What Was the Real Sin of Sodom?

Theologian and Minister Says That the Real Sin of Sodom Was Inhospitality.

I’ve covered the same ground before, but the mistaken conflation of “Sodom” and “homosexuality” is so commonplace, with such appalling results in providing a pseudo religious cover bigotry, gay-bashing and even homicide, that it deserves to be repeated as often as possible until the message sinks in. The story of Sodom has nothing to do with loving homosexual relationships. The “sin of Sodom” is not homosexuality, but the refusal of  hospitality and kindness to strangers.   Those guilty of the sin of Sodom are not “homosexuals”, but the homophobes who persecute them.

There have been many good rebuttals of the standard, misguided  misinterpertation. This exposition of it is from theologian and ordainied minister, Rev Patrick Cheng, at Huffington Post. In it, he shows how the words of the Hebrew text have here been misrepresented as referring to  “having sex with”, rather than the actual act, which was gang rape, a different matter entirely. He also shows how the Bible itself, in otehr passages, quite explicitly describes the “sin of Sodom” in terms which have nothing to do with homoerotic relationships, but are rather concerned with radical inhospitality.

He reminds us too, that responsible Biblical interpretation must go well beyond simply looking at the bare words (in translation) on the page, but must also consider the historical and social context. In Catholic theology, the Pontifical Bible Commission says also that we need to consider always the Bible as a whole, and not just isolated passages.  Looking at the context, Rev Cheng shows just why absolute observance of hospitality to travellers and strangers was so important in the Jewish desert environment, and how the theme continues in the New Testament. (Indeed, one could argue that it is the supreme commandment of the Christian Gospels). Following this reasoning, he concludes that it is those who refuse to extend hospitality and inclusion to “homosexual” are those who are truly guilty of the sin of Sodom.

What Was the Real Sin of Sodom?

To many anti-gay Christians, I’m nothing more than a “sodomite” who is damned for all eternity. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent the last decade immersed in the Bible, ancient biblical languages, and the Christian theological tradition. It doesn’t matter that I’ve dedicated my life to preaching, teaching, and ministering to all people, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The simple fact that I’m an openly gay man makes all of that irrelevant. To anti-gay Christians, God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 19 of the Book of Genesis is a warning to people like me.

Ironically, I believe that these anti-gay Christians actually have it backwards. The true sin of the Sodomites as described in the Bible has nothing to do with same-sex acts per se. Rather, the ancient Sodomites were punished by God for far greater sins: for attempted gang rape, for mob violence, and for turning their backs on strangers and the needy who were in their midst. In other words, the real sin of Sodom was radical inhospitality. And, ironically, it is often anti-gay Christians who are most guilty of this sin today……..

So, who are the real Sodomites today? Who are the people who turn their backs on the strangers and the least among us? Ironically, I believe that anti-gay Christians are often the ones who are most guilty of committing the true sin of Sodom. These include the Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops who are trying to scapegoat LGBT people for the horrific crimes of child rape that were committed by their brother priests. These also include the Mormon leaders who are secretly funding campaigns to fight marriage equality for LGBT people, despite the fact that their founders practiced polygamy. Finally, these include anti-gay politicians and self-appointed “family values” advocates who insist that LGBT people are categorically unfit to serve as parents or judges (because they are sinners and morally flawed), but are too blind to see their own sins and moral flaws.  

The bottom line is that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus Christ ever condemn LGBT people. However, Jesus does expressly condemn people who turn their backs on strangers and on those who are the neediest among us. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says that whoever fails to welcome such people has failed to welcome Jesus himself (Matthew 25:43). In my view, the anti-gay religious leaders, politicians, and “family values” advocates who turn their backs on LGBT people should spend far less time obsessing about LGBT people and far more time thinking about the true sin of Sodom: radical inhospitality.

See also previous posts at Queer Scripture:
 

The Abomination of Heterosexual Intercourse: The Sin of Gibeah (Judges 19)

Books:

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Countryman, William L: Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today

Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Rogers, Jack Bartlett: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

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Magisterium and Scripture

The problem with attempting to deal with the Magisterium of the Church is that it is so vast, that the only way to do it is as one would eat an elephant: one piece at a time. I propose to do just that. Today’s contribution represents just the first course – more will follow.

As the people who insist we follow the Magisterium often also refer us to the Bible, I thought it would be helpful to begin with a look at what the Magisterium has to say about the interpretation of Scripture. Even this is a vast topic. One good starting point is to look at the useful report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (which may be read in full at the excellent “Catholic Resources” website of Felix Just, SJ).

This important document discusses several different approaches to biblical interpretation with their strengths and weaknesses, and offers an overall evaluation of each. Broadly, the commission finds some difficulties and strengths with each, although some seem to find more favour than others. I have no intention of attempting to provide a comprehensive review in a short introduction, but I do want to pull out some specific quotations which seem to me to be especially relevant to any discussion of sexuality and Scripture.

Possibly the most important single sentence to me comes right at the beginning of the Preface:

“The study of the Bible is, as it were, the soul of theology…. This study is never finished; each age must in its own way newly seek to understand the sacred books.

(Which is why I insist that we need to take seriously the findings of modern scholars on the old clobber texts, which cast an entirely new light on their interpretation.)

The INTRODUCTION then continues with an important warning:

“The Bible itself bears witness that its interpretation can be a difficult matter. Alongside texts that are perfectly clear, it contains passages of some obscurity “

(which is why we must be cautious of glib and superficial references to single verses or passages taken at face value.)

One of the reasons for the difficulty, of course, is that

“Readers today, in order to appropriate the words and deeds of which the Bible speaks, have to project themselves back almost 20 or 30 centuries”.

(Which is exactly what our critics seldom attempt to do.)

The first specific approach considered is that of the “Historical-Critical” method:

“Textual criticism….. begins the series of scholarly operations. Basing itself on the testimony of the oldest and best manuscripts … textual-criticism seeks to establish, according to fixed rules, a biblical text as close as possible to the original.”

(To which I would simply point out that the most explicitly erotic book in he Bible, the ” Song of Songs“, is seldom mentioned by religious conservatives discussing homosexuality. But there are good reasons to believe that it was written as a love poem spoken by two men. At least one scholar believes that the oldest available manuscript has a text with language that is unambiguously and exclusively masculine – and that later texts were effectively censored to hide the homerotic element. See the The Song of Songs: the Bible’s Gay Love Poem at The Wild Reed for a useful discussion and review of this book.)

“The text is then submitted to a linguistic (morphology and syntax) and semantic analysis, using the knowledge derived from historical philology”

(No translation which followed this principle would ever have inserted the modern term “homosexuality” anywhere in the Bibple. Not only the word, but even the concept as we understand it, would have been unknown in Biblical times.)

The report continues with a discussion of three forms of literary analysis: rhetorical, narrative, and semiotic.

“Applied to the Bible, the new rhetoric aims to penetrate to the very core of the language of revelation precisely as persuasive religious discourse and to measure the impact of such discourse in the social context of the communication thus begun

 

“With respect to the narrative approach, it helps to distinguish methods of analysis, on the one hand, and theological reflection, on the other.”

 

“Connected with this kind of study primarily literary in character, is a certain mode of theological reflection as one considers the implications the “story” (and also the “witness”) character of Scripture has with respect to the consent of faith and as one derives from this a hermeneutic of a more practical and pastoral nature”

This approach of literary analysis as a basis for pastoral reflection surely supports the kind of Gospel reflections from a gay/ lesbian perspective offered by writers such as Richard Cleaver (“Know my Name“), Michael B. Kelly in “The Road from Emmaus” (reprinted in “Seduced by Grace”) or on -line by Jeremiah at “Gospel for Gays” – and many others.

The next group of approaches discussed are those based on tradition, including the “canonical” approach, which begins

“within an explicit framework of faith: the Bible as a whole.”

to which I can add only, “Hear! hear!”)

We then go on to approaches from the human sciences, particularly the sociological and cultural anthropology approaches, which require

“as exact a knowledge as is possible of the social conditions distinctive of the various milieus in which the traditions recorded in the Bible took shape”.

and seeks

“to define the characteristics of different kinds of human beings in their social context….-with all that this involves by way of studying the rural or urban context and with attention paid to the values recognized by the society……. to the manner in which social control is exercised, to the ideas which people have of family house, kin, to the situation of women, to institutionalized dualities (patron – client, owner – tenant, benefactor – beneficiary, free person – slave)….”

(and, I should not have to add, to prevailing ideas of “normal” sexual relations. I do however, have to stress this point, because this is precisely what the standard view of the Bible and homosexuality ignores. When one does indeed consider the social context of the times, the extraordinary thing about the Bible is not what it says about homosexuality, but how very little it says: no more than six or seven verses, of dubious relevance, in the entire Bible – none of them from the Gospels- this when most societies in the Mediterranean world did not disinguish between the morality of same sex or opposite sex genital acts. )

Of “contextual approaches“, the commission examined only “liberation theology” and “feminist theology”. Since 1993, however, there has been an explosion of writing in areas known variously as gay & lesbian, queer, or indecent theologies, which are of particular relevance to us. As these have largely developed out of other contextual theologies, the remarks of the commission may be easilty extended to them too.

Liberation theology had its roots in Vatican II, and found its most famous expression in Latin America, later also in South Africa and Asia.

“…starting from its own socio-cultural and political point of view, it practices a reading of the Bible which is oriented to the needs of the people, who seek in the Scriptures nourishment for their faith and their life.

It seeks a reading drawn from the situation of people as it is lived here and now. If a people lives in circumstances of oppression, one must go to the Bible to find there nourishment capable of sustaining the people in its struggles and its hopes.”

It is of course true that liberation theology has drawn some strong criticism from the Vatican, particularly in some of its later excesses, and the Commission notes these “risks”. Still, it observes,

“Liberation theology includes elements of undoubted value”.

Both of these observations (of risks simultaneoulsy with value) apply equally to Queer Theology.

Feminist readings, which began in the late 19th Century with the “Women’s Bible” but took on fresh vigour in the 1970’s, especially in the US, emphasises the patriarchal conditions in which Scripture was written, and the resultant biases , requiring that one adopt a position of suspicion about the texts as they stand and instead look for

“look for signs which may reveal something quite different.”

We in the LGBT community would do well to adopt this attitude of suspicion not so much to Scripture, which was not writen with a specifically heterosexual bias, but to much of the traditional commentary, which certainly applied later prejudice retrospectively onto the text.

On the final approach, of fundamentalist interpretaion, the Commission is scathing in its criticism

“The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of this kind is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language”

Of fundamentalism, I say no more.

Where does this leave us?

I freely acknowledge that in going through the Commissions report, I have necessarily been seleective and certainly display my own biases. This was unavoidable given the limitations of time and space. By all means, go through the full report yourelf, or if you want a full discussion on the contents, see “Interpreting the Bible: Three Views“at First Things

I, though, must work with my own conclusions:
  • Biblical interpretation is tricky, and must be undertaken with care. Simplistic use of isolated texts is particularly dangerous.
  • No single approach is complete and sufficient to itself. To one degree or another, all have weaknesses., and so need to be used in combination.
  • Particular sections, let alone single verses, must be evaluated in the context of the entire passage, or even of Scripture as a whole.
  • Careful attention must be paid to the social and cultural conditions of the time, and to the precise linguistic meaning of the words used.
  • The techniques of literary and contextual analysis are useful in providing pastoral reflections appropriatae for our conditions and oppression as LGBT Christians in the Church. There are however risks, and approaches such as queer theology need to be balanced also by other approaches.

Finally, having considered what the Magisterium (as formulated in this one report) has to say about Scripture, I would like to reverse the question: what does Scripture, and specifically the Gospels, have to say about the Magisterium?

Noting the observations about context and the Bible as a whole, I ask you to consider the religious conditions of Jerusalem during Christ’s ministry there. Consider the powerful Sanhedrin, the rabbinical hierarchy, the pharisees, sadducees and scribes who feature so prominently. Now consider Christ’s response to their challenges to His failure to follow the letter of religious law. Time and again, He insisted that adherence to the fundamental law of love, love of God, of one’s neeighbour, and of oneself, took precedence over merely literal adherence to religious regulation.

Now what do you suppose would be His response to those who insist on our blind obedience to the Catechism and to canon law, where it makes religious outlaws of people who are simply following their natural and god -given sexual orientation?

Just a thought.

The Gospels’ Queer Values.

Jesus & Family

The opponents of gay same-sex marriage and of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is), like to claim that their opposition is rooted in traditional family values, “as found in the Bible.”   This claim is so completely spurious, is is remarkable how seldom it is challenged.  Just a little thought and reflection shows not only how the Gospel values have little to d with modern Western conceptions of the “traditional” family, but they are so far removed from it, that the real values espoused can certainly be described as “queer”, if not quite as specifically gay.  In reaching this conclusion, I have been reading and reflecting on the social context of the ‘family’ as experienced in Jewish society and the broader social environment, at Jesus’ own ‘family’ in childhood and maturity,  at His actions, and at His words.

The Jewish Family.

It is important to recognise that traditional Jewish society did indeed place enormous importance on the idea of family, both in the narrow sense of the immediate biological family, and in the broader sense of the ethnic Jewish community.
This was so important that on the one hand, everyone was expected to marry and produce l, and on the other, that those outside the narrow ethnic group were regarded as inferior, even unclean.  The  detailed dietary and other regulations well -known from the Old Testament were part of an elaborate legal structure to maintain the ‘purity’ of the Jewish nation. The Jewish family, however, was very different from our modern conception, deeply patriarchal, and with uneven treatment of men and women. Women were were expected to show rigorous sexual fidelity totheir husbands, and thought of as the ‘property’ of their men.

In the broader social environment, the Jewish state in Jesus’ day was under Roman military occupation.  Like the Greek society of the time, the Romans too had a deeply patriarchal society, and one in which there was not the modern distinction between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ activities.  Distinctions were drawn rather, on the social class of one’s sexual partners, and male citizens would routinely have sex not only with their wives, but also with other lovers, prostitutes and slaves of either gender.

Jesus’ Families.

My reflections on this theme were initially prompted by a posting on “Nihil Obstat” for the feast of the Holy Family, in which she pointed out how very atypical for the time was the Lord’s own childhood family, so often quoted as a model for all Catholic families.

But our childhood families are not the only ones we live with.  More important as we grow older are those adult families we make for ourselves, usually by forming couples in marriage or out of it, and with or without children.  As LGBT people we are also very conscious of how often we may remain single, but still form looser groups of friendship, who may in a real sense become our ‘families’ of a different sort.

So what were the adult ‘families’ that Jesus made for himself?

First, and famously, He did not marry.  This alone is remarkable, given the expectation in Jewish society of marriage and procreation.  So, what were His other relationships – what informal ‘families’ did He form?  We get the answer to this easily enough by looking at the Last Supper.  The Jewish Sabbath meal, and most especially that of Passover, are the occasions above all when Jewish people get together as families.  It si significant then that the Lord spent his own Passover meal – which we know as the ‘Last Supper’, with the 12 apostles:  these were the people we must take to represent His closest family.  Who were these men?  If they ever had wives and families of their own, they had been set aside to spend the rest of their lives with Jesus.

Think about it:  on the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar, when it was customary for all Jewish people to share a ritual meal with their closest family, Jesus and the apostles spent the evening as a group of single men.  Does this not sound remarkably like a modern group of urban gay men spending our equivalent family festivals sharing meals together, away from biological families?

Single people know, of course, that the concept of “family” can be fluid. In addition to our closest, most intimate circle, there are often others who might be very close, almost family, but not quite in our innermost circle. Who represented this ‘almost family’ circle to Jesus Christ?  The most obvious candidates to me are the household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom He had an obviously close and special relationship.  What was the nature of this household?  Once again, very far from the expected “traditional” family.  The two women are described as ‘sisters’ and come across to me as the stronger, more vividly drawn characters:  Lazarus is famed more for his death and rescue from it, than for anything in his life.  Even at face value, this is an unusual household:  Jewish women would typically have been married off at an early age, not still living as adults with their brother.  Where such households did exist, it would normally be the brother, as the only male, who would be expected to dominate the household and be the focus of attention.  For a clearer understanding of the household, it is worth remembering that the word ‘sister’s may have been used euphemistically: it is at least possible that Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple, living with a gay friend as lodger.

So: in His families of choice, the Lord spent His time either with a band of single men, or with a household of two single women  (possibly a lesbian couple), and yet another unmarried man. Even in the broader social circle, I am not aware of any instance where He is reported as spending time with a a conventional married couple with children.  Thus far, in examining the Lord in His own family context, we have found not an endorsement, but a repudiation, of the traditional family.

I still need to show that this repudiation of the traditional family is continued in His words and actions.  That I will do later in a  follow-up post.

 

Homosexuality and the Bible: Bishop Gene Robinson

Queer Catholics often have a tortured relationship with the Bible.  As Catholics, scripture has usually been less prominent in our faith formation than for other denominations. As lesbians, gay men or other sexual minorities, we are always conscious of the abuse of Scripture used as a weapon against us. Fortunately, there are others, including some who should be important role models, who see things rather differently.

A year ago at this time, I was developing my ideas for what became this blog:  prepared during Advent, launched during the Christmas season. In this current season Advent season, I am naturally reflecting on what I have and have not achieved. One of the more important failures has been around Scripture. Right from the start, I planned to share with my readers some of the Good News of Scripture – good news that applies specifically to us as gay men and lesbians, but also the more important Bible messages of hope and joy that are relevant to us all.  It is far too easy to hit the roadblock of the clobber passages, and either turn back, or to spend endless time and energy trying to climb over them.  It is important to remove the blockage, but sometimes it is also important to simply walk around, and to enjoy the rest of the biblical landscape.  I have been seeing a lot of useful insights recently, form John McNeill and others, which shed useful insight into the situation of queer Catholics, but which also have a lot to say to the wider church about the nature of authority and the workings of the Holy Spirit.  I have a further commentary on John McNeil which should be ready for posting later today, but in the meantime, as a useful corrective to the common queer Catholic wariness of Scripture, I thought it could be useful to share with you some thoughts of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, renowned as the first openly gay man to be ordained as bishop in the Anglican Communion.

(These are extracts from his book “In the Eye of the Storm”)

I LOVE THE BIBLE”

I love the Bible. With no reservations, no holding back.

I grew up in a Bible-believing congregation of the Disciples of Christ Church. Every Sunday morning, from ten to eleven, every member of the church, young and old, went to Sunday School, and the study was always about Scripture. From eleven to twelve, we worshipped God, always from the perspective of scripture.

But the experience I had as a child that sealed my love for the bible was this: I heard God’s voice coming through those scriptures.  I’d already begun to wonder about my “difference” and the thought scared me to death. My church was using the words of scripture to say that people who were attracted to others of the same sex were despicable, an “abomination” in the eyes of God.  And yet – and here’s the miracle – I heard God saying to me the words God said to Jesus at his baptism:  “You are my son, the beloved.  With you I am well pleased. [“Luke 3:22”]

I have professed at each of my three ordinations, “I solemnly declare that I do believe the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of god, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”    But what do I mean when I say it?

First, let’s remember that the real, actual “Word” of God is Jesus, the Christ. As the Gospel of John so beautifully says, “in the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God.  And the Word was God.”  That “Word” proceeding from the mouth of God, and existing concurrently with God since before time is Jesus Christ. Jesus himself is the only perfect revelation of God.

All too often we forget that the holy scriptures, while the Word of God, are not the words of God, dictated from on high. The words of scripture are a snapshot spanning fifteen hundred years of humankind’s encounter with the living God. The Hebrew scriptures describe the movement of God in calling God’s people to do things in God’s behalf. The Gospels give three accounts of the life of Jesus, plus one theological reflection on those events and that holy life. The rest of the New Testament contain the story of how the community came o believe that Jesus was still alive, still guiding them.

The Bible is a collection of many accounts of what it is like to encounter the living God.  They are dramatic stories about what happens when God cares enough about creation to be actively engaged in it.  They area faithful accounts of the indescribable, they are words used to recount that for which there are no words:  the mystery of God.

Are those words holy?  Absolutely.  Are they inspired?  I believe they are. But are they inerrant? I don’t believe so. The people who authored those accounts were not inerrant. They were faithful people describing – and testifying to – the meaning of God’s actions on our lives.

That is “all” the Bible is. It’s a compelling, useful and primary source of our knowledge of how God works in the lives of human beings. For countless generations it ahs been the foundation of our faith and a witness to God’s love for us.  But what of “tradition” and “reason”?

“Tradition” is the history of how the church has come to understand, interpret and use those testimonies in the life of the church and the lives of the faithful.  Is the “tradition” inerrant?  Of course not. We don’t have to look far for evidence: the Crusades and the Inquisition are obvious examples of how misguided Christians can be when it comes to putting biblical values into action. Later, we can also not see how far we have strayed from the Revelation of God in Christ? Could the Church’s accumulation of wealth, which continues to this day, have been what Jesus longed for when he cautioned against the corrosive power of possessions?  Could the disregard and ill-treatment of the poor be the sort of thing Jesus had in mind?

Still, the “tradition” is important for several reasons. The tradition is a check on our all too easy self-confidence. We need to learn what our forebears have thought. The history of the church, though I has its share of regrettable actions, is also replete with holy and courageous people of staggering faith, people who risked life and limb to be the loving arms of God in the world. Countless people of faith have written theology, poetry, prayers and reflections that dwarf our own meagre efforts at spirituality and are worthy of our study and thoughtful consideration. There is much to be commended as worthy of our careful and prayerful attention.

Today, in the midst of a struggle between those who suggest that we change the “tradition” of a particular understanding of scripture and those who resist such a revision, it’s instructive to note how many times within our two-thousand-year tradition – always with confusion and pain – the church has changed its understandings.  Just a couple of examples:

Marriage, for most of the first millennium, was seen as a legal arrangement, blessed by the church, to provide for the proper , peaceful and orderly transfer of property:  of the woman from one man to another, the husband; and the transfer of land and property to those who deserved them by virtue of marriage and legitimacy. Since such concerns were relevant only to those who owned any property to be transferred, marriage was regarded as unnecessary for ordinary people. That changed in the Middle Ages and a fuller understanding of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony developed; today marriage is understood as a sacrament open to and recommended to all.  And the notion of marriage –for- love is a concept that developed only in modern times.

Slavery, commonplace in the scripture, continued to exist into the nineteenth century, when the abolitionists began to argue against it.  Both sides in that debate quoted scripture to bolster their arguments.  In the end, slavery was abolished and the church changed its position which it had held for nearly nineteen hundred years.

For nearly two thousand years, the church accepted St Paul’s notion that it was inappropriate for women assume leadership positions in the life of the church Then, following several other Protestant churches, the Episcopal Church changed to permit the ordination of women in 1976.

For countless centuries, anyone divorced and then remarried was unwelcome at Communion; subsequent marriages could not be presided over or blessed by Episcopal clergy. But the church began to realise that we were denying Communion to members when they were most in need of it. Over time, we began to ask, “Might our understanding of what God wants be too severe, too unpastoral, too unresponsive to God’s less-than-perfect children?”.  Over time, accompanied by controversy, the Episcopal Church changed its mind.  Now, the solace and sustenance of the Holy Communion is offered to those who have been divorced, and with appropriate counselling, subsequent marriages may be solemnized or blessed in the church. A very strong tradition was changed.

There’s a much neglected and seldom quoted passage of scripture in St John’s Gospel that reports Jesus’ words to his disciples on the night before he died:  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot listen to them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you to the truth”. (John 16:12-13a).  Jesus is saying, “You are not ready to hear everything I have to teach you – things you cannot culturally comprehend right now.  So I will send the Holy Spirit to guide you and teach, over time, those things which you need to understand.”

The changes we’ve seen in the understanding of Scripture in the nineteen centuries since it was written have happened through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  God hasn’t changed God’s mind, but our ability to apprehend and comprehend the mind of God is limited and sometimes faulty.  The things that seemed simply “the way if the world” – like slavery, polygamy and he lower status of women – in retrospect were examples of humankind’s flawed understanding of God’s will.  Our ability to better discern God’s will has improved with time, prayer and reflection.

God didn’t stop revealing Godself with the closing of the canon of scripture.  God is still actively engaged in ongoing revelation over time, even in our own day.  God didn’t just “inspire” the Scriptures and then walk away, wishing us well in our attempts to understand those words. God’s Holy Spirit continues to lead us into all the truth, as Jesus promised on the night before he was betrayed.

This gives us a whole new way to understand our beloved Anglican Communion’s three-legged stool of authority. Scripture is the inspired accounts of encounters with the divine, written by people who knew the Jahweh of the Hebrew scriptures and the Christ of the Christian scriptures, and set down, in the best words they could conjure, what they learned about God in these encounters. Tradition is the two-thousand –year history of the church as Christians have grappled with those scriptural accounts, seeking to understand them and apply them in their own lives  – and changing former understandings through their own encounters with the Living God through the Holy Spirit.

Finally, reason is the authority that presents itself in our own lives. We not only experience life in our own day and time, but we experience God in the midst of our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who continues to lead us into truth.  Sometimes that leading prompts us to change understandings we may have held for centuries.  The good news in all this is that we worship a God who isn’t locked up in scripture, but a God who is alive and well and active in our midst, continuing to lead us forward in our understanding of God’s unchanging truth.

To learn about God, we always begin with scripture, which, after the full and perfect revelation of the Word, Jesus the Christ, is our primary source.  Then we look at how the church has understood those words of scripture over time.  And then we use our experience and reason to ask what all this might mean for us today. Because we are always prone to shaping everything, including God’s will to our own ends, we must be careful as we apply “reason” in this triad of authorities.  No one person can decide that our former understandings are faulty; changes that veer from long-held understandings must always be made in community. Many minds and hearts, working prayerfully together, must be employed in this discernment of God’s will. But this is a task we must not neglect, for to do so is to reject the leading of the Holy Spirit that has been promised to us.

Sex and Relationships: The Woman Caught in Adultery

In several recent posts where I discussed pairs of lovers who might be thought of as gay or lesbian saints, (Ruth & Naomi, David & Jonathan, Jesus and John, the Beloved Disciple), I have had to face the question of whether these really were “gay”, were these clearly erotic relationships, was there physical expression?  In each case, I suggested that the question was largely irrelevant.  Colleen (and others) in the comments thread pointed out the importance of the quality of the relationships instead.

This point is made very neatly in an observation I came across in “Living it Out”, a useful little book which describes itself as “a survival guide for lesbian gay and bisexual Christians, and their friends, families, and churches.”  Straight away, the title is instructive. There many books, websites and other resources which aim to offer help or guidance to queer Christians and there families. This is the first one I have come across to suggest that the churches also, need help. (The suggestion of course is sound – but I’m not following that up today.)

It is indeed a survival guide, and one of the features that makes ti useful is that it makes no attempt at complex theological argument or exegesis of Scripture, nor is it in any way preachy. What it does instead, is to draw on the thoughts and experiences of  a wide range of contributors, including lesbian gay and bisexual people, as well as family members, friends, pastors and simple straight allies. (Note also the word “bisexual” in that last sentence. We routinely parrot “LGBT”, but seldom specifically include the “B” or the “T”. This book does not profess to include “T”, but does have some useful observations on “B”.)  The material is not organized by contributor, but by theme, with the editors weaving together ideas from a selection of people for each section, fleshing it out with their own ideas, including frequent presentation of “top tips”, and action points and a prayer at the end of each chapter.

One reflection from a contributor “Bill” discussed the well-known story of the woman caught in adultery: (John 8 :3-11)

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery.  They made her stand before the group  and  said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?”  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

“At this, those who heard begn to go away one at  a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.  Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they?  has no-one condemned you?”

“No-one sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared.  “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

The story of the woman caught in adultery is used by both sides of this sort of argument.  One side says “look, Jesus didn’t condemn her” and the other side says yes, but he told her to sin no more.”  The detail I find interesting is Jesus writing in the sand.  We go on and on about sex, either for or against.  It is so easy to latch on to it as an area where actions are unambiguous.  Some think (with good reason) that sex is dangerous and must be controlled. Some think it is to be celebrated and enjoyed (which may often be appropriate).  Both sides think it is unavoidable and of overwhelming importance  .  But Jesus just goes on writing.  perhaps he is bored by the whole idea of sex, as opposed to relationships.