Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Law, Nature, and Homoerotic Acts

There is so much confusion about homosexual behavior within Lutheran circles, that I shall try again to explain what was once thought obvious by Christianity: Homoerotic behavior, like many other human behaviors, is sinful. That this is true ought not to be startling to Lutherans who know that human beings perpetually sin against God in thought, word and deed. Curiously, however, Lutherans have increasing difficulty confessing the sinfulness of such acts, and indeed, of many types of sexual behaviors and practices.

The Lutheran position on the rectitude of homosexual behavior should be straightforward. After all, the great theological tradition has always held that there is an order of creation. The order of creation is the direct artifact of God’s design; it instantiates God’s primary intentionality for existence as such. The Biblical tradition has affirmed that it is part of God’s primary intentionality that a man and woman should leave their parents and dwell in life-long relationships with each other. God is the author of creation so it bears an imprint of his “eternal law” that can be apprehended through conscience as “natural law.” The natural law tradition expresses what God has objectively ordered nature to be.

Under the conditions of existence, the order of creation has fallen into sin from which it cannot free itself. Things that are, are not what they ought to be. Accordingly, human beings by their own natures (fallen human natures) are not, and cannot be, what they are by nature, by that which has been ordered by God. Natural law expresses God’s universal objective ordering; natural human natures instantiate the particular subjective ordering of individuals after their own ends, ends that are not part of God’s primal intentionality.

Given that the Biblical record unambiguously places man and woman together in the paradisical state within the order of creation, the question becomes what can the redeemed church support and proclaim as consistent with this order of creation. Obviously, human beings naturally are not who they are to be by nature. As fallen human beings living the redeemed life, what ought they to think about nature and about their natural acts that are not natural?

There are two choices: One can say that the orders of creation must be adjusted or accommodated to what is naturally possible. Some individuals are obviously natured and nurtured not to desire sexual and romantic relationships with members of the other sex. This is obvious. Moreover, some individuals are obviously natured and nurtured not to be able easily to avoid sexual promiscuity, sexual objectification, masturbation, serial monogamy, premarital sexual activity, etc. This is obvious as well. One can thus say that that which is not attainable, must be not be regarded as sinful, or must be differently understood as sinful.

The other option, of course, is to follow the tradition and claim that what we are sexually not who we ought to be. This option identifies divorce as sin, and understands how humans can be divorced - - particularly in a society like ours. This option identifies the addictive masturbation, pornographic consumption, and sexual promiscuity (especially serial monogamy) as sinful, but still understands how humans could be engaged in these behaviors - - particularly in a society like ours. Finally, this option finally identifies homoerotic behavior as sinful, yet understands how humans can be engaged in these behaviors - - particularly in a society like ours.

The fundamental question is whether we want to regard homoerotic behavior as consistent with the order of creation or not. To my mind, groups like the WordAlone Network have never claimed that divorce is consistent with the order of creation. If they were to have said that, and claimed that homoerotic behavior was inconsistent with it, then the WordAlone Network would be guilty of unfairly picking a particular sin to scorn. Questions about sex and sexuality are driven by society. General cultural forces generate the question of the propriety of homoerotic behavior, and it is this question which confronts the churches now; it is this question that needs a response. I do not believe there are many at synodical and churchwide conventions who want to claim that divorce, masturbation, and sexual promiscuity ought to be blessed within a liturgical context. This point must be seen clearly.

Unfortunately, Lutherans have abandoned any effort to think ontologically about divine law. They squirm at words like 'eternal law' and any attempt to identify a teleologically-ordered creation with divine law. They want to talk about the law only in so far as it confronts us, thus confusing the experience of being curbed by the law with the ontological contour of the law itself. But acting merely in accordance with the law, or acting due to the law does not change the meaning or ontology of the law. The law is the universal objective will of God for His creation, an objective will that is almost wholly obscured under the conditions of existence, an objective will grounding the promulgation of particular divine laws.

The time has come for Lutherans to rescue the divine law from its security within the phenomenology of human existence, and make again the bold and risky claim that the divine law really is God's, and that human apprehension of that law does not that law make.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Lutheran Theology of Nature

Lutheran theology has suffered these last 200 years from a turning away from nature towards a single-minded concentration upon value. The work of the German Protestant theologian Abrecht Ritschl (1822-89) is characteristic of this turn. Ritschl held that God is knowable only through Christ, and that theology must therefore concentrate on ethics and repudiate metaphysics. Of course, by repudiating metaphysics, Ritschl found it difficult to situate divine reality into the reality of nature. Metaphysics is concerned with those most basic generalities presupposed by experience as such. If God’s reality is denied metaphysical reality, then God is not part of the “basic generality” of what is, and if this be so, then God clearly cannot connect to nature.

The disconnect between God and nature in Ritschl is just the working out of the trajectory set by Kant a hundred years before. God is, for Kant, clearly not the kind of being who can sustain causal relationships with natural entities, or that can be ingredient in natural states of affairs or events. By placing God within the Ideals of Pure Reason, Kant took Him out of nature entirely. Such a de-divinization of nature nicely left nature as a natural object to be studied and explored on its own. Following previous Enlightenment thinkers, Kant’s move gave nature autonomy over and against the divine. Though Kant struggled mightily in the Critique of Judgment to bring back teleology and the non-natural generally into the world, much of the subsequent philosophical, scientific, and theological trajectory did not buy it. Theologians in general had to find a place for God outside of nature; they had to find a place for God within human experience generally, within the ontological depths of the structure of human being itself.

Lutheran theology has drunk deeply from the trough of Kant. In so doing, it has paid precariously little attention to nature for the last two hundred years. Although it can claim one of the greatest of all scientists, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), it has for centuries been quite unconcerned with natural reality, preferring the safety of reflecting on human experience. In thinking about this, it now occurs to me that the general marginalization of Lutheran theology may have everything to do with this disconnect from natural science. If God cannot be found in nature, why think He can do much even - - if He is somehow found in the depths of the self?

I believe the time is right for Lutheran theology to retrieve the early Enlightenment idea of there being two books: the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. If the Book of Scripture can be reclaimed as something that has a particular internal clarity which places Christ as its center, why cannot the Book of Nature be read with an internal clarity that places the Creator God at its center? Of course, there are many reasons not to read either book in that way. My point is, however, that if Lutheran theology wants to retain a discourse that is to survive, it has to give its discourse robust truth conditions. These conditions are given when claims can be made about Christ that are finally not indexed to claims about communities reading a text in a certain way, or when claims are made about divine causality that themselves are not indexed to claims made about individuals interpreting things in a particular way.

What would happen if we began with the presupposition that the whole of Scripture interprets its parts, the parts support the whole, and that the whole is about Christ? What would happen if we began with the presupposition that the whole of nature interprets its parts, the parts support the whole, and that the whole is finally about a God who creates?

Now, of course, there are all kinds of wonderful arguments about how misguided these approaches would be. There is no slam-dunk evidence after all that God is required as a theoretical causal entity within a most basic scientific theory of nature. I readily concede this and add that, thinking in this way, there is no evidence as well that Christ is required as the central notion of all of Scriptures, and that such a Christ actually justifies the ungodly. Critical reflection seems to dislodge the centrality of Christ from Scripture just as it takes a creator God out of the universe.

But, of course, we should not be surprised that critical reflection does such a thing. The primal question of all of humanity is the question of the serpent, “Did God really say it?” Yes, indeed, did God really speak in Scripture, and does He say anything in nature? We have as Lutheran theologians assumed that he speaks only in the first book, and rather obscurely there at that. But what would happen if we started with the assumption that He does so speak? Why would it be any more difficult to find God the Creator working in and through nature than God the Redeemer working though and in Scripture? It all has to do with how we read things. Can we speak about the “internal clarity of nature” analogously with the “internal clarity of Scripture?” I see no reason ultimately to justify the assertion that the serpent’s question is more effective against the former rather than the latter. It is time to get serious about theology again, or simply to move onto other projects. I am not moving on.