I like it when people think clearly enough to advert to their epistemological controls, their critical foundations. I think it’s a rare gift in a world in which most educated people seem to hold tightly to moral relativism and scientistic absolutism at the same time, but fail ever to look down at what they’re standing on. So when I got to the end of pro-gay biblical scholar and Yale religious studies professor Dale Martin’s essay arguing that ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites) in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1 refers to economic exploitation, probably via sex (rather than referring to homosexuality more generally or to the dominant partner in a homosexual encounter), I genuinely appreciated his clarity of thought:
My goal is to dispute appeals to “what the Bible says” as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to “what the Bible says” without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian. We must simply stop giving that kind of argument any credibility. Furthermore, we will not find the answers merely by becoming better historians or exegetes. The test for whether an interpretation is Christian or not does not hang on whether it is historically accurate or exegetically nuanced. The touchstone is not the historically reconstructed meaning in the past, nor is it the fancifully imagined, modernly constructed intentions of the biblical writers. Nor can any responsible Christian-after the revolutionary changes in Christian thought in the past twenty years, much less in the past three hundred-maintain that Christian interpretations are those conforming to Christian tradition. The traditions, all of them, have changed too much and are far too open to cynical manipulation to be taken as foundations for gauging the ethical value of a reading of scripture.
Frequently when I hear people speak this way, they fail to offer anything in the place of the fundamentalism against which they’re inveighing—which generally means they’re trying to misdirect your attention from the particular fundamentalism they’re trying to sneak in through the back door (a fundamentalism they themselves, again, don’t see). But Martin is too good a thinker to let this happen (yet):
The only recourse in our radical contingency is to accept our contingency and look for guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves. The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes scripture and tradition but not in a “foundational” sense. Nor do I mean that Christian discourse can itself furnish a stable base on which to secure ethical positions; it is merely the context in which those positions are formed and discussed. Conscious of this precarious contingency, and looking for guiding lights within the discourse, I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditional witness, Augustine, who wrote: “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all” (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40).
This is pulpit-pounding, steel-backbone stuff! He’s aware of contingencies aplenty, but he still takes his stand! And who can complain when he takes his stand with Augustine and, by extension, with Jesus’ Great Commandments in Matthew 22? I, too, actually, take my stand with Augustine’s quote (and, more importantly, with Jesus). I’ve thought about Augustine’s famous words on hermeneutics here countless times. These are world-important words, because reading is a moral activity in which our loves for God and neighbor need to be right if we hope to read responsibly and faithfully. Making love one’s fundamental is good, not bad.
But Martin, having thus far thought carefully, still cannot help sneaking in a more expansive fundamentalism than the one he just adverted to. He assumes a very controvertible view of love:
By this light, any interpretation of scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable. There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of “heterosexual fulfillment” (a “nonbiblical” concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as “healing”?
He’s got some points in there; “heterosexual fulfillment” is not the calling of every Christian, and there are indeed psychological manipulations which masquerade as healing. I also, along with all the serious evangelical writers on this topic, weep with those with weep: I feel the pain of the teenager who struggles against desires that part of him wishes he didn’t have. I have several friends who have lived Christian lives of celibacy for this reason, and they carry a heavy cross. And I think Christians ought to show very practical love to AIDS sufferers.
But Martin begs the question: what, indeed, counts as “hurt,” “oppression,” or “destruction”? Our society disagrees, so who decides? Sometimes the lizard on your shoulder whispering sweet, lustful nothings has to be killed—and boy does it hurt—in order for you to ride further up and further into Aslan’s kingdom. (Sorry for mixing up two C.S. Lewis stories; the images of heaven in The Great Divorce and Narnia are clearly related.) We’re a whole society of people who have decided not only to listen to the lizard and follow his dictates, but to let the lizard speak for us, to let him constitute our respective (“expressive-individualistic”) identities.
I was reading Robert Gagnon’s response to thinking like Martin’s, and he supplied the supreme proof text which needs to be ready on the lips of every Christian from now till our society picks a different self-destructive sin to lionize:
In contemporary society the command to love is often misconstrued as tolerance and acceptance. The concept is richer than that. True love “does not rejoice over unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13: 6)
If you love God as he truly is and your neighbors as they truly are before God, you won’t rejoice in the sin that is killings those neighbors. If you rejoice in righteousness and truth for Bible reasons, you’ll also go around with the humility of a person who’s been forgiven a debt he could never pay.