Saturday, January 16, 2010

Disconnect: It's the theologies

Peggy Noonan, notable US reporter, writes in Disconnect: It's the Policies that there is a disconnection between President Obama and the American people at the moment which is not as some are making out - not due to his personality, his perceived lack of emotion when making certain pronouncements, his soaring rhetoric - but is due to his policies. The disconnect is actually about substance and not about style. Substance, for a politician, comes when laws are enacted. At that point 'the people' tend to 'get it' about what is really going on. We are not stupid! We understand that politicians get carried away when making speeches, especially when those speeches are made in pursuit of office. We make allowances for the disconnect between rhetoric and reality. But what disturbs the American people right now, Noonan argues, is the disconnect between proposed legislation and the will of the people. It is the President who does not 'get it', this difference between what the law may make real on healthcare, for instance, and what the people want to happen.

Meanwhile, also in the US, a court hearing is taking place about marriage in the State of California. Might 'marriage' be inclusive of all couples, straight and gay, or not? Despite the will of the people of California voting for marriage to be between a man and a woman, the hearing will consider the matter against the values of equality for all enshrined in the US constitution. Gung ho for the State of California judiciary ruling for inclusivity is Susan Russell, leading Episcopalian (and Californian) priest. Her latest blog reflection is here.

My sense of where the whole of TEC is at on this matter, which is, let us not beat about the bush, about a redefinition of marriage as commonly understand throughout history and across all cultures, is that it is not wholly with Susan Russell. But it is heading that way. And that has me thinking about TEC in relation to the Anglican Communion. Might it be fair to characterise the situation as one of 'disconnect'? And, pace Noonan, is it possible that the disconnect is not due to personalities (Akinola, Schori, Jensen, Williams, heaven forbid that they should ever be in a lifeboat together trying to work out how to be saved from peril on the seas!!) or to rhetoric, but to theologies?

The thing is, Americans as Americans when trying to work out social policy rightly reach for their Constitution, call in a lawyer or two, and seek through legislature or judiciary or executive office, or any combination thereof, to work out the best way forward for themselves. Mostly this has been extraordinarily successful and one of the reasons why millions of people not in the USA try to emigrate there. But Christians as Christians when trying to work out how we should live normally reach out for the Bible, call in a theologian or two, and seek through our synods, commissions, presbyteries, and councils to work out the way forward.

That reaching out for the Bible is common to all Christian traditions, not just the preference of 'fundamentalists' or 'literalists'. At the root, for example, of Roman Catholic theology and Eastern Orthodox theology is ... the Bible. How we use the Bible varies across traditions. Some will call in more theologians rather than less to interpret the Bible, some will draw in more resources from past interpretation of the Bible (i.e. tradition), and some will be more rational in the way they weigh up what the Bible says, but, at the end of the day, Christians work out decisions theologically and that theological work engages with the Bible. That's what Christians do, and it is what makes us distinctive from atheists, Muslims, Hindus and Star Wars fans!

So if one group of Christians heads in a policy direction which is doubtfully grounded in the Bible, there is likely to be a disconnect with those who remain (or believe they remain) firmly grounded in the Bible. On the specific matter of the definition of marriage, it is doubtful that anyone, even the most brilliant theologians among us, can ground into the Bible a redefinition of marriage which includes two men or two women. This is a different matter from whether or not one can ground into the Bible a theology of acceptance of the differences between people, or a theology of tolerance of the frailties of people as relational beings (the theology which acknowledges the need to permit remarriage after divorce being extended to acknowledge the value of faithful, stable same-sex partnerships). These theologies can be grounded into the Bible - though not all will agree, there is and will be much debate - and there are prospects that over time, with patience and grace, we might as a Communion find common accord on such theologies. (We might not; but we might). But redefining marriage? I cannot see the Communion ever agreeing to that. Not because the Communion is intrinsically homophobic, but because such redefinition is intrinsically difficult, if not impossible, to ground into the Bible.

Now I could be wrong on these matters! I could be "misoverestimating" the lead TEC clerics such as Susan Russell are giving. But what if the future of TEC as a whole is with rather than against Susan Russell, moving beyond a theology of tolerance of diverse relationships to a redefinition of marriage: would there then be a disconnect between TEC and the Communion which is substantive?


Anonymous said...

If you accept that homosexual relations are right and godly for Christians, then you *inevitably have to redefine ('de-genderize') marriage as any coupling of any two consenting adults. (And why stop at two? The force of conservative habit, perhaps?) If homosexual desire is a fact of good creation rather than a consequence, however indirectly, of sin, then it must be affirmed, not discouraged. Catholic theology immediately understands this point. John Paul II understood this in his 'Theology of the Body'.
And sadly, this is the point that Carl Somers-Edgar has failed to perceive in his scintillatingly written and erudite blog.

Peter Carrell said...


Kurt said...

“My sense of where the whole of TEC is at on this matter, which is, let us not beat about the bush, about a redefinition of marriage as commonly understand throughout history and across all cultures...” Peter Carrell

I think you are going out on a limb here, Peter. Even in the Sixties, in the Cultural Anthropology classes offered at my alma mater, (an elite, Northeastern liberal arts college of Episcopal foundation--1860) professors discussed what amounted to gay marriages in several cultures, including Amerindians. And, remember, through most of its history, marriage was basically a man’s (and ruling class’) institution to safeguard property rights. What we know today as marriage is of relatively recent foundation (for most people in the West, in fact, a product of the late Enlightenment and the Romantic periods).

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Kurt
I appreciate the point you are making but suggest that 'commonly' allows for some flexibility compared to (say) uniformly or universally. Put another way: most cultures, through most of time have not had a definition of marriage which included two men or two women. In particular, the dominant cultural background to American understanding of marriage is Judeo-Christian out of a European context, and that background is (I would say) uniformly defining of marriage as between a man and a woman. Boswell and other scholars drawing out some evidence of the possibility that at certain points in Christian European history there were same sex relationships which were blessed does not affect that definition. Even ancient Greek culture, influential on Christianity, did not (as I understand it) offer a different definition of marriage even though it famously celebrated (to some degree) male-male relationships.

As for marriage today being different to "property" marriage of yesterday: I think that misses the point embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the upholding, celebrating, and supporting of the joining of a man and a woman in marriage through different times and seasons in history: my wife and I stand in a long and fine tradition of marriage which is threaded through diverse exemplars in history: Aquila and Priscilla ... Mary and Joseph ... Abraham and Sarah ... Adam and Eve.

(Moe could be said, including the way in which polygamy is a variation on the definition ...)

Anonymous said...

Boswell was refuted in great detail years ago by Brent Shaw (now Professor of Classics at Princeton), when Shaw was at Lethbridge U.
Shaw's paper doesn't seem to be on the web any more but it's very incisive. To think that 'adelphopoieisis' would be sexual or mimetic of marriage in character is to have a very strange idea of brotherhood.
If we go by Cultural Anthropology, we are simply describing how sinful human beings have ordered their sexual and familial relations in the past, and in these polygamy and concubinage figured largely for those with the money. But hardly an option for followers of Jesus Christ (Matt 19:4-6).

Anonymous said...

Here, from the liberal New Republic, is Shaw's erudite refutation of Boswell's misreading of medieval Byzantine texts and misunderstanding of adelphopoiesis, as well as a refreshing reminder that Roman marriage, at least in the Augustan age, did aim for fidelity, love and permanence.