Thursday, July 06, 2006

Hefling: "How Shall We Know?"

I've been reading Other Voices, Other Worlds: The Global Church Speaks Out on Homosexuality, edited by Terry Brown, Bishop of Malaita. There's a few essays that I want to discuss, beginning with one entitled How Shall We Know?" by Charles Hefling, professor of systematic theology at Boston College and editor-in-chief of the Anglican Theological Review.

Hefling suggests that current arguments for reconfiguring the norms regarding same sex relationships revolve around the theme of justice. It is in the name of justice that we insist that there should be no second class citizens in the kingdom of God. It is in the name of justice that we argue that if baptism gives us full membership in the Church, and qualifies us to receive the Eucharist, it should follow that all the baptized are also qualified for the blessings of ordination and marriage. Excluding a person because they are gay is unjust.

Hefling suggests that the justice argument alone is not necessarily wrong, but is insufficient. Although justice is one of the cardinal virtues, it is not one of the theological virtues (not the primary concern of the Gospel). The argument for justice by itself is not enough to refute the objection that Christians are held to a higher standard than that imposed by civil laws; it does not counter the objection to sin.

The two arguments; one against discrimination and the other introducing sin, have no common ground within the Church. If the second is proved to be true, the first becomes irrelevant.

Consequently, Hefling suggests the question that has to be addressed first, before the justice argument can be heard as a valid premise, is on what grounds do we claim that same sex relationships are sinful? Is that judgement true?

The obvious answer that some will give is "the bible told me so." In answer to the question, "Is gay sex incompatible with scripture?" Hefling responds with "Yes, of course it is, if you mean the bible contains passages that condemn it." Personally, I think he surrenders this point too quickly, but let's move along, as the section that I found quite interesting is before us:

...The ordinary, natural means by which we reach ordinary, natural ends - our native intelligence, the light of reason - does not suffice. Informed, conscientious deliberation does tell us the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. What it does not tell us, and what could only be revealed, is that doing those things which we know we ought to do is pleasing and acceptable to God...

...What does all this imply about Scripture? Two things. First is that on matters of faith, on what Christians are to believe for their soul's health, scripture is the sole authority. The second, however, is that Scripture is not and cannot be the complete, all sufficient criterion by which to discern our moral duty...
The example Hefling uses to show that even Paul taught that moral obligation does not have to be revealed is from the same passage that is often cited in our current debate about sexuality; Romans 1 and 2:

1:18 - For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse...

...2:14 - When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
Hefling suggests that the biblical laws have always required that distinctions be made. Even if one views it as an instruction manual, there is no guide as to how the instructions are to be applied. That task has traditionally been left to the Church, using "natural reason," or, as Hefling puts it, "judgement based on the most serious and intelligent deliberations Christians could bring to bear..." He then summarizes this point:

God is not at odds with our best moral judgement. The human capacity to know the good is not only a capacity that he has created but also, what is more, a likeness and a taking part in his eternal Word, the true light that enlightens every man and woman.
Some who are reading this might now be ready to label Hefling a heretic or worse. Let me note that this premise is very similar to that offered by Irenaeus in regards to human progress, which we have previously discussed. Beyond that, at this point Hefling reveals that he has been leaning heavily on the lectures on conscience written by the Caroline Divine Robert Sanderson, who was one of the revisers of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. He was expelled from his post at Oxford by the Puritans, "...with their legalistic insistence on the 'plain sense' of scripture."

Having introduced the Puritans into the conversation, Hefling continues by asserting that one way of understanding our current tensions is to consider them as a continuation of the struggle between the Anglicans and the Puritans:

...There you have the real issue: the enormous difference between holding, in the tradition of Hooker and Sanderson, that there are understandable reasons for what God wills, and holding that what God wills, he simply wills - full stop...

...On the Anglican position, the first divine attribute is wisdom. It belongs to wisdom to set things in order, and God orders all creation "sweetly and mightily". On the Puritan position, the first divine attribute is freedom. Nothing precedes God's deciding, much less restricts it. What God chooses is good simply and solely because God chooses it...On the Anglican position there is ultimate harmony between the moral duties that follow from natural tendencies, and the imperatives God has revealed. Biblical commandments and 'natural law' coincide...On the Puritan position, there is nothing morally relevant to be learned from the nature of things...ethics has no empirical element...
From this, Hefling suggests that the Anglican position considers asking why as being not only legitimate, but our duty. The Puritan position would insist that asking why was a sign of pride and disobedience.

Hefling then returns to the passage from Romans to point out that Paul is making an Anglican argument. First, as has been mentioned, Paul affirms the validity of 'natural reason' to discern what is right and wrong. Secondly, it is important to note that Paul is not claiming that God will impose some kind of extrinisic punishment on those who engage in these kinds of behavior. Paul is saying that the behaviors themselves are the punishment.

With this in mind, it is then possible that we can discern if a behavior is moral or not by looking for the self-inflicting penalty. As Aquinas said, "God is not offended by us, except by what we do against our own good."

In other words, if gay sex is offensive to God, there must be evidence that it is "obstructing the orderly unfolding of the human good." Paul's claim that it is "against nature" is a statement of his own understanding, based on human intelligence; on 'natural reason.' Unless we can prove that gay sex is a form of punishment; that it is always a corruption of humanity, there is no reason to agree with Paul on this point.

I think that Hefling has at least mapped out the direction for our future responses to the modern Puritans. We need more than the issue of justice (not that justice isn't important; it's just not enough by itself). I think we have to continue asking the question why, and have empirical evidence, drawn from natural reason, to support our answers. There needs to be more discussion of the role human sexuality plays in contributing to the good of society as well as the individual. The impact human sexuality has on our psychic, emotional and spiritual well being cannot be underestimated. "Natural reason" suggests that it is time to consider more than than two options, sin or celibacy, as the only moral choices for gay and lesbian Christians.

I'll give Hefling the last word:

...But willingness to entertain an argument, mine or any other, is not produced by arguing. That prior condition of willingness is met, humanly speaking, in the irreducibly personal encounter that meets another, face to face and heart to heart.

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