up through the "Constantinian moment" wherein the Church largely found a way to make peace with the religion of empire and learned to serve more often than call out the Empires of the day. And taking that as the core project of the book, I want to say that Howard-Brook succeeds powerfully.

In the text, after meticulously setting up the theological, cultural, and political landscape of the church in the 2nd century the author (his analysis of Philo of Alexandria is particularly good) works though the "whose who" of the early church fathers (Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, Eusebius, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, and finally Augustine)   centering on North Africa and Alexandria, situates them effectively within their own differing historical, cultural, and geographical contexts, and then applies his model to much of their work, identifying the ways in which they (most often) capitulate to the religion of empire or insist on the religion of creation. He does not go at all easily on his subjects so the book rigorously roots out evidences of capitulation to convenience, security, and apparent desire for acclaim in the authors. This is not a book to strengthen your love of the patristics.

If I have a critique of the book it has to do with structure and language. Howard-Brook takes a solidly scholarly approach to his language and argument and does so effectively. At the same time, there are ways in which his treatment of the subject is a little more on the popular than the scholarly level. He has clearly done the relevant research and acknowledges contemporary debates and contentious issues, however he does not usually explain why he finds a particular position compelling which leaves the book open to the charge (I think it would be a false charge) that he has chosen those conclusions which are most conducive to his thesis rather than those which recommend themselves on their merits. Of course the only alternative would have been to produce a scholarly tome which would have had trouble getting any popular readership. I find his project compelling enough that I would very much like to see him follow the model of Greg Boyd or NT Wright, or James K.A. Smith on this, producing a large, scholarly work and a companion popular work.

The book is at its strongest when the author is providing overview (Howard-Brook provides a number of synthetic insights which emerge naturally enough from his religions dialectic but which are far to easily missed without it) and in his analyses of Origen and Augustine. Possibly because those two theologians have been enjoying something of a renaissance in and reexamination respectively in Evangelical and Progressive Christians circles recently, Howard-Brook is able to bring significant nuance to nearly any readers reflex opinion of those writers. Here is a representative sample from his analysis of Augustine:
The consequences of Augustine's erudite eloquence in expressing what was already a widely held view cemented this perspective into longstanding Christian orthodoxy. To this day, even undergraduate students who identify as "atheist" or "agnostic" still largely respond to the question "what is the Christian purpose of life?" with some form of "to go to heaven when you die." It plainly isn't what the Jesus of the Gospels proclaimed, not what Christians in Augustine's time proclaimed when reciting the Lord's Prayer. But "Christianity" had long since stopped looking to the Jesus of the Gospels to determine "the Way"
My suspicion is that the way in which you react to that quote is likely representative of the way in which you will react to the book as a whole. For those who are really committed to an American Evangelical history of the Church and reading of the Bible, Empire Baptized will likely seem saturated with heretical premises and challenging, troubling evidence (like I said Howard-Brook has done his homework). Those who are intrigued or excited by the quote will find the book equally intriguing/exciting. If the quote bores you, you will not likely get much out of the book either.

For myself, while I don't agree with every premise or element of the book, I find Howard-Brook's religion dialectic really helpful and eagerly await future treatments of the great schism and the protestant reformation. I would love to read his thoughts on how much of the religion of empire made it into the Radical (Anabaptist) Reformation, into the Protestant Reformation, and through the Council of Trent. Before that though, I want to read a little more about where he finds the undying persistence of the religion of creation in the early church. This is a book which both satisfies and demands a further exploration of its own thesis.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

5 Good Books Which Will Challenge Your Conservative Evangelicalism

In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—"Bibles laid open, millions of surprises," as Herbert says, "fine nets and stratagems." God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.
- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Writing as someone who has traversed the bridge from Solidly Evangelical to, well, not (I identify as a Charismatic Anabaptist) I thought it might be fun annotating a list of books which, once read, are likely to ease a person's transition out of Evangelicalism (of the American and White variety) and into some other form of Christianity. As such, this isn't a list of books by the "New Atheists" but a list of books by authors who operate in and around the edges of Conservative American Evangelicalism and who are all dedicated Christians.

Of course there are millions of Evangelicals (and I am using the term to designate those culturally conservative Christians in America who self-identify as Evangelical and have, in recent history been associated with right-wing politics) who who have read and appreciated these books, they don't have any mysterious power to rip the evangelicalism out of someone. What they do, and do well, is fuzz the (mostly cultural) boundaries which have been set up around American white Evangelicalism. Not challenging any of the basic tenets of the faith (the authors are all robustly Nicene or, as Lewis would have said, "Mere" Christians) allowing alert and critical readers the realization that God is, indeed, moving powerfully out there

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

'Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it's ill talking of such questions.'
'Because they are too terrible, Sir?'
'No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to moral ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. 

Nobody ever really warned me about C.S. Lewis back when I was an Evangelical. In fact, throughout my childhood and through college he remained something of a hero among Evangelicals of my stripe. Mere Christianity (having been instrumental in the conversion of so many Baby Boomers) was, and still is, revered as am Evangelical classic.

I, like many others, first encountered Lewis through The Chronicles of Narnia and later his Space Trilogy and The Screwtape Letters. I started to read his apologetic and theological works in college and moved on to his Literary theory while working on my masters. I remain an enormous fan. There are, to my mind, few authors of the 20th century who possess the lucidity of thought, keenness of intellect, and sheer creativity that Lewis demonstrates in so many of his works—academic or fictional.

Of course Lewis himself was an Anglican, not an Evangelical and his writing doesn't back down from that, so it shouldn't be surprising that reading and agreeing with Lewis will have the tendency of moving someone's "center" away from Evangelicalism and towards something more like "mere" Christianity. All the same, I don't know that there are any of his works which will prove more challenging to the Evangelicalism of a person, than The Great Divorce. The book is a fictional supposal in which Lewis goes on a bus ride to the outskirts of heaven where he encounters a series of individuals being given the opportunity to stay and flourish. The book is a masterwork of theological psychology as Lewis uses it to examine our reasons for resisting a Very Good God, the reasons a person might choose their own misery over infinite joy. Critical to our purposes here however, the conversations the fictional Lewis has with his "Master" George MacDonald, will do much to gently yet firmly undermine a good Evangelical's confidence in doctrines like eternal damnation. It isn't perfect (it contains a little too much of neo-Platonism to my mind) but it is both good and powerful.


The Sin of Certainty by Pete Enns

Correct thinking provides a sense of certainty. Without it, we fear that faith is on life support at best, dead and buried at worst. And who wants a dead or dying faith? So this fear of losing a handle on certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs. How strongly do we hold on to the old ways of thinking? Just recall those history courses where we read about Christians killing other Christians over all sorts of disagreements about doctrines few can even articulate today. Or perhaps just think of a skirmish you’ve had at church over a sermon, Sunday-school lesson, or which candidate to vote into public office. Preoccupation with correct thinking. That’s the deeper problem. It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others, too engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet. 
This book is specifically targeted at one of the great fetishes of Evangelicalism: The conviction that certainty = faith and that the basic duty of  a good Christian is to police a particular set of propositions. I think the first attack God mounted on this stronghold in my life was through the Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft who once remarked on how bizarre (and un-biblical) it was to think that one had to pass a theology exam in order to get into heaven. Enns writes in a conversational, confessional style and his own commitment to God and his love of the Bible come through clearly. This book makes the list specifically because it is not the sort of book that an Evangelical who reads it will be able to dismiss as having been written by someone without a deep trust in God. Enns' life and reasoning work together to force the reader to take him seriously. Then, once he is taken seriously, the arguments cut winsomely and incisively right at the heart of the "salvation by correct-thoughts-alone" heresy.


The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd

Consider these questions: Did Jesus ever suggest by word or example that we should aspire to acquire, let alone take over, the power of Caesar? Did Jesus spend any time and energy trying to improve, let alone dominate, the reigning government of his day? Did he ever work to pass laws against the sinners he hung out with and ministered to? Did he worry at all about ensuring that his rights and the religious rights of his followers were protected? Does any author in the New Testament remotely hint that engaging in this sort of activity has anything to do with the kingdom of God? The answer to all these questions is, of course, no.
What Lewis does to the Evangelical doctrine of hell, and Enns does to the salvation-by-correct-thoughts-alone doctrine, Boyd does to the civil religion endemic to so much of white Evangelicalism in America today. Like the previous two authors, Boyd is a committed Christian (and a Charismatic to boot). He takes the Bible seriously and Jesus even more so, he is committed to spreading the Gospel, and speaks, fluently, the language of Evangelicalism—he has even written a book of personal apologetics: Letters From a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with his Father's Questions about Christianity.

Meanwhile, this book is an axe at the root of the tree of civil religion. In it, Boys works with both narrative and lucid argument to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God, as Jesus and Paul taught about it throughout the New Testament, is utterly different from governments as we understand them. He cuts right thought the false equation of "Good Christianity" with "Patriotism", carefully distinguishing this world's power over approach from Jesus' power under. 


The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms.
It is worth stating up front that Noll is an Evangelical Christian with all of the Evangelical bona fides—a Wheaton College graduate, and later professor who has taught at Notre Dame and is currently at Regent—because this book will feel far more challenging to many Evangelicals than several of the previous ones. It doesn't so much challenge a particular belief of pillar of Evangelicalism as it does shake a basic conceit. When I was an Evangelical I held on hard to the belief that people who worked hard to interpret the Bible, so long a they worked at it in good faith, would arrive at the same, correct, conclusion. This book holds an almost painfully revealing mirror up to that conceit by examining the theological crisis among Evangelicals who lived up to and during the American civil war (yes there is some important historical difference between them and the Evangelicals of today). Noll's history is alarmingly reminiscent of the sorts of theological arguments Evangelicals are having today and most troublingly (to the Evangelical mind) it was the thinkers and pastors who were arguing for slavery—either as a necessary evil or as an outright good—who most clearly map onto the Evangelicals of today. They were the one's arguing for the "plain meaning of Scripture" they were the ones who accused their theological opponents of obfuscation-through-nuance. The Evangelical who reads this book will begin to find herself more and more nonplussed and eventually disturbed by the sort of arguments she sees her Evangelical compatriots making when they argue about the "hot button issues" facing the church today.


Sex Difference in Christian Theology by Megan DeFranza


We need to say, is Genesis giving us Adam and Eve as the ideal for all times and places? Or are we bringing those assumptions to the text? I think, too, about racial difference. If we're trying to get back to Adam and Eve, we'll lose racial difference. And yet we don't just have Genesis. We have a whole canon that ends with this glorious vision of every tribe and language and nation gathered before the throne and worshiping. We have racial difference, not in Eden, but in the new creation. I think we're trying to ask too much of Genesis 1, 2, and 3 to give us all of God's blueprint for a good creation and anything that doesn't fit there is a result of the fall. I think that's a false reading. I think it's the beginning of the story, but there's so much more that God has done in the scriptures and in creation that we need to consider.
Like Noll, Megan DeFranza checks all of the Evangelical boxes. She grew up in a conservative Evangelical context, managed a couple of masters (Theology and Biblical Languages) at Gordon-Conwell before getting he Ph.D. in Religious studies, and speaks fluent Evangelicalese. She understands her current calling to be bridge-building between conservatives and intersex people. And yet this book smashes headlong into nearly all of the basic Evangelical assumptions about the nature of sex and gender. Sex Difference in Christian Theology meticulously examines the current science on how bodies are formed and what contributes to the ways in which doctors and scientists assign gender and sex labels to individual persons, and in that light critically (using fully approved Evangelical exegetic techniques) examines the witness of the Bible concerning gender and sex. The result for an Evangelical who reads the book with an open, yet still critical, mind is likely to be the crumbling, not of the book, but of his own understanding of what the Bible does and does not actually have to say about the meaning of physical sex and about gender. Having been disarmed by her passion and care for Scripture, the Evangelical will soon be alarmed to discover just how many of his beliefs on this subject were little more than assumptions—and weak assumptions at that.

How about you?

Are there any books you would like to add to the list. Leave them in the comments section together with a brief explanation.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

10 Guidelines for Arguing About Theology on the Internet


As someone who has found himself embroiled in quite a few debates, and as an occasional professor of critical thinking, I thought it might be useful to write up a conversation starter on the topic of online arguments about theology. Many of these guidelines should transfer smoothly to arguments about other topics, but Theology is a particularly tricky subject to argue since the subject matter is so important. When we argue about theology we are arguing about things of ultimate concern and about the Person(s) we love the most; we are arguing with people we know we are most clearly supposed to love—"and this is how the world will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another"—; we are arguing for outcomes in which we are heavily invested.  As a result every argument about theology has the potential to be as emotionally fraught as the "argument with family" as partisan as  "political argument" and as intense as "arguments about money. Prayer is therefore a good way to begin.

This list is not meant to be definitive—in fact I hope to add to it as people teach me better and better guidelines—and it is generally not meant to be used as some sort of dialectical rule book with which to declare people "out of bounds". Instead I hope you will find these guidelines helpful in thinking about the most profitable ways to engage in the important work of online theology discussion.

1. Attack the ideas and not the person

It was C.S. Lewis who incisively pointed out that persons are eternal whereas all of the structures and conventions we use to model our understanding of the world are temporal, passing. It therefore follows that any attack you have to make,can only be charitably made against a thing.

More pragmatically, you will never convince a person you have just demeaned that they should adopt your own position on something. Humans just don't work like that. Instead, if you insult your interlocutor, you are far more likely to build up in her—by habit of association—a confirmed identification of your conclusion with cruelty or, at best, rudeness. Thus it turns out that Paul was not just giving a moral or spiritual command when he told the Ephesians to "speak the truth in love" he was also giving them sound rhetorical advice.

2. Assume good motives

Begin, and operate for as long as possible, on the assumption that your interlocutor is arguing in good faith. This can be incredibly difficult to do, particularly when your interlocutor seems to be convinced that you are a heretic, that you may well be leading souls into eternal damnation through your teaching and is determined to say so in a public forum. Trust me, I have been told I would better off with a mill stone around my neck, that I am doing the work of the devil, and that I am trampling the blood of Christ, all in public forums and as a response to theological positions I was advocating, I know how it can sting. But, to reference a little more Scriptural wisdom, "A gentle anger turns away wrath" or at least it does if your interlocutor has good motives. Telling her that her words really stung (don't whine and don't be defensive, just state the fact) and reassuring her that you are earnestly seeking the truth along side her through the process of "iron sharpening iron" is far more likely to lead to continued, fruitful discussion. And if your assumption is wrong and your interlocutor's motives really are bad, your gentle answer will be the equivalent of "heap[ing] burning coals on her head" rhetorically at least. I have had more than one irate interlocutor break down in fury after I responded to his over the top denunciation of my twisted-ness with a polite rebuttal of his previous point. 
You might find it helpful to periodically remind yourself that, from their perspective, you may be advocating some great lie, one which they are convinced is a root cause of much of the suffering of this world and/or the spiritually precarious situation our society finds itself in (whether you think so is not the point—your interlocutor thinks it) the fact that you may well think the same thing in reverse is likely only to exacerbate the situation. Fiery denunciations of heretics are all well and good (I suppose) until everyone has been declared a heretic by someone else and nobody will talk at all any more. Always try to keep at the front of your mind the fact that dis-unity among those who claim Jesus as Lord is a scandal of the highest order. Jesus' high priestly prayer for us was "that they may be one". Insofar as you can (and there is a limit here) try to read their bombast and passion as a passion for your own well being. If that doesn't work, then try to read it as fear that something they hold dear is being threatened. In their own eyes they are standing for Jesus on the side of truth and if you seem to be making the stronger case, that can feel like a terrifying place to be.

3. Re-imagine what "winning" looks like

Despite Christians arguing about theology, it is far, far too easy to buy into the worldly conceit that arguments are about winning and losing and that winning means getting your interlocutor to admit that he was wrong. But the temptation must be resisted. If our goal is to get more of Jesus, who is the Way, Truth, and Life, then our goal in an argument is not to win but primarily to Love (for "God is love") and secondarily (though still quite critically) to pursue the truth wherever it may lie—in your argument or in your interlocutor's. Thus a successful argument needs to be imagined first as one in which love flourished—this does not mean that you shouldn't go at it hammer-and-tongs but, per Point #1, it is the argument you are attacking, not your interlocutor himself—and second, as one in which as many parties as possible drew closer to the truth, including you. 
This also highlights an important way in which online arguments are different from in-person, private arguments. Online debates are public (more or less) and indelible. Most online arguments still live in the com-boxes and Facebook threads they were born in for all to see. Many lie dormant, but some are occasionally resurrected. Even when you think an argument is likely to be deleted, anybody might be taking a screenshot. Further though, online arguments nearly always have an audience (which is really a good reminder since even the arguments we think of as "private" have God as their audience), and arguing in front of an audience is something of a different thing from arguing with a single interlocutor. Arguing in front of an audience includes a degree of performance, not that you should be false (quite the opposite, be as genuine and earnest as you can) but that the quality of your argument is being judged, not just by your interlocutor but also by every person who reads the thread of the argument, and they will be far less partial judges of your debate than either you or your interlocutor. If you remain polite, reasonable, and generous throughout the argument—granting points to your interlocutor when he makes them, refraining from any dirty rhetoric and refusing to engage in ad hominem—your audience is far more likely to shift toward the truth you see and have been advocating for. Even when you don't convince your interlocutor (and, let's face it, only a minuscule percentage of online arguments ever end with one party saying "huh, I guess you were right"), and even if you find your own position has shifted, you have "won" the debate since you have all moved closer to love, and probably to truth. C.S. Lewis called this The Law of First and Second Things:
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.
. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.
You will never get at the truth until you put love first.

4. Make sure you understand your interlocutor's claim

In this I am borrowing a technique from scholastic debate. Back in the day, when Theologians or Philosophers engaged in formal debate, they were not permitted to offer a counter argument to their opponent until they had satisfied the opponent that they fully understood the argument the opponent was making by rewording it and repeating it back to him. The critical phrase here is "...is that what you mean?"

The fact of the matter is that if you think that the person you are arguing with is stupid for thinking the thing you want to refute, you probably don't understand the argument. My first response when someone says something which strikes me as too ridiculous to be believed, is to reword what I  think their claim is, and then ask them if that is really what they meant. I have managed to avoid a number of utterly useless arguments in this way when it turned out that I had simply misunderstood the statement. More often though, I did indeed understand what the person wanted to say and that means it is time for the second check: questioning. It is still really unsafe (not to mention unwise and uncharitable) to assume that your interlocutor is stupid. Instead, start with the assumption that this is an intelligent person who has brilliant reasons for believing what seems ridiculous to you. The only way for you to get at those reasons and grasp the presumably brilliant insight which is just now evading you, is to ask your interlocutor to provide them. I have had some good success with the phrases "Now how does that work exactly? Because it seems to me that X would really undermine that idea", and "Could you support that assertion? I don't see how it holds up at all", or if your interlocutor is of a more belligerent stripe "But what is the justification for that assertion?" or even "You can't just make statements like that without giving an argument for it; how do you defend that?" Notice that you are starting from the assumption that your interlocutor is intelligent enough to have, and to provide, a defense for their claim. This would either be a case of not answering a fool "according to his folly" or (if your interlocutor is really not a fool) managing not to be the fool who is wise in her own mind.

5. The Bible probably isn't clear on this subject

First, if it were (and once we take points 2 and 4 into account) you probably wouldn't be having this theological conversation in the first place. You might be having a comparative religions conversation, or a philosophical conversation, but if your interlocutor is a Christian, it is really likely that the passage which seems so clear to you is not at all clear in that sense to him. Of course there are Christians who cheerfully dismiss portions of the Bible but they are less likely to be arguing with you about the meaning of the passage which is currently tempting you to announce its clarity. It is, of course, possible that you have encountered a troll and that the troll is merely having fun with you by trying to get you to defend the obvious, but even then I have found that the best tactic against trolls is to engage them in good faith; let them demonstrate their troll-dom publicly, then calmly express your disappointment that the conversation is not going anywhere and exit gracefully keeping #3 in mind all the while.

Second the fact of the matter is that you may well be failing to recognize the interpretive lens which causes you to think the passage's meaning is clearly one thing when it is actually another. Remember that it was our Lord who accused religious people of being sinful just because they maintained that they could "see", Jesus seems to prefer humility when it comes to our self-assessment of our own understanding of things, seeming is simply not the same thing as being and it is far to easy to mistake the one for the other. The fact is that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, two-to-more-than-two thousand years ago. Not just language, but culture has shifted significantly since then and it is uncomfortably easy to misread a passage through the lens of our own culture and arrive at a vastly different meaning than would those who read it through the lens of the original culture (for some really good insights on this I recommend Misreading Scripture with Modern Eyes by Richards and O'Brien). Of course you very well may be correct in your interpretation, but then maybe your interlocutor is, or maybe neither of you are. You will just have to have the argument if you want to find out. 
While we are on the subject, here are a few other phrases which are just conversation killers and should be avoided if at all possible:
  • The Serpent asked "But did God really say?" - Sure but that is still a legitimate question, and when you bring this up you are a) forgetting that Jesus said "you have heard it said...but I say to you" and b) indicating that any attempt to critically examine the meaning of a passage is to imitate the devil which would essentially cripple the entire discipline of Theology and of homiletics. Just don't do it.
  • X is really a form of Gnosticism/Manicheaism/other ancient heresy  - This one is a little more tricky because it is actually possible that your interlocutor has fallen into one of these heresies. However, blanket accusing them of heresies which the orthodox church has treated as clearly out of court for the last fifteen hundred years will just kill the conversation. So if you really are concerned about it (and have done enough homework to know what Gnosticism and Manicheaism actually entailed) then I recommend something more along the lines of "That seems to have echoes of given heresy in it, could you explain how your position is different from that of the heretics?"
  • You see, I start from an ethic of love - Yes, and, per #2 so does your interlocutor. Of course if your interlocutor has already said that she starts from a different ethic, this statement may actually be a helpful way of establishing that you have different grounds for your arguments and will likely lead to a (hopefully) fruitful argument about which are the better grounds but otherwise this statement, while likely enough to be true, functions as something of a rhetorical cheap trick forcing your interlocutor to have to supply their "agape bona fides" in order to retain standing. If they are not operating from a place of love, it will show in the argument without anyone having to make the distinction.
  • Just typing out a passage without tying it to your argument - This suggests that your interlocutor was unaware of the passage (maybe they were and maybe they weren't but you shouldn't presume) and is also an implicit version of "the Bible is clear on this" since you are not providing your interpretation of the relevance of the passage in question.
  • That's just your interpretation of the Bible - Well... yes it is, but then the interpretation you are defending is "just yours" as well. Unless it is offered (hopefully in more gracious tones and with more explanation) as a rebuttal to "the Bible is clear", this will often come across as a tautological way to end the conversation in the vein of "these are all really just opinions anyway so we can never actually convince anyone"—which amounts to little more than refusal to engage the substance of your interlocutors argument, without admitting as much. If you want to leave an argument at any time, you always can. But you should be gracious about that as well (more on this subject in #10).
  • You are saying this because.... - You can't know the heart of anyone who is not you (and let's face it, haw familiar are we with our own motives most of the time?). First, this statement constitutes a logical fallacy (what C.S. Lewis called a Bulverism). Second it presumes that you know another person's motives despite the fact that only God "looks at the heart".Third, it violates #2, any charitable assumption will begin from the premise that your interlocutor is arguing for her thesis because she believes it to be true. Fourth, and most relevant here, it ends conversation because the only possible response is to stop arguing about the topic at hand and begin to protest a negative ("I am not at all arguing X only because I want Y).
  • Well that is where faith comes in - This means that you aren't going to have the argument anymore because you are out of good arguments with which to support your thesis. If that is the case, then say so. "I actually don't have a great response, but my experience of God still has me convinced of X" is far more charitable, and does your interlocutor the courtesy of conceding the point while bowing out. 
  • Declaring that you "just won the debate"  - if you have to say it, it isn't true. 

6. Keep your cool

As James reminds us, "everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry". At the end of the day, despite #2, your interlocutor may actually be cruel, advocating damaging practises, or just not that bright. It is not easy to be called names, to have your arguments met with
mulish-seeming assertions rather than counter arguments, and most of all, to see someone advocating a position you are convinced will harm people—possibly even harm their souls. None of this changes the fact, however, that people who "lose it" at their interlocutors, will almost inevitably fail to convince their interlocutor or their audience. If your lucid, deductive analysis of his proposition did nothing to sway him, it is vanishingly unlikely that your calling him "The Devil's two-bit ambulance chaser" is going to awaken him to the flaws in his argument. On the other hand, if you manage to keep your calm and speak in gentleness throughout your exchange—even in the face of his ad hominem attacks—while he is still unlikely to concede defeat (remember #3) he is far more likely to change his mind in the weeks and months following your discussion, and in the mean time you (and for good or ill your argument) will leave a good impression on anyone who reads the exchange. Remember that while it is not wrong to be angry—"be angry but in your anger do not sin"—anger is almost never the emotion out of which we should interact with other people. It is only the very best of us who can master our anger enough to speak from it without betraying scorn, condescension, mockery, and even hate. At least I know that I haven't managed it yet. So put the phone down, get a drink, say a prayer, and formulate an irrationally loving answer (without backing down an iota from what you believe to be true) before your reply.

7. Own your mistakes and celebrate your interlocutor's strengths.

It is a basic exercise in humility and in love (both particular virtues of theological arguers), to own your own mistakes as thoroughly and graciously as you can while simultaneously celebrating your interlocutor's wins, cleverness, and grace as much as possible—this almost cannot be overdone. If you are on Facebook, make a habit of "liking" any point your interlocutor makes with which you can agree. Agreement, good analysis, and wise insight are all intrinsically worth celebrating and it is a matter of simple Christian love to let your interlocutor know when you think they have made a good point. Good analysis benefits everyone regardless of who provides it. 
The equal and opposite is also true. Own your mistakes quickly, fully, and honestly. If you discovered that you weren't clear earlier in the thread say so, apologize and move on. You don't have to concede the argument (remember "winning" isn't a prize) but you do have to own your mistakes. If you realize that, in anger, or obliviousness, you have insulted or hurt your interlocutor, apologize; and don't resort to the coy "I'm sorry you were hurt" take a deep breath and go with the far more sincere "I am sorry that I did/said/implied that, I ought to have been more careful with my words". Of course sometimes (often) the whole thing will be a misunderstanding; you were using a word one way and your interlocutor was reading it in an entirely different (and maybe not very charitable) way. I once found out well into a conversation that my interlocutor had been reading my "gotcha", which I had meant as an indication that I understood the point he was making, as an announcement that I had just successfully ensnared him in a rhetorical trap. I apologized for having used an ambiguous term, granted that his interpretation made sense (it made me out to be a tad ridiculous but it was a coherent interpretation given the context) and have tried ever since to abandon the use of that word in written argumentation. Be careful about jokes as well, they can often fall prey to this sort of ambiguity, particularly if you are the sort of person who excels at dry humor.

8. Keep your integrity

This is a natural implication of #3 but I think it is also worth developing on its own. The goal of an argument about theology is to increase in love and to draw nearer to the truth (as an aside, God is Love and Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, so for any Trinitarian there can be no real conflict between Truth and Love, they are both perfect and one in the Godhead). As such, there is absolutely no room whatsoever for purposefully deployed bad arguments. This doesn't mean your argument can't be flawed, only that you have to believe that it is sound. So long as you genuinely believe it to be valid, you should deploy it in good conscience. But to knowingly deploy a flawed argument is to tell the birthright of your integrity for the pottage of a rhetorical point. In the Kingdom of God, there is no place for Machiavellianism. No matter how wrong your interlocutor, no matter how noble your cause, you cannot draw closer to the real goal if you are building your case with rotten materials. It does not matter one iota whether your interlocutor spots the hole, if you are not comfortable with the argument you have no business deploying it. 
  • Here is a link to a helpful overview of logical fallacies in case you want to check any of your standard arguments: Your Logical Fallacy Is

9. Remember that humans are complex

Everything I have been talking about has assumed the culture of debate and philosophy which was built by and for educated white men (and also some Greeks and North African men, and a lot of scholars who predate the whole concept of whiteness but whose work formed the foundation on which the men who came to think of themselves as white ultimately built their own power structures - some women also contributed but fewer than we should wish thanks to millennia of patriarchy). As such, while I (a white man) do think that theses guidelines really will be helpful in having productive and healthy arguments about theology, I would be utterly remiss if I neglected to recognize that the list is built on a presumption of the luxury of "doing" theology in relative security. Yes, white men have been martyred for their theology but the vast majority of western white, male theologians have been able to operate from a place of relative security. I don't think that I have heard this explained more powerfully than by Broderick Greer
 I descend from enslaved people. From lynched people. From racialized people. From people who took the Jesus their white enslavers introduced them to - a white Jesus happy to watch them suffer in order to maintain the proper social and economic order - and understood him not as enslaver, but as emancipator. I descend from people who created liturgical music not in grand cathedrals or impressive basilicas but on labor camps from Texas to Virginia.
Folk who cried out, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen // Nobody knows but Jesus” and “Tell old Pharaoh // Let my people go”. Folk who sang, “ And before I’d be a slave // I’ll be buried in my grave”. Folk who did not dream of a pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die, who awaited a heavenly home free from the troubles of this life. No. They expected their God to act decisively, in history, to free them from the ravages of white domestic terror. 
These were people for whom theology was more than an intellectual exercise. They did not have the comfort of ivory towers or lengthy sabbaticals. They just had each other: families and communities forged during the evil institution of African enslavement. And that’s what “powerless” people have to do: theology on the go, without books, seminary, theology on the streets, in the face of people wearing white sheets. Theology after we’ve been kicked to the corner for a perfectly holy and wholesome sexual orientation and gender expression, from the text of our very lives.
Excerpt from Theology as Survival

It would be (and far too often is) catastrophic to mistake a person who is doing theology as survival— for their basic dignity, for their inclusion in sacred communities, for their ability to exercise the gifts and calling God has given them—for a person who is doing theology for simple (yet still valuable) edification. To demand that someone doing theology of survival operate in the mode of someone doing theology "from the ivory tower"—or keyboard, would be like asking someone on fire to not to speak too loudly; "too loudly" has a very different definition when you are on fire than it does when you are arguing around the kitchen table in the bloom of health.
It is, therefore, critical to remember (if you are a straight, white, male) that when you have a theological argument, you have the privilege of having it in a space designed to your optimal specifications. It is like the old joke: 
Q: "Who would win in a fight, Kevin from Home Alone or Superman?" 
A: "How much time does Kevin have to prepare?"
When you are engaging on terrain that was built on the assumption that your culture, educational history, and gender are the definition of "normal" you should not expect people whose experience has been a different terrain with it's own "rules" and expectations to engage in the way you are accustomed to.

In that vein, I want to take a moment to extend an invitation to anybody who is reading this and is not a straight white man and who has experience with theological arguments online, to message me about putting together a guest post follow-up to this piece describing the best ways to engage in theological arguments with someone like you. What are good guidelines for arguing on your "terrain" and what are your ideas for how to have edifying, beneficial arguments about theology with one another? In the meantime, I will do my best to learn.

10. Know when to walk away

Sometimes the door must be shut
Some arguments need to be abandoned because they have become abusive, either of you or of the audience, and I want to urge you to keep both in mind. It is entirely up to you to decide when you have had enough verbal/rhetorical abuse. You are perfectly justified in leaving the instant your interlocutor resorts to an ad hominem with a simple "sorry, I don't participate in arguments where people are going to be insulting", or my preference is often to stay and allow the public abuse to spool out in the hopes that my interlocutor will recognize what he is saying, I can do that because it really doesn't hurt me that much thanks to my relatively secure situation in life and the accidents of my personality. You are free to point out insults or to ignore them (one of the beautiful things about online arguments is that if you ignore it, some observer is likely to jump in and point it out, thereby validating your concerns there are troll-slayers as well as trolls online). I should mention though that, in being public, online abuse of this nature is significantly different from physical abuse which far more frequently happens in private. Also while I have chosen to use the term "abuse" because I believe the shoe fits, insults and demeaning language within an argument are different in kind from the sort of cyber bullying and online harassment which has become a mental health crisis, particularly for middle and high school students. Do not feel in any way constrained to put up with abuse in a theological argument, you do not have to do so and there is no legitimate reason for anyone to look down on you for choosing to protect your mental, and spiritual health. 

Finally there is the audience to consider. It is not at all impossible that your interlocutor may begin to
verbally abuse those around you. If that happens I recommend walking away and if the abuse occurred in your online space (Your Facebook wall, your blog, etc...) grab a screen shot, delete the abusive comment, and inform your interlocutor that the argument is over and why. It is not impossible that this will elicit an apology (hopefully a public one to the parties who were subjected to the abuse) and if it does not, per #3 it is probably time to shut the argument down. If the argument is not taking place in one of your online spaces, then it is time to walk away with a brief explanation of why.

But all arguments, even the best ones, come to an end eventually. In the best case scenario, you and your interlocutor will realize together that the argument has played out: you have both worked back to premises you are not prepared to challenge or to question; the argument has moved beyond one or both (or all) participants' capacity to speak in love for the time being; or maybe the whole thing has become so muddled that nobody is really sure what you are arguing about anymore. Unfortunately it rarely happens that way and instead one party needs to walk away. This is particularly hard to do because letting your interlocutor (who in all likelihood "feels" more like an "opponent" just then) "win—another reason to keep #3 in mind throughout. Once you realize that the argument has reached this point, it is probably best to let your interlocutor know—politely but firmly—that you have finished arguing. If you have it in you, thank her for the discussion and give her the last word (never end a comment which contains an argument with an announcement that you are done, wait for your interlocutor to make a point and then, without challenging it, announce your departure).

I wish you the very best of arguments, and if you want to argue with any of these guidelines I want to welcome you to respond in comments. You already know my entire "playbook" so this should be fun.