Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why is the Gospel Good?

I am not at all sure what I begin has an easy ending. This is a long and rambling post in contrast to Doug Chaplin's careful reasoning. Again he has approached the issue of same-sex behaviour with sensitivity. He writes:

I think we’re standing at a point where, in the light of all our knowledge, it seems reasonable to ask whether this is one of those occasions for the church to engage in the kind of drastic re-reading of texts we thought we knew. This is the relevance of, for example, the admission of Gentiles, or the banning of slavery.
I have recommended before the treatment of Leviticus in Wrestling with God and Men by Rabbi Steven Greenberg. Rabbi Greenberg reads into the object marker (as many Rabbis have done in other texts) that no-one should treat men or women with the violence implied in some male-female relations.

Steven deals with his early personal response in the first part of the book - I am sure many have heard and wondered how to avoid the apparent 'plain' meaning. Here is a quick summary of his re-reading: (see here for a longer review from 3 years ago before I knew any Hebrew.)

Leviticus 18:22 literal: וְאֶת-זָכָר--לֹא תִשְׁכַּב, מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה: תּוֹעֵבָה, הִוא.
and with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman: it is a toevah.

1. given the traditional dominance of male over female he then translates the verse as

And a male
you shall not sexually penetrate
to humiliate
it is abhorrent

2. Then at the end he asks what to do with the אֶת in the verse - a word normally not translated.

ve'et zakhar
lo tishkav
mishkeve ishah
toevah hi

Two other places where the אֶת is interpreted by rabbinic tradition are

  • in Deuteronomy 10:20 - you shall revere (אֶת) the Lord your God (fill in the blank) (Nehemia Haimsoni says it should be the students of the sages)
  • and the fifth of the 10 commandments (kaved 'et avikha v'et imekha) where the (אֶת) is interpreted as including step mother/step father or (I add) adoptive mother/father
  • and I add - in Genesis 1:1 include the new heavens and new earth

3. Our author then suggests the אֶת in Leviticus should be translated as including the woman:

And (אֶת either a female or) a male
you shall not sexually penetrate
to humiliate
it is abhorrent

As a Christian, I am grateful for this re-reading but I do not need it for I am not under law but under grace. I want of course to be under 'law' understood as the teaching of the Lord for I know the loveliness of such teaching even in my infancy as a student but I know also that I am covered already from a negative view of Torah (law, teaching, instruction) by a host of instruction through the Anointing including and not least, the sermon on the mount. The Spirit teaches - things which are not abhorent to Scripture - but things nonetheless that differ from the uninterpreted so called plain meanings of the text. Such teaching and interpretation enlarges the boundaries of our hearts.

What scope does this give me? And am I bound in any way once I am covered by the blood of the Lamb and have entered into the Holy Place through his flesh?

This is not a question to be put in a few words: Apophatically: not by violence, not by exploitation, not unequally. Most of these resolve into 'not by the exercise of power'. One could also say 'not for oneself, but for the other'. This though has dangerous self-delusional potential.

Sexual expression, from an evolutionary point of view, represents Freud's pleasure principle. From Dawkin's point of view, it is the selfish gene saying without words - get the seed to grow and be fruitful - populate the world, make a copy of me! At the social level, we have arranged marriages and family connections, caste and racial segregation, religious conformity required in a mixed marriage and so on. These too seem more like power politics than the love of the All-Merciful.

Can there be any fulfilment here? Is there a non-social, non-negative view of sexuality in the Beloved?

There is room for a positive response. But the entry is costly. It requires the New Creation- the New Heavens and New Earth. And it is done. Who is it that through the death of Christ gives life to our mortal bodies? (Re-read Romans 8.) Is this only for enjoyment in some determined future after physical death (the second death) or is it something to be known and enjoyed after our first death which is sealed in our baptism. But we must approach and enter. The way is narrow and we are in the presence of a Holy God who is not to be trifled with.

You could read the Psalms too and ask if God has pleasure in his creation. You could read the longing and joy of the chosen in them. Try Psalm 16. You could ask if God's creation is good and wait for his answer.

Even here I must repeat the negatives - not with violence or humiliation, not with exploitation or idolatry of payment, not with inequality of relationship. These desires are destroyed in the death of Christ. We must therefore put them to death in ourselves by our baptism. Outside the central theodicy issue of Romans, the instruction to 'put to death the deeds of the body' is critical to his message. If we have died - then there is nothing we can do, for we have died. Our actions can only be in the Spirit through that death. As he writes: but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. Or again you [plural] have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.

Now do you - any of you - want to marry when you are already married (collectively and severally) to the risen Christ? No one preaches on Paul's note that if you marry you will have trouble in this world. But each is given the unique gift that is for each - one person this way, another that (also from 1 Corinthians 7). And for some it is marriage. And today, marriage means mutual help and economic benefit both now and with inherited wealth. It's more than an issue of sex.

What does God do when one who is impure, different, sinner, approaches the altar which is Christ crucified? God tears down the barrier of his holiness, enters our condition, and creates a place of mercy and an open gate and gives us boldness to enter. And here by his own means he matures us.

So Lambeth is upon us in the midst of power struggles and holy disputes. The bishops, if they are in Christ, must have known mercy - such as I have described too briefly. If they have known mercy, they will show it by inviting the uninvited. They will know that they are not the judges of purity but that they have themselves been judged. Purity comes not by the effort of a human, rather it was decided by God when he raised Jesus from the dead who was himself a curse for us. If it is given to us to purify ourselves as he is pure, it is by means of his death that we accomplish it. No one who claims that means will be refused by God. How then can I refuse such a one?

This week I have been reading Hans Küng's Disputed Truth - Memoirs II. He notes on page 90 that "fasting and the use of artificial birth control are no longer considered mortal sins". The question occurred to me - who prepares the people for God, us (the church) or God?

If the moral law is absolute, then we do and the fascist policies and procedures of the curia are appropriate to church governance - as are power politics. If it is God through the death of Christ by the Spirit, then God's drawing us is everything in every sense - of sight, of taste, of smell, of touch, of hearing and obedience, of balance, and of our sex. Let our divisions be known so that those who are commended by God are revealed. Behold, I make all things new. It is done.

A Gospel of morality - do this or else - is not good news.

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