I don’t usually like joining the fray when controversy rages in the church. The writer of Proverbs said that “where words are many sin is not absent,” adding that “he who holds his tongue is wise” (Pr 10:19). As a rule, that’s where I prefer to live. I frankly wish more of us did. Restraint is a wonderful thing.
That is part of the reason that I groaned when the initial Eugene Peterson story broke earlier this week. It seemed likely to me that restraint would go out the window and we’d all be worse for it and not better.
We’re mostly, I think, on the other side of it; and now that the furor of it seems to have died down a bit, I’d like to offer just a few observations; not so much on the interview itself or on the retraction, but on the moment we’re in and the nature of the conversation itself. I should mention that I’m traditionalist in my viewpoint on this matter (i.e., I hold that marriage is a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman), but I think what I’m saying here holds regardless of that perspective.
It should be obvious to everyone by now that nothing substantial was gained for the discussion itself in any of the controversy of the past few days. When Jonathan Merritt’s story was first posted, I retweeted it, adding that I thought Eugene’s comments, such as they were, were “unhelpful.” I meant that remark exactly. A good friend of mine pushed back on it, encouraging me to see how LGBT folks might find Eugene’s statement very helpful; when one of the most respected pastors and scholars of our generation (seemingly) affirms them, then that is helpful indeed. Old ache is soothed. I get it.
But that is not the kind of “helpful” that I was thinking of. The kind of helpful that I am most concerned about is the kind that gets the Church wrestling with the issue on the levels it needs to be wrestled with: biblical, theological, and pastoral. My disappointment with the interview as it first stood was that it added nothing on any of those levels. And in reality, neither did the retraction. Let’s be honest. We didn’t learn anything new. There was no new insight. Our biblical and theological foundations did not deepen. And in that absence of any real advance in understanding, all we were left with is the bare fact that so-and-so suddenly “changed their mind” and then, just as suddenly, “changed it back”, or something, the implications of which are entirely unclear… and again, the conversation does not move forward. We’re certainly talking a lot, but not getting anywhere.
This is problematic because this conversation is a critical one and the last thing it needs, as Eugene in his clarifying comments said so brilliantly, is “lightless heat.” We do not need bombast. We do not need rhetoric. Nor do we need important and beloved figures being recruited to a “side” in this, whether the traditionalist or the so-called progressive “side.” By the way, I am not accusing Jonathan Merritt of so doing or imputing any motives to him. But in the absence of an argument or even a line or two as to why so-and-so now believes one thing and not another, a vacuum is created where all we are left with is the likelihood of a kind of “recruitment.” And that is a problem for everyone. There has been quite enough side-taking in this contentious dispute to begin with. We don’t need more. We don’t need bare public pronouncements that feel like “wins.” It fuels divisiveness. It fuels factions. It feeds antagonisms and animosities and breeds a breakdown of the living, global Body of Christ. And, once more, in such a situation, genuine understanding advances slowly if at all.
This issue is upon the Church at this precise moment in history whether we like it or not. Every generation has had its share of doctrinal and ethical questions that it had to deal with. Many of them became the defining issues of those generations, and in the midst of the Church’s struggle with those questions, new light, fresh apprehensions of old truth, and genuine insight emerged that opened up previously unnoticed dimensions of God’s revelation. Generations that followed benefited from it.
That can happen again, with this. And in fact, it already is. The manifold complexities of our sexuality, the questions it is raising, cultural trends and movements… all of it is pushing us back into the text of Scripture and into the deep foundations of our theology in ways that future generations will benefit from. God will get the glory in this. People will be helped. The gates of hell will not prevail. That’s a theological conviction of mine.
But our movement towards that goal will greatly hindered by the kind of rhetoric and side-taking that are so often characteristic of this debate. The goal must always be deeper understanding and growing humility, giving us an ever-greater apprehension of the nature of God’s revelation and what is at stake if we affirm one ethical position or another. The goal cannot be putting “W’s” in the win column. It doesn’t help.
All of that is a circuitous (and slightly preachy) way of reiterating the point I opened with, which is that nothing substantial was gained for the Church of Jesus Christ in this little dust-up, as far as I can see. If we’re self-aware, however, there’s a good chance we’ll gain some things on the other side of it. As Wesley Hill and others have pointed out, there is a lot of work to do, wherever we fall on the spectrum of belief. And I mean a LOT.
For “traditionalists” (like me), the burden is perhaps more on the pastoral and public side. How can we hold to a traditional view of marriage and sexuality while at the same time being pastorally sensitive to the real needs of real human beings and the real nuances of the human experience? And how can we “translate” our practice of marriage and sexuality to the world in a way that is credible, so that the genuine beauty of our lived spirituality shines through AND so that the world does not see us as enemies in the global fight for equality? That fight is real. And it is right. That all people, regardless of race, creed, class, sexuality, and gender should be treated with the full dignity proper to creatures made in the image of God–that is a genuinely Christian conviction, one that is shared by many other people of goodwill. The world needs to see that we are allies in that task and not enemies–even if, in certain cases, we must nuance our position or say to this or that movement or initiative, “We can’t go there with you.”
Hard work? Yes. Necessary work? Without question. Can we avoid it? I don’t think so. Not for long anyway. The world will keep asking the Church to give a proper account of her life, and she had better be ready to answer graciously and credibly on this issue. That is the task for traditionalists like me.
For “progressives”, I think you’ll need to outline your own work and I won’t presume to speak much to what that may be except to say that, from my perspective (take it or leave it), I believe your burden will be to try to show to the wider Christian world how an “affirming” posture actually illuminates more of the biblical text than it obscures. Doctrinal and ethical advances obtain in the Church just to the extent that they throw more light on what has already been revealed. I haven’t seen much from progressives that does that compellingly on this issue. Mostly, it seems to me that what we’re getting is a lot of “the Bible doesn’t really speak to this issue at all.”
That’s not an argument that’s going to hold water in the long run. The Bible is our book, and our “norma normans non normata” whether we like it or not. We move forward with it, not without it. Whether we are talking about the Trinity, the Dual Nature of Christ, the Sacraments, Women in Ministry, the Charismatic Movement, or whatever… we have to be able to say, whatever position we come to, “Look, look! This was the will of God all along. See where it says…???” Without that, the position won’t hold. This, it seems to me, is where the burden rests for progressives. But I’m not one so I’ll stop there.
There is, as I said, a lot of work in front of us. All of us. And how we go about this says as much to the world about who we are as what we wind up saying. So let’s do it the right way.
My two cents.
Grace and peace,