Wanted to let you all know that I’m transitioning my blog to a new URL. I’m going to keep all former posts here (for linking purposes) but for new content (and there’s a new post up now), you’ll have to click over to:
Thanks for reading.
Wanted to let you all know that I’m transitioning my blog to a new URL. I’m going to keep all former posts here (for linking purposes) but for new content (and there’s a new post up now), you’ll have to click over to:
Thanks for reading.
About a month ago, a challenge went up on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast that asked listeners how they handle the verse in John 14:6 which says,
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (TNIV)
More specifically, they were asking people to respond to the question, how do you have a conversation with another Christian who uses this verse to claim that Jesus here is saying that people who follow other religions will go to hell.
The Homebrewed crew took all the responses, chose a few and put them in their latest podcast. People whose responses made it into the podcast got a free copy of Brian McLaren’s new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?.
After listening to the podcast, I think it’s clear that this challenge was above my pay grade as a theologian, but still, I had a good time crafting a response and thought I’d share it with you all.
I encourage you to listen to the John 14:6 podcast – the people who contributed had some really fascinating things to say and the hosts’ engagement with the responses is fun and enlightening.
And here’s what I contributed:
I completely affirm John 14:6.
I do believe that no one comes to God except through Jesus.
But I read that verse as saying that when it comes to what happens to people in the afterlife, I don’t get to decide, my theology doesn’t get to decide, my denomination and its doctrines don’t get to decide. Jesus is the one who decides.
Now some Christians claim this verse as an assurance of their own salvation. They read this verse and come to the understanding that if they confess faith in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, then Jesus will allow them through to God.
But I don’t know if that’s exactly what Jesus is saying here.
I think the idea that NO ONE comes to God except through Jesus should give everyone pause – even those in the church.
The writer of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
That seems to suggest that it’s not what one profess that saves, but how one lives within the will of God. And if that’s the case then if there are people of other faiths (or no faith) who live out an ethic that mirrors that of the kingdom of God – one that is in line with the way, truth, and life of Jesus (whether they profess Jesus or not) – then I don’t see why it’s necessary to claim that Jesus will exclude them on the basis of John 14:6.
The following post is from a short paper I had to write for a Disciples of Christ History and Polity course. The task was basically to talk about my understanding of salvation.
Being a paper for a history and polity class, I did have to throw in a bit about the denomination at the end. If I had more time I would reformulate that paragraph to make it more applicable to this blog but I’m back in the swing of school and am already behind in readings for class, so you’ll just have to read it as is (and really, if you don’t know about the Disciples, you really should check them out – they’re a quirky, fascinating little denomination).
We live in a world that, for both better and worse, is controlled by two dominant power structures – the commercial and the political. If we were fishes, commerce and politics would be like the hydrogen and oxygen of the waters we swim in. Every system of power operates within a set of rules or principles and whether people are aware of it or not, they participate in these systems. Some benignly, transparently move with the flow of these systems while others consciously work for or against them. Regardless, the point is that everyone is immersed in corporate and political forces to some degree or another.
There is, however, a third system in play. This one is far more elusive and mysterious, but it is no less a part of the life of the world than commerce and politics. Christ spoke of this third system as the kingdom of God (or heaven). To return to the fish and water analogy, the Kingdom of God can be likened to the mineral component of water. No natural body of water is purely H2O – there are always other chemical/mineral components that give water a certain flavor (the saltiness of salt water, for example). In fact, it’s this third component of water that gives it its life-giving properties (freshwater fish cannot survive in pure, distilled water).
But what does any of this have to do with the question of salvation – what does is it mean to be saved? Jesus talked about his followers being salt and light. To participate in the kingdom of God is to live into this third system – to bring life-giving flavor to the world and to illumine the often-toxic nature of the commercial and political systems. Thus, to be saved is to be saved from slavish participation in systems of oppression and greed and to be saved into a new understanding of life – a life based in a kingdom ethic. This is a way of life where enemies are not to be annihilated but loved, where leaders are called to serve, where the scales of justice are themselves weighed against grace, freedom, and forgiveness, where love of God and neighbor is the lens through which all other laws are understood.
Thus far, I have not said anything about how the church fits into this schema. The early Disciples seemed to have done the same. They initially resisted the urge to become a denomination, in part, because they understood that if one is not careful, the church can turn into yet another institution of power and profit – it can return people to the very systems of oppression from which they were saved. Even today, as a denomination, because the DOC have emphasized a congregational polity and a very open doctrinal stance, they are uniquely poised to be salt and light in a world desperately in need of flavor and illumination, and to do so in a way that is relatively (hopefully) free from the corrosive lures of power and profit.
I’m not sure when or how it happened, but I’ve become rather political lately, especially on facebook. I’ve been putting up a bunch of links to articles about Republicans disenfranchising Democratic voters, the odd claim this year from the GOP about Democrats not having the word, “God,” in their platform, the lies being told on the campaign trail by Republicans and Democrats (IMHO, the lies coming from the right are far more egregious than those from the left), and a bunch of other links.
Based on the articles I’ve been putting up, I think it’s easy to see that I side far more with liberal Democrats than I do with Republicans (at this point, calling them conservative Republicans would be redundant).
In addition to linking to articles, I also (occasionally) comment on posts/articles that some of my more conservative friends put up. When I do this, I do my best to be polite and respectful (and this often requires a great deal of restraint on my part) while still being clear about why I might disagree. But no matter how nice and reasonable I try to be, some people just can’t help but go apeshit when people disagree with them.
For example, twice last week (once for saying I support gay marriage and once for saying I support the right for women make their own choices regarding abortion), in two completely separate comment threads, I got accused of not being a Christian because of the political positions I supported. Both times, I politely pointed out that I entrust my salvation status to God, not facebook commenters.
Anyway, in a surprising turn, one of these fb political discussions got unexpectedly personal – in a good way. One person (who pretty adamantly disagreed with me) shared a bit from his own story about why he felt so strongly about his stance.
And I was touched. I mean, I still disagreed with his position, but getting a glimpse of the humanity behind the politics was really refreshing.
And I decided to respond in kind.
Here’s a lightly edited version of my fb response:
Tony Campolo once said: “We need conservatives in the church because they hold lines that should never be crossed. We need liberals in the church because they erase lines that never should have been there in the first place.”
Here’s the bottom line for me. I don’t know the will of God. I don’t know the one correct interpretation of scripture. I readily admit that my theology, my hermeneutic, my politics, my ethics are all incomplete and flawed. I do my best to listen for the still small voice of God, and over and over again, it can be maddeningly difficult to discern the difference between God’s ways and my own.
But I try.
And I fail.
And then I try again.
One of the ways that I grow in my learning is by listening to and discussing matters with people who hold views that differ from my own. Because I know it’s all too easy for me to get stuck in ideas that are familiar, I need the voices of others to question and challenge me and my positions – to point out flaws and blind spots in my thinking.
I always try to do my best to take objections seriously – really weighing the merits of peoples’ objections – and because of this, throughout my life, I’ve changed my mind around a large number of issues.
See, I actually used to be really, REALLY conservative. Reading Rush Limbaugh’s book, The Way Things Ought To Be was my introduction to the world of politics – his book taught me what an entitlement was and how gun laws only punish law abiding citizens. He was the one who showed me that what happens in Washington has a huge impact on my life and so I had better pay attention.
I’ve obviously moved very far away from most of Rush’s ideology and here’s the thing that I think very few people appreciate. My shifts in ideas only came after very long, very difficult struggles with myself, with friends, with scripture, and with God.
Really, honestly weighing the merits of new ideas isn’t easy and jettisoning old, familiar conceptual frameworks in order to take on new ones is an angst-ridden, often demoralizing experience – because who wants to admit that the way they understood the world was flawed? And after that admission comes the long, difficult work of reorienting one’s self into a new paradigm.
But I always did my best to follow trains of thought wherever reason and discernment led.
And now I’m a lefty.
Who knows. Maybe a day will come when I find good, solid arguments to move way back towards the right. I intentionally try to keep myself plugged into conservative news and commentary because I know that bias can blind (or at least influence) reporters’ coverage and I do understand and admit that the news media as a whole tends to lean left-ward (though not as much as conservatives claim – I think most reporters do their best to remain objective, but bias is a subtle, pernicious, often subconscious influence).
Anyway, I’m not sure why I’m saying all of this. I guess the previous commenter gave a bit of his story and that got me to open up and offer a bit of my own.
Thanks for sharing and for letting me share.
You know, when I engage in political discussion, I never really expect the person on the other side of the discussion to change their mind. I mean, it would be great if they did, but that’s not my primary aim. My aspirations are far more modest. I just want to give a cogent account for why I hold the views that I do – to show that they’re not unreasonable or emotionally based or heretical, and that liberals aren’t out there to destroy America.
I also engage in discussion because maybe I’m the one that needs to be changed and the only way I can know that is to see the other side’s objection.
In short, I do my best to think of these encounters not as debates, but as discussions. For me, the difference is that in a debate, people are aiming to win, whereas in a discussion, people are aiming for understanding – to understand the other side’s perspective and to hope that they can understand theirs.
Understanding doesn’t mean agreement – that’s a point I think a lot of people miss. It just means that we actually comprehend the totality of what we’re disagreeing about. Because here’s the thing. Most people only listen for weaknesses in the other side’s argument. They’re only listening for confirmation on why the other side is so misguided. They seldom listen for the merits of the other side’s position.
Most of what passes for political debate/discussion today is really just pundits pitting straw man against straw man. And then we wonder why our political system is so divisive and deadlocked. What we need is more humanity in the process. We need less debate and more substantive, sincere discussion. We need to stop trying to win arguments and start trying to understand (really understand) both sides of issues that we disagree on. We need to love and pray for our political enemies and we can only love and pray for people we understand. Otherwise, you’re praying for a straw man – you’re praying for someone else (maybe yourself).
Left, right, and center, we all want a better America for ourselves, for our kids, and for generations to come. And the only way we can have that is through understanding.
I’m Randall Ajimine, and I approve this message.
A friend on facebook recently asked me this question:
So… who does go to hell if everyone is in “favor?”
And I started a reply to him and the reply started to get longer and longer and so I figured I’d just turn it into a blog post.
Which gives me an idea. If you have questions you’d like me to take on, feel free to leave them in the comments or leave me a message on facebook or email me (lonetomato808 AT gmail DOT com), and I’ll give it my best shot.
The question of hell is a really difficult one. Honestly the best answer anyone can (should) give is that no one really knows. And if you find someone who says they know definitively what hell is and who’s going there, well, I’d love to meet them because I also have questions I’d like to ask.
Now I haven’t done much research on the topic of hell specifically, but I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the nature of God and the Bible. I’ve found that God (and the Bible that points us to this God) is radically relational – that the whole of theology and interpretation hinge on loving God and neighbor. From this idea, I do feel relatively confident to say that I believe that it isn’t in the nature of God to send anyone to a place of eternal torment, which is what most people think of when they think of hell.
But before I go into my own (speculative) thoughts on hell, let me briefly go through the traditional view first.
There are many stories in the Bible about the justice of God, and many who argue for the existence of hell base that view, at least in part, on these stories. And that makes sense. There are people out there who do bad things and there is a primal urge in all of us to cry out for justice when we’ve been wronged.
Some evil thing gets done to us and it breaks us. It makes us feel less secure, less safe, less able to extend love, basically less alive. And there’s something within us that cries out for restitution. Because we all try to do right, don’t we? And then someone comes along and kicks a dent into our lives and we want justice to restore order – for things to be made right again. And sometimes the person who perpetrates harm on us gets caught and punished. And sometimes they don’t. And it’s in this second case where some people look forward to a future reckoning, a future justice, a future hell.
Now at this point I could spin off into the various ways that hell has been described and then talk about how the way most people view hell today is influenced far more by the writings of Dante and Milton than the Bible, but again, I’m ill equipped to lead that discussion.
What I want to do instead is to ask the question, what happens when we look at the issue of justice/hell through the lens of relationship? (And I ask this question because, again, I believe that the primary message of the Bible is loving relationship.)
When read with a relational hermeneutic (I talk more about this way of reading the Bible here), I believe that whenever the Bible talks about justice and/or hell, I believe that the ultimate end result is restoration of relationship. In Matthew 18:21-35, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. Jesus answers, “seventy-seven times.” He then goes on to tell the story of a master who forgives one of his servants a huge debt that he owes him. In turn, this servant goes to a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller debt. He demanded the debt owed him and when this other servant couldn’t pay, he got him thrown in jail. The master hears about this and goes medieval on that first servant. The story ends rather ominously, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”
(Now some might argue that Jesus was alluding to hell at the end of that parable. I don’t know, maybe, but I think that might be reading too much into it. But even if Jesus did mean to allude to hell, it’s still not an eternal sentence – it’s only “until he should pay back all he owed.”)
Here, we have Jesus teaching about unending forgiveness. Not only that, but he begins the parable about the master and servants with the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven is like…,” suggesting that this message of forgiveness is not just a message that applies to this life on earth, but also to whatever comes afterwards.
So to (finally) answer the question about who goes to hell, I guess I would say that if there is some kind of hell (I don’t have time/space here to take on whether hell is a biblical concept or not), I have no idea who is or isn’t going there – passages like Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:31-46 seem to suggest that some people will be surprised to find God’s favor (because they didn’t know they were “in”) and others will be surprised that they don’t have God’s favor (because they thought they were “in”). But regardless of who goes to hell, I don’t see how it could be a place of eternal damnation – that idea is in stark contradiction to the idea of unending forgiveness and the idea of a radically loving and relational God. Maybe there is some sort of “debt” that needs to be paid before being let out of jail/hell/whatever, but I just don’t see how it could be eternal damnation.
Now there might be one exception to this. C. S. Lewis talks about how a loving, relational God would not force God’s self onto someone who consciously chooses to reject God – that would not be loving, it would be overbearing. Maybe it’s possible for someone to choose to reject God for eternity, but that’s not on God (I believe God would always be open to reconciliation).
One last bit.
I want to reiterate that anything anyone says about what happens after death is pure speculation. The Bible just really doesn’t have that much to say about the afterlife. It does, however, have a great deal to say about life before death. Shane Claiborne points out that far too many Christians are worried about an abstract hell after death, but far too few are concerned about the actual hells on this earth that people are living in right now.
Jews have a saying – “ask two Jews about what happens after we die and you’ll get three answers.” And I would add that they’d both admit that they were unsure about all three of them. And I wish more Christians would hold their ideas about the afterlife as loosely, because here’s the thing. Religious Jews are far more concerned about how they treat people in this life than they are about the afterlife. This life, and this world, and the people that inhabit it – these are the things that God wants us to care for. This is where we should be focusing our ideas and our efforts.
…puts a whole new spin on Matthew 6:34, doesn’t it?
So do not worry about tomorrow [life after death?], for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s [this world's] trouble is enough for today. (NRSV)
There are more than enough problems on this planet in this time to keep the church busy. Speculation about what happens after we die? I suppose that makes for an interesting theological discussion, but we miss the point entirely if we get fixated there. Far more pressing, is discussion about how to alleviate the present-day hells on earth that people are suffering through.
So I’ve written about a different understanding of hell. I would add that N.T. Wright – in his book, Surprised By Hope – suggests that the early church’s understanding of heaven was very different than ideas that are popular today. Basically, he argues that heaven isn’t where we spend eternity – it’s just the place where the dead await the second coming of Christ when we will all be resurrected to a new heaven and a new earth. It’s a very good, very thought-provoking book. Highly recommended.
[PREFACE] (feel free to skip)
This post is an attempt to take up a challenge posed by Tony Jones (author, theologian, professor, blogger at Patheos). In his post, he declared, “…progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”
And so, he posed this summons:
Now I don’t know if I qualify as a “progressive theo-blogger,” but I do know that I’ve been moving pretty consistently towards the liberal, progressive end of the theological pool, so I’m going to declare myself eligible.
I haven’t read what any of the other contributors have put up yet so I have no idea what I’m up against, but the challenge sounded way too fun to not take up. And it seemed to fit right in with my whole …about God series.
And so I bring you…
I want to begin with Matthew 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
I want to suggest that in this verse, Jesus is not the antecedent of “my name” and “I am.” Based on the verse that comes immediately before, Jesus is not referring to himself, but to God.
In the more conservative, mostly pentecostal-leaning churches I attended in my formative years as a Christian, Matthew 18:20 was always cited as a verse about prayer. It was taught as a way to encourage people to pray in groups since, for them, the takeaway message was that when people prayed together, God was there in a special, unique way.
I want to go further than that and suggest that perhaps what Jesus was really saying about God is that God only exists in relationship – that God is only made manifest in relationship, so apart from relationship God doesn’t exist (or if we want to maintain a metaphysic of God apart from relationship, all we can say is that God is inaccessible apart from relationship).
And here I want to borrow a bit of Peter Rollins who expands on 1 John 4:8 (which says that God is love) by asking the next question, “what is love?” Love does not exist. Love is not a thing in and of itself. Love is something that only appears in relationship, because there is no love apart from an other.
So in this challenge to “write one post about God,” I find myself in a strange position. If God, like love, is not a thing in and of itself then I can’t say anything about God with mere words on paper. However, I can say that God is there in the midst of your reading of this post. As I write these words in love, my hope is that they will be taken up again in love, and as they are read, there God is.
I can no more say anything about God than what anyone can say about love. We say things like “love is patient, kind, does not envy, etc.” but in doing so, we’re not saying anything about love because you can’t be patient or kind or not envy except in relation to an other. And so you’re not really saying anything about love with those words – they’re mere abstractions that can only be made concrete in relationship.
In the same way, I can’t say anything about God (who is love) apart from relationship. That’s why the relational image of the perichoretic trinity is one that most Christians hold so dear – because God (even as one tries to speak of God in/as God’s self) is still relational by definition. There is no God apart from relationship. Or to put it positively, God is love in relationship.
Now what does that mean? That sounds like an abstraction of an abstraction, and I agree. But forcing God into words and definitions and declarative statements forces God into abstraction. So let me try again to make this more concrete – and the only way to do that is to talk, again, about relationships.
If relationships always require at least two differentiated parties (and I would include the intra-relational realm here as well) then I want to suggest that any attempt to say anything about God requires us to not stop at just coming up with our own declarative statements about God. We need to take the next step and bring our differing understandings of God to one another and in so doing, we manifest God – “God is there among us.” So in a way, this whole project – having people write about God, collating the posts, and placing them alongside one another – is itself a beautiful statement/portrait of who God is.
But a word of caution is in order. If this project is about looking for the one right, true, definitive post describing God, we miss the point entirely – we miss God altogether.
But if we can hold these different posts/statements/poems/images about God together in loving relationship, God shows up. In the resonance and dissonance, in the coherence and contractions, God is there. That is God.
Indeed, it may be the best way to talk about God.
I’m trying (again) to get back into the habit of posting at least one new post per week. These past two weeks, I’ve put up two monster posts – one about reading the Bible through a hermeneutic of love in relationship and another about sex.
(Guess which one got more hits.)
In order to give a break to both myself and my readers, this week is a short, softball post.
Hope you like it.
So basically, the idea is, you take a film title, remove one letter, and give a brief description of what this newly titled film might be about. Really simple and the results were surprisingly clever and hysterical.
I retweeted some of my favorites
And then I started coming up with some of my own:
And finally, the two that I’m most proud of:
And as you can see, some people even modified movie posters:
It was a great way to waste an afternoon – the perfect way to unwind during grad school summer break.
Another long post, but as a teaser to try to entice you to slog through the whole thing, I’m going to be answering this question near the end of it:
Given the vastly different social context we live in today (compared to that of the Bible), is sex before marriage still a sin?
No cheating and scrolling down to find the answer – that would be less than loving and relational (because I work hard on these posts). 8)
Last week, I put up a post where I talked about a hermeneutic of love, that is to say, a way of reading and interpreting the Bible that always looks for what the text is saying about love in relation to God or neighbor. In that post, I talked about how reading through such a hermeneutic changes the way we understand what the Bible says about sexuality, such that the primary emphasis of the Bible in regards to sexuality is not about behavior (what’s right or wrong, permissible or impermissible), but about maintaining the proper place and purpose for sex (more on this later in the post).
There’s a reason I chose to use the example of sex in that post. It’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about sex lately.
The general topic I want to take on for my IP is developing a Christian sexual ethic that’s relevant for the church today. The topic is way too broad and I’ll need to pick a more focused area of research but in preparation, I’ve already started reading a bunch of books and watching a lot of online courses (I’ll post a brief list of what I’ve been reading/watching at the end of this post). And this is why I’ve been thinking so much about sex lately.
I ended the last post in this damage and desire series talking about pleasure as a potential way of bridging the sexual ethic of the Bible and the culture we find ourselves in today. However, after talking with some people (mostly offline) about it, I’ve come to see that pleasure (which should still remain a part of the conversation) is not an adequate basis on which to build a biblical sexual ethic.
Through these conversations, I came to see that appealing to an external, unmediated biblical ethic was unworkable (because of vast cultural differences between the world of the Bible and today), and appealing to an internal, person/pleasure-centered ethic was also problematic (because it can, among other things, justify cheating on one’s partner).
But if we can’t look without or within for a workable ethic (sexual or otherwise) then where can we find it?
I want to suggest that the beginning point of any ethical exploration should be in relationships. And this brings me back to the relational hermeneutic I outlined in my post last week. I’ve come to believe that the primary thrust and message of the Bible is about love in relationship – relationship with God and with neighbor. Now what happens when we try to build up an ethic from this idea of relationship?
There’s a common idea in Christianity that says, “sin is what separates us from God.” This is based on a moral hermeneutic that reads the Bible as saying that God hates sin so much that God can’t be in the presence of sin; thus, when we sin, we find ourselves separated from God. This leads to a way of life where people do their best to minimize doing things (sins) that will divide them from God and that leads to people reading the Bible to find all the things they need to not do so that they can stay on God’s good side. Thus, they read the Bible with a hermeneutic of morals.
Now what happens when we think about the Bible as being about love in relationship? Well then the phrase about sin and God gets flipped around so that “anything that separates us from God is sin.”
At first, that might seem like a distinction without a difference, but take a look at this passage in Mark 2:23-38. Here, we find a story where Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field, picking grain off of the stalks, and eating. They’re doing this during the Sabbath and some religious teachers challenge Jesus on this because it’s supposed to be forbidden to do work during the Sabbath and picking grain is considered work.
Now let’s put this in some historical context. The idea of keeping the Sabbath goes all the way back to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11). Basically, that commandment says, don’t do any work on the seventh day because it’s a holy day. For teachers of the Law, the question then became, “well, what’s considered work?” They were reading with a moral hermeneutic: God doesn’t want them to do work on the Sabbath so they need to figure out what kinds of actions are work so they can not do those things. That led them to create a huge list of actions Jews could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Picking grain (even if it was to feed your hungry self) was considered work and that’s why the Pharisees got all twisted up in a bunch when they saw Jesus and his disciples feeding themselves.
Jesus, on the other hand, seems to read the Sabbath commandment with a hermeneutic of love in relationship. Read this way, the point of the Sabbath wasn’t about the not working bit, it was about the rest and remembrance bit – because a loving and relational God doesn’t want people working themselves to death. Living life according to some arbitrary set of behavioral rules is missing the point entirely because the Bible (and the commandments) aren’t about rules, they’re about relationship. That’s why Jesus can say in verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” That’s what Jesus meant when he says, “I have not come to abolish [the Laws] but to fulfill them,” (Matthew 5:17). It’s also why Paul says that “the letter [of the Law] kills, but the Spirit gives life,” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Okay, but what does all of this have to do with sex and sexuality?
Well in the first two of this damage and desire series, I wrote about how the ultra conservative churches I attended when I was younger taught that we should fear any and all sexual desire outside of marriage. One of the key passages they used to justify and instill this fear was Matthew 5:27-30 which has the line, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Read with a moral hermeneutic, you end up with a ministry that teaches people to go to any lengths necessary to avoid any kind of sexual arousal.
But again, I think that’s missing the point, because here’s the thing. If a man thinks that God wants him to avoid any and all sexual arousal, that can easily lead to a fear of women which can then lead to a (conscious or unconscious) hatred of women. At the very least, it leads to really awkward interactions between men and women.
Read through a relational hermeneutic, I think we begin to see the point that Jesus was actually trying to make. Looking at another person lustfully is equal to the sin of adultery because they both have the same end result: the rupture of relationship. Adultery breaks relationship because you’re sleeping with another person’s spouse. Lust breaks relationship because it objectifies (rather than humanizes) the person being lusted over.
All of this (finally) gets us back to the question I posed in the preface of this post: Given the vastly different social context we live in today (compared to that of the Bible), is sex before marriage still a sin?
And the answer is…
The answer is irrelevant.
And it’s irrelevant because again, I’m arguing that the Bible is not a book about rules, it’s a book about relationships.
So the question, “is sex before marriage still a sin?” is missing the point. The question that should be asked is, “what is the purpose of sex in relation to… well, relationships?”
Now here we have to do some extrapolation, because as I explained in a previous post, the Bible never talks about the world of dating that we live in today. Almost all of the passages talking about sex in the Bible are directed at married couples (because in that society, people got married in their early teens and nearly everyone was married) and almost all of those passages basically say, “don’t sleep around.”
To me, that suggests that the Bible is saying two core things related to sex:
Add those two things together and we find the helpful guideline (not rule): according to the Bible, there is no such thing as casual sex.
So then, the reason why I want to say that it’s irrelevant (missing the point) to come down on one side or the other on the sex-outside-of-marriage question is because the point about sex isn’t about when or with whom, it’s about intimacy and commitment (the “and” there is particularly important).
Now here’s where things get tricky for unmarried couples and their sexuality.
Because I’m arguing for a relational reading of the Bible, I want to suggest that couples need to decide between themselves how they want to explore (or not) their sexuality before they are married, and as they make this decision, they need to weigh their unmarried state with the guiding principles of intimacy and commitment. And casual sex should be out of the question.
But the relationship between two partners is not the only relationship at play.
Ideally, the couple should be a part of a church community that can give them the tools with which to make this decision. More importantly, the church should be a place that continues to accept the couple regardless of what decision they end up making. And perhaps most important of all, the church should be a place of unconditional love and acceptance in the case of couples who decide they had wanted to wait for marriage before having sex, but ended up having sex anyway. And I think a case can be made for the idea that a church that embraces a more relational (rather than behavioral) ethic will have an easier time creating a safe, loving space for such a couple.
I’ll end with this story which helps to illustrate this last point.
Many, many years ago, I knew this one couple. They were great together. They were both heavily involved in ministry, their goals and their callings both lined up well, they had been dating for months, and they were crazy in love – everyone knew they were headed towards marriage. And then late one night, they had sex. And then within a matter of days, their relationship was over. Just like that.
Now I didn’t know this couple super well so I don’t know the details of their split, but I can well imagine what went down. For one thing, they were probably riddled with guilt. For another thing, word got out. Fast. Again, I didn’t know this couple very well and I wasn’t seeking out the information, but somehow word got out on the grapevine and made its way to me. It seemed like everyone involved in this ministry was talking about it (albeit, in hushed, coded terms – winks, nods, and other stupid, subtle gestures). Intentionally or not, they were shamed. They were told by leadership that they needed to take a break from their relationship (for their own good and for the good of the ministry organization they were a part of). They split up and never got back together again.
I think that’s a really stupid and sad outcome.
Who knows what amazing things this couple could have done together. They were on track to getting married, why should the fact that they had sex derail their life together? If the Bible is indeed about love and relationship then the fact that the way this ministry handled this situation led to the couple breaking up and ostracized them from community (breaking relationship on multiple levels) is far more sinful than anything the couple did.
Sad and stupid. I’m sure that incident led to years of feelings of guilt and shame, longing and regret.
And the one thing they probably stopped feeling (from others, from themselves, and from the way they understood God)?
As always, I’d love to get feedback/comments/questions and especially critique.
Also, earlier in the post, I promised to list some of what I’ve been reading/watching as I research this topic.
(I’ll be adding to this list periodically.)
So believe it or not, this monster post was supposed to be just the introduction to what I really wanted to talk about (belief in God-as-love… see the previous post in the series). But then the introduction kept ballooning and now this post is over 2,000 words long. My bad.
In this post, I’m basically describing a new (to me) way of reading the Bible – one that emphasizes love and relationship rather than morals. It can get a bit technical and/or tedious at some points – feel free to skim over those bits – but try to make it to the end because the post ends with a surprising, provocative little kicker.
As always, would love to hear your thoughts/ comments/cries-of-heresy in the comments.
I want to geek out for a bit and talk about hermeneutics – the study of how we interpret and/or read texts. Most people have what I’m going to call a transparent hermeneutic, that is to say, most people read unaware of how they are reading/interpreting whatever is in front of them (novel, newspaper, tweet, billboard, etc.). However, in the past couple hundred years or so, philosophers and linguists have thought and written a lot about what happens as we read. They’ve taken a very close, very careful look at what happens in that space between the text (words on the page or screen) and the reader. What they found is that this space is immense (if not infinite).
(They also say that there’s an immense space between the author and the text, but I won’t go into that here.)
Think about the current debate about gay marriage. People who are for gay marriage approach biblical texts that talk about homosexuality differently than those who are against gay marriage. They often read the same passages but come away from them with vastly different interpretations and that’s because they’re both applying a different hermeneutic to the Bible. So perhaps the next question is, which is the correct one? Well, that’s where things start to get really complicated. Because here’s the thing.
There is no one, right hermeneutic (singular). There’s only hermeneutics (plural).
The French philosopher, Derrida is famous for saying, “there is nothing outside the text.” One way of understanding this phrase is to say that there is no singular, overarching meaning that exists outside (apart from) the text. Every reading of any given text is an interpretation and each interpretation is influenced by the hermeneutic the reader brings to the text. There is no such thing as a neutral, unbiased reading because every reader (even those who are striving to be critically aware of how they are reading) brings their unique selves (their gender, class, ethnicity, their histories and experiences) to what they’re reading. Derrida’s work eventually became systematized in what’s become known as deconstruction – a way of analyzing texts that seeks to pay attention to the many factors that go into any and all interpretations of them.
Some critics of deconstruction say that it leads to meaninglessness or nihilism. If there is no one right way to understand what has been written, then doesn’t that mean that meaning is impossible? Not really.
Think of wine tasters. Twenty different people (even twenty different professional sommeliers) taste one bottle of wine. Each of them comes away with a different description (interpretation) of the wine. They might even come away with completely contradictory conclusions about the quality of the wine, but that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as wine or taste or that the palates of the tasters are unreliable. All it means is that tasting wine is a complex experience (which is part of what makes it so great) and any description of that experience will be subjective. There is no one, universal taste descriptor for a bottle of wine. And so, you might say, there is nothing outside the wine.
Now let’s go back to the discussion about gay marriage. Some read the Bible with what I’ll call a hermeneutic of morals – they read the Bible primarily as a text about right and wrong behavior. Thus, when they come across a passage like Romans 1:26-27, that talks about homosexuality as sin, a light goes off in their head and they automatically think, oh, Paul says homosexual behavior is wrong, therefore it’s sin, and that’s that.
Now this seems like a straightforward way to read the Bible, but something odd happens when they come to other verses that talk about right and wrong. Let’s take 1 Corinthians 11:5 where Paul says that women shouldn’t leave their heads uncovered when praying. Now this seems to be another clear, moral teaching from the Bible, but even the most conservative, hardline churches don’t require women in attendance to wear head coverings – they don’t read this passage in the same straightforward way they do the Romans text. So what’s happening?
Well most of these churches would say that they have a nuanced moral hermeneutic – one that leaves room for cultural exceptions. They would say that there was something about women in the Corinthian church culture to whom Paul was writing that made head covering problematic and so that’s why he gave them that instruction; however, we no longer live in a culture where that is a problem so we don’t have to abide by that rule today. But then you ask them about applying that same cultural, hermeneutical nuance to the Romans passage, and you find that they either have yet another nuanced stance or that the nuance doesn’t apply.
And I want to suggest that when you start seeing these kinds of hermeneutical gymnastics happening, you might want to question the system at play. Again, I’m not suggesting that there’s such a thing as a perfect system of interpretation – every way of reading an ancient text like the Bible will require some level of contextual, historical reworking – but I do want to point out how and why one might begin to question any given hermeneutical approach. If you see a lot of hermeneutical shifting and dancing when the passage at hand changes, you might want to question whether the hermeneutic is a consistent one, or at least question the reasons why different approaches are taken (and who gets to decide).
As for me and my hermeneutic, I would like to suggest that
But don’t just take my word for it. Take a look at Matthew 22:36-40 (TNIV).
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
I want to suggest that based on this passage, the primary message of the Bible is love. Therefore, love of God and neighbor should be the beginning point of all Christian hermeneutics.
I also want to suggest that the commandments aren’t just about developing an abstract, individualistic sense or feeling of love. The love that’s spoken of in those two commandments is love in the context of relationship – love of God and love of neighbor. In my previous post in this series, I wrote that love is not a thing in and of itself. One can’t just decide to love on one’s own, because love is always something that happens in relationship.
Put all this together and we get a picture of God as primarily concerned with love in the context of relationships. This suggests that the overarching point of the Bible is to help us to both know God as loving and relational and to help us live in loving relationship with our neighbors.
Earlier in this post, I said that people who have a hermeneutic of morals apply one nuanced approach when reading a passage like Romans 1:26-27 (which they read as saying that the practice of homosexuality is wrong regardless of cultural context) but apply a different nuanced approach to a verse like 1 Corinthians 11:5 which says that women should pray with their heads covered (they would say that this verse only applies to the historical situation in the first century church of Corinth).
Now if we approach these texts with a hermeneutic of love, I don’t think we need to do this kind of interpretational dancing – we can use the same hermeneutic (sans nuance) to both passages. Whereas the moral reading applies a historical context onto one passage and not the other, I would say that a hermeneutic of (relational) love requires us to always take the historical context into account. Every commandment has to be read in the context in which it was given.
A hermeneutic of love doesn’t interpret the Bible beginning with the question, “what’s right or wrong here,” it begins with the question, “what does this passage have to say about love in relationship?”
With both the Romans passage and the 1 Corinthians passage, I would suggest that there was something about the practice of homosexuality in Greek culture and women praying without their heads covered in Corinth that had something to do (in those historical contexts) with getting in the way of loving relationships. The point of both passages is not about right or wrong behavior per se, it’s about the breaking of loving relationship. What we need to pay attention to is not what’s right or wrong, but what’s breaking relationship.
In the case of the Romans passage, I would argue that a hermeneutic of love would read that passage not as a condemnation of all homosexual acts, rather, it condemns “unnatural” (v. 26) and “shameful” (v. 27) acts – it just so happens that in this case, Paul is speaking of homosexuals acting shamefully and unnaturally, but heterosexuals can also behave shamefully and unnaturally.
Now the exact nature of what was shameful or unnatural isn’t specified, but read with a hermeneutic of love/relationship, I think they can be understood as relationship-breaking acts. Stated more plainly, I would argue that Paul here is talking about casual or promiscuous sex as shameful and unnatural. Read in the context of what the rest of the Bible says about it, sex is designed as the pinnacle of a loving, committed relationship. Casual, meaningless sex (regardless of who’s participating in it – straight or gay) is shameful and unnatural because it perverts the purpose of sex.
The gay marriage debate is not about this kind of shameful, unnatural casual sex. Same-sex couples are wanting the exact opposite of that – they desperately want to enter into committed, loving relationships and I say more power to them! Any barriers we (the church, society, government, etc.) place between people who want to enter into loving relationship with one another is what’s shameful and unnatural. It’s also sinful.
And yeah, I realize that that’s a radically different approach to the Bible than most people are familiar with (or maybe not, it’s certainly a new approach for me). And as I’ve stated repeatedly, I’m not saying that this way is the one right way to read the Bible, but I do think that reading the Bible through the eyes of love helps harmonize formerly conflicting passages. It’s certainly reawakened me to the possibilities of the biblical text – it’s come alive to me in a way that the moral reading I was raised with never did.
A few last things:
- This hermeneutic of love is something I’ve come to in part through reading Peter Rollins, and partly as I’ve begun to study something called process theology.
- I’ll have lots more to say about process theology (and Peter Rollins) in future posts. Stay tuned!
- If anyone has suggestions on other theologians who talk about this sort of relational hermeneutic, please let me know – I’m really wanting to explore this way of reading.
- Lastly, as a reward for making it all the way through this lumbering post, I give you this completely unrelated, but hilariously-feel-good video (be sure to click on the closed caption [cc] to get the translation):
One of the classes I took this semester at The Seattle School was called Theology and the Artistic Impulse. Basically a class about the theology of creativity and imagination and art and this project was supposed to be an art project based on some of the material from class.