Monday, 25 June 2007

The love that dare not speak its name

There is a fascinating exchange on homosexuality and Christian (specifically Catholic) doctrine here, in a recent Commonweal magazine.

The correspondents are, if you can believe it, a straight male theology professor (Luke Timothy Johnson) who advocates acceptance of homosexual relationships, and a lesbian freelance journalist (Eve Tushnet), a recent convert to Catholicism, who stands for the traditional position of the church.

Despite what I initially thought, both of them seem to be on the level. And despite what you might think, both of them are worth reading.

Professor Johnson's responsibly liberal position involves a certain amount of --- let us be frank --- special pleading and tendentious argument. (The references to slavery, for example, are depressingly rote and tone-deaf. If that's not already clear to you, I suggest reading The Letter of Paul to Philemon and then trying to square it against Johnson's statement on the apostle's views.) But Johnson is an unlucky man. He indulges in much less special pleading or tendentious argument than you might expect, and he is clearly trying to be straightforward and plain-speaking. His concern for being faithful to Christian revelation, and faithful to the phenomena, is manifest. And he has put all of his cards on the table, including those which count against his own argument: a refreshing thing, that, in these polemical times. In isolation I would have called his contribution to the discussion a good one, for these and other reasons, but he has had the misfortune to be up against someone who completely outclasses him.

Ms Tushnet is altogether extraordinary. She is rigorous. She is open. She is clear on what is secure in her own understanding, and what is provisional. Honest and critical about her own experience, and speaking with what anyone in our culture would recognise as a kind of authority, she finds that she needs to listen to what Christian (and specifically Catholic) tradition has to say. Reading her words, I am reminded --- quite outside my own experience --- of why I take the Scripture seriously. Of why I take Christian doctrine seriously. This does not happen often.

Her position is a classic example of faith seeking understanding, the great model of Christian thought. Prof. Johnson by contrast is trying to achieve a final position --- to get in all the data --- and one feels the strain. In fairness to him, he will probably think the same thing in five years' time. Ms Tushnet may well think something quite different in five months' time, and as a scientist I can't help feeling that that is an indulgence. But I will still listen willingly to whatever she has to say.


Stepping back from the detail of Prof. Johnson's and Ms Tushnet's positions, there is something deeply Catholic about their whole discussion. I mean that in a good way. It respects reason (and reasonableness), tradition, experience, insight, and beauty, in a way that many Protestant discussions do not. It takes difficulty and obscurity for granted. It is recognisably about a world that real people live in.

As an Anglican, I have the privilege admiring the (Roman) Catholic church from a safe distance. This is something worth doing, and something that my fellow evangelical Christians are depressingly reluctant to do. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, is an honourable exception in this matter, and I note that it is a brave man who would accuse him of being insufficiently Protestant. So what, exactly, is everyone else's problem?

[Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Ben Myers, and his estimable blog Faith and Theology, for a pointer to the Commonweal article.]


Jonathan said...

Bruce, do you think you could expand on your feeling as a scientist that it is an indulgence for Ms Tushnet to possibly think something different in five months time? I don't expect that you would say scientists do not (or should not) change their minds and be open to new conclusions, so it seems there is something to be said about some sort of balance.

Bruce Yabsley said...

I am up against the limits of my own tradition here. The issue is not whether one is open to changing one's mind, but the way in which one is approaching the problem.

I feel an obligation to solidarity with Prof. Johnson. His intention (as I have characterised it) to "get in all the data" in forming his position, is something most scientists would recognise and applaud. He is trying to provide a view-from-nowhere-in-particular --- an answer for anyone. Ms Tushnet, on the other hand, is trying to provide an answer from where she is standing now.

It would please me to award this exchange to Prof. Johnson, because of his approach, his intention to reach a universal conclusion, and <small voice>his liberality</small voice>. But the fact is that Ms Tushnet makes a better case. It is probably an easier case to make. But the fact that Johnson has a difficult job to do does not negate the fact that he has done it badly.

I hope that I am at least consistent in this kind of judgement. In comments on another blog I've praised the (likewise Catholic, but more liberal) Sex, gender, and Christian ethics by Lisa Sowle Cahill, in the New Studies in Christian Ethics series. She reaches no definite conclusion on homosexual issues, but hovers on the edge of one. This is frustrating if you want answers, but it's greatly to be preferred to producing "answers" without warrant. For example, Grenz's Sexual Ethics: An evangelical perspective has impeccably "correct" answers on most things, but I found it almost unreadable, because banal.

"Faith seeking understanding" is compulsory. Definitive answers are not. At least within our culture, I don't think we're in a place to give a definitive answer to these questions, much as it goes against my usual taste.