I’ve been thinking a lot about that issue of same sex marriage. Again. Sometimes it feels as though it’s all we ever think about in the church (apart from rather obscure ecumenical arrangements which get some of us hot under the dog-collar). I’ve been hoping to find a breakthrough, some miracle idea that will enable us all to get on well and not to be broken by this issue.
Such is the modesty of my own ambition and self-belief.
The problem with the different sides of this argument is not, I think, that we cannot understand the arguments put forward by the other side, but rather that we find the opposing arguments very weak. What seems persuasive when you already believe it seems petty when you don’t.
And the reason for that I think is because we’re not arguing on common ground. I think the root is how we look at the bible, what it means to us, and how we use it.
For want of better terms, rather than “conservative” and “liberal”, I think it would be better to refer to one side as sceptics (the liberals) and the other literalists (the conservatives). I’m aware that Literalist is more contentious than Sceptic, but I can’t think of an alternative. Not that I think either is a good description of the majority of Christians in those camps, but rather that they are the two extreme ends of a spectrum on which we all find ourselves.
We all have a blind spot when it comes to seeing our own faults on this one. It’s comfortable to think “oh, I can see that they’re literalists, but I don’t think I’m a sceptic. My view is…” etc. or vice versa. And for most of us, we are not on the extreme end of the bell curve, so we may be healthily cynical about both approaches.
What I want to say about these two differing approaches is that they developed at more or less the same time as one another, and have dominated the way we treat our bible recently – recently being the last hundred and fifty years. They are a result of the rise of scientific method in the late 19th century. One is a reaction to it, one is a near-total adoption of it.
Scepticism is easier to pin down, as it does not claim to be a way of interpreting the bible which is consistent with traditional methods. In the 19th century, new ways of critical historical thinking enabled people to ask questions of the bible which they had never asked before. Previously, the way one found knowledge about the world was using the Bible in the same way as scientists were using the natural world – it was a foundation document, a thing to find answers in. Now the Bible itself was being subjected to scrutiny.
Those techniques and ideas were of academic interest, first articulated in “Essays and Reviews” in 1860, but it was in the post second world war years where they found popular appeal. Honest to God by John Robinson was a result of this process. The sixties were a period of iconoclasm, change, questioning of authority, including religious authority.
In “honest to God”, Robinson essentially rejects the Bible being used as source material for morality, pointing out the perceived inadequacies of such an approach, and advocates a way of forming ethics and theology based on rationale and essentially humanist philosophy.
Much of that process of scrutiny needed to be done. But the problem with being iconoclasts, is that when you get good at smashing icons, it’s quite hard to know when to stop smashing. For some Christians on the liberal end of the church, they got so good at smashing things, that their identity became far more “anti” conservatism, rather than “pro” anything at all.
These days, latter end of scepticism feels a bit like the student politics of my own day – very against everything, not really for anything which you can articulate, outraged at injustice, completely ignorant of what positive justice might look like. The positive message, if there is one, is “god is love, soo… you know.”.
I ought to confess, I am of this tribe. I felt liberated when I was told that the Bible wasn’t this dusty holy relic which had to be entirely accepted without question. I couldn’t believe what I thought I had to believe, so I rejected Christianity. When I was told that it was my duty to use all my critical faculties in faith, including my logic and my scepticism, it opened up the possibility that Christianity was not just a religion, but might also be true in every aspect of life, not just philosophically true.
So far so good – but I found that it wasn’t in itself enough to have a living faith of any kind. It was a way of rejecting the old faith of previous generations, but in order to live a faithful life, you need more than that.
And that was the hard bit for me, finding a language of faith which I could own, articulate. Sceptics have never been very good at that. Liberal churches have always been bad at evangelism. I’ve often wondered why. The reasons given are often pitiful. We preach by music and silence, I am told, in stillness and calm. That’s how we pray – but if it how we evangelise, it is clearly a rubbish way of evangelising, because such churches of that nature are shrinking.
I remember someone describing their evangelism like that of St Francis of Assisi, and the famous, very overused quotation “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words”. Not only is it an overused quotation, but it certainly didn’t come from St Francis, and actually flies in the face of the man who preached to five villages a day. I don’t remember Jesus finding words inadequate, or St Paul.
Because of this complete lack of articulation, it means that the question with respect to equal marriage is phrased more as “why not” rather than “why”.
Like “honest to God”, Biblical sceptics often find their reasons, not in scripture but in humanist ethics, just as they find their explanations for why they believe in logical theology rather than being able to articulate their spiritual encounters with God. It’s not that they don’t have spiritual encounters, it’s just they don’t know how to talk about them.
Worse, sceptics, afraid of their own scepticism, tend to only say things about their faith which they can logically or rationally defend, rather than what they actually feel. In this context, faith is articulated rationally if at all, which results in an articulated faith which is more akin to deism than Christianity. Inter-faith dialogue in this context boils down to a feeling that we are all basically the same, something completely incomprehensible to Muslims or Jews.
In short, this love of critiquing, and the lack of articulation, can result in biblical sceptics looking like “atheist-lite”, with no very profound or strong arguments concerning the bible. And the arguments sceptics present in favour of equal marriage in the bible are necessarily going to be thin, because they probably know the bits of the bible they dislike more than they know the bits they like. And those bits they generally have to look up in the index anyway.
But I emphasise, this is a lack of ability to articulate, not a lack of belief, or a lack of loyalty to the Bible. Talking about that sort of stuff, outwith the context of critique is simply not easy for a scpetic. Which is one of the things that we in that side of the spectrum really, really need to apologise for. We simply haven’t tried hard enough to communicate the Gospel, either to the world or to our fellow Christians.
This blog post is already far too long, but in next one I’ll talk about how literalism is not, in fact, any more traditional or authentic a method of biblical interpretation than scepticism is.