Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 4 of 4)


Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here: http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/?page_id=893

This post, the fourth and final of the series, takes up the question of how Christians are to interpret the book of Leviticus, and what the role of Christianity in the public sphere can and should be.

 

Homosexuality and the Bible 4/4: What do Christians do?

When it comes to how Christians are to make use of Leviticus several questions can be posed at the outset. These questions are not made in vain, but are asked in order fully to think through the commandments and the assumptions we are making in advocating for one position or another, particularly in a context in which Christians clearly do not follow kosher dietary laws (to say nothing of kosher slaughtering of animals), nor prohibitions on mixed fibres, nor today even the laws of niddah.

First, why do we follow these rules? Do we follow these rules because God told us to follow them? Why? Why did God ask us to follow them — after all, some laws have suprarational bases, and defy logic, but nevertheless, the question ‘why’ must be asked if we are to enter more deeply into this revelation from God we call scripture. For Christianity, why follow the laws in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Torah? After all, Paul positions Christianity as a religion of the Spirit, not Torah. What are the assumptions we are making?

If the response to the initial question about why we follow these rules is ‘to please God’ — a somewhat Counter-reformation Catholic answer — then we have the assumption that God can be pleased. Howso? That is, what is the manner of God’s pleasure? Is it akin to our own? Again, I am not asking these questions vain, but to think through the commandments fully, take them seriously, and come to a knowledge of God (‘to know, love, and serve the Lord your God in this life, and be happy with God in the next,’ as the catechism once proclaimed). Or is God’s pleasure metaphorical language, and if metaphorical, what light does the metaphor of God’s pleasure shed on the laws at hand, both positive — ‘do this’ — and negative ‘thou shalt not’.

If we say that God revealed the law to us, we are making two assumptions: 1) God and 2) Revelation. What or who is God? What is a God of self-disclosure, and what is a God whose manner of self-disclosure is garbed in words of law and ceremony? Why choose that manner of self-disclosure? A Christian believer, of course, must also take into consideration the revelation imparted by God-incarnate, by Jesus himself. Jesus, of course, argued with the teachers of Torah-law, and came into conflict with the Temple establishment of priests and Sadducees. In the canonical Gospel accounts, Jesus’ teaching tends to focus by and large on the lack of follow-through when it comes to the positive commandments, rather than on ensuring that people who trip up in not avoiding the negative commandments be excised from the community. Jesus’ harshest words are for those who do not feed the poor or clothe the naked, who do not care for their sick or visit the imprisoned.

Given Jesus’ focus on the positive commandments, how are we to prioritise the various statutes? This question was raised by Green towards the end of his article. It seems that people have various means of assessing the question of priority, and the conflict of priority between different groups gives rise to accusations of hypocrisy by those turned off or turned away by organised religion. How do we assess priority? By the number of times a particular law is mentioned? By the degree of revulsion breaking a negative commandment or the pleasure of doing a positive commandment would evoke within us, individually or collectively? By the admonitions of the prophets, who continually called the community back to the basics of taking care of the oppressed and avoiding using one’s authority to damage the lives of other human beings? If we cannot assess priority in our personal lives, how can we assess priority for civic life, when the matters do not concern a loss of life or the alienation of property?

If the admonitions of prophets is to be granted authority in prioritising the statutes, then I can cite three prophets whose words should be taken into account when it comes to the verses in Leviticus. First, Ezekiel mysteriously leaves out Lv 18.22 from his reconfiguration of the Holiness Code, as I mentioned in part two of this post. Second, Micah proclaims: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly (or discreetly) with your God.” (If one wonders what may have come before the ‘and’ in that verse and is concealed from us, I would suggest the word ‘how’.) Being Christians, one could choose Moses as the third prophet, referenced by Jesus when asked what was the greatest commandment, as presented in the Gospel of Mark: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your power.” This commandment is called the ‘Shema’ in Hebrew, after the initial word of the verse. The commandment goes on to state: ‘Teach these words diligently to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your homes, when you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise; bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be a sign between your eyes, and write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.’ It may be that Jesus considered the rest to be separate commandments, or it may be that at the time all that sufficed for a reminder to those who questioned him were the initial words. I could ask why this is not given priority (how many Christians recite the Shema evening and morning, before driving, how many place mezzuzot on their doorposts?), except the point I am trying to make is that measure by which Christians should prioritise their legal battles for a socially just world.

Finally, we come to the actual analysis of the text. To do a proper textual analysis, the context of textual interpretation should be clearly set out, and I identify five contexts which can be brought to bear on Torah interpretation by Christians, in roughly chronological order of evidence:

1. Jewish tradition states that at Sinai the Oral and Written Torah was given to Moses. The written Torah is what is written on the scrolls: the consonants of the text. This is what is translated and used by Christians. The Oral Torah, in addition to certain vocalisations of the text (i.e. putting in the vowel points), tells us to what extent a particular law applies, when it applies, how it is to be performed, or where. Thus, ‘bind these words upon your arm/ hand and let them be a sign between your eyes’ is elaborated in the Oral Torah, so that teffilin are placed on the upper portion of the arm, on the biceps, rather than say, near the wrist or the outside of the arm. Likewise with the commandment ‘You shall do no work on the Sabbath’: While Christians today seem confused about what day is the Sabbath (it is the day when Jesus rested in the tomb, as the hymns for Holy Saturday proclaim in the Orthodox church; the day he rose is the eighth day, a day of renewal and the first of the week), the Oral Torah describes what counts as work. The Rabbis listed 39 categories of labour forbidden during the Sabbath, all of which point back not only to the construction of the Temple, but also the construction of the cosmos.

Because both an Oral and Written Torah were given and needed interpretation before Jesus’ time, it stands to reason that Rabbinical modes of interpretation should be taken into account. I have already referred to Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 rules for elucidating the Torah, in which similar words used in different contexts are meant to clarify one another. Another of the 13 rules states that a matter’s meaning is derived from the context surrounding the verse. In the case of Lev 18, one suggested context is sexual violence, or what looks violent (e.g. sex with a menstruating woman could let to the appearance of blood on the man, looking like he did something violent to the woman). I personally find the use of context for Lev 18.22 to be a somewhat weak argument, given how informed contemporary interpretations are about by anthropological theories of kinship relations, although mishkeveh-ishah (in Genesis) and mishkev-zakhar (in Judges and Ps 41 or 42) both refer to kinship. Besides, the general category of the verse — beginning with v6, ending with v23 frames kinship in the context of the land, specifically in defiling land; it contrasts the kinship structures of Egypt, Canaan, and Israel. How will Israel claim kinship to its surrounding neighbours? Therefore one could look at the verse in Gen 3 about cleaving to wife and becoming one flesh, although exposing the nakedness of kin does not necessarily equal the becoming of one flesh with them; the point of Leviticus 18 seems to be that these are the people with whom a man already is one flesh. In other words, do not become one flesh with those with whom one is already one flesh. Whether all Israelite men are already one flesh with one another through Jacob is an interesting argument to make, and raises the question of why commandments directed towards women are almost entirely ignored in the chapter, save for the ‘improper mixing’ of human with animal — a term clearly aimed at preventing an argument that because animals are not human, they cannot already by one flesh with humans, and are therefore permissible. Lastly, I also alluded to Eliezer ben Yose Galili’s homiletic interpretations of ‘et’ and ‘gam’ as concealing some further insight which can be gained once humans societally have progressed towards increased social justice.


2. The Rabbinic period began before and extended after Jesus’ time; Jesus came along in the midst of these discussions and emphasised that the laws are not to be used as a club against people. He made this point forcefully with regard to the woman caught in adultery, but he also made his point when his disciples were criticised for harvesting grain on the Sabbath (harvesting is not permitted on the Sabbath, one of 39 categories of labour prohibited.)  What did Jesus say?  ‘The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.’  This principle answers the very first question I set out:  why do we follow these rules?  Why were they given?  The answer Jesus gives, as recorded in the canonical Gospels, is that they were made for the benefit of humans, not our harm; and therefore the commandments must serve either refraining from harming others (e.g. ‘you shall not murder’) or to increase our peace (‘observe the Sabbath’). The Torah is tree of life when grasped by the observant; it is a tree of death to the wielder and the oppressed when it is used to club people into observance. Thus, the argument about merely quoting the Bible as an exercise in free speech fails: The problem is not quoting scripture. The real issue is how scripture is used socially, and when quoted as a response to a social issue, the Bible is being used socially. It is never ‘mere quotation’. When Torah is used to club people, scripture is being mis-used. It is not loving mercy, certainly, and today it is clearly seen by others in a pluralistic society to be socially unjust. For some within Christianity, it is a betrayal of the prophets. Finally, when Jesus speaks of sexuality, apart from the woman caught in adultery, he points to an eschatological future ideal, in which humans neither give nor are given in marriage (but live as the angels do, in mystic communion with the divine life). The early Christians certainly took that eschatological ideal seriously, and sought to implement it on earth: thus the monastics live like angels, celibate, poor, and focused on prayer, often prayer through work.


3. Building on Jesus’ teachings as presented in John’s Gospel, Paul (who as a rabbi seems to have allied himself with the House of Shammai, but after his conversion rejected that approach) teaches that Christians are to look at the spirit of the Torah.  What is the point of the law? Green did this in his article, when he said the point of various laws is to teach one thing or another; however, his approach seemed quite piecemeal, and I would frame the interpretation of all the laws in terms of social justice, taking seriously the idea that the Torah was given to benefit human society. The question of ‘what is the point’ when seen through a socially moral-justice lens is where the idea that the law in Leviticus 18 is meant to extend to all sex acts which demean or humiliate becomes important for Christians. Essentially, once we take Paul’s admonition to embrace the freedom of the Spirit or grace in the Torah, the reasoning process begins to dovetail with rabbinic interpretation, though the Rabbis still advocate for observing the law in its details, but with understanding of the law’s place and purpose; Paul advocates for just taking the spirit of the law as is.

Paul was a missionary. He wanted to draw people to the Gospel message. Paul wrote that he made himself all things to all men, but is weak with those who are weak. In this context ‘weak’ meant those scrupulous to observe Rabbinic law, specifically the stricter interpretations of the laws of kashrut (kosher dietary and slaughter laws). Yet Paul advises the mature Christian to judge for oneself what is right and what is wrong — but that the measure by which we judge is the measure by which we ourselves will be judged by God.


4. Subsequent to Paul’s time, Late Antique/ Patristic era Christianity developed four ways of reading scripture — literally, allegorically, anagogically, and morally (as in ‘the moral of the story is…’). This mode of interpretation held sway at least until the High Middle Ages, at which point it coexisted with theological philosophy, more commonly known as scholastic theology. The benefit of those four modes of reading scripture is that the legalism is taken out of the picture. Although legalism remained in canon law, monastic rules, and handbooks of penance, the interpretation of scripture according to these four modes sought out the applicable or inner meanings of the text for people who were not bound by the literal observance of the laws. Thus, early Church fathers for symbols behind non-kosher animals like pigs and raptors, and decried rapacity and gluttony in humans as the inner meaning towards which these verses pointed. Regarding Lev 18, the focus was more on permissible and impermissible degrees of marriage — and of course, by the sixteenth century, it was precisely over that issue that the established church in England asserted its autonomy from Rome.

Since I’m discussing legalisms, as I mentioned in part three, Christian and Muslim ideas on the topic of male-male sexual interaction took different trajectories. Christians relied on Greek translations of the Hebrew text, and they tended to adopt Roman law to the verse — and the weight of offence was often heavier on the penetrated than the penetrator. In the books of penance which survive from the early middle ages, the act of anal sex was seen more as a mockery of heterosexual intercourse, was punishable as mockery. In this regard, Green’s opposing homosexual behaviour and God’s institution of marriage is in a similar vein of argumentation, though not quite so historically informed. (I will leave aside the fact that marriage was not defined as a sacrament until the twelfth century, and I will take up in a later post how we are to understand the phenomena of typological antecedents in Scripture, such as Adam and Eve, as genealogies for present day theological positions, and the limits of pressing those types as a justification for an ‘it can only be this way’ position). Other sexual activities were treated with great leniency (as far as medieval penances go).

(For an extended commentary on the four senses of scripture, I would refer the reader to the following blog:

http://brotherandre.stblogs.com/2007/12/11/the-four-senses-of-scripture/#_ftn3 )

5. In the high middle ages, however, another mode of moral theorising developed, one which took its inspiration from scripture, but which directed scripture to philosophically informed ends. At this point, moral theology really began to take on an Aristotelian cast, whereas prior to scholastic theology, some Patristic era writers like Augustine took up Stoic and Neoplatonic moral philosophy to inform their positions. Philosophic means of interpreting scripture though, are not necessarily relevant or considered authentic or authoritative for Evangelicals and the non-Conformist churches.

It is from scholastic theology that the moral scene was set with regard to using the terms ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ to refer to homosexual activity, masturbation, and (artificial) contraception. Some of this thinking enters with a moral theologian named Ulpian, but it is really when Ulpian’s thought in the area of sexual relations gets taken up by Thomas Aquinas, almost without change, that allows this discourse of natural and unnatural. (In other areas of moral reasoning, Aquinas tends to be much more ‘liberal’ or pastoral in his approach.) ‘Natural’ in this moral theological context means ‘the end towards which something tends’ — thus, seen from a very restricted light, the end towards which sexual activity tends is the reproduction of the species. Any circumvention of that could be argued to be ‘unnatural’. As a result, if the Catholic church today were to lift the ban on artificial contraception, the ban on homosexual activity would also be lifted, because for the past 800 years, the moral logic underlying both has been the same. On the other hand, progress in understanding how many ends sexual activity serves has led the Catholic church to begin re-examining its claims. Among those additional ends are the strengthening of the marital bond, a function which remains present even in infertile couples. Just as infertile couples are morally permitted to have sex since ‘if they could have children, they would be open to them’, one could argue that same-sex couples be given the same economia, the same dispensation. Such at least, is one part of the current Latin theological approach to the topic.

Taking the above summary as a whole, the context in which the laws of Torah were clarified has shifted over the centuries. Both R. Yishmael and Paul used a mostly halakhic, or legal approach (specifically of the school of Shammai, if Paul was a student of Gamliel). Jesus engaged in halakhic and midrashic (homiletical) interpretation to point others towards an eschatological end. For us today, reclaiming those approaches as the axiomatic starting point for legal interpretations of scripture would be beneficial, if only for the breadth of vision such an approach can offer. The focus of interpretation, though, should take into account how working out methods of scriptural interpretation reflect contemporary needs, and ask when and how such methods are applicable in the public arena today.

Coda: A response to comments made on-air, 2012-02-25

I began this series of posts by discussing its inception in a radio interview at BBC Oxford in February 2012. Two parts of the post took up the issues raised in an article written beforehand by one of the interviewees. Here, I wish to turn my attention to some of the discussion points raised during the show itself. Although present, I was not one of those interviewed; had the discussion veered towards specifically theological topics, I would have been brought on, as my own background includes a Masters in theology, focusing on Jewish and Christian texts from the second Temple period through the end of the Late Antique Era. At the time of the interview, I was an M.Phil candidate in Medical Anthropology at Oxford University, and a queer college-mate of Molly, one of the two students interviewed on the show.

The common ground among all the participants, acknowledged at the end of the interview, including having the right to free speech to come onto the show, that all people are looking for affirmation and love, and Jesus forgives, and is a bridge to the oppressed. (Catherine of Siena discusses offers the metaphor of Jesus as a bridge in her Dialogues, and this is an image which deserves follow up in the context of debates surrounding same-sex marriage; perhaps in a future post.)

I am grouping the arguments presented during the radio interview around three main topics. First is the issue of an OU college hosting a conference which potentially included a homophobic platform. That issue took up the broader question of free speech. Finally, the civic debate on gay marriage (or gay weddings) and the rationales for moralising homosexuality in Christian and public discourse were also broached.

The aim of the organisation hosted at Exeter college is to train young Christians in the public arena. Whether the issue of homosexuality would be incidental to the conference or not was not clarified at the time of the show, nor was it clear whether the Wilbur Force Academy would allow gay people to speak. The aim of training people for the public arena raises the question of the role civic society, and individual Christians within that society, play in shaping national laws. The right to a particular platform was couched in terms of the right to practice free speech. The opposing argument claimed the limit of free speech was reached when it became hate speech. The implication is that hate speech fosters violence against members of a society, and thus destabilises civic peace.

Steven Green seemed disdainful of the political correct argument against free speech, stating that it constrained both freedom of speech and freedom of association. Another interlocutor said she was ‘astounded’. Christian concern, she said, was Bible based, and uses the Bible as a source of authority. There is no homophobia in quoting the Bible, she asserted. A reference was made associating freedom of speech tactic and wearing the Jewish Magen David (Star of David); the history of the Magen David as a Jewish symbol used by Nazis, like the prominent gay symbol of the pink triangle, seems to have been glossed over, and the point that a symbol can be used in socially harmful, as well as self-affirming ways, was lost. Likewise, the issue that quoting Bible differs from the social uses to which those quotations are put was also glossed over. It is the social use or impact of the exegesis (explanation) of the quotations — because all quotes are in both a textual and a social context — that is the real issue which needs to be discussed.

The other interlocutor saw LGBT concerns as attack on Christian faith and expressiveness in a public arena, and clearly felt hostility coming from the two LGBTQs she knew about in the interview. Unexamined was the cause of that hostility, and as such, whether it was justified or not. Because she covered up the cause as a reaction to a history of persecution at the hands of people who used scripture to justify torture and killing as commensurate with the crime of mutual consenting, but non-harmful activities, she made it appear as if she had been wronged. Little did she appreciate that she is part of the group which once held the authority to persecute; her outcry may as well be heard as that of one who has lost power and pines for it again.

Above, I wrote that the Torah is tree of life when clung to or grasped by observance, but is a tree of death to both those who wield it against the oppressed and those who are at the mercy of those who wield it. When Torah is used to club people, scripture is being mis-used. It is not loving mercy, certainly, and today it is clearly seen by others in a pluralistic society to be socially unjust. Some participants felt that Christians were being hated, and asked why. I would suggest that it is the slippage between how Christians portray Jesus and Christianity as a religion of love and the actual, often perceived as hateful and oppressive, social use to which the Christians put selected scriptural quotes. Contemporary society recognises that homosexuals have been a group which has suffered persecution, and is vulnerable to continued persecution, for simply being who they are, despite the fact that as a group defined by sexual object choice (consenting adults of the same physical sex) does not cause bodily or property harm to others in society.

Social recognition of discrimination and persecution is demonstrated through the enactment of anti-discrimination laws and the demographic identification and construction of minority groups. Whether a freely chosen philosophical ideology, such as certain Christian minorities in the contemporary UK, or by visible and unnecessarily changeable (if not unchangeable) social facts, such as race, is part of a larger question for the social sciences. For now, it is enough to recognise that ‘freedom of religion’ was meant to ensure that ‘heretical’ Christian minorities, that is, those which had disassociated themselves from the established church (whether Church of England, Lutheran or Catholic denominations varies by country), were not subject to active persecution. It was because of that type of persecution that the US colonies of Massachusetts (Puritans), Rhode Island (Puritan dissenters), Pennsylvania (Quakers, now famous for its Amish/ Mennonites), and Maryland (Roman Catholics) were founded by British migrants. Thus, the legal protections against physical persecution have been in place already for Christian minorities for at least two centuries in North America; I cannot comment on Britain (although Catholics apparently still cannot become Prime Ministers).

The construction of homosexuality as an inborn characteristic, and thus not amenable to change is a point of debate for the side opposed to LGBT civic rights. The principle argument raised against that construction is that homosexuality is treatable. The idea that homosexuality is treatable has been the subject of at least one court case with the Christian Institute or with Christian Concern; that a court case could be brought indicates the social conception that such treatment is unnecessary in today’s civil society. My argument is exactly that of the wider civil society: such treatment is unnecessary; homosexuality is perfectly normalisable. The problem for the opposing side, of course, is that so long as the verses in Leviticus are read as homosexuality-as-sin, homosexuality cannot be normalised, just as sin cannot be normalised. For heterosexuals, that normalisation comes through the medium of contractual civil marriage, as Paul recommended (‘if you burn, then marry, though it is better to be single’), a constraint on untrammelled heterosexual promiscuity they wish to deny same-sex couples.

One of the ‘anti-gay’ participants tried to make the argument that promiscuity was an inherent part of homosexuality. I would challenge that assertion in two ways, first by asking how socially mediated such promiscuity is, and second by asking why heterosexual promiscuity is ignored. My own experience in clinical settings draws a sharp contrast between San Francisco (where gay marriage is not allowed) and Massachusetts (where gay marriage is allowed) when it comes to looking at epidemiological risk factors in gay men. In San Francisco, promiscuity is assumed, whether the gay man is partnered or not; in Boston, monogamy is assumed if the person is coupled. This difference would appear to be a carry-over effect of allowing gay marriage. Marriage as a social fact, a socially recognised contract between two people, is flexible enough to encompass heterosexual and homosexual unions, and the obligations assumed by one are attributed and assumed for the other.

My college-mate Molly drew the distinction between love and lust regardless of the gendered nature of sexual object choice. While the hallmarks of love were left undefined, promiscuity was associated with lust. Like an evil which lessens the integrity of a person or community, promiscuity results not just from an internal dynamic, but an internal dynamic which responds to social conditions. Those social conditions are shaped in part by hate-speech, by lack of recognition (and its corollary lack of perceived possibility) of stable partnerships, by marginalisation, and by medicalisation. If a person is perceived as being able to live a normal life by his family or community, it will be difficult to live a normal life until he or she leaves that family or community. This is the aspect that the LGBT participants are seeking to highlight and change: a community has the ability to torment its members and play on their desire to maintain membership in that community.

No one ever seemed to acknowledge bisexuality or the possible fluid nature of sexuality, perhaps since clearly, such people should, if not would, ultimately choose the heterosexual lifestyle, namely a lifestyle predicated on a nuclear family of parents and non-adult children and marriage. One of the anti-gay group started to draw a distinction between marriage and civil partnerships and rights, but this distinction did not seem to carry through the rest of the discussion. In the US, one might say, quoting the result of Brown v Board of Education which ended segregation in schools on the basis of race, ‘separate but equal is not equal’.

A rather interesting point was raised when one interlocutor took up the question of homosexuality as a lifestyle or a birthright, or as she phrased it, the difference is between a call (e.g. lifestyle) versus nature (e.g. genetic). She argued that sexuality is part of life, and therefore not a calling. However, from a Catholic perspective at least, that which is part of life is a calling. Men and women can be called to the married life, to the priesthood, to the single life, to the monastic life. Catholics regularly talk about vocations to the married life or to the celibate priesthood (though Eastern-rite Catholic priests are allowed to be married). It is a philosophical question whether a person’s vocation is present from birth, or is shaped by experience. If a vocation is the role a person has in interacting with a community, a calling to serve the community in a particular capacity, then so long as homosexuality is not integrated into the community as a non-role in the way that other sexualities (married, celibate, etc) are, it has the potential to be the vocation a person can assume — not unlike the stereotyped roles sitcom characters have: ‘the popular girl’, ‘the jock’, ‘the gay guy’, ‘the geek’. The question of vocation, of course, is much more nuanced than this, and human life much more complex. Ultimately, I would suggest that a vocation models a person’s approach to the divine; as such, how the person approaches love and sexuality in general is going to impact that human-divine communion.

In a previous post, I quoted Frymer-Kensky as saying that God, as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures, cannot model sex. Neither can a man portrayed as celibate, as Jesus is portrayed in the canonical gospels. It may be this need to have a divine modelling of sex that explains some of the recent explosion of theories about Jesus and the Magdalene. (Late Antique and Medieval representations associated the Magdalen with John the apostle, or sometimes in a more eschatological and evangelical context, with John the Baptist: both the Baptist and the Magdalene are responsible for proclaiming Jesus as a Messiah, the Baptist in the role of a prophet, the Magdalene as the first of those who were sent, that is, as an apostle.) However, the Christian tradition has taken such modelling and incorporated it into human life in various guises. For the monastics of Syria, in particular, the non-sexuality of God and Jesus led to an ideal of celibacy, but not a celibacy of repression. For these Syriac-speaking Christians, the goal was to achieve a bodily stillness which mirrored the stillness and silence in which the Word was begotten, in which the Trinity subsists. For Byzantine and Latin Christians of the middle ages, eros became a topic of philosophical speculation, as the motive force which draws men and women to God. Such speculation can be read in Symeon the New Theologian’s Ethical Discourses, and in Bernard of Clairvaux’s work On Love. Much has also been written about medieval devotions among women in the Latin and German west; St Dimitrii of Rostov in the Ukraine’s poetry has also been the subject of analysis (Bednarsky 1996) for what today are perceived as homoerotic overtones. Sexuality, because it permeates life, informs both vocation and spirituality — even to the extent that it can be the sole reason for a person to be excised from a community. It need not be that way, if sexuality is but one part of life, and a part of life which need not be seen as a calling within a community. People, after all, are multi-faceted, and the emphasis of the Christian life is supposed to be dual, focused on service to those oppressed by power and on approaching communion with the divine life.

So how then does marriage play into this scenario, if the model presented by God is one of stillness? The image of Adam and Eve for Christians, particularly those like Augustine, is a past ideal. The future ideal is transformative: to live like angels, and neither give nor be given in marriage. What Adam and Eve teach is typological, for as the first Adam was given to the first Eve and became one flesh with her, so the second Adam, Christ, is one flesh with the second Eve, the Church, formed from the blood (Eucharist) and water (Baptism) which flowed from his side in the Crucifixion. That is the model which Adam and Eve portrayed for the theologian Gregory of Elvira in fourth century Spain, and which was also discussed by Symeon the New Theologian in the discourses mentioned above. It is true that later in Latin (i.e. Roman Catholic) theology Mary the Virgin Mother is portrayed as the second Eve; but such theological reasoning has tended to be in the context of interpreting the verse on how the woman would crush the head of Satan. (In some early modern images of Mary, a snake can be seen between or under her feet for just this reason.)

The idea of two people coming together because of emotional complementarity, which is what Green proposes was modeled by Adam and Eve, need not be taken up in detail here. The idea that men and women are naturally emotionally complementary is naïve and ignores the range of masculinities and femininities available in any given society. Emotional complementary is socially determined, and any heterosexual with any sense knows that before marrying someone of the opposite sex who is neither emotionally compatible nor complementary.

The other theological question treated in the story of Adam and Eve is the existence of death. It is taught by Symeon the New Theologian and by Ephrem the Syrian that Adam and Eve were created in an indeterminate state, neither mortal nor immortal. Eating the fruit of the tree of life, once ripe, would make the couple immortal. When they sinned, evil inhered in their bodies, and came into the world. As such, for Adam and Eve to become immortal in such as state would have caused evil to also become immortal, a continual lessening of humanity. Thus, death, a most unnatural thing and not at all in the original plan for humanity, was introduced as a mercy, to stop the propagation of evil. (It is interesting that what is considered by some to be most evil are those things which cause death: war, pestilence, murder.) For the Byzantines and at least one writer of the Latin West (either Potamius of Lisbon or Pacian of Barcelona), ‘original sin’ is called ‘ancestral sin’, and is the penalty of death conveyed to all humans born of Eve. It is this penalty of death which was reversed by the resurrection of Jesus, Life itself having entered the realm of death and turned it upside down, as the Easter hymns of the Byzantine church proclaim. While this question warrants a longer post, because it was brought up during the radio interview, that short explanation here is justified, though I do not feel it is satisfactory.

Finally, what is the mandate given to Christians by its founders to participate in a legal process predicated on a philosophy which imputes rights to individuals and groups? Philosophically, the freedom of practice of religion in a secular society is the freedom to contravene laws which oppress groups to the point of death, it is to allow prisoners to be fed, to give illegal immigrants shelter and medical care, to provide benefits to those whom the government overlooks. The call of Christians is to be a leaven in society, to work in small areas to raise up the persecuted, help them stand on their own two feet again, supported by others. It is not to seek power, nor is it to seek to impose by force the ideas and ideals of the Gospel by force of law. However, neither is it to forget the power each person has individually and collectively to improve the living conditions of those around them. The prudent neither harm others nor let themselves be harmed. To be a leaven in society follows the tradition presented in the Torah of God giving humans responsibility for social justice, a responsibility which each individual must take upon him or herself and live out in his or her life.

 

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