Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality - - Part III

DSSHS and Antinomianism

Classically, ‘antinomianism’ applies to any theological position that downgrades the authority or integrity of the law. If one were to say, like Luther’s contemporary Johann Agricola, that the law needs not to be proclaimed among Christians, then one clearly is flirting with antinomianism. The question is this: Is DSSHS antinomian?

To answer this question clearly, one must first get an operating definition of law. I like the following: x is a law if and only if x is promulgated by an authority, is binding upon a class, and is in principle enforceable. Lutheran thinking has classically started with the promulgation or giving of God’s law to creation. God is an authority that has a clear intent with respect to His creation, and this intent is accordingly binding upon it. Furthermore, this law is enforceable by God: violators - - all of us - - are worthy of ultimate punishment. For Luther and the classical Lutheran tradition, the ‘oughtness’ of things is grounded upon a transcendent ought-intentionality. Oughtness is built into the very nature of things because God loads ought into creation. Not only does is creation bound by the ought, God has a capacity to enforce this oughtness He loads into creation.

The classical Lutheran story does not derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The classical tradition realizes that the ‘ought’ of law can only be grounded in the transcendent ‘ought-intentionality’ of God. Sin, of course, interferes, and what ought to be is not. The Fall is profoundly understood as the nonconformity of ‘is’ to ‘ought’. All of creation is wayward. The natural law upon creation given by God is not followed. Human beings have turned away from God and what ought to be. While the being of Creation was designed to be in conformity with the divine ought, it is not now in conformity. All have fallen short of the glory of God.

The whole idea of redemption in classical Christian theology is that God arrives in His incarnation to justify, e.g., to make right, the nonconformity of creation’s ‘is’ to the divine ‘ought’. Justification, on the basis of Christ, occurs when God judges His wayward creation that is not what it ought to be to be, nonetheless, acceptable to Him, to the One who can only judge it as unacceptable. For Lutherans, there is a “happy exchange” between Christ and the sinner. Christ’s gifts of conformity to the ought are given to human beings, and human deficiency in the face of the ought is given to Christ. The result is that human beings live and Christ dies in accordance with God’s justice that can only properly judge nonconformity with the ought as worthy of death.

The fundamental problem with DSSHS is that a statement of what ought to be cannot be derived from a description of what is. To try to derive a prescription of how to behave sexually from a description of what God has done for us is a category mistake.

The profound problem with DSSHS turns out to be the ancient problem of “what has God said?” The notion of an external law claiming that human beings ought to behave in such and such a way seems fundamentally out of touch with our times. While human beings have never liked oughts, it seems that our time has a special disdain for them. In vast portions of western popular culture, normative ethics simply does not play. People can make no sense out of “absolute” claims that humans ought to be different than they are. The very notion of an objective reality that human beings must somehow conform to is today anathema. It is, of course, the triumph of Nietzsche. The medieval transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty have been unmasked and seen to be mere projections of the human will-to-power.

Lutheran theology in the last 125 years has strongly been influenced by Nietzsche’s critique. Accordingly, there is little hope that an ELCA committee on sexuality could move beyond the dominance of the subject and return to the object, to a way of thinking that allows again for the possibility of a real ought. To return to the ought, to an honest appraisal of how God intends things to be, means that human action will likely be curbed in particular ways. If man and woman ought to remain celibate outside of marriage, then that is what they ought to do, no matter how difficult that may be. That they won’t so remain is addressed by incarnation and justification. This is how it works; this is how it has always worked. But, as evidenced by DSSHS, this is no longer how it works.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Part II

DSSHS and the Divine “As If”

As others have pointed out, the term ‘Trinity’ occurs but once in the document, and there the three distinctive persons are not named. This is perhaps indicative of a deeper presupposition in the document: In discussing sin and law the document proceeds “as if” God were to exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, and “as if” God had a definite set of attitudes towards the world. I say this “as if” pointedly because there is ample evidence in the document to suggest committee members actually reject the idea that that God has a primal intentionality towards His creation. Instead of viewing God as an individual divine being having a particular intention towards His creation (e.g., it is His Will that human beings do x under conditions y), God is understood as somehow having a general nature that human beings must “fill in.” The result of this “filling in” is that God’s “intentionality” towards x is asserted on the basis of the previous commitment of the drafters towards x.

In DSSHS, the nature of God and his relationship to His creation is understood on the basis of His graceful and merciful incarnational sojourn and justificatory activity. Given this general nature of the divine, what specific intentions would and could this God have for His people? Surely He would bring life out of death, make new the old, and do the unexpected (like rising from the dead). Since He dwells with us in our humanness in the incarnation, he accordingly dwells with us in our weakness and our weak wills. He is alongside of us in all of our sexual choices and foibles, never abandoning us. God loves us even in our weakness, so we are to love others in their weakness. God’s love for us clearly trumps his Judgment upon us. But outside of this, what more can be said about God?

Here it becomes more difficult. While Love and mercy are very good things, and while God’s gift of them to us maybe does suggest that we should be honest, sincere, and not jealous and envious in our relationships, love and mercy are not capable of providing a foundation for institutions such as marriage - - at least a foundation that can speak of marriage qua marriage. If love and mercy constitute the divine intention towards us, then it would seem that there is no greater reason to prefer married love to lesbian love. If God came and manifested love and mercy, should we not manifest love and mercy? And if we do, what reasons are there to do that within the context of heterosexual married love over homosexual, unmarried, committed love? It seems that it is a stretch to say that heterosexual love is more facilely derivable from the incarnation and justification than homosexual love.

The problem is that DSSHS does not avail itself of traditional Lutheran resources of natural law and orders of creation. By looking only at the incarnation for clues to God’s intention, readers of DSSHS seem to ignore what the Old Testament (and much of the New Testament) say about God’s rather distinctive intentionality for human life - - including human sexual life. It is obvious that DSSHS does not suppose that God has a general revelation for all human beings apart from the Christ event, and that the Bible has much to say about the specifics of God’s primal intentionality towards His creation. In fact, the fundamental question is not even asked in the document: Is homoerotic behavior in itself sinful? Is such behavior consistent with the Will of God, or does it run counter to His will? While it would seem to many Christians that one of these two alternatives must obtain, DSSHS seems to presuppose a third option: It is neither consistent with or inconsistent with that Will, and perhaps, to think it is, is itself profoundly wrongheaded. But to assume this is to assume that God is not the kind of being that has a definite will on these matters. Accordingly, the intentionality of God, while it might be an interesting theological construct, is not itself a real event or state.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The ELCA Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Part I

Over the next few days I shall publish here my response to the ELCA Sexuality Statement. Below is Part I:

Since the time of David Hume (1711-76), philosophers have been struggling with the question of whether “ought” can be inferred from “is.” Famously, Hume held that it “seems altogether inconceivable how this new relation [ought] can be a deduction of others [is] which are entirely different from it.[i] Accordingly, propositions of how the world is simply cannot entail statements of how it ought to be.

Against this, naturalists of all stripes, including Hume’s contemporary Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1832) hold that how things are do entail how they ought to be. Famously, Bentham’s Principle of Utility “approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” [ii] Reflecting on the nature of this approval, classical utilitarianism argues that one ought to do that act which augments the happiness of those whose interest is in question. Evolutionary ethical theory thus permits a move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. If human beings are instilled by the evolutionary process with a moral sense, then the fact of this sense does entail what they ought to do.

In 1903, G.E. Moore (1873-1958) launched a classic argument against any kind of ethical naturalism. In his “open question argument” he points out that a statement like Bentham’s ‘pleasure is good’ cannot mean that pleasure is identical to good, for if that were so, then ‘pleasure is good’ would entail ‘pleasure is pleasure’. [iii] But clearly it remains an “open question” whether or not ‘pleasure is good’, but not that 'pleasure is pleasure'. Thus, anyone asserting that pleasure is good must be “saying something more” about pleasure than that it is pleasure, and this “more” must presupposes a non-natural property of goodness. To say ‘x is good’ or ‘S ought to do y’ is to say something that is in principle irreducible to mere descriptions of natural and social facts. Accordingly, ‘ought’ is of another order than ‘is’.

While philosophers since Moore’s time have been divided over the validity of the open question argument, there is no mistaking that a very powerful tradition of twentieth century philosophical argument followed Hume in denying that ‘ought’ can be derived from ‘is’. After all, even if beneficent values were somehow evolutionarily loaded into human nature, it would still not entail that one ought to act in accordance with those values. For a number of reasons, I am convinced that Hume is essentially right, and that ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is’.

So why do I raise this old controversy in this discussion of the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality (DSSHS)? It is my contention that unknown to the committee members of the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality, their work actually presupposes the minority position in this philosophical debate: DSSHS assumes that descriptive statements about God’s incarnation in Christ and His justification of sinful human beings can entail a prescriptive statement about how one ought to behave sexually. By attempting to ground sexual ethics in the Second Article, DSSHS not only is unorthodox, but incoherent. It not only does not hold together rhetorically, it cannot do so logically. By analyzing what God has done for us in Christ, we cannot logically derive how we ought to act as Christians. As paradoxical as this might sound, to claim that we can do so is to confuse Law and Gospel. While from a description of what God has done for us in Christ, we can infer something of what we do in fact do as Christians, we cannot infer what we ought to do as Christians. To claim otherwise is to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; it is to ground the Law in the Gospel; it is to strike out in a way that Lutherans simply cannot do.

[i] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature.

[ii] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter 1.

[iii] G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Why is the "Literal Sense" so Problematic? - An Excursus on the Sexuality Issue

Believers in the pews are often bewildered how it can be that theologians and church leaders often proclaim positions at glaring odds with what they believe they read in Scripture. Why does my bishop say we should be "open and affirming" to homosexuals and my Bible say this about homosexuality at Leviticus 20:13: "If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them." (NKJV) How is this possible?

At this point historical-critical points are generally introduced, and the believer is taken back behind "God's Word" of Scripture into a world of causal explanations of Scripture, a world of socio-economic structural explanations, or perhaps of literary methodologies, or, if these don't do the trick, just plain bald assertions. (I remember debating an ELCA college religion professor who confidently told those assembled that Leviticus simply was "a weird book.")

In truth, however, the problem with "taking the Bible literally" has been around for a very long time, and it is not a problem that finally rides on historical-critical methodology or alternate socio-economic and ideological "causes" for Scriptural assertion. The problem with a literal reading of Scripture and a fortiori a sola scriptura approach is that such an approach seems to presuppose that there is not "a broad ugly ditch" (Lessing) that separates the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader. In other words, the sola scriptura approach that holds to Luther's "literal sense of Scripture" seems to proceed blissfully unaware of the hermeneutical problem: How can one read a text and somehow apprehend the meaning of that text? If this is possible at all, what would be the conditions of this possibility? The problem with grasping the literal sense of Scripture is just part of the general problem of grasping the "literal sense" of any document. How could such a thing be possible? Where resides the meaning of the text, and how does a reader come to acquire it?

The believer attending services has, in general, no way to grasp that the difficulty in the theological community in grasping the simple, literal sense of Scripture has less to do with a wanton disregard for the specifics of the text, but rather with how one might understand Biblical authority on the other side of Gadamer. Just as there is a theological paradigm dominating in mainstream Protestant denominations that eschews theological and semantic realism and the very possibility of theophysical causation, so is there a paradigm that rejects the possibility of the text having meaning in itself. In the same way that Kant left the philosophical tradition with a dualism of the unknowable Ding-an-Sich (the noumenal) and a subjectivized Ding-für-Sich (the phenomenal), hermeneutics by the middle of the twentieth century was stuck with a dualism of the irrecoverable meaning of the text, and the subjectivized “reader response” to it. Just as Hegel tried to overcome the dualism of Kant by eschewing the very possibility of the thing-in-itself while showing the objectivity of the historicity of the thing-for-me, so did Gadamer seek to move beyond entirely the problematic of the textual meaning-in-itself, and embrace instead the objectivity of the historicized meaning-for-me.

For Gadamer, the meaning of a text arises in the back-and-forth movement of text and reader, where the horizon of the reader is figured as a historical product of the “spirit” that was itself realized in the text. The “effects of historical consciousness” are thus this: Historical movement produces cultural artifacts (texts) that effect subsequent historical movement. In any age, the spirit of its historical understanding is manifested in its texts. Texts are thus in a deep sense communal productions, with individual authors merely bespeaking the historical understanding of the age. When these texts of a previous age and community are read by later readers, the historical understandings in the text confront the later reader not as something wholly foreign, but rather as something deeply resonant to the later reader, because the historical understandings in the previous texts effect subsequent historical understandings that themselves are implicit in the later interpretive horizons.

It works like this: An earlier text (take Romans, for example) leaves an interpretative wake in the interpretive horizons of later generations. Thus, the text of Romans has formed the very interpretive equipment (my conceptual apparatus) by which I now in the early 21st century must use in reading the earlier text (Romans). In a real sense the historical effects of Romans in my interpretive horizon are now marshaled in the attempt to read Romans. Thus, in the reading, interpretation is possible because the “meaning of the text in itself” is already historically bequeathed into the interpretive horizon of the reader such that its effects (Romans effects) thus function to read Romans. The meaning of the text thus arises in the play of the historical effects of Romans on the reader who presupposes these effects in the reading of Romans. Meaning is a back and forth, to and fro, movement between text and interpreter; it emerges as a fusion of horizons where the impossibility of the ultimate “otherness” of Scripture is displayed; Romans is not ultimately foreign, but has formed me the reader of Romans. The necessary condition of its speaking is that it is not ultimately and wholly different from the one interpreting it. This is why I can be said to have a “pre-understanding” of the text even prior to the reading of the text.

Accordingly, God cannot simply work as a wholly other One confronting us with wholly other mandates radically different from us. God’s Word in scripture is only possible because there is a pre-understanding of the text as a place where God might speak, a pre-understanding formed historically in the interpretive community by the text itself. Romans is a “classic performance” that has created a communal genre of interpretation that functions in the attentive listening to of the text. Just as we hear a classic performance of Beethoven and understand its “meaning” only if our interpretive horizon has been informed by listening to Beethoven, so do we hear the Word of God in scripture and understand its meaning only if our interpretive horizon has been informed by generations of communal experience with attentive hearing of the Romans texts as a place where God might speak.

The point in all of this is that just as there is no meaning to the music of Beethoven apart from listening to Beethoven, there is no meaning to the words of Romans apart from the history of communal experience with Romans. Just as musical meaning cannot reside anywhere but in the confrontation of the music with the listener, so too can textual meaning not reside anywhere but in the confrontation of the text with the reader. Theologians don’t so much want to “reject the literal Word of God plainly available in Scripture,” but find a way somehow to “make the literal Word of God possible.” It can only be possible in this complicated way where a historical interpretive community is dialectically related to the text, related such that the normative meaning of that text emerges on the basis of that dialectical relationship.

What church-going believers don’t realize is that the intellectual world that the theologian must inhabit makes it very difficult even to reclaim something of the horizon presupposed by much of the tradition. Gadamer, while he would appear to most non-theologians (many pastors included) as quite destructive to taking Scripture seriously, is really trying to reclaim the very possibility of taking it seriously by showing that the old dualism of textual objectivity and reader subjectivity (with the resultant “win” by the subject) can be overcome in the objectivity of the “spirit” of the text and tradition. The original Lutheran sola scriptura principle is fundamentally at odds with a Gadamerian approach unless it is reworked to show that the sola scriptura arises, and can only arise, in a communal situation presupposing tradition.

All of this is a bit complicated, and the reader of this blog might now actually know much more about about Gadamer than most ELCA pastors who don’t recognize the intellectual roots of the interpretive moves that they standardly make. Yet, these are the waters that must be swum if one is truly going to understand why “people just don’t take scripture at its clear sense when it prohibits homosexual activity.” In our present intellectual situation, we can’t think that any historical text has a clear sense without an interpretive community. If this is true of the Dialogues of Plato, it is true of Scripture as well.

There is no easy way out back to taking the text seriously. Perhaps what is needed is simply a move in the interpretive community not unlike the realist move of G.E. Moore. He said, “Instead of taking as the problematic the immediacy of the subject and the problem of the object, let us start with the immediacy of the object and see what happens.” This move put an end in philosophy to classical idealism, the "Hegelian synthesis" included. What is happening in theology is that we always assume an idealistic starting point and cannot find our way out of the subject. This is clearly true of Gadamer's hermeneutical analogue to "absolute idealism." So maybe it is time again for a new starting point. Why not simply start with the object and forgo the task of "building a bridge" to it? After all, there are only so many shots on the basketball court, and when you work yourself into the corner, the shots become very difficult indeed. If one still wants to play the game, one must find a different position on the court.