(Musical selection A 07 The Pink Room)
EP is focused on Orthodox theology with a special eye to the theology of Maximus the Confessor. As such it is devoted to questions of historical and philosophical theology. It could be about other things relative to Orthodox theology such as Biblical theology as a discipline, but since I am not trained as a Biblical theologian, in the academic sense of that term, I tend try to limit myself to areas in which I have some competence. This is also why I try to steer the blog away from whatever happens to be going in the world, whether politics or the wider culture. There are plenty of other venues for that. I have a niche and I like my niche very much.
But every so often something pops up in the culture that impinges upon Orthodox theology. Of course the on going cultural yelling match (we haven’t yet begun to have an argument) about “Gay” marriage has had a flare up with the recent North Carolina state constitutional amendment. This I would usually ignore on EP except for the fact that David J. Dunn, has written for the Huffington Post an article as an “Orthodox Lay theologian” defending “Gay marriage” or at least objecting to it being banned.
Dunn’s argument goes something like the following. The kingdom of God has little to say, and nothing condemnatory, about Gays or “Gay marriage.” The church is not the kingdom but where the kingdom “happens.” This amounts to the idea that the kingdom is where justice and peace are manifested. Sex is irrelevant for entrance into the kingdom and Jesus never mentions it relative to entry to the Kingdom. And Jesus never picks out political action on behalf of marriage. Further, kingdom politics isn’t about restricting rights of “goats” because entry into the kingdom is not about political restrictions. Jesus fulfills the kingdom because peace and justice that were promised are found in him and in order for that justice and peace to be manifested, Jesus needs to be where the powerless and voiceless are present. And while Jesus cared about what people did in their bedrooms he didn’t care that much. While homosexuality isn’t new, given Roman and Greek culture, the identity of a homosexual as such is a recent invention. Even the Talmud addresses it. But the biblical material amounts to very little addressing “same sex orientation.” But thousands of passages deal with helping the poor, how we treat the stranger, the imprisoned and such. So, how often God says implies its relevant importance. The Bible then prioritizes justice for the poor and such things over opposition to “Gay” marriage. Therefore, the moral significance of homosexual acts is low because the Bible doesn’t spend much time on it. Kingdom living requires biblical priorities and banning Gay “Marriage” is low on the list of Kingdom priorities. Consequently, Christians should expend more energy on top biblical priorities than on these lower priorities. Expending a disproportionate amount of energy on lower priorities is deficiently Christian.
Taking the argument as a whole, the first thing to notice is that it doesn’t represent Orthodox teaching on the subject, at least not in so far as any jurisdiction that I know of speaks on this topic and not as far as the history of the church is concerned. The church has always had an eye to protecting marriage in the polis, supporting strong civil penalties for homosexual behavior. Dunn’s argument as a whole and its conclusion is an anomaly or rather an innovation, which is probably the worst theological sin an Orthodox theologian can commit.
As for the individual arguments, many of them seem to rely on informal fallacies. They may have rhetorical value for those already disposed to believe an apologetic fiction, but they lack any significant truth preservation or turn on simply false premises.
Take the claim that the kingdom of God has a little to say about homosexuality or homosexual “marriage.” That is true, but somewhat misleading if by that is meant to imply that little or nothing bearing ultimate ethical normativity regarding homosexual activity is found in the Scriptures. That is simply false. Pre-Christian Jewish and Christian tradition both uniformly recognized the immorality of such acts. And there is a good reason why neither of them speak about homosexual “marriage” because no one was so twisted to suggest such a thing in antiquity. You can’t object to something that isn’t on the radar. It is also misleading because there are a number of things that are biblically prohibited that the Bible doesn’t say much about. The Scriptures don’t say much about bestiality for example. They prescribe death for it in the OT. But it would be foolish to think that this paucity of references gave any ethical wiggle room for the minority of zoophiliacs in our society. The question isn’t how much the Bible says about a topic, but what the Bible does say and with what normative weight does it say it. Dunn’s remarks then mislead the reader into thinking that what the Bible says about homosexual activity is of little or no normative weight. It just isn’t so and he should know better.
In some sense sex is irrelevant to entrance into the kingdom of God, if by sex we mean being sexed. That is irrelevant as Paul notes in Galatians the third chapter, because all are baptized into Christ. But certainly sex in terms of ethical behavior is relevant to entrance into the kingdom. An unrepentant adulterer or fornicator can’t and won’t enter the kingdom. (1 Cor 6:9-10) Such a thing is contrary to God’s justice and moral law. In this way Dunn’s remarks obfuscate the relevant issue. Can an unrepentant homosexual enter into the kingdom? Century upon century of Christian Fathers (and Jewish Rabbi’s) have uniformly said no, and yet Dunn seems to ignore this clear and unambiguous evidence. I know not why.
Dunn further notes that Jesus never speaks of sex as an entrance into the kingdom. That is true, but there are lots of things that Jesus said and did that are not recorded in scripture. Perhaps he wishes to endorse a distinctly Protestant thesis of Sola Scriptura but of course that isn’t open to him as an Orthodox Christian. It wouldn’t get him very far in any case because there is sufficient evidence that Jesus endorsed the moral law that He gave to Israel in the OT. If anything when Jesus speaks of the morality of the Law he ups the ante and perfects it bringing to the surface the true depth and profundity of the Law. What is more, Dunn’s reasoning here amounts to no more than an argument from silence. Two can play at that game. Jesus never once over turns or even hints at overturning the OT prohibitions on homosexual acts.
But I do not need to depend on an argument from silence. Jesus speaks of the evils that come out of the heart and gives the fairly classic Jewish taxonomy, which includes adultery and fornication. The latter here functions as a summary of all the different types of fornicating behavior prohibited in the Law, which of course includes OT prohibitions on homosexual acts. And this is one of the things that made the Jews such oddballs in the Roman world. Apart from believing there was only one God and the world had a beginning, they limited sexual activity to marriage, running against the grain of Roman social views which for example didn’t take sex with a slave or a prostitute as amounting to infidelity. In succession, Christianity continued to uphold this distinctly Jewish moral outlook (among others).
And while it is true that Jesus never advocates for political action regarding marriage, it is also true that Jesus didn’t have to. Such laws were already on the books, literally, as far as the Sheep of the House of Israel were concerned (not to mention the creation mandate which Jesus took to be normative even for gentiles. So here Dunn seems to miss the point. Evaluating Jesus’ moral teaching through the matrix of the current political taxonomies is anachronistic, so much so to make the “God is a Republican” crowd blush.
It is also true that the Apostles, when the gentiles were grafted in, expected them to follow basic Jewish morality with respect to sexuality. And this is carried over into society and law as Christianity becomes legalized and ascendant. This is manifested in various canons which also had the force of imperial law down through the centuries. To argue that this is beyond the pale of Jesus teaching is not open to Dunn, since Orthodoxy takes Jesus to be continuing his work throughout church history. If on the other hand, he isn’t representing Orthodox teaching in his articles then he doesn’t seem to bring anything special to the discussion.
It is open to him though to object that we no longer live in that kind of society and that much is true. But arguing as much, apart from being merely descriptive, empties his remarks about Jesus not advocating political action for marriage of any argumentative content as well since Jesus didn’t live in our kind of society either with respect to that either. What is more, there is no law against people voting their particular morality into law anymore than there is a law prohibiting people from voting for candidates solely on the basis of their preference of the candidates skin pigmentation. Consequently, Dunn’s argument will have to be, not that the NT is relatively mute on such electoral activities, but that it is immoral for voters to vote on such a moral basis. And on that ground, he will be occupying territory outside of Orthodox Christianity (let alone any other historically credible form.)
Further on, Dunn argues that “kingdom politics” isn’t about restricting rights of the goats because entry into the kingdom isn’t about political restrictions. Here Dunn seems to be equivocating. Does “kingdom politics” refer to what kind of worldly polis we should construct or does it refer to ecclesial existence? Certainly in the case of the latter, rights generally do not come into the picture at all since Jesus and the Apostles weren’t Lockians, Rawlsians or any other pet Enlightenment political concoction (that includes Marx). And certainly the goats get excluded form the kingdom in the NT and part of the criteria for their exclusion is sexual immorality, which is a stable theme in Acts as well as a good number of the Epistles.
What is more, if none of the above is to inform Christians as they vote, then it cannot function as a basis to inform them when they vote on other issues like poverty, welfare, and warfare by the very same token. (Either there is a principled wall of separation or there isn’t. And it would be helpful if social liberals would be either hot or cold rather than lukewarm on this score. My mother used stronger terms in cases like these but I’ll refrain for piety’s sake.) What then is the proposed ethical basis for a voter to make a decision on such matters, if not “kingdom politics” since it has been precluded? From whence does this politically correct morality come?
If on the other hand Dunn means the kind of polis we should live in, then he is saying that we should impose and codify biblical morality as law. And this will give the right wing social conservative everything he could ever want, which will include banning gay marriage along with no fault divorce and lots of other things. (It is not as if social conservatives were enthusiastic backers of no fault divorce.)
The only other route (for a Christian) that I can see is going back to a Lockian Natural Law basis upon which our national founders constructed our Constitution and other documents, which combined with Puritan anti-sacerdotalism is why we have “civil” marriages (apart from real practical needs). But on that score “Gay marriage” fairs no better since marriage is a natural right and not a legal right and “Gay marriage” doesn’t exist in nature apart from the existence of the state. If it did, this wouldn’t be an issue, except in so far as laws banning it amounted to a form of Jim Crow by denying natural rights to citizens. If one wished to make a case for marriage being a legal right rather than a natural right, then the argument shifts to the state taking away our natural rights and transmuting them into legal rights, that is, privileges that the state grants to us. But it is difficult to see how if the state can do that with the natural right of marriage that it cannot also do that with any other natural right.
But assuming that marriage is a mere legal right, then the matter comes down not to equal protection issues, but to what benefit does the state derive from granting such a privilege? What interest does the state have in doing so? It isn’t because homosexuals will provide via the natural route future taxpayers, soldiers and such for the state and can’t do so to any significant degree by artificial means. If one were to argue that its legal basis is acceptance and tolerance, then we are back to grounding law in specific moral claims and those are moral claims I do not accept relative to acceptance and approval. (Toleration already exists). This is why the President’s recent comments amount to a religious argument, to which I wonder, do advocates of “Gay marriage” have any argument that isn’t religious or ethical? I can’t see any.
And as a cautionary note, it is important to not push past toleration. When you mandate something, particularly against strongly held moral beliefs, you take away a good number of the pressure release valves available to the public in a democracy. When you corner people and take away their political options with respect to strongly held beliefs, you leave them few choices that don’t include forceful resistance. I am not advocating this, but just noting the way human nature is. Be careful what you wish for.
What is more, his argument bakes no bread with the non-Christians who voted for North Carolina ban or any other ban in any other state. What is he to say regarding say Orthodox Jews who voted for the ban? That they weren’t very Christian? Were they “obsessed with the nuclear family” as well? Such remarks applied to Jewish voters seem to smack of anti-Semitism and I am hard pressed to know why they seem anti-Semitic when we call the moral basis of opposition to “Gay marriage” Jewish but not when we call it Christian when the moral content (and historical sources) are the same. Such superciliousness seems to veil a latent anti-Semitism relative to Jewish morality. Since Jesus is a Jewish Messiah and Christianity is fundamentally Jewish, being anti-Semitic might be a problem.
As for Dunn on Jesus on justice and peace, he seems to inherit a more Marxist twist to understanding Jesus’ relation to the poor. Jesus isn’t hobnobbing with the poor because God specifically hates wealth. In fact there is plenty in the scriptures about God giving wealth as a sign of his pleasure and blessing. But of course with wealth comes responsibility to God and to your neighbor. Responsibility though isn’t code for a denial of private property a la Marxism or that Jesus is somehow always on the side of the poor simply because they lack means. This is why Jesus says in the Law,
“You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute.” Ex 23:3
The main drive for upholding the cause of the poor in the Scriptures is that the poor are and have been treated unjustly, not because they are poor per se. Otherwise the biblical language about justice, as defined in terms of biblical law (not some vague notion of “social justice” which is usually code for some neo-Marxist view) would make no sense. God upholds the cause of the poor first because God is just and the poor have been treated unjustly and secondly, because we are all poor relative to the divine life because of sin. Jesus isn’t always with the poor because they are poor but because they have been victims and Jesus upholds his justice. (Do we honestly think the tax collector Matthew was despised because he was poor?) He takes up their cause because it is his Law and justice that have been trampled. In other words, God is the first victim of the violation of His Law and God identifies with the victims because He is one also.
(If Dunn’s reading were right, we should ignore comparatively [and assumed] rich writers who like himself, with the Huffington Post and with their corporate backers have a significant voice, let alone the Gay rights movement.)
This is why Dunn’s insistence that Jesus is with the voiceless rings hollow. Biblically speaking being “voiceless” isn’t what matters. Being with the victims of injustice is what matters and Dunn seems to conflate these two. As far as the scriptures are concerned, some agents should be voiceless since they spew moral evil contrary to divine justice and peace. This is part of what divine judgment brings, namely silence to the unjust or in biblical terms, the wicked. God has the last word and they have to shut their mouths. (Ps 107:42) This is why Dunn’s position doesn’t amount to a biblical, Christian and therefore Jewish gloss on the Scriptures, but some other religion. The question isn’t, are homosexual advocates lacking in a voice (turn on the TV, they aren’t) and Jesus is therefore with them, but rather, is their behavior according to Jesus and his Apostles, just, that is moral and so their exclusion amounts to an injustice? Until Dunn answers that second question he can’t possibly be talking about anything Jesus has to say on this issue. Any Jesus he is talking about is some other Jesus. (2 Cor 11:3-4).
To argue from the supposed paucity of material in the Gospels regarding marriage and sexual ethics to the conclusion that Jesus “didn’t care that much” is fallacious. First, it doesn’t follow from the supposed fact that Jesus doesn’t say much that he doesn’t say anything normative and condemnatory. Second, we’d need to know what Jesus says. Dunn seems particularly mute here. Jesus not only upholds marriage as between a man and a woman from the divine intention in Creation (Matt 19:5ff) indicating that it is as a social norm for Jews and gentiles also, but as noted before he condemns fornication of all types found in the Jewish Law. The question isn’t, does Jesus say much about sexual ethics, but rather, does Jesus condemn fornication which includes homosexual behavior? Again, until Dunn has addressed that question he is not only misleading readers, but he isn’t talking about the teaching of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus commissions his Apostles to teach in his name, with his power and by his Spirit. Last I checked, they prohibit homosexual activity along with all of their successors, the bishops, and do so indicating that such impenitent behavior excludes one from the kingdom.
Arguing in the other direction, while biblical attention given to sexual morality may be low in terms of how often it gets discussed, it is not that low of a priority. If we went Jeffersonian on the Bible with respect to sexual ethics, we’d have to cut out a fair amount of the biblical corpus. What is more, issues that can have a lower priority can move up the scale of priority when directly challenged or when something else that entails it is challenged. Such is the case with marriage. So sure, there isn’t a mountain of material about marriage and sexual ethics but then again, that is because no one in Israel is trying to pass off homosexual activity as morally commendable in terms of divine teaching either. If there had been, the prophets and Jesus who sent them and the apostles would have said quite a bit about it. You’d think somneone with a doctorate in theology would know how to, not to mention the need to, historically contextualize the biblical material.
And this is just the point Jesus made when he condemned the Pharisees for picking and choosing some parts of the Law to observe while neglecting others. Jesus teaches that they should have upheld the whole Law. (Matt 23:3) And this seems what Dunn and others are advocating that Christians do, namely pass over some parts of biblical morality (and teaching others to do likewise, pace Matt 5:19) while upholding others, which just so happen to be nothing more than the moral platitudes of Leftist political ideologies. Such a construction of an alternative and partial biblical view amounts to a form of idolatry. Such advocates amount to nothing more than the Pharisees of Sodom.
So goes Dunn’s main argument. He has some concluding remarks to the effect that banning “Gay marriage” in North Carolina came at too high a price with respect to sacrificing Christian witness. Really? Is there some mass number of people on the cusp of being Christian if only, golly gee, we’d approve of their immorality? I don’t think so. But even if we are talking about a few people, do they want a Christian witness or do they want the politically approved idol of the decade? I can’t see that the supposed Christian advocates for “Gay marriage” who deploy such paralogisms are really offering genuine Christianity, since they are ignoring what God sets up in creation and upholds through redemption all the way to the Last Judgment. Besides, it strikes me as particularly and personally unfair that their immorality gets approval on supposed Christian grounds, but if I were to go out and have pre-marital sex or sex with a prostitute, then I’d be in ecclesial and social hot water. Why do their desires get a pass and mine as a heterosexual male Darwiniangly disposed to spread my seed, don’t? This strikes me as special pleading. By contrast the biblical position, or rather Jesus’ position holds us all to account and requires us all to reign in our sinful desires rather than delude ourselves by recasting our wickedness as virtues with the politically appropriate platitudes.
He argues that we should spend more time on the things that do affect marriage namely the lack of time and other things. I am all for those things, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the stripping away of Jewish and Christian moral content from the law and encase in law gross immorality, by which God judged even the Gentile nations. (Romans 1-2) Christians can walk and chew gum at the same time. It isn’t a question of either or, but of both.
So much of this and other sermonizing on the North Carolina vote seems to smack of political sour grapes. It now comes to a rather large majority of states that in some form or another ban “Gay marriage.” That is enough to set their children’s teeth on edge, if they could produce any. (Ezek 18:2) But the political lesson here is that as Gandalf remarks, “men are not as weak as he supposed.” Despite the veritable propaganda campaign and pressure tactics, the public at large when given the chance, rejects such changes to the law.
(Musical Selection B 08 Cause for Alarm (A))
On a personal note, I am sure Mr. Dunn is a nice person and he has a lot of nice personal qualities. (I do not know him personally from Adam.) What he writes seems to have the flavor of, “banning Gay marriage is not nice.” I agree, it is not nice and neither was Jesus. Christianity isn’t about being nice (it is not about being a jerk either). Before I was a refugee of sorts from the Episcopal church, a good priest I knew wrote a piece for First Things, entitled, When Nice People Do Bad Theology. And this seems particularly appropriate here. Dunn seems nice enough, but the theology is bad.
Further, He should know better because he is in the main opposing the Orthodox Church’s teaching regarding such matters and every member, either explicitly or implicitly swears to uphold all the teachings and traditions of the Orthodox Church. It is one thing if someone’s crazy aunt is pro-choice, it is quite another for someone who is academically trained to take to a large public venue and openly teach contrary to the Church’s teaching. Such an option is not morally open to him. Initially I ignored such postings since they came with a disclaimer that his remarks did not represent the teaching of the Orthodox Church. That seemed to remove any real value from what he had to say. This article lacked that disclaimer. I do not know why. The salient point here is that Dunn is free to believe and practice whatever he likes and to write about it. But he is not free to openly speak against the teaching of the Church when he is under a moral and spiritual obligation to uphold its teachings as he explicitly or implicitly has so sworn. He should either conform his public statements to the teaching of the Church, keep quiet or go to some other body. Currently there is no shortage of religious bodies that favor his stance or stances close to it and it seems that he’d be far more at home within their halls than those of the Orthodox Church.
Part of the problem is that I doubt that Dunn and his comrades have ever been in a theologically liberal body and so do not really know first hand how such bodies end up. Usually such persons have built into their head some idealized vision of what they think the church should be, which amounts to some inconsistent mediating position. They serve as “useful idiots” for the more consistent and open non-Christian radicals. These persons are supsrised to find that after twenty years of aiding these once sweet radicals, they have turned into wolves who then turn on their masters seeking to exclude them in turn. Once the radicals have sufficient power they don’t need the more moderate advocates any longer. As a young man in the Episcopal church I watched this happen slowly from the 1980’s onward, and I was young and powerless to do anything. I am not powerless now and neither are the other refugees who have found a home in Orthodoxy from similar places.
These refugees and the church’s more native faithful sons and daughters need to stand up and do their part by openly rebuking such persons (in love) with the truth of Orthodox teaching. If clergy, you need to say something and teach openly, censure if necessary. The time to do such things is now and not later, when it may be too late for your particular parish, diocese or God forbid, your jurisdiction. Mr. Dunn and others need to know in no uncertain terms that such views are not acceptable and not to be tolerated. For those of us who are refugees, we know what it is like to have to fight these battles and we paid a heavy price. I am not paying it again, and I am surely not going to allow my children to have to pay it.
So Mr. Dunn, either conform to the Church’s teaching as a penitent sinner like the rest of us or go somewhere else to be a Pharisee of Sodom.