Thursday, August 07, 2008

The status of homosexual persons - Some Theological Perspectives * Part B

Although it is almost ten years since I wrote this paper, I feel that it is still relevant to our current situation. Indeed during that time, instead of the question being reasonably and calmly debated, new levels of polemic and rhetoric have dominated the discussion.

Because of the length of the piece, I am putting it out in three parts:

A) A consideration of the nature of religion and its relationship to Christian practice and theology. (See Blog August 1, 2008)

B) The nature of doctrine and an examination of how (if so be the case) it develops and changes. (Today)

C) Theology and the Bible in changing world-views, with special reference to the Anglican Communion’s record in this matter.

B Can Doctrine Change and Develop?

This section, that looks at some of the issues connected with the development and change in doctrine, and, indeed, the very nature of doctrine, relies to a great degree on two sources. The first is George Lindbeck’s seminal book, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia, 1984) and the second, much shorter piece is an essay by Charles Hefling in Our Selves, Our Souls & Bodies (Ed. Chas Hefling, Cambridge Mass. 1996)

1) Religion, Theology and Doctrine

Lindbeck begins his book with an analysis of various approaches to Religion, Doctrine and Theology. It is important to note the distinctions between the three areas at the same time as the obvious interdependence is acknowledged. “Theories of religion and doctrine are interdependent, and deficiencies in one area are inseparable from deficiencies in the other.” (Lindbeck, 7) Frequently, however, Doctrine and Theology are not carefully defined and it is important to emphasize the very clear distinction between the two. The confusion is apparent when one reads many books on “church doctrine” which are often, in fact, “wide-ranging theological treatises” rather than an examination of the specific doctrines regarded as authoritative by the church, or more realistically, by a particular branch of the Church. (Lindbeck, 76)

Doctrines as Communally Normative

To illustrate this and to sharpen the focus on the nature of doctrine it will be helpful to give a substantial quotation from what seems to me to be the central chapter of Lindbeck’s book.

“Church doctrines are communally authoritative teachings regarding beliefs and practice that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question. They may be formally stated or informally operative, but in any case they indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community. To disagree with Methodist, Quaker, or Roman Catholic doctrine indicates that one is not a “good” Methodist, Quaker or Roman Catholic. Someone who opposes pacifism, for example, will not be regarded as fully what a member of the Society of Friends should be . . . Operative doctrines, even if not official ones, are necessary to communal identity. A religious body cannot exist as a recognizable distinctive collectivity unless it has some beliefs and/or practices by which it can be identified” (Lindbeck, 74).

Reflection on this is instructive for the thorny issue of the development of doctrine. Lindbeck is surely right that a committed Quaker might be expected to embrace Pacifism, while this is clearly not a doctrine that is regarded as essential for a Lutheran, Roman Catholic or an Anglican. Yet, there is no possible doubt that it was essential for all Christians in the early church. Similarly, the Assumption of Mary is regarded not only as inessential, but as illegitimate by most Western Christians not in communion with Rome, whereas it is required doctrine for members of that communion. This suggests that doctrinal norms change, and that we accept, without thinking, various standards of doctrine set by specific groups.

2) Belief and Practice

Lindbeck does not make a very clear distinction between doctrines of belief (dogmas) and teaching about how a Christian should behave, but I suggest that such a distinction is important. His example of pacifism seems to fall into the second category (though it is clearly related to issues of belief, for example, about Jesus’ teaching on the matter). Perhaps this is true of almost all ethical issues, most clearly in the area of human sexuality. If one considers, for example, vivisection, it is not easy to find any consistent Christian teaching about its practice. Certainly some oppose it on religious grounds, but many do so on common humanitarian ones. A theological appraisal would need to consider beliefs about God, creation, human responsibility to animals and strategies for human health and betterment within God’s will for us.
In contrast, the central dogmas of the church do not in themselves prescribe any particular action. However, an authoritative Person or Group –Pope/Council – authenticates and enforces them in order to set limits on what a Christian can believe and still call herself or himself a Christian.

Change in Practice

When the question of change and development is put, it is easy to see that teaching about practice has changed in the course of the church’s history. Hefling suggests one very interesting and important example, usury, which will be considered later on. There is little doubt that central dogmas have also developed. It is arguable, for example, that Luke’s early chapters of Acts reflect an 'adoptionist' type theology, that is to say, that Jesus is not envisaged as the eternal Word (as, for example in the Fourth Gospel), but as being chosen by God and 'made' a son. Such a view is highly unorthodox judged by the standard of the central Chalcedonian dogma.

3) Views of Doctrine - Propositional/Expressive

Lindbeck has some interesting reflections on the nature of Doctrine, which may be some guide here. He outlines three approaches to doctrine, all of which are still current, though not many would subscribe to the first, propositional position.

The following positions are described:

a) A cognitive approach, which emphasizes that doctrines function as propositions giving us information about God, the world and our place within it. This approach has a long history and, indeed, before the 17th century, was in various forms the norm. Nevertheless, everything that has happened since the Enlightenment (not least the development of the historical/critical treatment of the canonical scriptures) has created immense difficulties for this view. (See Lindbeck, 78, para. 2 for an incisive criticism of the inadequacies of this approach in the contemporary situation).

b) In response to the mounting problems facing doctrinal formulations from the beginning of the 19th century, we see emerging the “experiential-expressive” view of religion, which tends to treat doctrines as expressions of deep religious experiences. In this view, they are not giving information about the inner being of God, but are rather an “existential orientation” of the believer. Most contemporary Christians who are not affiliated with a strongly traditionalist position (e.g. conservative RC, Protestant Fundamentalist) tend to accept (probably quite unconsciously) aspects of this position. The assumption here is that there is a root or basic religious experience common to humanity that can be expressed in endless ways. The tradition begins, perhaps, with Schleiermacher's placing the source of all religion in the "feeling of absolute dependence". (cf. Rudolf Otto's numinous).

c) A third approach attempts to combine the two approaches. “Both the cognitively propositional and the expressively symbolic dimensions and functions of religion and doctrine are viewed, at least in the case of Christianity, as religiously significant and valid” (Lindbeck, 16). This approach is highly favored by ecumenically minded RC theologians and by Anglicans who are in the tradition of Bishop Gore.

4) Alternative Paradigm

We are strongly conditioned because of the developments of Western thought in the last two centuries to think of religion as a 'product' of deep personal "experiences of the divine (or the self, or the world)”, Lindbeck, 30). This approach seems to offer hope of rapprochement between many diverse traditions and is, doubtless, one of the reasons it is so influential. Lindbeck, however, suggests an interesting alternative, the converse thesis that the form of a given religion is what structures our experience. He calls this approach "a cultural-linguistic" alternative. In this view, "religions are seen as comprehensive interpretive schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world" (Lindbeck, 32).

Linguistic Studies

The fundamental paradigm for this approach emerges from the work of linguistic philosophers, particularly Ludwig Wittgenstein, and so a comparison is made between the way in which a language shapes a particular culture and the way in which Religion provides a frame work that gives shape to experience. Religion "is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities". One of the great advantages of this approach is that it provides, as we shall see, a way of considering doctrine which allows for real development while maintaining a firm link with the deposit of the faith. It emphasizes, too, that Christian formation is crucial. "To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience one's world in its terms". (Lindbeck, 33-34)

Community Forms Belief

Just as one learns a language by being exposed to it and practicing over and over again, so with religion, one internalizes the experience of the living community which one joins (or to which one is joined). What one learns, or perhaps, more accurately is "conformed to" is a tradition deeper and richer than could possibly be articulated in propositions. The ancient saying lex orandi, lex credendi is very close to this point of view, and it suggests that knowledge of propositions is secondary to living the faith. "Sometimes explicitly formulated statements of the beliefs or behavioral norms of a religion may be helpful in the learning process, but by no means always. Ritual, prayer, and example are normally much more important." (p.35). St. Paul speaks of Christians being formed by "the mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2.16), and in a much later tradition Aquinas suggests that one so formed has "connatural knowledge" - a knowledge very different from that of a professional theologian and something like an intuitive grasp of grammar by a poet who is no grammarian.

5) Change and Development in Doctrine & Practice

Lindbeck suggests that we regard doctrines as analogous to rules in a language.

"The novelty of the rule theory is . . . that it does not locate the abiding and doctrinally significant aspect of religion in propositionally formulated truths, much less in inner experiences, but in the story it tells and in the grammar that informs the way the story is told and used". (Lindbeck, 80).

The linguistic analogy suggests the application of a division between vocabulary and grammar. In Christianity the core vocabulary (stories, rites, symbols, injunctions) comes largely from the Bible, though there are clearly some post-biblical additions (e.g. Trinitarian language), and, it needs to be noted, not all the vocabulary of the Bible is in common use (e.g. ritual laws of Leviticus). Doctrine is best thought of here as the grammar of the language. It works analogously in various ways. Some doctrines are rules for vocabulary (what is in or out of the Canon); some (most?) provide rules for the application of the core vocabulary to the spiritual and missionary life of the church.

The following quotations suggest why doctrines change and how that happens.

(a) "Most doctrines illustrate correct usage rather than define it. They are . . . paradigms for the application of rules. Faithfulness to such doctrines does not necessarily mean repeating them; rather it requires, in the making of new formulations, adherence to the same directives that were involved in their first formulation. It is thus - as I shall later argue - that faithfulness to an ancient creed such as the Nicene should be construed. Similarly, to take an example from Latin grammar, "amo, amas, amat " operates as a paradigm when one says, e.g., "rogo, rogas, rogat," not when one insists on parroting the original." (Lindbeck, 81).

(b) "Religious change or innovation must be understood, not as proceeding from new experiences, but as resulting from the interactions of a cultural-linguistic system with changing situations. Religious traditions are not transformed, abandoned, or replaced because of an upwelling of new or different ways of feeling about the self, the world, of God, but because a religious interpretive scheme (embodied, as it always is, in religious belief and practice) develops anomalies in its application in new contexts. . . . Prophetic figures apprehend, often with dramatic vividness, how inherited patterns of belief, practice and ritual need to be (and can be) reminted." (Lindbeck, 39, italics added).

6) Some Conclusions

Limitations of Doctrine

(a) Such an approach might make us more aware of the limitations of doctrine. A continuing problem with the absolutist position (RC - Fundamentalist) is the assumption, either explicit or implicit, that doctrine is perfect, final and all-surveying. On the contrary, it is frequently imperfect and significantly culturally colored. All grammatical rules, as anyone who has tried to study Hebrew knows, have more exceptions than the tidy Grammar Books like to acknowledge, and this is analogously true of doctrine. This approach may also serve to remind us that in a living tradition (language or religion) vocabulary certainly changes and grammar gets modified.

Change & Stability

(b) It is true, that considerable stability is necessary both in syntax and in basic doctrines, but both change. The vocabulary of Chaucer is recognizable (just) as English, just as the Chalcedonian definition still gives some guidance about belief in the Person of Christ. It must be noted, however, that the English word ‘person’ means something very different from persona or prosopon in the Latin and Greek of the fourth century CE.
Syntax must remain fairly stable, but even here the rules change over longish periods, and similar parallel can be drawn with Christian doctrine.

(In American English, the embargo on the split infinitive is as dead as a dodo, and the distinction between ‘like’ (prep. + acc. case) and ‘as’(conjunction) has gone by the board even among highly literate speakers and writers: “she speaks like me” - “she speaks as I do” are no longer required forms. )

Syntax has changed, and the theory suggests doctrine, too, has changed.

Change in Behavior Patterns

(c) Accepted teaching concerning patterns of behavior is not separate from central doctrines of belief; nevertheless, such "practical doctrines" (Lindbeck) are on a different footing, and are the ones that develop and change more obviously in response (however slowly) to changing world views, alterations in human awareness of the nature of the human person, and, linked with that, the continuing growth of knowledge in chemistry, physics, biology and genetics.

Inherent Doctrines

(d) We may assume that some doctrines are permanent. For example, "God is love" (not actually formulated like that in the New Testament until the late Epistle of John). This could be said to be a sine qua non for claiming to be part of the catholic church. No Ecumenical Council has ever decreed it, but doctrines like this are "part of the indispensable grammar or logic of faith" (Lindbeck, 85).

Jesus on Divorce

(e) A distinction needs to be made between doctrines that are permanent and those which are abrogated by the developments noted above, but it is very important to note that some teaching which has quite specific New Testament backing (which very many behavioral rules do not) is no longer operative in many branches of the Christian church. The most obvious one is the current practice concerning divorce and re-marriage, which ignores Mark 10.1-12. Significantly, Matthew's parallel (Mt. 19.9), high-lights a very early shift in teaching on a practical matter, even though one of the ipssima verba of Jesus is at stake.

Accepted Doctrines Lacking Biblical Backing

(f) Most of the doctrinal statements of Ecumenical Councils have been regarded as permanent and required, though the emergence of the Athanasian as opposed to some semi-Arian position is an instructive study, and a doctrine like the immortality of the soul raises interesting issues. It can hardly be said to be a biblical doctrine, but it has become the norm for those Christians (the majority) in the West who, without realizing it, think in terms of a Hellenistic dualism heavily reinforced by Cartesian thinking. On the other hand, a better understanding of the Hebraism of the New Testament and contemporary criticism of the Cartesian position suggest it is not a permanent doctrine.

7) Hefling's Essay – Usury

Hefling begins his essay by noting that the ordination of women in the Anglican Communion is often cited as a good example of a change that defies all previous tradition and teaching. Certainly women's ordination shows that accepted teaching can change, but Hefling notes that it is not exactly parallel to the case of ordination of a practicing homosexual. Women were forbidden ordination not for something they had done or were doing, but because they were female. The case we are considering bases the prohibition on a moral consideration. A closer analogy would be the case of usury.

"Anyone who opens a saving account is, by that commonplace act, judged as the church would have judged it from earliest times and for many centuries, guilty of wrongdoing - not of some peccadillo, either, but of mortal sin" (Hefling, 159).

Usury as Sin

The prohibition in scripture is consistent and strong, and lending money to earn money remained a sin for Christians until the Reformation. Moral theologians explained this by saying that such a use of money was against its "nature", (an interesting parallel to many moral discussions of homosexual practice). Calvin was among the first to suggest that money was not by nature "barren", that is that it could not produce anything.

Calvin pointed out that "money locked in a box is sterile - any child can see that- but who borrows money to keep it in storage? Put it to work, and it can be as fruitful as many kinds of merchandise. Where does that leave the biblical commands and exhortations? They are to be construed in the light of the Golden Rule. Generosity and regard for the poor are still Christian virtues; cupidity and avarice are still vices; interest is still sinful it hurts one's neighbor, But moderate interest is not in any and all circumstances wrong" (Hefling, 160).

The application of this case is so clear that it needs no further explanation.

What is Sex For?

In the discussion that follows, Hefling examines this question.
The undoubted fact that the Anglican Church has, in the twentieth century, departed from a universal tradition in the matter is important (see Section C). Once it is allowed that the procreation is not the only purpose of human sexual intercourse, things not thought of at the time, may logically follow. The Lambeth Bishops of 1958 may well have been saying more than they thought when they approved the resolution that says:

"Sexual intercourse is not by any means the only language of earthly love, but it is, in its full and right use, the most revealing.... it is a giving and receiving in the unity of two free spirits which is in itself good...Therefore it is utterly wrong to say that...such intercourse ought not to be engaged in except with the willing intention of children" (Quoted in Hefling, 170).

As Hefling notes, this does not settle the matter, but it does, perhaps suggest that it is legitimate to ask what has been traditionally either a stupid or wicked question: Why should two committed people of the same gender not engage in sexual activity and still be able to call themselves Christian?

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