I have decided to take another paper that I wrote for my doctoral program and break it down into several parts for the blog. I have tried to make it a bit more readable – but it will likely still feel a bit academic. I hope, however, that it will cause people to think and start some robust conversations.
Applying Sources and Norms to the Question of Gay Marriage:
Current and contextual ethical reflection recognizes the need to pay attention to all of the contributions that arise from scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Additionally, there is an acceptance and expectation that conflicts will arise among these sources and that good ethical reflection will do the rigorous work necessary to resolve such conflicts. Each of these sources has a unique offering for the ethical task but also has limitations and weaknesses as well.
In the Evangelical community there is a typical suspicion of the source of experience. The subjective nature of lived experience can lead to accusations of manipulation and self-deception along with a general sense of the untrustworthiness of human intuition and perception. The idea that experience is the lens through which we discern truth would ring heretical to many Evangelical ears. Given this filter, it is not difficult to understand why the lived reality of LGBT sisters and brothers can be dismissed or minimized in the ethical task. Margaret Farley reminds us that experience is “an important part of the content of each of the other sources, and it is always a factor in interpreting others.” The idea that one is following “pure Scripture” refuses to recognize that there is no application of Scripture without interpretation. And interpretation is affected by our experience. So while Evangelicals may remain suspicious of lived experience, they may also fail to consider the ways that experience colours their perspectives on matters of sexual ethics. This is particularly true if they are reflecting on matters that do not affect them personally. It is critical to recognize the ways that social norms influence our interpretation of sexual experiences. Farley says, “Publicly provided norms, whether religious or secular, have shaped experiences so that, for example, sex is sometimes experienced as evil precisely because it has been socially interpreted as evil; sex has sometimes bee experienced as deviant because it has been identified and treated as deviant; sex has been experienced as not open to communion with God because it has been interpreted as without this possibility.”
A critical question raised by the source of experience is that of authority. Given the reality of social construction, experience is never pure or universal and its authority can seem to be lost in translation. Farley shares important guiding criteria for the use of experience in moral discernment: “coherence of the insights from experience with general moral norms; intelligibility of accounts of experience in relation to fundamental beliefs; mutual illumination when measured with other sources of moral insight; harmful or helpful consequences of interpretations of experience; confirmation in a community of discernment; and integrity in the testimony of those who present their experiences.”
When we consider general moral norms in light of the question of gay marriage, several key issues need to be addressed. There is dispute between those holding a traditional view and those who hold a progressive view as to what these norms ought to be. One key norm is to “do no harm”. This is consistent with the call to ensure there is no coercion, violence, or misuse of power in the relationship. The witness of many gay Christians who have entered a marriage or covenant union is one of personal well-being and positive contribution to neighborhoods and faith communities. In fact, some gay Christians share that prior to being open to entering a marriage relationship all of their spiritual and emotional energy was invested in themselves as they sought to maintain celibacy or strive to attain some level of bisexual functioning. Once married, they were able to become more fully engaged in serving and contributing to the lives of others because their angst over their identity and pain from their isolation had ceased. Experiencing love in intimate covenant relationship freed the partners to express self-giving love to one another and in their communities.
Another norm to consider is that of mutual respect. This norm is connected to the commitment to fidelity as mutually agreed upon by equitable partners. Ethical reflection in Christian context considers this norm as an intrinsic attribute of God and the gift and responsibility of human beings to image God in our relationships. One of the arguments that opposes gay marriage has to do with the assumption of infidelity in gay relationships. The experience of gay Christians, as I have had the privilege of hearing their stories of their own lives and the lives of other gay Christian friends, is a dedication to the expression of mutual respect through the keeping of covenant promises that include sexual fidelity. In Norman Pittenger’s interpretation of marriage we see that, “Marriage is the intimate and faithful communion of two covenanted and embodied persons. What is distinctive about this relationship compared to other types of human relationships, is that through its promises and through the radical and intimate self-giving and receiving a sacramental quality emerges – a distinctive participation in the divine Love.” The experience of married gay Christian couples is shared through stories of long-term committed relationships that embody mutuality, respect, and self-giving love that spills over from the relationship to the community they participate in. Such stories encompass journeys of maturing in faith, the fruits of the Spirit, the desire and action to serve and works towards justice and shalom for the common good.
Questions for reflection: What additional norms might you add in consideration of sexual ethics? What might the implications be for a question like gay marriage?
If there are challenges to applying experience to the process of ethical reflection, the role of tradition is no less problematic. Stephen Barton warns against trying to harmonize the various streams of church tradition. But he also rightly challenges us to resist belittling or ignoring tradition either. He says, “They represent the attempts of Christian individuals and communities in times past and present to develop a good and more godly family and social order.
Feminist theology, in particular, helps to expose oppression in the Christian tradition as it impacts sexual ethics. Ellison says, “The marriage debate is complicated and made more difficult because the dominant Christian tradition suffers from two major deficits when it comes to sexuality and relational intimacy: first, a noticeable ambivalence, if not outright hostility, toward sex, and second, a longstanding patriarchal bias.” Ellison goes on to clarify that the patriarchal construct is based on gendered roles of “domination and submission, authority and dependence.” Because of these unjust power structures, Ellison would maintain that the tradition ought not be defended or preserved but rather critiqued and deconstructed.
Question for reflection: What do you think about the claim that the Christian tradition contains a partriarchal bias? What impact might such a claim make on your view of biblical interpretation? What impact might such a claim make on your understanding of gender and sexuality?
There is much complexity and controversy that continues to surround the notion of sexual orientation, sexual identity, and gender itself. On one hand, Ellison reminds us that, “the impetus for reforming Christian sexual ethics has come not from inside the tradition, but from two outside sources: first, from the social and natural sciences, with their fresh insights about human diversity and psycho-sexual development and, second, from social justice movements and the moral wisdom emerging from especially the feminist, LGBTQ, and anti-racism movements, but also the disability rights movement, the anti-violence movement among survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, and the ecological movement with its nondualistic framework and holistic appreciation of relational systems.” On the other hand, social construction and deconstruction, sexual fluidity, and the entire notion of queer (with its nondefinitive sense of inclusion), raises questions for many entrenched in a heteronormative paradigm concerning the legitimacy of gender and sexual minorities as a people group. This battle reached its peak in the 1990’s when the culture wars over causation were fought from the academy through to the popular talk show of the day. Joseph Nicolosi, former president of the National Association for Reparative Therapy of Homosexuality, was fond of saying, “There is no such thing as a homosexual, there are only heterosexuals with a homosexual problem.” “Sexual dimorphism assumes that biological sex, viewed essentially in terms of reproductive function, determines not only psychological identity (genderized identity of femininity and masculinity), but also a person’s preferred social role and, importantly, object of sexual desire. This paradigm naturalizes reproductive heterosexuality and presumes that if human sexual development proceeds on track, then a “normal” adult person will be sexually attracted to an adult of the “opposite” sex.”
Ellison presents an “alternative paradigm that challenges the dichotomous gender assumptions at the core of the reigning paradigm and argues that the biological distinctions between male and female have been overdrawn, are matters of degree, not kind, and are not always clear-cut; that the various indicators (chromosomal, hormonal, anatomical, psychological, social) employed to differentiate sexual identity are sometimes ambiguous and, even when clear, do not necessarily cohere in a single developmental pattern; that social roles and erotic attractions are diverse and not predictable by sex/gender (psychology does not follow biology lock-step); and that the distinctions between normality and deviance (perversion) are cultural and moral judgments, not scientific.”
Reflection on sexual ethics in the Christian context must take seriously the reality that gender and sexuality are more complex and diverse than the Christian tradition ever imagined. Our intersex sisters and brothers provide a concrete example of the complexity that must be navigated in order to extend honour, dignity, and equitable opportunity to experience intimate relational love to all God’s children.
Questions for reflection: What weight does your understanding of gender play in your ethical reflections on sexuality? How do you make room in your reflections to consider the impact of social construction on gender?
If six or seven verses that hold no positive witness to covenanted same-sex love may be inadequate to guide us due to notions of homosexuality that are “obscure, mistaken, or irrelevant to the contemporary debates about same-sex love”,then how are we to read and engage Scripture? What is a helpful hermeneutic to guide our ethical reflection?
Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos wrestles with the authority of the biblical text by suggesting that the reader must understand that the text “exceeds the sum of its patriarchal parts.” She further concludes that a hermeneutic that exposes such prejudices must be employed to ensure that we are consistently biblical in our reflections. Such consistency must run through the course of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Those with a progressive view of Christian sexual ethics make justice their hermeneutic. For example, the 1991 Presbyterian study, “Keeping Body and Soul Together” declares that the “great moral divide is between justice and injustice.” For those who affirm Christian sexual ethics that prioritize justice, the emphasis is to “not focus their attention on asking whether homosexuality is biblically warranted, but rather on whether the devaluing, disrespect, and mistreatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons are, in any way, in alignment with the core biblical mandate to seek justice, honor the stranger, and protect the vulnerable and marginalized.”
Application of the hermeneutic of justice is strongly criticized. David Jensen suggests that this hermeneutic views Scripture as “insufficient, outmoded, or oppressive” on matters of sexuality. He claims that Scripture is engaged with suspicion, rendering any literal reading of the Bible unacceptable, and marginalizing Scripture with its critique of the lack of erotic justice.
The tensions and differences in how we interpret and engage Scripture have been and will be a consistent reality among Christians. How then can we construct a sexual ethics that are vibrantly Christian and will serve such a diverse church? Sexologist, William Stayton says that the “two sexual theologies cannot be reconciled or integrated.” Here he speaks of a system that judges specific acts to be immoral or moral and appeals to biblical authority for this immutable code. The contrasting system is one that is focused on the integrity and vitality of relationships. Stayton, after many years of ministry and clinical practice, suggests that many in conservative churches publicly proclaim the first system, but privately make their decisions on relationally based system that seems to resonate with their reality. Such a disconnect in understanding their own lives may render many in the church unable to enter the tension and complexity and uncertainty that are an inevitable reality in the journey of risking to reflect more deeply on the framework that undergirds our sense of sexual ethics.
Questions for reflection: What do you do when your ethical system seems to be disconnected from your own and / or others’ lived reality?
Next post: So what does a sexual ethics of generous spaciousness look like?