Saturday, August 09, 2003

Religious Controversy and Tolerance

Thoughts inspired by Chris's reflections on the nature of religion and the place of debate in the church.

I believe that people of good will can disagree about religious issues in good faith. It's important to note this, because, like politics, religious debate is often characterized thusly: my position is well thought out and reasoned, prayerfully considered, and uninfluenced by cultural trends or worldly considerations; my opponents' position is a rationalization designed to appeal to modern sensibilities, with no basis in religious tradition, prayer or spiritual reflection.

It is absolutely possible to read the Bible, pray and reflect on controversial issues (or noncontroversial ones) and come up with completely different answers than someone else. One obvious reason for this is that the Bible was written by many different people, at various points in history, in many different languages, and translated in various ways, depending on the cultural context of the translation. Of course, there are denominations which believe that every word of the Bible was divinely inspired and is thus inerrantly true, but even those who hold this belief must do some picking and choosing and interpreting, because there are many places where the Bible contradicts itself and scientific or historical facts. Most Christians do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and are freer to decide for themselves which portions of the text are timeless truths and which ones are cultural leftovers that may have been originally relevant, but have no bearing on modern life (i.e. kosher laws, for most Christians). Since the majority of Christians do this, it seems a bit unfair to say that those who come to different conclusions than yours "treat faith like a buffet that should be picked over according to one's own personal standards" while you "believe that it's important to eat the vegetables because Mom says they're good for you." Virtually all Christians engage in the "buffet approach" to the Bible - the only difference is which portions are accepted and which are rejected.

Because of this, I think it's fairly pointless to debate the meaning of individual Biblical passages and the relative weight they should be accorded in resolving issues such as the role of homosexuals in the church. Sufficeth to say, I have prayerfully considered this issue, consulted my Bible, and discussed it with Biblical authorities I trust, and I have come to a different conclusion than Christopher's. I feel that the Biblical admonitions against homosexuality are cultural relics, and that our modern understanding of human sexuality can lead us to a different and more inclusive treatment of gays and lesbians. In my own church (which is the only one I'm really qualified to comment on), I'd like to see the issue of same sex unions addressed first, rather than ordination of homosexuals. If ordination of homosexuals is approved prior to same sex unions, then straight ministers will be expected to be either celibate or married, while homosexual ministers must be celibate or they will be living in a relationship which is not sanctioned by the church, this would be neither fair nor appropriate.

Finally, some people who disagree on these issues, on both sides of the debate, are not doing so from a position of good faith and a sincere desire to seek God's will. There's no way to know for sure who these people are, but one clue is their conduct during these debates. For example, some of those who opposed the ordination of gays in the Episcopal church engaged in a last minute smear campaign designed to discredit Robinson, in order to derail his ordination. The allegations they came up with were, on their face quite serious: that he had touched a male parishioner inappropriately, and that an organization he was affiliated with had a porn link on it's web site. Upon investigation, these charges proved to be baseless - the "inappropriate touch" was a pat on the back, and the porn links were several degrees removed from the site of the organization that Robinson was formerly affliliated with. (In other words, the organization's site linked to a site, which linked to a site, which linked to a site that had pornographic images. Given the prevalence of porn on the web, I daresay many respectible organizations are only a few links removed from pornography, but that is a very different thing from promoting it yourself.) Given the scanty and easily disproven nature of these accusations, it's hard to believe that they weren't brought up in a malicious, win at any cost spirit. If they were, then they are a prime example of seeking to impose your own interpretation on the church rather than seeking God's will, exactly the sort of thing that religious conservatives accuse liberals of.

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