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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Indirect Texts: My Defense of LGB Relationships Part 4

Note this is Part 4 in a series which beings HERE.

Then the Lord God made the rib He had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. And the man said:

     This one, at last, is bone of my bone
     and flesh of my flesh;
     this one will be called "woman"
     for she was taken from man.

This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame. (HCSB Genesis 2:22-25)

The Creation Account

When moving from the direct references to gay sex in the bible to the—potentiallyindirect references, the majority of arguments with which I am familiar nearly all end up pointing back to this passage, together with the two gospel accounts of Jesus quoting it (Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12). The reasoning then goes as follows: In the first description of marriage which we have in the bible, and which Jesus particularly references as exemplary in some way [more on just how it is exemplary in a bit], the marriage is heterosexual. Furthermore, the heterosexuality of the marriage is particularly spotlighted by the fact that it immediately follows the account of the creation of Eve from Adam and that God's creation of both men and women is highlighted by Jesus when he cites the passage. This is taken to imply that God designed marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.

The first problem with this reasoning is the way it slips in that word exclusively. Nobody that I know of denies that the biblical account of the first marriage is heterosexual or that this implies God's approval of heterosexual union. But the simple claim that God approves of straight marriages does not, it itself, imply that God disapproves of same-sex marriages. In order to draw that conclusion, the arguer would have to supply further evidence. Think about it like this: If I were to tell you that yesterday I made a great sandwich by spreading peanut butter and blackberry jam on whole grain bread, you could, very reasonably, conclude that I believe a sandwich can be made by combining peanut butter and jam on whole grain bread. But it would be ridiculous for you to conclude that I do not believe that ham and cheese (with a little mayo and mustard) on white bread can also be a sandwich; or that I don't believe in the legitimacy of peanut butter only sandwiches. We do not say that the only "real" light bulbs are incandescent just because the first commercial light bulbs were, or that republican democracy is an illegitimate form of government because the bible only recognizes variations on theocracy and monarchy. We don't do that because that just isn't how language works.

An affirmation of one thing is not in itself a denial of anything else, even when that account is of the thing's origin.

So too, the biblical affirmation of heterosexual marriage is not in itself a denial of the possibility of homosexual marriage - language just doesn't work that way.

Furthermore, the fact that Jesus referenced the Genesis account—even the fact that he references the participation of both men and women in marriage—when talking about marriage does not imply a denial of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. Humans have a tendency to read answers to our questions into texts or accounts that aren't actually addressing those questions. We like having our questions answered and, as Christians, we are really motivated to find as many answers to our questions as we can in the Bible. Unfortunately, the result of this—very understandable—desire is that we tend to create answers where they don't exist. In the Matthew and Mark passages, Jesus is answering a question about divorce and was, naturally, referencing the common contemporary form of marriage in his answer. Good teachers generally avoid trying to answer questions with elaborate and comprehensive accounts of the full range of tangential possibilities related to the subject - when possible they answer the question on the terms it was asked, and where not, they demonstrate the misunderstandings contained in the question itself. If someone had asked Jesus whether or not it was OK for siblings to fight, he might very well have referenced Cain and Able, but that would not have indicated that Jesus didn't believe in the legitimacy of sisters.

The upshot is that the creation narrative, and other biblical references to the creation narrative, do not actually speak to same sex marriage or homosexuality one way or the other. They are neither affirming or condemning. However, I would suggest that when we look at what the Bible has to say about the role of sex in a Christian's life, there are some legitimate conclusions which can be drawn concerning LGB relationships.

Specifically, in 1 Cornithians 7, Paul is writing to the Church in Corinth about (among other things) what they should be doing with their sexuality and romantic/pair-bonding relationships and his general advice is generally that marriage (committed other-valuing relationships) exists—among other reasons—for the sake of satisfying sexual desire. He recommends singleness (and presumably chastity) where possible but says in verse 9 that if someone doesn't feel able to control their sexual desire, that they ought to marry, since "it is better to marry than to burn". Now the fact of the matter is that Lesbian and Gay folks will not generally find heterosexual marriage to be much of a help in alleviating sexual desire— a bit like trying to slake your thirst with a big glass of sand. So if we want to insist (as many conservative Protestants do) that the Bible is applicable to all persons, the logical conclusion is that LGB folk are blessed by God when they choose to satisfy their sexual desires in marriage to a member of their own sex.

Porneia

A second common objection to the legitimacy of homosexuality is the Bible's uniformly negative language about "sexual immorality". The English phrase is a common translation of the Greek word porneia (the older translation was "fornication"). There is no question in my mind that porneia is a thing that God sees as damaging to people who engage in it and is, therefore, not commensurate with the Way of Jesus—Christians should avoid it. The vital question though is whether or not gay sex in the context of a same-sex relationship would qualify as porneia.

The problem with answering that question is that, in the NT "porneia" is a general umbrella term. In fact, I would argue (for once) that "sexual immorality" is actually a pretty good translation of it. There are two distinct methods a careful Bible interpreter can take when it comes to examining umbrella terms like porneia: the list method or the principle method. The list method would recommend making a list of all the actions which would have been considered items under the "umbrella", thereby using the one term porneia as a simple short hand for a long list of sexual activities we shouldn't do. The principle method would recommend comparing all of the items on the contemporary list, discerning what it was that they were understood to have in common, and then identifying that principle as the thing being discussed when the NT uses the term porneia.

Maybe an example would be helpful. Let's take use the English word family. If I were to say that we should be kind to our family, a list model interpretation would interpret that statement by carefully investigating who I consider to be my family and the nature of my relationship to those people (wife, sons, mother, father, brothers, sister, in-laws, aunts, uncles etc...), they would then conclude that Bill wants people to be kind to those who have those relationships (wife, sons, ect...). But a principle method interpretation would look at the common thread in all of those relationships and would conclude that by family I mean anyone whose relationship with me contains that particular thread.

The consequences of choosing a list method or a principle method of interpretation are really significant. The list method guarantees certainty and stability—once the list is set it can't really be altered except by new scholarship or data indicating that a particular item ought to be added or removed—but it comes at the price of flexibility and risks missing the point entirely. In my example above, a list method interpreter would not be able to account for adoption or godparents, list method interpretation would not incorporate that friend who has lived next door our entire lives, the "aunt Bernice" who is no blood relation but is unquestionably family. The principle method of interpretation is entirely open to those possibilities. It lacks the clear and comfortably defined boundaries of the list method—we never get to be entirely sure that we are applying the principle perfectly—but it is able to incorporate a broader range of meaning and, in my own experience, gets us far closer to the core intentions of the communicator in many instances.

For the record, there is a lot of really good research out there working out the list of sexual acts that were included in early Judeo-Christian uses of the term porneia and that is important work. Both list method and principle method people need that work to be done. This list method interpreters need it in order to figure out which particular sexual acts the Bible is condemning as damaging to persons therefore and upsetting to God, while the principle method interpreters need it in order to figure out what type or character of sexual activity the Bible is condemning as damaging to persons and therefore upsetting to God. Unfortunately for all of us who like easy answers, the fact is that most scholars will tell you that porneia is a really difficult word, that its meaning tended to shift, not just over time, but from culture to culture(1), and as a result there isn't really any total consensus on which actions the various authors of the New Testament would have been referencing when they chose to use the word.

In fact, porneia has been suggested to refer to a broad a range of activity as: bestiality, adultery, adulterous rape, exogamy (marrying outside one's group), pederasty, prostitution (male and female), solicitation of prostitutes, extramarital sex, any sex that violates the Leviticus prohibitions (including heterosexual sex when the woman is menstruating), and masturbation. Scholars do not generally agree on the list and the approach they take to determining which items ought to be on it is generally conditioned by their overall theology of sexuality.

I would suggest that we ought to take a principle model approach to interpreting this word. If we do I would suggest that the common thread which emerges from the scholarship on the term would be "sexual activity which does not honor the full humanity of the other" or maybe "sexual activity which uses rather than partners with the other". This would be very much in line with Jesus' declaration that all of the law (including the forbidding of porneia) can be summarized by the aphorism "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself".

So I agree with Christians throughout the centuries that porneia is a common temptation and the source of great damage to many people and that it ought to be avoided. I agree that one of the important roles of marriage—not the only role—is to provide a context for practicing sex which honors and serves the beloved. I would, however, further argue by pointing to the many Christian same-sex couples who are in loving and committed marriages, that same-sex marriages are able to fulfill that role in the lives of LGB people just as much as heterosexual marriages are bale to fulfill it in the lives of straight and heterosexually coupled bisexual people.

Notes

- Well, I didn't quite make it. I had hoped to cover the philosophical question of natural law in this post as well as porneia and the creation account but it has already gotten longer than I anticipated. As a result I will put my thoughts on natural law in a fifth post for the series.

- A lot of research went into this post and, in addition to my general reading, some of it came from various journals so I have included a list of papers and resources on the topic of porneia below for those of you who would like to check my work (which I would very much encourage you to do). This is not a complete list of all the sources which have formed my opinion but it should be enough to give you a taste of the scholarship. I would encourage everyone to do their own additional research and reading (I will probably end up writing an ancillary post for this series with recommended readings on the subject).

-As always I welcome your comments and critique in comments so long as you keep things civilized

Research Material

  1. Harper, Kyle. "Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm." Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol 131, No. 2 (2012) pp. 363-383 http://www.jstor.org/stabel/23488230
  2. Malina, Bruce. "Does Porneia Mean Fornication?" Novum Testamentum, Vol. 14, Fasc 1 (Jan., 1972) pp.10-17 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1560033
  3. Jensen, Joseph. "Does Porneia Mean Fornication? A Critique of Bruce Malina." Novum Testamentum, Vol. 20, Fasc. 3 (Jul., 1978), pp.161-184 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1560427
  4. Schroeder, Caroline, "Prophecy and Proneia in Shenoute's Letters: The Rhetoric of Sexuality in a Late Antique Egyptian Monastery." Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 65, No. 2 (April 2006), pp. 81-97 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/504984


(1) for Greeks it usually just meant prostitution whereas for people with a Hebrew/Jewish background it was the preferred interpetation of the Hebrew word zhn which was used as a catch all term for disapproved of sexual activity.



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