Category Archives: Pistis & Polis

Pistis and Polis, roughly rendered from the Greek as “Faith and the City,” is the ministers’ blog from All Saints Church. Here you’ll find commentary on matters relating to faith and contemporary culture.

Neal Sumerlin responds to Fr. John – Post 3

March 25, 2013 – Neal Sumerlin

First, thank you for your willingness to engage in civil discourse about an issue on which we have profound disagreements. The easiest (and frankly, the laziest) thing to do in this situation would be to hurl insults at each other that imply the other party is irredeemably stupid or evil or both. I think it’s much more productive for us to listen to each other, to understand as best we can, even if we remain in disagreement after dialogue. Indeed, I don’t expect anyone’s position to change, yours or mine. But I do hope for a greater understanding for both of us.

Second, since I am going first and have promised you the last word, I will not only address the arguments you used in your March 17th letter to the News & Advance (and in the more complete version posted on your blog), but will anticipate the arguments you might use. I realize I will be “responding” to things you have not said, but I hope you will forgive that and understand the reasons.

We have mostly disposed of the issue of the headline over my News & Advance letter of March 7th (Homophobia Rules Supreme) by realizing that I did not write it. I do not and would not use that as a blanket term for all who oppose marriage equality or gay rights, and I would not use it to describe someone with whom I am no better acquainted than I am with you. There are people, however, whose opposition is rooted in fear, and for them the term is accurate. I know that because I used to be one of them. So it’s not a term to be tossed out lightly, but it is a term with real meaning and accuracy in some cases. Thinking from my own past attitudes, in a milder form this is often just the “ick factor”. Imagining the sexual practices of others that we might find distasteful is not a good guide to public policy; to each his or her own.

Your letter uses the rather shopworn rhetorical device of the slippery slope, imagining all sorts of dire consequences should we allow same-sex couples to marry. There are so many things wrong with this argument. It’s frankly akin to a magician’s sleight of hand, designed to distract you from the real action. “If you allow A, then B, C and D will logically follow. Surely you don’t support B, C and D?” Sounds like the domino theory of geopolitics in the 1960s. Let’s confine our discussion to A, shall we?

You state, and I take you at your word, that your objections to marriage equality are based not in science, but in “a system of morals informed by a long and consistent Christian tradition”. This is where we sharply diverge, for several reasons. I take this to mean that even if science were to show that sexual orientation is innate and not a choice, that you would still object, and I find that troubling. What I know of my own sexual orientation and what I observe in others leads me to believe that it is in fact innate. But since we both agree that there is no conclusive evidence on this question, we’ll set that aside.

More troubling to me is the idea that this objection is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. I want to make a clear distinction between those teachings as revealed in the Gospels, and the historical traditions of institutional Christianity. I regard many of the latter as barnacles on an otherwise beautiful vessel. What I believe you are appealing to is more a tradition than a moral stance. The moral stance of the Jesus of the Gospels is far less concerned with adherence to tradition than it is to an expansive and inclusive sense of justice and mercy. I believe he probably liked my favorite verse in all the Bible as much as I do: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Justice is (among many other things) the righting of ancient wrongs, kindness is (among many other things) wanting for others what you have for yourself, humility is (among many other things) great reluctance to claim God-like power to judge and to condemn.

We’re all familiar with Bible verses that are said to condemn homosexual behavior, and I imagine equally familiar with interpreters who see these passages as more ambiguous. Again, let’s put that aside. The Bible can and has been used to justify everything from infanticide to slavery, and claiming Biblical authority as your sole support is pretty dangerous. It’s a library, not a book; which Biblical attitude are you citing? Claiming that the Bible is free of contradiction or error flies in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary. So at this point you and I are left with different views of what an ancient text is telling us about how we ought to live our lives, and how we ought to treat others.

Although one’s religious views surely influence the positions taken on public issues, we live in a democratic republic, not a theocracy. We decide these issues through courts and legislatures and referenda, not by religious decrees from priests, preachers, or mullahs. For a very long time, opponents of marriage equality could rightly claim that the only victories for its supporters were in courts, and that voters roundly rejected the principle at every opportunity. But courts are how our system protects us from a tyranny of the majority. Gays and lesbians will always be a minority of American citizens, and until such time as the straight majority sees them as equals, courts will be the means by which their rights are guarded. I am amazed at how quickly public attitudes have shifted. Marriage equality has been approved by voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington. You are already in a national minority that will only shrink as a new generation matures. History is moving in the direction of marriage equality, and probably faster than either of us believed possible. I imagine you find this distressing. I find it heart-warming.

Not all historical trends are good ones, of course. American majorities have supported all sorts of heinous ideas. So why am I supportive of this principle? I have to think about my own marriage and why I might wish for the joy I have found there to be available to others.

Sex is a wonderful and joyful aspect of my marriage, but it certainly doesn’t constitute the whole of it. My wife and I chose to (and thankfully were able to) have and raise children, a gift not only to us but more profoundly to the society in which we and they live. But if we had chosen otherwise, or if nature had chosen for us, that would not have made our marriage invalid. I think what is at the heart of this relationship is commitment (we will celebrate our 39th anniversary this summer), companionship (she truly is my best friend), and intimacy (which includes but is not defined by sexual intimacy). Stable and committed partnerships are good things, good for the couples involved, good for children who are raised by them (yes, I believe gay and lesbian couples should be able to adopt), and good for the larger society. Why would we not want to support such partnerships? I’m far more concerned with “redefining marriage” as a maybe-sorta-let’s-see-if-this-works-out arrangement than with extending the concept to same-sex couples. Heterosexual couples are far more of a threat to traditional marriage than homosexual couples ever will be.

I wish I had come to this attitude earlier in my life. My children were able to do so because of changing societal attitudes, where it was a little easier (though still not at all easy) for their friends to come out to each other. Their impatience with anti-gay attitudes is fueled by a genuine failure to comprehend why this should be a big deal to anyone. Good for them. I had to learn the way most people learn to overcome prejudice—by actually getting to know the objects of my prejudice. Senator Rob Portman learned the same way when his son came out to him. Good for him. Most of us are not saintly enough to inhabit the minds of people we do not know, to practice true agape love to strangers.

Finally, I want to say that we are talking about marriage as though it were a single entity, when in fact there are both legal and religious aspects that have been interwoven for a long time. Although I might wish that all religious institutions would support marriage equality, I realize that they certainly will not. No one can force a church or any other religious institution to recognize the religious validity of any marriage it chooses not to recognize. No one can force a pastor or priest to perform a marriage that he or she chooses not to perform. This is as it should be.

Marriage IS a civil right, despite protestations to the contrary. Telling a committed couple that they may not do so IS a violation of their privacy. “Traditional” marriage is just that, a tradition, not a moral dictum, and a tradition that has assumed its present form historically recently. And the arc of the moral universe DOES bend toward justice.

Fr. John’s next response here:

Fr. John responds to Neal Sumerlin – Post 4

March 29, 2013  – Fr. John

Neal, thanks for your e-mail which I received on Monday. I appreciate the spirit and the tone of your invitation to a further exchange on the matter of same sex marriage, and the broader issues it raises. I’ve taken some time to collect my thoughts in response.

This debate is about two things: a) benefits and b) legitimacy. As touching “a,” I have no objection to the government or corporations extending a cornucopia of benefits to whomever they wish. If a gay person wishes to have inheritance rights or be named next of kin on a hospital form, so be it. It is complicated, of course, and the paperwork would take a long time to push. But why should any of our marriages – gay or straight – be a social object of the tax code in the first place? There are hundreds of ways and means to accomplish these things, and gay advocates have been offered options in several different ways. They have not accepted the offers.

Which leads to “b.” Homosexuals advocate for the designation of marriage because they desire legitimacy and affirmation that what they are doing is the same thing I am doing. It is not, and they know it. Thus, their appeals typically avoid moral argumentation. When they do, they insist that people like me back out of their private lives. This fails to recognize that marriage, while entailing very private matters, is a public institution. Marriage is the public declaration that two people are in an exclusive social and sexual relationship, and, until the 60’s was an enforceable contract. A society with a healthy culture of marriage makes sex public – marriage declares to all who is sleeping with whom. Only a society in which marriage is degraded is one in which sex is intensely privatized, resulting in bunches of people sleeping together, without public declaration. I am digressing already, but I mention it for the purpose of showing that the debate about same sex marriage – or any marriage debate – concerns a public question, not a private one.

In our democracy the state has taken upon itself the burden of enforcing public morality, thereby legitimizing a point of view with the imprimatur of law. Social policy, but especially law, has an affirmative, normative, and pedagogical effect over time. The state, however, is now being asked to decide whose morality to enforce. Ah, there is the rub, and politicians everywhere, sensing that the center isn’t holding, are flipping faster than crappie on a dock. They can read the polls as well as I can (I admit that I am in a rapidly shrinking minority). But as I have written elsewhere, I do not hold that matters of morality are up for grabs in the demos. Vox populi, vox humbug. Morals ultimately descend from transcendent principles, largely summed up in the Ten Commandments. I accept these as normative for the people and the prince.

Now, more specifically to your objections. You are correct that my argument is framed as a slippery slope, and as such, you wish to set it aside. Indulge me once more as my thinking is a bit more nuanced. I am fully aware that affirming A does not provide a necessary and sufficient condition for claiming B. By arguing the possible consequences that might flow from A, I cannot insist that consequence B will necessarily follow. Thus, the inference that same-sex marriage would be a strong shove down a slippery slope to other marital arrangements was adamantly rejected.

But such a rejection is revealing. When you say “telling a committed couple that they may not do so [marry] IS a violation of their privacy,” you draw the line at two – no more than two – individuals who wish to marry. My point is not to insist that “B” necessarily flows from “A.” Rather, I am pointing out that you squirm at the thought of polyamory or polygamy, but your arguments for same sex marriage are exactly identical to those already being used to advocate these arrangements.  [See the recent article in the online Washington Post’s “On Faith” for more on this:] At the risk of bludgeoning you with semantics, I insist that we are parsing very important definitions. Such a qualitative redefinition of marriage effectively turns my “slippery slope” in to a sheer granite rock face. Rather than admit that gay marriage vaults that cliff and opens the clerk’s of court’s office to all comers (at the same time), it is easier for you to cry foul on form. But the fact that an argument is disliked does not make it go poof.

Thus, I am pressing the point that challenges your basis of exclusion, which marriage equality necessarily creates, to wit: you favor marriage for one class of persons, homosexuals, to the exclusion of another class (e.g., Muslims and polyamorists, etc.), which are also growing minorities, and which have religious and historical practices that are being ignored. To quote you, “Traditional” marriage is just that, a tradition, not a moral dictum, and a tradition that has assumed its present form historically recently.” If so, what exactly, do we say to Abdul when our secular democracy throws up its hands and says, “Sorry, it was just recent tradition after all!” but then proceeds to limit the number of partners he may have to just one, when the Koran says he gets up to four? This is no mere thought experiment. At the risk of redundancy, I am not arguing that it will happen. I am arguing that marriage equality arguments affirm a definitional change which must apply to all cases. I am pointing out that your argument contains a categorical fallacy, because it refuses to admit that a categorical definition of one group, in this case, homosexuals, does not cover others who may ask for the same treatment even though they meet the same criteria, i.e., people in loving relationships should not be denied the civil right of marriage.

But enough on that. Now I should like to move to the matter of science and morals. I know you aren’t pressing this strongly, and that you were willing to set it aside, so I will be brief. I also know that you are a man of science and possess an appreciation for its contributions to human understanding. I share that appreciation, and thus, I take your objection seriously. For your part, you admit that science hasn’t spoken – yet – at least with as clear a voice as you might like regarding innate sexual orientation. You are hopeful that the gay gene is somewhere in the triple helix, and that it will be found.

This is tricky for both of us. It is tricky for you, on the one hand, because you must proceed upon an argument from silence. You have no scientific evidence for the claim; it is tricky for me, on the other, presumably because I have to proceed with the fear that science might prove me wrong in the future. There are far too many issues to pursue here, so I will summarize more basic commitments. First, I do not think that the human race has been required to suspend judgment on homosexual practice and marriage arrangements for all of recorded human history, until our progeny cracks the DNA. This is because I do not think that moral authority is finally dependent upon physical science.

Second, we likely differ on the weight that science actually brings to bear on the matter. As I briefly pointed out in my longer blog version, science may tell me much about what “is,” but it tells me little about what “should be.” Post-Enlightenment thinking reduces our world to a material universe. Not surprisingly, science is king (god?), and the discoveries available through the sciences are now understood and relied upon to unlock the totality of the human experience and ultimate reality. I recognize that I am painting with a broad brush and you may not share this point of view. I do believe, however, that this is mainstream thinking in academia. The effect of elevating science in this way has been to relegate moral propositions, which, by definition, are not falsifiable, to an interior, private world of individual opinion. We are free to believe or make value judgments about anything we wish, as long we don’t believe that it is true for all. Thus, science is used to undermine moral discussion in the public square in general and moral absolutes in particular.

The appeal to science assumes that, if we could just show that there is a homosexual gene or other natural causation, we would have to sanction the behaviors that flow from it. Much has been written on this which I won’t repeat here, but this is patently a non sequitur. In the Christian account of human experience, all human sorrow is directly attributable to the Fall, and our subsequent state of sin and misery. Those of us who still accept the doctrine of Original Sin posit the physical and noetic effects (psychological, mental, and affective domains) of sin are profound – more than we imagine. The Christian vision is one of redemption from sin – body and soul – not sanction of sin.

Should science discern next week that there is a genetic predisposition in serial killers who prey on females – and there is literature on this – I would be no more likely to sanction the behavior, much less affirm it. This is neither a false analogy, nor a head-in-the-sand denial of science. I welcome any science that deepens our understanding of the human condition, but I am firmly committed to the proposition that all facts are God’s facts and all data in the natural world must be interpreted in light of what the Scriptures declare about that world. The most offensive fact to the modern mind, I suggest, is not the explicit (what you call ambiguous references) proscription of homosexuality, but the first fact: In the beginning God created…and made man in his image. Developing the implications of this is far beyond a reasonable intrusion upon your time.

This brings us to the teachings of Jesus, which I am glad you raise, though I am equally troubled by how easily you wish to slice the Gospel accounts away from Moses and the Prophets, the rest of the New Testament, and the tradition of the Church which flows from the sacred writings. If Jesus did anything, he affirmed that seeking justice with our fellow man meant first satisfying the justice of God. The righteousness or justice of God is his own covenant faithfulness, which we are to imitate. Jesus carefully and consistently defined the justice of God in such a manner as to affirm the whole of God’s law and the prophets. It is absolutely preposterous to assert otherwise and we are not free to interpret Jesus out of the context of Moses, which Jesus himself expressly affirmed. It would be easier for you to say that Moses, Jesus, the prophets, and Paul are simply wrong on the matter, and let it go, because what they actually teach on the matter is not a question of reasonable debate.

So I agree that it would be useless to argue the Scriptures with each other – we disagree profoundly on their nature, and thus upon a definition of justice. As you say, “You and I are left with different views of what an ancient text is telling us about how we ought to live our lives, and how we ought to treat others.” That is correct. We particularly disagree about the authority of the Bible for faith and life. But if you find that arguing over the Bible with me is tiresome, wait until you debate authoritative texts with Abdul.

I am pleased, however, that you seem to recognize and agree with me that at the end of the day, moral questions require defense with the strongest authoritative appeals. I locate that authority in the whole Bible – both testaments – including Moses, Jesus, Paul and the other writers. I affirm that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are unified, and that their message is essentially perspicuous. I also affirm that neither the Church nor anyone else, has the authority to tamper with the plain teaching of what we have received from the apostles and prophets. Post-Enlightenment scholarship may have denied the supernatural nature of our Book, attempting to label it as a hopelessly hidebound relic of an ancient culture, but the orthodox faith cedes no ground here.

I understand that you do not hold the Scriptures in the same way I do. The bad news is that we’ll likely not agree on very many important things. The good news is that we understand why, and we don’t have to shout at each other or call names. So, I thank you for the invitation to offer this lengthy and final word, and I appreciate the civil tone you have taken with yours. I trust that my tone, while pointed, is equally gracious. I certainly intend it to be.

Trinity Sunday

Fr. L.K. Wells

If the Epistle and Gospel assigned to this unique feast do not seem to have much to do with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, there is a reason for it. These passages were assigned long before there was Church Ext - Non Est Deus Shieldsuch a thing as Trinity Sunday. Unlike Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost (which go back to the earliest centuries), Trinity Sunday was an invention of the late Middle Ages. When the Bishop of Rome, after some hesitation, made Trinity Sunday a universal feast throughout the Church, the English portion of the Church simply kept the same Epistle and Gospel which had always been used, even when the day was labeled “the Octave of Pentecost.” So to find a good preaching text for Trinity Sunday, should we look elsewhere?

But is there any text of the Bible which does not contain this precious truth? While the word “Trinity” happens not to occur in Holy Scripture, we need look no further than the very first chapter of the very first book, “The first book of Moses called Genesis” (to use the title in our Authorized Version). There we read: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said…”  In those crisp and succinct words we have the whole doctrine of the Trinity before us. Here we learn that God is greater than all things, before all things, surpassing all things. We rightly call Him Father. But God is nonetheless present and active in His creation, invisible as the wind but far more powerful. Therefore we know Him as Spirit. The Hebrew word translated “Spirit” also means “wind,” and likewise means “breath.” This “Spirit” of Genesis 1 is echoed both in the reference of the “mighty wind” which accompanied the Spirit on the first Whitsunday and to the “breath” with which Jesus breathed upon His disciples on the evening of the first Easter Day. We must not overlook the significance of that little word “said” in the Creation account. Each creative act through the Six Days begins with “And God said.” In that simple verb, we learn “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This “And God said” is what the Psalmist had in mind when he wrote “And He spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast”(Psalm 33:9). This creative Word, by which the Father made all things at the beginning, was the very same Word which took on our very nature in Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. God’s great Self-revelation which became perfect on Pentecost had been true all along. Trinity Sunday is a salutary reminder of how great a God we serve and adore. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!” (Rom. 8:33). Today’s feast celebrates not an event but a dogma. Christmas, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and even All Saints Day are our annual reminders of the mighty acts of God in our world of time and space. But Trinity Sunday comes not as an anniversary but as a lesson-plan. We need to be instructed at least once a year that the One unique God, who demands our exclusive allegiance and worship, has existed from eternity as a unity of three persons, and so He will always be. If this seems to be abstract and irrelevant to our lives here and now, we need to be reminded of one critical event in which the Trinity of the Father, th Son, and the Holy Ghost has profoundly touched each one of us. That critical event was our Baptism, when each Christian individual was washed and marked “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” This Dominical formula, found in Matt. 28:19, is absolutely necessary for a valid baptism to occur (along with, of course, the use of water). This is the only place in the whole Bible where the threefold nature of God is stated so precisely. Note carefully that there are not three “names,” but only One Name. Our salvation (and this is the salvation of each of us, considered one at a time) is rooted in God’s plan for our salvation. That plan was not merely an emergency measure which God contrived after man fell into sin; in the words of the psalmist, God’s saving love for us is “from eternity, to eternity.” This proves to us that God is truly our Father, and has been our Father from before all time. But at a certain moment in time (as time is measured by a clock!), God stepped right into our fallen world and became active on our behalf, to redeem and restore us, to defeat the powers of evil which enslave us, to re-establish His kingship in our hearts, our lives, and our world. That all happened when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is truly God the Son, was made man in Palestine. This eternal God, who created us and redeemed us, is still present with us. This presence we call God the Holy Ghost. As the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, God penetrates and pervades all things. But most important for us, He applies to us now that God the Son has done for us long ago. He engrafts us into Christ and unites us to Him, so that even in our dull and unglamorous human existence is already shot through with the Divine life of God. The Triune God, into whose glorious Name we have been baptized, thus reveals Himself to be both our Creator and our Saviour.