Everyone Has A Theology

SpockFinal1If you take a peek at my biography, you’ll notice that this blog was inspired by my tendency to get misidentified as a fundamentalist or an atheist, depending on the discussion at hand.  Recently I found myself in the thick of a debate that illustrates my predicament.

Don Burrows has a post at Unfundamentalist Christians that, for the most part, I agree with. He outlines his scholarly case for a less harsh interpretation of one of scripture’s biggest “clobber passages” against gays: Romans 1:26-27, which states:

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.”

I recommend reading his post because a brief summation doesn’t do it justice. But his main point is that:

“Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute.”

In other words, not only is a liberal, gay-friendly interpretation of Romans 1 a more accurate one, but the passage doesn’t even reflect Paul’s beliefs. My first instinct when I read this was to raise my brow like Spock and say “fascinating.”  I’m not sure if I buy into it, but since I already subscribe to the argument that Romans 1 shouldn’t be used as a clobber passage because addresses male prostitution,  I’m open to it.

However, once I skimmed the comments section, my evangelistic instincts came to the forefront. There were a lot of very good comments in response to Burrows’ post, as well as a few zealous conservatives preaching repentance and arguing for the traditional interpretation of Romans. While I disagreed with their take, I agreed with their “big picture” preaching for salvation and repentance. And since the conservatives had the salvation message covered and the liberal case for Romans had been well stated, I dove in to contest a couple of the more problematic tangents.

I won’t restate my posts since they’re still readily available for you to read, but the two issues that I contested were one person’s disbelief in hell and an argument for treating the Bible as a sort of postmodern guidebook that should be reinterpreted depending on one’s culture and era.

Neither of these arguments were made by Burrows himself, but due to my defense of the conservatives’ responses on these topics, he did assume that I was taking a position against Biblical scholarship (even though I distanced myself from the anti-gay reading of Romans.)

To be fair to Burrows, I stated my case awkwardly. I said that “Any argument a person makes about interpreting scripture is rooted in theology.” A better way to phrase my point would be to say that everyone’s interpretation of scripture is rooted in their assumptions about God.  Everyone has a theology in the sense that their beliefs about God are founded on assumptions (secular or otherwise) that have a historical precedent. This isn’t the same as saying that one cannot set aside their personal convictions about God and do high-quality Biblical scholarship. And I’m not saying that everyone believes in God to some degree.

But it does mean that ultimately ones’ motives for studying scripture (and how they apply those findings to their worldview) are founded upon their assumptions about God. Those views can change, of course. But Burrows defines himself as a progressive Christian, and therefore he views the text through a progressive lens. And that’s a lens with its own theological history. The conservative poster Burrows was criticizing was merely presenting his own lens, and whether the man knew it or not, he too was staking out a position based on theological precedent. Therefore, from my view, the conservative poster’s desire to introduce other passages of scripture was consistent with the framework of the debate.

I don’t know whether Burrows approached Romans with the preconviction that homosexuality is as morally justifiable as heterosexuality, or if his studies led him to liberal conclusions. But usually there is a degree of predetermined reinforcement involved; liberals will read Burrows’ blog seeking confirmation of their beliefs, while conservatives will read Al Mohler’s blog for the same reason. That doesn’t mean that either man has insincere motives or that their arguments are therefore always correct (or incorrect). But it is rare for either side to change their minds based on the evidence presented to them, no matter how well researched it is.

To illustrate my own bias, I have always believed that homosexuality is as moral as heterosexuality. Over the years I have read many arguments from each theological viewpoint, and by default I’m much more willing to consider Burrows’ arguments than anything Mohler has to say about the topic.

But over the years my views have shifted a little bit. I still believe that most of the passages about gay sex in the Bible refer to male prostitution, and that the concept of loving homosexual relationships would be alien to ancient Hebrews. I also believe that Jesus embraces monogamous homosexual relationships. But now I’m much more willing to concede that it’s likely that the Bible would have condemned homosexual love, if the issue had existed back then. So while I feel that conservatives’ Biblical proofs are flawed, I do think that their beliefs about homosexuality are probably more in line with Biblical times. The most we can say regarding the Bible and homosexual love is that it says nothing about it. In my view homosexual love is consistent with Christ’s teachings about loving relationships, but like a lot of other issues (patriarchy and slavery, for example), the people who learned at Jesus’ feet would most likely be on the wrong side of the moral coin.

Killing Childrens’ Imagination

Mike Wall has an article  at space.com about the problem (or lack of one) the discovery of extra-terrestrial life would pose for the world’s religions. The gist of his essay is that he doesn’t expect that there would be a significant impact on them, largely because many religious people have already embraced the notion that there is life on other planets.

I think that’s a reasonable assumption, but let me tell you about the other side.

Two years ago I was teaching Sunday School to my fifth grade class.  We were talking about how God created the universe, and I asked the kids if they’ve ever wondered if there is life on other planets. Now I’ve asked this question many times before in different forms to Sunday School kids, elementary kids, and so on. Immediately you expect their faces to light up and think: Star Wars! Star Trek! Men In Black! and so on, and then dive deep into speculating about what life on other planets might be like. Most of the time as a teacher I’d have to manage the discussion so kids won’t talk over each other.

Not this time.

This time when I asked them if they thought there was life on other planets, I got silence. Dead silence. Then slowly, they all shook their heads. And it wasn’t the kind of head-shaking where  they sensed that they were supposed to shake their heads because maybe Mom and Dad wouldn’t approve of them talking about aliens and outer space. It was numb, indifferent head shaking. It was like I had asked them if they knew what the higgs-boson particle was.

I jumped in, my face full of shock. “Haven’t you ever wondered if there are aliens out there? Maybe with green skin or six arms or scales instead of skin?” My voice was bright and joyful to show them that this was something that was fun to think about.

Again, heads shook. “There is no life on other planets,” one of them said with supreme confidence. Others chimed in with similar statements. Their responses weren’t defiant; it was simply a fact to them that earth was alone. They could care less about speculating over something that wasn’t true.

I tried to drill them on movies and  tv shows they had surely seen or read about. None of them had seen any of them. Not even comic books that dabbled in science fiction. I’ve never been a Star Wars fan, but I wanted to whip out that bar scene from one of the earlier movies with all the different aliens hanging out together. Forget science; I wanted to wow their imaginations.

I didn’t need to ask their parents to know what was going on. Some fundamentalists – not many, but some – see astronomy as just as dangerous to faith as biology, if not moreso, since the logistics of explaining distance and time in space makes it much harder to defend a 6,000 year old earth than evolution does. So they shut down any secular ideas about outer space the same way many parents forbid their kids to read Harry Potter. Except usually the kids who aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter know that the series exists and that Harry Potter is “bad” because of witchcraft. These kids (mind you, they were 9 and 10 years old) didn’t even know that Star Wars or Star Trek were things that existed in our universe, pop culture or otherwise.

As a friend of mine put it, those parents should have been arrested for killing their kids’ imaginations.