At their immature levels, religions can be obsessed with the differences that make them better or more right than others. Pope Francis insists that mercy is at the very top of the Christian hierarchy of great truths*, and everything falls apart whenever mercy is displaced by anything else or anything less. —Fr Richard Rohr
Pastor John Pavlovitz wrote in a recent post: “Whatever hill is worth dying on for you in this life, take it now.”
I realized right away that I knew which “hill” that was for me. Despite the progress of the past decade, the ability of LGBTQ+ people to work, to buy ordinary products and services, to adopt children, to live in a particular building or neighborhood, even just to live at all has been under heavy attack of late.
A couple of weeks ago I watched Hannah Gadsby’s high-impact one-woman show Nanette, which you absolutely should check out. In her native Tasmania, homosexuality was illegal until 1997!!!! I was 37 then, for freak’s sake! That was a sobering reminder of how fragile our situation is. In my relatively open community, it’s easy to forget how difficult things can be in so many parts of the world.
And of course that includes much of the US. The vice-president, may he soon be enlightened, is trying to establish a “religious liberty” office to make sure that anyone whose religion tells them to discriminate against those who are different in their sexual or gender identity can do so with complete freedom, the Constitution and legal precedent be damned. As Cornel West has said, “The fundamentalist Christians want to be fundamental about everything except Love Thy Neighbor!”
I often find myself imagining something like this:
Incredibly, because Americans insist on continuing to use the death penalty and it seemed to be under threat, last fall the US voted AGAINST a UN “resolution condemning the use of the death penalty as punishment for consensual gay relations.” The resolution passed anyway, but the US had sided with a group of countries known for human-rights abuses and against all of Europe and almost all of the rest of the Americas. We could have abstained. We did not.
This feels more and more like a crisis, one building inexorably, one that can’t be ignored. “If you aren’t finding your voice right now, don’t bother worrying about it again,” Pavlovitz wrote. “You won’t have one much longer.” So I am continuing to make whatever sounds I can.
The event that got me started thinking about writing this post was the death of Jeremy Reynalds, who founded the local help for the homeless organization Joy Junction. Friends commented about something I had forgotten: that Reynalds not only forbade LGBTQ+ folk from staying at his shelter, but even refused to take donations from such people. Wow. I wasn’t good enough for him to help me if I needed it, and even my money wasn’t good enough for him. I had a seriously hard time with this. It bugged me for days. It even contributed to some physical symptoms.
But later, I read that Reynalds had changed, which is a great relief and source of hope. ‘“I’m much less judgmental than I used to be, and that’s made me a much happier person,” Reynalds said in 2016. “My mantra for the last eight or nine years is ‘Let God do the judging, and I will do the loving.’”
Understanding why certain religious people are so set in their anti-LGBTQ stance runs one directly down the infinitely dark rabbit hole of biblical literalism. In researching background for this post, I came across the word “bibliolatry,” which refers to worshiping the written word above all else including real, living people and even the living traditions of one’s faith– not to mention the living Christ in whom one supposedly believes. To that, another kind of Christian might reply:
I understand that we all cherry-pick whatever agrees with our preconceived notions. However— something that has been said so many times, but it bears repeating since they Just Don’t Seem to Get It— if these people are going to insist that same-sex relationships are sinful because of their interpretation of a few words in Leviticus, why is it that they feel free to eat shellfish and wear polyester/cotton clothing and trim their beards?
I haven’t had any recent opportunities to ask this directly of an evangelical. Typical answers might be that this was written a very long time ago and that society has changed a great deal, and/or that Jesus superseded the Old Testament laws with the greater law of “Love one another.” One article, in explaining why we no longer execute disobedient children, simply stated, “The Old Testament Law is not in force today.”** Well, that was easy, wasn’t it. Except that they’re saying it is.
In addition to this convenient inconsistency, they seem to have decided that the way God constructed nature and humanity is not OK, because they insist that biology is something quite different from what it really is. It probably won’t help to tell a person who believes the Earth is only 6000 years old to objectively observe the natural world, but even a cursory survey would quickly show that sexuality and gender are not binary, but exist along continua. Now, for religious people to question nature and find it lacking is to question and criticize the workings of the mind of God. Isn’t that blasphemy? How can that be acceptable to them?
Well, that’s why it’s so crucial for them to believe that sexual orientation is a choice. If homosexuality does NOT inherently exist in nature, but rather is invented by depraved or confused human minds, then there is no conflict with their chosen biblical interpretation. Likewise, if there is no such thing as an intersex or transgender child and the kids are only imagining it all, there is no need to revise rigidly prescribed gender roles. There are powerful incentives for them to wish reality away.
Somehow I have felt compelled to follow the rabbit downward and better understand the origins of this way of thinking. I hadn’t realized how recent a phenomenon biblical literalism is. Fundamentalists might like to think of themselves as part of an ancient tradition, part of the bedrock of Christianity, as the name implies, but this is not the case. Certainly it is not how most of us brought up in mainstream forms of Christianity were taught to think about the bible. We were taught in Catholic school that biblical stories such as the Adam and Eve myth were to be understood as allegories, and there is nothing at all modern or “liberal” about such an attitude. Very early authorities such as Philo of Alexandria and Origen*** wrote about just that way of understanding scripture, and their teaching was accepted for most of the past two millennia.
Dr. Kevin Lewis went so far as to describe literalism as heresy: ’The heresy of literalism as such is a modern, post-scientific phenomenon. Its beginnings can be traced in seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy, but it bloomed with twentieth-century Fundamentalism, when the modern world fully embraced the dynamic power of natural science. Scientific method crucially altered the Western mind. After Descartes we became principled skeptics, doubting in order to find out the truth. The notion stole into the religious mind that biblical narratives make proposals that only appear to compete with testable scientific findings (to test our faith) while ultimately, if miraculously, conforming to scientific truth.’
‘So rose up in history a reactionary Christian mind, panicked and defensive, straining to assert scientific proof (thereby establishing absolute certainty) for its Scripture and the articles of belief it wished to communicate. Thus did literalism teach the “letter” to drive out the “spirit” of the biblical writings, effectively misusing the text in order to promote a corrupted theological agenda. The effect is a rigid constriction of the inspiring Word.’
I have often said that if someone wishes to take scripture literally, they had better be able to read and write the ancient languages involved, fluently, and understand exactly how the words were used at the time those passages were written. Only then can they expect to have any idea what it is that they are taking literally. Some scholars try to do that.
A rather arcane article, “The Secret History of Leviticus” by Idan Dershowitz, showed up in the New York Times, interestingly enough. Dershowitz analyzed the text in detail to elucidate likely changes over the long period of time that probably elapsed as the book was rewritten into its present form. He points out that there were generally no known prohibitions against sex between men in earlier times, and that the prohibitions appear to have been absent in the earliest version of Leviticus as well, and to have been added later in the book’s history. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/21/opinion/sunday/bible-prohibit-gay-sex.html?action=click&module=Trending&pgtype=Article®ion=Footer&contentCollection=Trending
An interesting case is a website written by Rick Brentlinger, who identifies himself as a gay Christian and an independent Baptist preacher. (I’m a little sorry to identify him by name, since I am about to harshly criticize him.) I found it while looking for the meaning of the passages about homosexuality in the original languages. He has a rather different take on Leviticus, and on Paul, asserting that in both cases the prohibition is really against temple prostitution rather than same-sex relations in general. I can’t say whether or not he is accurate in his analysis, but it is an interesting perspective. One statement of his with which I wholeheartedly agree: ”Scripture cannot mean NOW/ What it did not mean THEN.”
Unfortunately, Brentlinger goes on to toe the literalist line, even stating in so many words that Adam was a real man and the first human. He rails against common practices like contemplative prayer and meditation, saying that only reading or hearing scripture is acceptable prayer. (It amazes me— how is one supposed to listen to God with all those words chattering in one’s mind all the time?) Yet he even slams Lectio Divina, in which one reads scripture in a mystical manner, intending to let its meaning manifest in a nonverbal awareness. Even the way other people read the Bible is not good enough for him! It seems to me that he is playing along with the game plan of the very people who oppress him and his. I can empathize a little, though. Otherwise he would have to separate entirely from his faith community and his home culture, I suppose, and that might be too much to contemplate. It seems that he is finding a way to be part of the groupthink and be himself at the same time.
At any rate, there is nothing at all that literalists can quote from Jesus’ preaching on homosexuality or other matters of sexual orientation or gender identity, because nothing is there, neither prohibitions nor permissions. There is that one story that can be interpreted as being tolerant of same-sex relationships, the one about the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant/companion and shows absolute faith that he can do it. Brentlinger does interpret it that way.
I wonder what the literalists think about the apocryphal books such as the Gospel of Thomas, and how they deal with the idea that some gospels were written through divine inspiration and some weren’t, when it is clear that ordinary humans chose which books to include in the canon. Some of those books were of inferior quality, but others were discarded because they didn’t fit the political power needs of the men who were in charge. And they were all men, of course. In the early days of Christianity, many individuals were preaching and transmitting their own revelations and insights, and some of the most famous were women. The powers that were felt the need to squelch all that, making us all poorer in the process. Some of the early writings have come to light in the past century, of course, and now we have a broader perspective that makes biblical literalism appear all the more ludicrous.
It was decided by some of those august Church Fathers, trying to hold their young organization together, that revelation had stopped at the death of the last apostle, and no one else was going to hear anything worthwhile from God! This connects with the suspicious attitude toward contemplative prayer and meditation— one must simply accept what has already been written, and heaven forbid that one might connect with the divine on one’s own. (Everything there is authoritarian at its core. And that, dear reader, has a lot to do with the love of fundamentalists for our current administration.)
I’ll end by bringing you back to John Pavlovitz, who had to broaden his thinking when he was exposed to people who were different from those he’d been brought up with— and then his brother came out as gay. ‘”It was a gradual deconstruction of my faith,” he says. “You look at one isolated area of the Bible, for example, then realize, Well, if that doesn’t mean what I was taught it meant, what other areas of my spiritual journey was I taking for granted? So you start digging into it, and you find yourself exploring all areas of your belief system.”’
And he claims some of that personal revelation, which doesn’t go over well with the kind of church he moved away from:
‘Some simply know in their gut, he says, that a religion of in-groups and out-groups isn’t what Jesus was preaching.’
You know, if you’ve been reading my stuff, where I stand with regard to personal revelation. And so here I am, on my hill, where I intend to stay until it’s no longer necessary.
*Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 36-37.
This article also takes up archeological questions about the origin of the people of Israel, the supposed conquest of Canaan, and the exodus from Egypt. These are fascinating matters which also feed into our current political situation, but I’ll take them up at another time.