Friday, July 18, 2008

More from Doug Chaplin on Scripture and Homosexuality

Doug Chaplin is beginning a very thoughtful exploration of what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. He begins with the really tough stuff in Leviticus. The result so far is a very thoughtful explanation of issues that need addressing. As yet, Doug reaches no conclusions. Here are some highlights:

The two texts I want to address in this post are among them. (And yes, dear reader, I know there are other texts, but one post at a time, please!)

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22)
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)

. . .

At one level, it seems to me that we can have some agreement about these texts themselves. They say pretty much the same thing, although the second elaborates and adds the punishment. . . .

Moving beyond that to further interpretation is far from straightforward, however. At the most basic level, there is little obvious historical context. The development of the legal materials, the possibility of a separate Holiness Code (Lev 17-26) being incorporated into (later?) P material, the dating of earlier and final recensions all leave much of this lacking a clear cultural context within which to understand it. One possibility might well be pagan temple prostitution, or other cultic sexual activity. But it might not have that kind of connection at all. It may, as with so many other features of the priestly writings, be concerned with a particular construction of what is order, and therefore safe, and what chaos, and therefore dangerous. It could be held that there is a quite rational emphasis on the maintenance of sex for procreation, and procreation alone, at a time when mortality rates made this a matter of elementary survival and the common good. Non-procreative sex threatens the well-being of the community of Israel.

It seems to me impossible to adjudicate between these possible interpretations, and quite likely that there are elements of all three. In every case, the text is implicated in a particular context. The third context is one that some parts of the world can still identify with, and it also raises some awkward questions for heterosexual people, and the ways in which the modern West (at least outside the Roman Catholic Magisterium) conceptualises sex. The second possibility may lead to some of the more interesting and fruitful questions in cross-cultural interpretation. Order and chaos are primal categories, theologically, culturally, politically and psychologically. Saying the text needs interpretation is not the same as immediately kissing it goodbye.

The other issue that confronts and confuses the interpreter however, is one of selection. . . . Everyone selects, and so everyone interprets. These troubling verses are surrounded (staying within the boundaries of the so-called Holiness Code)by some very different ones. It includes laws that are reinforced in the New Testament and are regarded effectively as universal moral laws, such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). It includes laws that no Christian even begins to think might be applicable today, such as “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” (Leviticus 19:27).

It contains laws that the Church now regards as incompatible with its understanding of the will of God: “As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves.” (Leviticus 25:44). Nonetheless, for a large part of Christian history, tradition saw this law as perfectly acceptable. It contains laws that the Church, or modern society, has effectively sidelined, and which are rarely debated: “Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit.” (Leviticus 25:36-37). By contrast with the law on slaves, for the larger part of Christian history, the church thought this law was of ongoing significance, and revealed the will of God for Christian society.

Laws dealing with sex are mixed up with laws dealing with sacrifice, conduct for priests, general ethical behaviour, and other matters. The question of interpretation is not a cop-out, nor a way of avoiding difficulties. It is a necessary response to the nature of the text and in particular to the reading of Leviticus, where the selective and variable nature of Christian interpretation is perhaps at its most obvious. We Christians, at least, do select, and our selections appear to change. The question is “have we made the right selections?” Are our selections truly refracted through the gospel?

Doug promises more--this promises to be a very thoughtful series. Read it all here (including some very good comments already).

1 comment:

Michael said...

I suspect the reason that this is appears in the text is very simple. It is the "green monkey syndrome". The alternative explanations offered here involve the use of reasoning for this judgement. I doubt that reasoning was involved in creating this part of Leviticus.

Anthropologists studying a group of monkeys pulled one from the group and painted it green - when the scientists returned it to the group, the other monkeys fell on it and attempted to kill it. I don't believe most people realize how instinctive bigotry is, and don't realize that we have the power to overcome instinct with intellect. But, then, many of us refuse to use our intelligence, especially when our mind is already made up.

Bigotry is part of every culture on earth. It has had a long and bloody history.