Friday, April 27, 2018

Scriptural Debates and the Work of Love: Giles, Gagnon, and Same-Sex Intimacy

As I have a tendency to do, I got a bit worked up last night reading an exchange between my Facebook friend, author and former pastor Keith Giles, and conservative biblical scholar Robert Gagnon. I had to set the whole exchange aside and read a bit from a fantasy novel (Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer) so that I could fall asleep.

The exchange was about what Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, says and does not say about same-sex relationships. Giles offers a progressive reading according to which Paul's purpose is to focus on idolatry and its fruits. His central claim is that "What Paul is condemning here is the use of sexual intercourse as part of the worship of created things, or idols." The implication of his essay is that we can't use his remarks here as a basis for condemning loving, monogamous same-sex relationships in which idolatry plays no part (and which may in fact occur between deeply devoted Christians whose relationships are informed by devotion to the God of love).

Gagnon retorts that Paul clearly intended to condemn same-sex sex as such, regardless of its relation to idolatry--and he gestures towards several arguments for this view by way of a series of rhetorical questions that begin with "Did it ever occur to Giles that...". The aggressive and demeaning tone, more than anything, is what got me worked up. Although I have not met Gagnon's target of condescension personally, my interactions with Giles on social media have given me a sense of someone with a compassionate spirit. And so I reacted as you do when someone you like is being maligned. In any event, the key implication of Gagnon's remarks is that Paul's condemnation extends to every form of same-sex intimacy, even in the context of a monogamous, loving, faithful life partnership that, in all respects but gender-makeup, looks like a model of Christian marriage.

So, aside from the defensiveness triggered by the the way that Gagnon went after Giles, what do I think of this exchange?

I devote a chapter of The Triumph of Love to scriptural issues, but I do not pretend (there or anywhere else) to offer a definitive interpretation of what Paul or any other scriptural author thinks about same-sex relationships.

There are three reasons for this. First, my expertise is in philosophy, not biblical interpretation. Second, based on my extensive reading of countless rival interpretations offered by those who are experts in biblical interpretation, I don't think such a definitive interpretation is available. Finally, even if we can find a definitive interpretation of what Paul or any other biblical author thought on this question, that wouldn't settle matters for Christians or anyone else.

If there is one single conclusion from my recent book, it's that the ultimate question for Christians, when it comes to matters that materially impact the lives of our neighbors, has to be about what love requires--the kind of love that the Good Samaritan showed to the robbery victim on that Jericho road, the kind of love that extends to each neighbor including the enemy-neighbor, the kind of love modeled by Jesus in his life, ministry, and crucifixion. What does that kind of love for our LGBT+ neighbors call us to do? The first thing it demands is that we actually pay compassionate, empathetic attention to their lives. And this means we need to get our noses out of our books--including my book, including Gagnon's and Giles' books, and including the Bible.

That doesn't mean books lack value. It certainly doesn't mean the Bible lacks value. What it means is that love for neighbors calls us to focus on our neighbors and be responsive to them and their needs. It means that if God is love, and love is personal and relational, we will experience God most fully in the business of loving one another in the relevant sense.

The Bible loses all its value if quoting Scripture at our neighbors, or beating them upside the head with Scripture, or arrogantly denouncing those who disagree with our interpretation, replaces the work of love.

Ultimately, then, that's what the exchange between Giles and Gagnon made me think about. As to who is right and who is wrong in their interpretation of Paul, I could point out some unsound logical moves in the reasoning of one or the other. My defensive anger made it easy for me to notice each such logical failing in Gagnon's response to Giles (I certainly have expert training in that, even if biblical interpretation is not my field). At first I thought that's what I'd be writing when I sat down to reflect on this exchange. But then I'd just be allowing myself to be sucked into the antagonistic spirit of Gagnon's attack on Giles.

So instead, I want to close with this: I suspect that both Giles and Gagnon have insights into the question of what Paul was saying, insights that are worth reflecting on even if nobody can claim definitive knowledge of exactly what a long-dead writer meant and didn't mean. And it is so much easier to actually pay attention to the substance of these insights if we approach our disagreements in a spirit of love--which means, among other things, focusing on the issues rather than on each other.

But most of all, it is so important that when we talk about matters that materially impact the lives of our neighbors--whether it be our LGBT+ neighbors or anyone else--we pay attention to them and their lives and experiences. What Paul said is one question. What we should do if we are inspired by the spirit of love is another, and a far more important one.

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