Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Homosexuality and the Church: Two Views

A recent issue of Commonweal includes two very interesting essays on the topic of homosexuality by Roman Catholics.

The first contributor is Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He's a prolific writer and a respected theologian and biblical scholar. His works include Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (1996), The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (1997), Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (2000), and The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (2003).

The second contributor is Eve Tushnet, a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. You can read her blog here.

Johnson has long been one of my favorite New Testament scholars and biblical theologians. I love his book Living Jesus, and I find myself returning again and again to The Creed. I admire and applaud his respectful but firm advocacy for creedal Christianity. See, for example, this excerpt from The Creed entitled "The (Politically Incorrect) Nicene Creed." So it's interesting that, in spite of his Nicene Orthodoxy, Johnson takes what many would regard as a very liberal position on homosexuality.

Eve Tushnet's response to Johnson is my first acquaintance with her, and I find myself fascinated. She's "out" as a lesbian Catholic, but clearly is not in the leftist camp a-la-Integrity (not by a long shot!) as her willingness to submit to traditional Catholic moral teaching indicates.

But, in spite of her disagreement with Johnson, she also doesn't seem to be in the same place as many of the folks on the Episcopal Right (take, for example, those who regularly post or respond to postings on TitusOneNine or Stand Firm). Her blog says, "Conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood," but this essay makes me wonder: could she be a "Catholic Centrist"?

I particularly find Tushnet's critique of Johnson's conception and use of "experience" insightful. She rightly warns against trusting our experience too much, noting that sometimes we have "only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses" at the time of a particular experience (sort of like the "temporary insanity" of falling in love?).

This line really struck me: "But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture."

And then there's this point: "If we seek to overcome any aspects of our culture that conflict with the gospel, I'm not sure why we would expect the gay liberation movement - slightly over a hundred years old - to be less culture-bound, and therefore a better guide to the countercultural aspects of the gospel, than the Catholic Church."

I think that this particular counter-point should give Johnson pause, because if you take the gay issue out of the equation and just focus on the boundaries and norms that define the dogmatic core of Christian faith, this is basically his own argument in The Creed. Johnson boldly upholds a 4th Century conciliar statement of faith over and against the individualistic "gnostic elitism" of post-Enlightenment liberal modernism a la Spong, Borg, Crossan, Pagels, etc. Indeed, it's precisely because it doesn't jive with personal experience that so many Christians find it difficult to subscribe to the Nicene Creed and, in some cases, find it difficult or impossible to even recite it.

I don't know if she realizes this is what she's doing, but Tushnet basically uses Johnson's reasoning in his book The Creed against him on this particular issue.

Since I struggle with these issues (not having found a place to "rest my head" on either the Left or the Right, but also wanting to affirm the rightful place of gays and lesbians in the life of the Church), I appreciate both of these essays. And I would really like to read Johnson's response to Tushnet's criticisms.

Read it all.

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