The Letter Killeth...

I have a few thoughts about the symposium issue of the Anglican Theological Review dedicated to Same Sex Relationships and the Nature of Marriage: A Theological Colloquy. The debate is quite interesting in its own right, and I recommend a reading of all of the various papers for a nuanced view of the scope of the disagreement. But I'm not here to recap it, but to riff off a few themes in the main conservative paper "Same Sex Marriage and Anglican Theology: A View From Traditionalists," by John E. Goldingay, Grant R. LeMarquand, George R. Sumner & Daniel A. Westberg. I feel a little bit guilty riffing off the themes that struck me in the paper, in that the Task Force appointed by the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops strove mightily on both sides to express their views in the most charitable way possible, and some of the things I have to say about this paper will not read as altogether charitable. Still, I can't help but feel that a lay reaction to this paper may interest some readers.

First, and foremost, I can't help but note that the paper reaches its viewpoint in a very abstract manner, proceeding from hermeneutics, to scriptural analysis, to science and natural law, and then to natural law and marriage. Now, this isn't a bad approach to certain legal problems--the interpretation of a constitutional text, for instance--but it seems awfully bloodless as an approach to theology. The most passionate, and eloquent, passage in the paper addresses hermeneutics:
we are trying to achieve an objective understanding of this text according to its own presuppositions and concerns. There is an analogy here in the process of gaining an objective understanding of other persons whom we love. Because of our commitment to them, we want to know them in reality, and not just make them a projection of our own interests. We commit ourselves to understanding them in their distinctiveness, even where we may find them difficult or objectionable. Often we find when we do that, what seemed objectionable, becomes, if not likable, at least understandable. We may then be able to learn from who they are--which does not happen either if we reject them or if we assimilate them too quickly to what we understand and accept.

Pretty good, hey? To quote the great Mark Twain, Sir, it is pie. But, what's interesting about the paper is that it doesn't apply this standard to the people most affected by the doctrine it defends: our GLBT brothers and sisters. There is no effort to engage with the experiences, the pain, the lives of those at the center at the debate. Now, I'm a great believer in intellectual rigor. But when it runs away from the Holy Spirit, and the experiences of those impacted by its sweeping analysis, it becomes scholasticism--a closed system, which may or may not connect with reality at a given point.

Here's another question about hermeneutics: The paper stresses the importance of fidelity to Scripture--not in a fundamentalist way, but to the whole tenor of Scripture, a general viewpoint with which I agree--and finds in the few pieces of Scripture that touch upon homosexuality (in some way) and marriage a point of contact with natural law theory. But the paper acknowledges the prospect that there are "moral issues where subsequent reflection and experience led to genuine change in the church's teaching." (20). The paper gives three examples, two of which are non-controversial, and the third which is--interesting:chattel slavery, the subordination of women, and the prohibition of usury. (Id). Wait a second. What about the prohibition of usury? Ah:
The prohibition of usury, for example, was held for centuries, and came to be seriously questioned both on the adequacy of the interpretation of the few scriptural texts that were thought relevant, and of the philosophical understanding provided by Aristotle of the nature of money.. In that case, the evidence to decide the issue comes from reason and Scripture and not from tradition. In other words, the challenge to change the canon law on usury could not be answered simply by appealing to the many centuries when the prohibition was accepted.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, my copy of Aristotle's Politics at I x describes usury as unnatural, stating further that "The most hated sort [of wealth-getting], and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural." (That's Jowett's translation. The same text is less colorfully but consistently translated at p. 87 of the Penguin translation by TA Sinclair and & Trevor J. Saunders (1981)).

I don't see how Aristotle helps undermine the canon law here. (Fairness requires me to point out, though, that in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle's theory of equality of exchange does suggest that individual transactions are not the ideal context of ensuring equality; medieval thinkers used this passage to moderate the canon law on usury, but the more specific passage in the Politics seems to me to make this much less obvious than the paper assumes). How about Scripture? A quick review of the texts quoted by Jeremiah O'Callaghan in his 1825 tract Usury, or Interest at 5-8 yields 18 separate prohibitions and condemnations of usury from the Gospels (Matthew and Luke) to St Paul and the Revelation, and a series from the Old Testament from Leviticus to Ezekiel, as well as the Psalms. And let's not forget the earliest Christians' practical common possession of all assets (Acts 4:32). If this is a "few" scriptural texts, the verses regarding homosexuality--the paper itself cites a total of five directly relating to same-sex relationships (at 26-28)--are dramatically fewer in number.

The paper contends that the prohibitions of same-sex relationships (the paper's characterization, not my own) gain in coherence because of their consistency and harmony with the texts relating to marriage, and natural law. But surely Jesus's concern for the poor, and distrust of the power of riches--fuels the prohibition of usury? It is itself a major theme of both Old and New Testaments. And, one might add, quite defensible today, in our post-crash world, as argued by Brian McCall in a recent article in the Cardozo Law Review. (McCall's article draws on Aristotle, Jewish and Roman law as well as the canon law tradition, and--wait for it--natural law).

So why am I brow-beating the paper and its authors on an ill-chosen example of "acceptable" moral development in this context? Because the paper's hermeneutic is inconsistently applied--for the change which is more comfortable to a modern conservative--the devaluation of Jesus's teachings with regard to money, and the prohibition of usury before and after His life, a significant number of specific passages which fit with the overarching themes of Scripture can be dismissed. For a change that is uncomfortable to them, a few snippets linked rather tendentiously to marriage must be honored. It's interpretation in support of what is most comfortable to the interpreter.

Which brings me back to where I began. The paper's most eloquent passage calls for knowing the other and understanding that other where he or she is. That isn't limited to Scriptural interpretation. With greater knowledge, comes less discomfort and more empathy. And possibly with understanding would come a theology that does more than lay burdens on others, while casually relegating pastoral care to a single sentence bromide, followed by recommending sublimation and/or a "therapeutic change in orientation."

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