Blogging for Truth is a project initiated by Rebecca Campbell. This week, GLBT bloggers and allies are invited to write articles sharing the truths of our lives and/or debunking hateful myths spread by anti-gay religious leaders and politicians.
As Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” Who gets to tell it, and about whom? The debate between affirming and non-affirming Christians is fundamentally about the relationship of truth to power. For that reason, it should concern all Christians, whether or not they have a personal stake in GLBT rights.
The way I see it, one side has an egalitarian model of truth-telling, and the other, an authoritarian model. This leads to different ways of resolving the apparent conflict between anti-gay Biblical texts and the evidence of positive, loving, spiritually fruitful gay partnerships.
Some conservatives address the problem by redefining what homosexuality is. It’s an immoral choice, it’s a curable neurosis, it’s a perversion. It has to be, because the text says so.
This is the rhetorical move that frightens me. “We know you better than you know yourself: your love is only lust, your identity is confusion, and if you can’t change, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.” Basically, the conservative church is saying to GLBT people that they can’t trust their own perceptions of reality, even concerning the contents of their own minds and the feelings in their bodies.
To me, that sounds like the first step toward mental illness, as well as an open door for all kinds of physical and emotional abuse. The virtue of humility is not the same as radical self-doubt. The former restores the individual to his or her proper place in a community of others with equally valid rights and feelings. The latter makes him or her a slave of other human beings–because, of course, he or she is not allowed to doubt their ability to perceive the truth.
Other conservatives would acknowledge that same-sex orientation may be innate and unchangeable, but they argue that the Bible calls all people so afflicted to live celibately. This position at least avoids the necessity of spreading misinformation about GLBT sexuality, but it’s still a variation of the same power grab discussed above.
Here, human authority figures are “discerning a vocation” for an entire class of people, without knowing anything about their unique gifts or what call they themselves have heard from God. Instead of undermining their confidence in their everyday sense perceptions, the church is undermining GLBT Christians’ power to communicate with God directly, without human intermediaries–the essence of Protestantism, I might add.
There is simply no support in Scripture for the notion that God created two classes of people, one able to reinterpret old traditions in response to God’s self-revelation in their lives, the other forced to defer to second-hand interpretations. On the contrary, the New Testament in particular is a record of hermeneutic revolution, as all sorts of marginalized people are suddenly speaking for God in ways that confound the religious authorities. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”–and eunuchs, women, Gentiles, slaves and demoniacs. St. Paul, who spent the first half of his life persecuting the church that he died for, is an unlikely role model for the “We Haven’t Changed” crowd.
If same-sex couples are not supposed to be capable of discerning that their relationships are a conduit for God’s grace, it calls into question their entire ability to perceive God’s presence or God’s will. Again, the Bible doesn’t support this radical suspicion of one’s own experience (see, e.g., Luke 1:1-4, 1 John 1:1-4). In the New Testament, personal testimony is frequently prioritized over abstract reasoning from texts and traditions. The gospel writers are, in effect, asking their fellow Jews to credit their eyewitness accounts ahead of centuries-old beliefs about monotheism and the messiah. There isn’t a sense that we must avoid error by enforcing a presumption against change. “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1); “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Taking personal responsibility for our faith commitments in this way keeps our potential sin and error always before our eyes, which leads to day-by-day conscious dependence on God’s grace.
The validity of personal testimony has political implications. It radically equalizes everyone who claims to speak for God. Spiritual hierarchy seems disfavored in the Gospels. Thus, I would suggest, any theological position (such as the refusal to reexamine apparently anti-gay texts in light of evidence that they cause suffering to innocent people) that creates a hierarchy of access to God should be viewed with suspicion.
Because Jesus was acutely aware of the social position of everyone he addressed, so should we be. To say that truth is situational is not to say that it is relative. Rather, it is to recognize that we cannot truly pass judgment on another’s actions without considering the power relations between us. Do we really know the truth about this person, unclouded by our own fears and desires, and do we have the right to speak it–to speak about them or for them, without questioning how we got that power?
All of us “Bloggers for Truth” have stories we can tell about our own partnerships or those of our parents, teachers, pastors and friends–all GLBT people whose lives have been touched by the Spirit. But we also have to make the Scriptural case that stories are truths, on a par with or superior to the truths of abstract reasoning, at least when it comes to practical ethics. Time and time again I hear anti-gay Christians argue that we are biased by our personal desires (either lust or pride) while they are merely following “what the Bible says”. Their epistemology doesn’t allow for scrutiny of the human element in interpretation, nor of their own emotional biases, because they need the Bible to remain magically exempt from the human condition of partiality and uncertainty.
Truth-as-objectivity is a modernist position, and ironically, one that has historically been used against religious believers since the Enlightenment. Religion’s despisers have argued that the “truths” of religion are tainted by emotion, not universally accessible, not severable from the accidental personal history of the believer. This is supposedly in contrast to the self-evident truths of reason (whether scientific or philosophical), which should not vary based on the identity of the observer.
In response, postmodern Christian authors such as Lesslie Newbigin and Luigi Giussani have argued that all knowledge is situated knowledge, and that in fact it would be inappropriate to approach so personal a matter as one’s spiritual destiny as if one had no personal stake in it. We find truth not by suppressing awareness of our own position, Giussani writes in The Religious Sense, but by cultivating humble openness to whatever the quest for truth reveals, i.e. by letting reality speak to us instead of telling it what it must be: “Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it.”
If there is a legitimate Christian argument against affirming same-sex relationships, it can’t be that texts trump experience, or that the impersonal is superior to the personal. Tying ourselves to the mast of that sinking modernist ship means giving up on religion’s claim to truth. Somewhere, Pilate is laughing.