...are the ones that make the biggest difference

10.27.2004

The argument from harm

I was perusing an interesting exchange over on Pontifications regarding the Windsor Report - the recently released document from the Anglican Church regarding the ordination of gays and related issues (I'm honestly not familiar with its contents). Pontificator blasts the report for being an "equivocation" and not calling the American & Canadian churches to repentance for their actions which have jeapordized the worldwide communion of Anglican churches.

The very first comment comes from a gay Christian, who takes issue with Pontificator's comments about the need for repentance, citing the belief that the ordination of Gene Robinson was correct and therefore not something to be repented of. Multiple responses ensue, conversation goes off course and the gay Chrisitian (who goes by the handle 1,000 times) says that a lesbian was murdered, for her sexual orientation, in Sierra Leone and this murder was not condemned by the local Anglican bishop or any other members of the church. The argument, of course, being that the moral failure of the church in other areas prevents it from speaking authoritatively morally in other areas and that it has discriminated against gays in the past. Another poster pointed out the loophole in 1,000's logic, asking if the murderers, who clearly thought their actions were correct, needed to repent since they had done nothing wrong in their perception. 1,000 accused other posters of being incapable of making the necessary distinction, stating "loving gay relationships" cause no harm, whereas murder obviously does so. I responded, at this point, that there is no need to demonstrate that gay relationships cause no harm, since the point is not whether or not they are harmful, but whether or not they violate biblical norms - whether or not they are, in fact, sinful. 1,000's response was that this made God's law "simply irrational."

My question is, of course, does there have to be rational reason for calling a behavior or action sinful? Do we have to be able to identify specific examples or consequences of harm - to ourselves or to others - for something to be a sin? I'll let others take a shot before I offer my opinion.

11 comments:

Doug said...

I’ve been following this debate over at Pontifications too, though I haven’t joined in. But, as you described it, I think 1000 Times’ understanding of sin is essentially a libertarian view: If what I do harms no one, then leave me alone. But what is harm? And who is No One? To answer the second first, I am that No One. And Harm is that which damages my relationship or my capacity for a relationship with God. When I sin, even if my sin causes no harm or damage to others or their property, I harm myself and my capacity to live in fuller union with Christ.

But how can I determine what is sin? Certainly not by reasoning my way through it. We can rationalize ourselves into anything. I know I can. Through experience? I have certainly experienced sin and what it does to my relationship with God. But I haven’t committed every sin (yet!). So how do I know that some of these things that are called sins, but which I haven’t yet experienced, truly are sins? It seems to me that we rely on revelation for this, we look to the Scriptures and the life of the Church. I know these things are sin because God tells us so in Scripture, and because the witness of the Apostolic tradition and the Fathers confirms it. I doubt this would be very satisfying for 1000 Times, however.

Karl Thienes said...

Another thing to consider is that we sin *both voluntarily and involuntarily* (as we say in the Liturgy)....sin is not simply a legal and visible act but anything that "falls short of the glory of God"....

Nathan said...

Doug -

"But, as you described it, I think 1000 Times’ understanding of sin is essentially a libertarian view: If what I do harms no one, then leave me alone."

That's an interesting point. I was think 1000 was leaning more towards a utilitarian understanding of sin. If it leads to a perceived good, something cannot be a sin no matter what the Bible, or any person for that matter, has to say about it. Only "bad" behavior or actions that lead to "bad" consequences can be considered sinful. Of course good & bad in this context is strongly tied to experience - you'll note 1000's frequent referral to his/her experience in loving homosexual relationships as the reason his/her understanding is superior.

"When I sin, even if my sin causes no harm or damage to others or their property, I harm myself and my capacity to live in fuller union with Christ."

I absolutely agree with this statement, but how do we make this sensible to someone leaning on experiential definition of sin? If there is no perceived harm to the union with Christ, indeed if, as 1000 claims, there is actually an improvement in that union, this statement would me meaningless. Yes, an orthodox (or Orthodox) Christian would definitely turn to scripture and the life of the church to help in this regard, but if you believe scripture is faulty and that the church is empowered and even guided by Spirit into new directions, then again, we're back to square one. I don't ask just for this debate, but because this is the type of thinking I am seeing more and more of in my ministry. Kids today have a very if-it-feels-good-do-it mentality that fits neatly with an experiential definition of sin.

Karl -

"Another thing to consider is that we sin *both voluntarily and involuntarily* (as we say in the Liturgy)....sin is not simply a legal and visible act but anything that 'falls short of the glory of God'...."

Stop! You're making me miss Orthodoxy. :)

Doug said...

By the way, thanks for raising such a good issue, Nathan!

“If it leads to a perceived good, something cannot be a sin no matter what the Bible, or any person for that matter, has to say about it. Only "bad" behavior or actions that lead to "bad" consequences can be considered sinful.”

Maybe you’re right. Perhaps that’s more the direction 1000 Times was taking. The problem with this, of course, is that it’s really not a Christian understanding of sin at all. It’s certainly not scriptural. Do we say that just because Adam and Eve’s sin resulted in our capacity for an even greater union with God, that their sin was therefore not sin? Or that the Jews’ rejection of Christ was not sin (hamartia, as per Karl’s reminder) because it led to the Gentiles’ invitation to the kingdom? Of course, God is infinitely capable of bringing great goodness out of the most grievous sin.

“…how do we make this sensible to someone leaning on an experiential definition of sin? … if you believe scripture is faulty and that the church is empowered and even guided by the Spirit into new directions, then again, we're back to square one.”

Thanks for honing the point. What are these people, Montanists? This is where I have to thow up my hands and admit I have no idea. How can you explain sin within constraints like these, when the catholic understanding of sin won’t fit within these constraints?

I’m afraid that these folks, beloved of Christ as they are, are just plain missing the point when it comes to what Christianity is, and what the Church is. It’s not something you make up as you go along, something you re-invent with each successive generation. We are not at liberty to reinvent the Faith, just as we are not at liberty to reinvent the Church. The faith once and for all delivered to the saints is lived individually and generationally, but if it ceases to be *that* one faith, then it is no longer Christianity. We are called not to submit the faith and the Church to our minds or to what seems or feels right to us, but we are called to submit ourselves to the one faith of Christ and to the Church as His undivisible body.

I have no idea how I would tackle this topic with those, like 1000 Times, who want so desperately to be Christians, but somehow only on their own terms -- let alone with teenagers! I feel for you!

Nathan said...

"Do we say that just because Adam and Eve’s sin resulted in our capacity for an even greater union with God, that their sin was therefore not sin? Or that the Jews’ rejection of Christ was not sin (hamartia, as per Karl’s reminder) because it led to the Gentiles’ invitation to the kingdom? Of course, God is infinitely capable of bringing great goodness out of the most grievous sin."

It is one of the greatest mysteries of God - that he is able to turn our evil into something good, but our evil is still evil. I think the problem with 1000 times is that she has moved away from any understanding of evil as an absolute thing. If it is tied up in our perception, then yes, Adam & Eve's actions might not be sin since a perceived good came about. Of course, many bad things (war, death, etc) also came about from their sin, so someone like 1000 times might just stay neutral on the whole thing.

"Thanks for honing the point. What are these people, Montanists? This is where I have to thow up my hands and admit I have no idea. How can you explain sin within constraints like these, when the catholic understanding of sin won’t fit within these constraints?"

Pontifcator talks a lot about the grammar of faith, but I think we also have to have a glossary. Sin has been so re-defined to be empty of any significant meaning. The catholic understanding not only won't fit, its not even the same language!

"I have no idea how I would tackle this topic with those, like 1000 Times, who want so desperately to be Christians, but somehow only on their own terms -- let alone with teenagers! I feel for you!"

I am increasingly discovering that parents, and only the parents, can have any significant impact on the spiritual formation of youth. I can help, can add some icing and maybe some chocolate sprinkles, but the cake can only be made by the parents. Even kids who come to Christ from a non-Christian home are still largely influenced by the example their parents set. They may start to make something on their own, but the parents still add most of the ingredients.

Anonymous said...

Well, the problem is that the Scriptures are in fact not very clear about what they are condemning. For example, nowhere is female/female sexual behavior condemned; every reference - and there are only 5 or 6, BTW, depending on whether you count the story of Sodom and Gomorrah - is to males, specifically. And if that's the case, I don't think it's "homosexuality" that's at issue here. (Bestiality, to give a different example, is condemned for both men and women. And in Leviticus, men are given certain instructions, and women other instructions. But of course, no Christian follows the Levitical laws in the first place. So is everybody sinning, in that case?)

Anyway, your argument - that we must obey God's commandments simply because they come from God - would imply that male homosexuality is taboo, but that female homosexuality is permitted, since there's no explicit condemnation of it. i.e., God has not, in fact, commanded this.

And in that case, think: is it fair to ask a gay woman to remain celibate for 70 or 80 years - for her whole life - when there is, in fact, no injunction against it at all? Why would strictures put (some sort of) male sexual behavior affect women? And why would a woman have to rearrange her whole life for nothing?

I don't know if this conversation is still going, but in fact I stumbled across this discussion today - and I am the original 10,000 Times! Small blog world!

Anonymous said...

Well, the problem is that the Scriptures are in fact not very clear about what they are condemning. For example, nowhere is female/female sexual behavior condemned; every reference - and there are only 5 or 6, BTW, depending on whether you count the story of Sodom and Gomorrah - is to males, specifically. And if that's the case, I don't think it's "homosexuality" that's at issue here. (Bestiality, to give a different example, is condemned for both men and women. And in Leviticus, men are given certain instructions, and women other instructions. But of course, no Christian follows the Levitical laws in the first place. So is everybody sinning, in that case?)

Anyway, your argument - that we must obey God's commandments simply because they come from God - would imply that male homosexuality is taboo, but that female homosexuality is permitted, since there's no explicit condemnation of it. i.e., God has not, in fact, commanded this.

And in that case, think: is it fair to ask a gay woman to remain celibate for 70 or 80 years - for her whole life - when there is, in fact, no injunction against it at all? Why would strictures put (some sort of) male sexual behavior affect women? And why would a woman have to rearrange her whole life for nothing?

I don't know if this conversation is still going, but in fact I stumbled across this discussion today - and I am the original 10,000 Times! Small blog world, ain't it?

;-)

Anonymous said...

(Sorry for the double post.)

Nathan said...

10,000 -

It is a very small blog world, after all! I see that you posted several days ago - hopefully you'll come back and see this so we can continue the conversation. I didn't see your comment until just now, so I apologize for the delay in commenting back.

"For example, nowhere is female/female sexual behavior condemned; every reference - and there are only 5 or 6, BTW, depending on whether you count the story of Sodom and Gomorrah - is to males, specifically. And if that's the case, I don't think it's "homosexuality" that's at issue here."

I'll grant that the majority of the prohibitions regarding homosexual behavior are specific to males, but I think you are forgetting Romans 1:26 - "...their women exchanged the natural function for the unnatural..." Before you object that this does not explicitly refer to sexual activity, I would raise 2 points. First, if this is not referring to sexual activity, what is it referring to? Second, looking at the first part of verse 27 "...and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire towards one another..." This, and the rest of the verse, clearly refers to sexual activity, which, of course, necessarily implies the same activity for women in the preceding verse since it is "in the same way." So we have at least one negative reference/prohibition, so the case is about homosexual activity. Though I am curious as to what you think those verses are about, if not that.

"Bestiality, to give a different example, is condemned for both men and women. And in Leviticus, men are given certain instructions, and women other instructions. But of course, no Christian follows the Levitical laws in the first place. So is everybody sinning, in that case?"

I agree that a reliance on the Levitical law for arguments against homosexual activity are compromised from the start, since, as you point out, we don't adhere to the rest of it. However, given that prohibtions are reiterated in the NT, I think it is permissible to introduce them since there is a continuity of belief on that particular subject. In other areas, such laws were not repeated, or were specifically abrogated, as was the case with the dietary laws (Acts 10:15).

Since I don't think the Bible is silent on female homosexual activity, I think the points you raised are moot - at least until you deal with Romans. That being said, even if the Bible is silent on female homosexual activity, why should we think that what applies to men does not similarly apply to women? Especially in light of the NT teaching on marriage, which is explicitly between a man and a woman (1 Cor 7:2, 1 Tim 3:2) and the only type of committed relationship that is recognized by the biblical authors. Anything that occurs outside of this type of relationship can only fit under the category of "sexual immorality" which is clearly prohibited. As to living her whole life in celibacy, 1 Cor 7 speaks admirably to that, as does the historic monastic witness of the church. Granted, Protestantism has lost the richness of monasticism, but it is quite clear that God has and does call people to lives of chastity & devotion. I don't think it entirely unreasonable to suggest that life-long celibacy is a viable, biblical option for anyone.

Anonymous said...

Well, according to this article, in re Romans I:

A quick show of hands in any English-speaking country nowadays would probably agree to the following statement: ‘This quite clearly refers to lesbianism. That is the obvious meaning of the words. To deny that this refers to lesbianism is the sort of thing that you would expect from a clever-clogs biblical exegete with an ideological axe to grind.’ Well, all I’d like to say at this point is that we have several commentaries on these words dating from the centuries between the writing of this text and the preaching of St John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century. None of them read the passage as referring to lesbianism. Both St Augustine and Clement of Alexandria interpreted it straightforwardly as meaning women having anal intercourse with members of the other sex. Chrysostom was in fact the first Church Father of whom we have record to read the passage as having anything to do with lesbianism.

Now, my first point is this: irrespective of who is closer to the mark as to what St Paul was referring to, one thing is irrefutable: what modern readers claim to be ‘the obvious meaning of the text’ was not obvious to Saint Augustine, who has for many centuries enjoyed the status of being a particularly authoritative reader of Scripture. Therefore there can be no claim that there has been an uninterrupted witness to the text being read as having to do with lesbianism. There hasn’t. It has been perfectly normal for long stretches of time to read this passage in the Catholic Church without seeing St Paul as saying anything to do with lesbianism. This means that no Catholic is under any obligation to read this passage as having something to do with lesbianism. Furthermore, it is a perfectly respectable position for a Catholic to take that there is no reference to lesbianism in Holy Scripture, given that the only candidate for a reference is one whose ‘obvious meaning’ was taken, for several hundred years, to be something quite else.
So if there have been a variety of interpretations of this passage, even among the most respected Bible scholars (and now saints!), doesn't that say that this verse doesn't necessarily condemn sexual behavior between women?

And if that's true, then nowhere in the Bible is sexual behavior between women condemned. So why do women have to obey a non-existant command, one that basically eviscerates their entire lives? Nobody else is required to be celibate for life, except gay people.

We think that it's not "homosexuality" that is condemned by the Bible, but the exploitative homosexual relationships - these were sometimes literally slave/master relationships - that existed in the world of Paul's era. The Timothy and Corinthians verses use a word that was never translated as "homosexuality" until 1946, and that has been translated at least 27 different ways in various versions. Nobody knows the actual meaning of the word, because it doesn't exist before the author's use of it in these passages. An obscure word whose exact meaning is unknown is a very bad basis for condemnation of anything, wouldn't you agree?

I agree about the teaching on marriage, though: the Bible gives instructions based on heterosexual unions. But these can't be used to say anything about homosexual unions, can they? I have to point out that during the Middle Ages, many marriages were of the common-law type - I think marriage because a Sacrament only in the 12th century (might be wrong about that, though) - so the concept of the state of "Holy Matrimony" was somewhat different, I'd imagine.

Anyway, polygamy was certainly permitted all throughout the Old Testament, and some of the Bible's greatest heros from that period had numerous wives. Adultery had a differnt meaning, also. I'm trying to point out that the institution of "marriage" has indeed been quite fluid over the centuries.

And my main point here is to wonder why God would punish homosexuality so severely, when the condemnations are few and far between, the basis for condemnation unclear and weak in my opinion, and almost everybody agrees at this point that homoesexual orientation is unchosen. It just doesn't make any sense - and the information above about Romans confirms that, IMO.

Anonymous said...

I should add that sex isn't the real issue here - although sex is a part of life, and I don't think it's a bad thing.

The issue is that human beings have a deep desire for partnership, and that desire expresses itself in marriage. 95% of Americans marry at some point in their lives; I think that demonstrates that it's a basic sort of instinct. I know hetersexual couples who don't plan to have children, yet still got married. You just can't deny this basic urge to people for their entire lives; imagine this for yourself, if you can.

Imagine never hoping to fall in love; never going on a date with someone you're interested in; living an entire lifetime alone, without someone to share your deepest self with (friends do this also, but I'm sure you'll agree that the relationship of married people is quite different than friendship). All this from the time you're about 12 years old, which is when many gay folks recognize that they are gay.

Everybody wants to find somebody to love. I grant that some people never do, but a lot of those people are sad about that. And in fact, most do find a partner and get married. Priests and monks and nuns volunteer for the duty, but many can't do it and leave their orders. It's never compulsory - except for gay people, on the basis of an unchosen characteristic. It just doesn't seem right.