On Christians Who Change Their Minds

Over at First Things, I’ve got a new column on my frustration with the way the renowned Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff went about making his case for same-sex marriage:

Clearly, there exists in the church today the possibility of genuine, reasoned, substantive debate over the rightness of same-sex marriage. Some of the most humane and beautiful Christian writing I’ve read in recent years has come from same-sex-marriage advocates like the Episcopalian Eugene Rogers and the British feminist theologian Sarah Coakley. And that’s why Wolterstorff’s lecture is particularly dismaying: By firing cheap shots and caricaturing the traditional views he hopes to overturn, he hampers a debate whose depth and maturity could be further deepened.

Wolterstorff is, of course, simply one more example of the way Christians of all stripes are switching “sides,” so to speak, and affirming same-sex marriage. The popular blogger Jen Hatmaker made the news just this past week for the same thing, and she stands in a long line that includes, to pick only a couple of more recent examples, ethicist David Gushee and New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk.

There’s so much that could be said about this trend, and I tried to say a few constructive things in my column, but mainly I keep thinking about this post from my friend Alan Jacobs, written a couple of years ago now. Alan makes the point that if we, whether individual believers or churches or Christian organizations, change our views to affirm same-sex marriage because we think that’s what God has always affirmed, then that means we have to look back on all our long years of being non-affirming and view them as a capitulation to an ungodly cultural homophobia. We have to acknowledge that the church was—that we ourselves were—captive to an un-Christian way of approaching gay people for years upon years. Or if, like me, you think the historic Christian view of marriage is correct and that same-sex sexual practice is sinful, then you have to view all these recent changes of mind, like Nick Wolterstorff’s, as a similar sort of capitulation to culture, only in the opposite direction. And as Alan writes,

that’s the key issue, it seems to me — that’s what churches and other Christian organizations need to be thinking about. Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome. How do you plan to keep that from happening again?

It’s a haunting question, to be sure.

10 thoughts on “On Christians Who Change Their Minds

  1. “Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome.”

    Churches are social organizations which take on the aspects of the dominant beliefs and customs of the culture which birth them. That is why things like the Malleus Maleficarum and the Protestant witch hunts exist. We know – or the more sane largely accept these days – that there is no such thing as actual, magical witchcraft or hexes, curses, spells, potions, and so on. Another more modern example is the issue of being left handed. My left handed uncle who went to Catholic school in the sixties had his left hand struck whenever he tried to write with it based on a 500 year old bigotry (it isn’t an accident that both being “left handed” and being “evil” share the same Latin root word.

    Not a long stretch to consider homophobia the same.

    “How do you plan to keep that from happening again?”

    You don’t. Just swallow your pride and accept the reality that your understanding of the universe and what the God or gods want has been and will always be subject to the culture you were raised in, as history has proven again and again.

  2. I changed my mind in the other direction. Sort of.

    I still would like to see a separation of church and state in the role of families, with the state demoted to civil unions (and broadening those civil unions to the point of calling a family any group of adults that chooses to share resources in joint ownership, regardless of who is sleeping with whom. Civil unions should have nothing to do with sex and everything to do with property management).

    But heterosexual monogamous lifelong procreative marriage, regardless of the religious connotations, holds a very special place in our society. And because I assert that truth (I don’t *believe* it in a faith based way, I see its effects play out every day in the 3 and 4 year olds in the in-home daycare my wife runs, it is easy to see the difference between children with traditional home lives and children with non-traditional home lives), since 2004 I’ve been an evil homophobic bigot by the dictatorship of diversity.

    I didn’t change my beliefs, the world changed around me. Is it any wonder that I have to fight the tendency to respond to homosexual violence with violence of my own?

  3. I think this is right: “Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome.”

    I am intrigued by the implicit suggestion that there’s a third option: purity, and therefore innocence with respect to “culture”. As a certain kind of Augustinian, I take it for granted that purity is off the table. And so my biggest concern is not ensuring my purity or that of anyone else, but rather embracing a process and cultivating individual and group habits that foster truthfulness. As a theologian, I am suspicious of purity-talk in general, and I think Christian faith has little space for it. On this, I learned a lot from Melanie Webb’s recent dissertation on Augustine’s response to victims of rape. I especially took away from it the suggestion that in Augustine’s discourse, integrity rather than purity began to redefine celibacy/chastity.

    I detect two theological reasons for Augustine’s move with relationship to the holy virgins who were critiqued for not committing suicide after the example of Lucretia, relevant to reflections like yours here and in FT. First, the quest for purity presumes a position of moral superiority from which to judge the compromised. Purity talk is self-protective. When you lose your purity (in Augustine’s case, virginity), it’s gone. When you have it, you can only keep and protect it. The self-protective fear of cultural tainting that drives the Jacobs quote places an inhumane pressure on all parties to it. Fear of impurity makes purity’s advocates defensive guardians, who are presented with awful moral choices, like when Lucretia had to either slay herself or allow others to claim that rape was the source of their impurity.

    Second, guarding purity–either your own, your church’s, or even of your mind’s–ultimately undermines the processes that make it possible to be truthful. The only way Augustine could be truthful was to eschew the elite Roman masculinity that produced the concept of purity that placed the virgins and therefore the church in such an untenable situation. Unlike the standards imposed by purity, which make us always soldiers marching to the beat of an external drummer, integrity requires a far more difficult discipline of compassionate self-presence. Purity’s alternative is always compassion or mercy. It begins with a self-presence that for Augustine is always presence to the One more internal to us that we are to ourselves. As a teacher, I’m struck by how much the fear of being wrong (epistemically impure) drives my students. I spend a lot of time encouraging them to shift from a framework that asks, “Is this right or wrong?” (imagines a teacher in their head who can’t wait to point out their mistakes) to “Is this helpful, honest, truthful? Am I saying what I think I’m supposed to be saying, or am I describing what I actually observe?” Only if they do the latter–if they confess–can they start to make their assumptions explicit. This is important in my cultural studies classes. Spiritually and psychologically, compassionate self-presence alone makes it possible for them to be hospitable to people who think and live differently than they do. That’s because compassionate self-presence allows them to finally respond with honesty to the parts of themselves–aspects of how they think, how they speak, how they feel, how they respond–that are most difficult for them to face, and that they’ve been taught to stuff down and push away. If you’re hard on yourself, the demonic voices in your head that are inspiring your self-hatred are eventually going to make you hard on everyone around you. And you’re going to end up pushing away everyone and everything that makes you uncomfortable. Augustine’s deepest theological solution, is begin with treating yourself how God treats you: God doesn’t need you, only wants you, sees and loves what you are, wants you to be as much yourself as possible, and thus opposes everything that might get in the way of being as much you as you can be. Mercy makes the confession of your sins possible because it takes away the fear that has kept you from seeing–always haltingly, never purely, and with mediocrity–what you’ve imbibed and what is true. If you start out trying to be pure, you’ll have to be as hard on yourself as the standard of purity you have taken on. And then you’ll never really be able to see what comes from God.

    On a side note, and on historical grounds, I don’t think it’s right to describe a single, consistent view of same-sex relationships except in an unhelpfully shallow sense. It would take a lot of pressure off everyone to stop using some imagined, unbroken tradition as a cudgel to make purity with relation to the tradition an option. It leaves us with the terrible choice that such a tradition as a whole is either right or wrong. This makes honesty and truthfulness difficult, as such a framework prevents us from saying it’s complicated, and maybe even interesting, and it may cause us to push aside or ignore a lot of the damaging aspects that remain. Along these lines, I appreciate David Newheiser’s recent article on this in the JRE. I make a complementary argument here, and I articulate what the outlines of a constructive, alternative reading of Augustine might look like (they’re related to a larger book project): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jore.12116/abstract

  4. I see Wolterstorff as making something of a Christian liberty argument. After all, Reformed Christians generally believe that the church only has moral authority to bind the conscience of the believer on matters where Scripture sets forth an unambiguous rule on the matter in question. Thus, one need not establish that God would affirm same-sex marriage; it is sufficient to establish that the Scriptural teaching is ambiguous, either in a patent or latent way.

    You and Wolfe seem to be suggesting that the burden lies on the proponents of same-sex marriage to demonstrate that God affirms such relationships. Such a view misunderstands the doctrine of Christian liberty. The church is the one seeking to bind the conscience here, so the church necessarily bears the burden of establishing that Scripture necessarily forbids committed same-sex relationships of a marital sort. Wolterstorff is merely saying that he doesn’t believe that the church can meet its burden. That doesn’t mean that the church must necessarily affirm same-sex marriages. There’s a gulf of ambiguity that lies between these two poles. In that gulf of ambiguity, the free conscience of the believer prevails.

    Moreover, I see Wolterstorff as arguing more for a latent ambiguity than a patent ambiguity. In other words, it’s an ambiguity that arises more in the context of its application that within the four corners of the biblical text. This makes a difference when one is changing one’s mind. If the social landscape has changed on an issue, a latent ambiguity may emerge that otherwise wasn’t apparent. In this case, the emergence of more socially stable patterns for same-sex coupling may have exposed an ambiguity that wasn’t apparent to him before.

    On these questions, I think it’s generally helpful to distinguish between the testimony of one’s conscience and whether the church has sufficient warrant to bind others’ conscience on that matter. On this issue, I’m convinced that same-sex marriage is not right for me. Even so, I understand why others may disagree, and don’t see the church as having sufficient warrant to bind their consciences on that question.

  5. I greatly appreciate you sharing your thoughts about this trend that is a constant frustration for me too. I affirm every point you made, and I have definitely been “captive to an un-Christian way of approaching gay people for years upon years.”
    My whole life I’ve upheld that homosexual activity is sinful, so in that regard my view has not changed and I can look back and affirm my life-long perspective. However, in recent years I’ve learned that there is in fact more to scripture’s teaching on the topic than the sinfulness of the behavior. The Gospel’s applicability to the temptations and the behavior is something I had always missed – I simply didn’t understand that someone could be a Christian and experience same-sex attraction. Christian faithfulness and homosexuality were mutually exclusive in my mind, and I think historically (and still today in many church circles) there has been failure to love well those who are attracted to the same sex. In that regard, I think my historic approach (and much of the church’s historic approach) to the topic is partly incorrect. While I stand by my life-long theology of only affirming heterosexual marriage, I repent of all of my years of believing that experiencing same-sex attraction is inherently sinful, realizing now that there is an often overlooked difference between temptation and sin.

  6. Pingback: Eugene Peterson endorses SSM (or not) | Leadingchurch.com

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