Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Identity and Acceptance

Sometime around 1985, if I remember correctly, in the middle of my seminary tutelage, I had a conversation with a fellow student that has stuck with me over the years.  I include the date so that the reader will know just how long this topic has been on my mind, not to mention how long we’ve been discussing it publicly.

I cannot remember how the subject of sexuality came up.  We were in the middle of a peer review of a paper, a student discussion led by a faculty member.  I was the one in the hot seat that day.  I had not written about sexuality, so I don’t remember how or why the subject arose.  But I do remember this comment from my fellow student, an out lesbian (which I knew before this moment).  She said to me, “If you don’t accept my sexuality, you don’t accept me.”

I have heard or read this claim dozens of times since that day.  As I said last week, I hate writing about sexuality because it is so personal, so painful, especially right now.  I feel a growing alarm about statements I hear and read, so, once again, I feel I must say something.  And I want to analyze this claim, that if I do not “accept” (I use scare quotes for a reason, which will become evident in a moment) someone’s sexuality, then I don’t “accept” her or him.

First, let’s recognize the statement for what it is – a truth claim.  In other words, this person was not, at that moment anyway, describing her experience or simply offering her take on the matter.  She was making a claim that had direct bearing on my view.  More pointedly, her opinion was a judgment of my opinion, pure and simple.

Now, let me tell you why I’m alarmed.  In the current popular hostilities, “not accepting” seems increasingly to mean “hate.”  The if-then logic goes like this: if I don’t accept your sexuality, then I hate you.  This is a huge and dangerous jump – for everyone.  And there is a similarly ominous corollary claim: if you hold a “traditional” view of sexuality and marriage, even if you don’t engage in hate speech or do anything actively to oppose gays and lesbians, etc., you still are guilty of helping to maintain a threatening heterosexist system tantamount to the Anti-semitism of Nazi Germany.  And we all know how that ended.  Peter Gomes makes this very claim in his book, The Good Book.

There are a number of angles to take on this most difficult of conversations and I’m going to try to offer some coherent thought, without being able to take the space to go step by step on everything I’m thinking.  (This blog is already much longer than I prefer.)  Let me also readily acknowledge that I could be wrong.  But here is my first point: I can be wrong in my thinking about your understanding of yourself, your identity, and your behavior (in one class of behaviors – sexual), but being wrong in my opinion about how you understand and present yourself is not the same as my lack of esteem and love for you.  They are two different sets of thoughts.  I can still like you very much, affirm your right to live as you please and disagree with your understanding of yourself.  I may just be wrong about you while still esteeming you.  So, it seems to me at the start, that claiming that my being wrong is the same as hating you is a plain non sequitur.  And a dangerous one because it breeds suspicion and fear.  There is an irony at work here that I would love to comment on, but I’ll have to leave it at that.

Now back to my fellow-student’s claim.  Let’s think of “identity” and “sexuality” as two circles.  In her comment, she seems to be saying, without actually stating it this way, that the circle of who she is and the circle of her sexuality are the same.  There is an exact proportional identity.  In some sense, it seems, “identity” and “sexuality” completely co-inhere.  The implication follows that there is therefore no conceptual room for me to think about my fellow student in any other way.  And if I do, it must be because I am motivated by something sinister and morally wrong – an irrational fear (homophobia) or something like it.

I think the position I just sketched is an extremely difficult one to sustain and support.  There is far more to a person than sexuality.  (At the least we ought to be able to have a respectful discussion about this point!)  We all know people who do not want to be limited in their identity in this way.  They own their sexuality without problem, but they are also competent professionals and colleagues, neighbors joining us for cookouts and sports fans and musicians and a host of other qualities that make them who they are.  They want to live in freedom and dignity, but they don’t want to make an issue of their sexuality.

So, you see, I think I really can disagree with someone’s claim on (what look to me like) good logical grounds and I can still love that person very much.  In fact, I do.  When discussing other topics, this is obvious and we all know it.  Whether I love someone or not has little to do with how I evaluate a statement that person makes.  Why, then, do we seem unable to apply this same logic to our discussions about sexuality?

Now I come to the meaning of the word “accept” used above.  Remember, the claim I’m working with here is that if I don’t accept someone’s sexuality, I don’t accept that person.  It seems to me that “accept” in this statement actually means that I must morally affirm and agree with that person’s sexual self-understanding.  Or, to say it this way, it appears that”sexuality” and “identity” mean the same thing.  Part of the difficulty with this claim is that it trades on an understanding of “accept” that, so far as I can tell, we do not use in any other situation.  The truth is, we very commonly accept one another without agreeing with one another on all manner of other issues. If sexuality is that different, such that we must dramatically alter how we use language around it, then someone needs to help me understand what makes sexuality that different.

You might object that I’m not taking account of bias or subjective feelings, etc.  Of course I am.  I’m fully aware of my biases and I know that language has power and talking about “logic” has its own power dimension, as if appealing to “logic” somehow makes my thoughts more important and impact-ful.  Yes, language has power, but one of the reasons it has power is because it helps us talk about what we believe to be true and real.  Again, I wish people saw the irony, but apparently we don’t.

You’ll notice that, even though I am a Christian, I have not mentioned the Bible once.  Part of my agonizing over the raw public animosity is how much time we waste arguing back and forth about what the Bible does or does not say.  It is a legitimate concern to search the scriptures, but there are quite a few other questions besides just what the Bible says that we Christians need to engage if we really want to have a serious, respectful and substantive discussion.  Can we please stop using the Bible as a tool in the culture wars?

So, I come back to my major concern: the either-or logic that demands either full approval or hateful rejection and possible violence.  Let me say it again: I could be wrong in my thinking about sexuality.  Off and on since 1985, I’ve been reading, thinking, praying, listening and talking.  And I still am.  I have two books on my desk right now, written and edited by serious scholars, gay men in long-term relationships.  One is a historical study and the other deals with theoretical questions about sexual identity.  (By the way, so far I’ve read much more in these books about “desire” than I have about “identity.”  Even among those who fully support gay marriage and easily affirm same-sex activity, the term “identity” is apparently a challenge to understand.)  But even if I’m wrong – even if I just “don’t get it,” it is still a dangerous, destructive jump to conclude that I therefore must hate gay people.

Finally, not one thing I’ve written in this blog actually says anything about what I think about sexuality per se.  I know that you can scour through my comments and read between the lines and draw your own conclusions.  But be very careful when you do.  You might be wrong.  My sole purpose in this post has been to focus on one of the problems I think I see in how we talk about the issue.  That’s it.

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August 10, 2012 Posted by | Bible, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | 24 Comments

Needed: A Good Dose of Self-Awareness

In a recent post,  I took a swing at the problem of using the rhetoric of critical thinking without actually employing it ourselves in higher education.  So, let me try to explain a little more of what I mean by critical thinking.  It’s a complex concept, so I’ll try just one piece.

Critical thinking starts with self-awareness.  It entails the intellectual virtue of humility, a virtue not easily won.  To think well, one must practice noticing the contours of one’s perspective. It means thinking about the way we think.  It means asking ourselves (and being open to others asking us) what biases and assumptions are already at work as soon as we start the act of thinking.  Recognizing our biases and background beliefs and exposing them for evaluation is fundamental to critical thinking.  This is what I mean by self-awareness.

An exceedingly important example has to do with recognizing our own social location in the ways we read the Bible.  The reader admits to being situated in a particular place, time, culture and language.  Race, gender, educational level and socio-economic status influence how we read.  There is no neutral ground, no way of reading the Bible without bias.  The Bible, likewise, is situated in a similar way.

This kind of self-awareness is liberating, not limiting.  (It has nothing to do with one’s commitment to biblical authority.)  I will get far more out of reading the Bible if I pay attention to how my context affects the way I read.  If I am aware of my assumptions, I can practice avoiding the automatic, default conclusions, thereby learning to let the text speak more on its own terms.  This is the liberating effect that self-awareness can bring.

On this topic (of Bible reading) the easy target for people inside the academy is “literalism.”  We regularly lament how it distorts people’s understanding and, with no little indignation, verbally shake our fingers at literalists.  We accuse them of not being appropriately self-aware, of not paying attention to social location; in short, of not thinking critically.

But, as the old childhood admonition goes, pointing a finger at someone else turns three back at us.  We in the academy can be guilty of simplistic readings ourselves, using the very tools we believe so powerfully illuminate.  I have read too many scholarly articles to count, in which the author identifies herself or himself by virtue of this social location paradigm.  Let me illustrate: I am a white, male, middle class, well-educated, married heterosexual, academic, from the rural high plains are of the United States.

The problem, I hasten to say, is not the description of social location, which, to the good, gives you (and me) the opportunity to assess how it might influence my perspectives on any given topic.  The problem, rather, is that we’ve come to think that simply by describing our social location, we have proven that  we are self-aware, as if the mere naming of a handful of socio-economic categories proves our scholarly legitimacy.  it can easily serve as an academic shibboleth.

I have to admit, I have begun to worry more about this latter problem than I do about the literalists.  We academicians are supposed to be the self-aware critical thinkers.  It’s part of our job.  But, because we have grown so confident in how we use the tools of our trade, we often sound self-congratulatory and complacent.  We can make astute-sounding references to critical thinking while displaying a shocking lack of it ourselves.  We should not miss the irony.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Because We Ate Our Fill of the Loaves

Sometimes when I read (especially) the Gospel of John, I notice with discomfort that Jesus often does not answer the questions asked of him.  In John 6:26, he responds to the question, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (to the other side of the Sea of Galilee) with the answer, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  The answer that is no answer.  The answer that redirects.

At the beginning of John 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000.  His disciples then get in the boat for a night-time crossing of the sea, whereupon they see Jesus walking on the water.  Then we come to this interchange as people figure out that Jesus is gone and they want to find him.

So, why does Jesus bluntly redirect the questioners’ question?  One answer: they’re missing the point.  Feeding the 5,000 was a sign of God’s presence, not just a meal (John is a good one for talking about those signs).  The people seeking Jesus are latching on to him, evidently, because of the good stuff he did for them:  “Maybe he’s a prophet or something.  We’d better stick close to see what else he’ll do for us.”  It is a way of following Jesus, all right.

A case of mixed motives again?  These folks felt excited about Jesus.  That’s good.  But excited about what?  It’s not about the bread, but about the Bread of Heaven.

The tricky part about mixed motives: many of them – considered on their own – are quite legitimate.  But when laid next to the deeper realities to which Jesus points, they start to compete.  “You are looking for me not because of the signs…but because you ate your fill.”  Jesus, who knows all people’s hearts, discerns the mixed motives and points out the problem so that those who seek him can know their own hearts and make the appropriate response.

Why do I follow Jesus?  Is it because of the cool things he does for me, or I’ve seen him do for others?  Is it because I find my life seems to have more significance because of him?  “My day just seems to go better” when I spend time in prayer with him (“go better” according to what principles of judgment?)?”  Yes, yes and yes.  These things are all true.  But notice the focus: me.

I need constantly to check my motives, not in order to be picky and self-critical, not to deny legitimate desires, but to check to see if my heart aligns with The One.  Not just the bread, but the signs.

July 30, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Mystery of Iniquity

Today, on the penultimate day of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, we spent some time in the Archives at the University of Mississippi library.  We’re here in Oxford because of the James Meredith story.  He was the first African American to attend Ole Miss (1962) and it took a federal court order and military support to make it happen.  Since those days, Ole Miss has made significant strides in leading for racial reconciliation.

The director of the archives gave an informative presentation, using lots of primary source documents from the archives.  One piece particularly caught my attention.  A mimeographed biblical “exposition” from the Klan about why races should be segregated, i.e. “what the Bible says” about race.”  The paper listed several scriptures from the Old Testament.  As I scanned the verses, I thought about how it is possible for people so badly to misread scripture.  The history of the use of the Bible in antebellum arguments is a complex one in itself.  Mark Noll, well-known historian of Christianity, has written has written extensively on this point.

Reading these verses today reminds me of how our own current particular contexts strongly help to shape the way we read scripture.  It is no secret that even among Christians who take the most traditional view, there can be wide disagreement on particular passages, even when everyone believes fully that the Bible is God’s Word.  I am not engaging in a counsel of despair.  I’m simply acknowledging that biblical interpretation is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.

That point acknowledged, I’m still amazed at how segregationist Christians could read the Bible as they did.  Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3 about tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive to Christ.  In 2 Thessalonians 2 he refers to the “mystery of lawlessness,” or, as earlier English versions had it, the “mystery of iniquity.”  Off and on I ponder these phrases for what light they shed on the brute fact that sincere people can be sincerely wrong and sometimes in truly chilling ways.

The more distance we have between our own feelings and values and whatever topic of discussion we’re engaging, the more “rational” and objective we can appear to be ab.  The more our own feelings and values are caught up in the issue – the more at stake we have – the harder it is to be detached and “rational.”  And here the mystery of iniquity enters.

I come to the end of this day of the pilgrimage thinking about the mystery of iniquity that twists otherwise good people into upholding certain ideas and convictions that are truly reprehensible.  As I think about what the archivist showed us today, it’s easy for me to put extreme distance between myself and the segregationist Christians who thought the Bible really taught what they thought it taught.  And then I remember that that same mystery works in me as well, not on race, but on some other issue on which I perhaps feel vulnerable and threatened.  We must always remember this propensity in the human heart.  Lord, have mercy on us.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two-tiered Witness?

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians has been holding me for weeks.  I’ve blogged already about Paul’s vulnerable, transparent witness: “You are our letters of commendation,” he says to the Corinthians (chapter 3).  Paul has no structural, organizational props for his ministry, just the effective witness of a life lived before others that he can point to it and say, “See here?  This [my life] is visible proof of God’s transforming work.”  I like it.  Or do I?

Then I read chapter 6: “We have commended [there’s that word again] ourselves in every way…” and then a long list of sufferings: “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,beatings, imprisonments,” and on and on.  Now, I’m not liking it.

Which prompted this thought: is there a qualitative difference between the witness of “regular” Christians and people called to full-time ministry and then, by extension, even more so for people in apostolic-like ministries of the sort that Paul had?  My question is too long, so let me try again.  Is there one set of witness/lifestyle expectations for regular Christians and another set for people in full-time ministry?

The standard Protestant answer is no.  We like to tout the priesthood of all believers, which I believe myself.  But then I start thinking about how a middle-class American guy with a wife and kids and job and other such commitments reads and hears Paul’s testimony.  What is God’s Word for that guy when he reads 2 Corinthians 6?  By the way, we evangelicals love 2 Cor. 6:2, “…now is the acceptable time [for salvation].”  It really preaches well in evangelistic settings.  But immediately following is this “commendation.”  Paul is challenging the Corinthians: “Look at my life.”  So, “now is the day of salvation” is connected to “look at my life.”

Maybe that is it.  Maybe the key is, “Look at my life.”  I live within a particular set of circumstances.  Am I a transparent Christian there, in that context?  Paul’s calling was his and mine is mine.  Different time, different circumstances, different callings.  Of course, it is true.  But then I start to worry a little that I am too-easily letting myself off the hook.  I’m not an apostle, after all.  I’m just a regular Christian.  God doesn’t expect that sort of witness from me.  Or you.

What did we just do to our reading of the Bible?  On the one hand, we should read carefully and not just woodenly lift “life principles” out of the text in some mechanistic way.  On the other hand, I’m concerned about how the trajectory of this sort of “interpretation” always seems to soften the call.

I think, in practical ways, we do have a two-tiered witness among even Protestant Christians.  We love reading about the Jim Elliotts and the Amy Carmichaels.  We are inspired by their passion for the Kingdom of God and their sacrificial commitments.  But…we wouldn’t do it ourselves.  So, when we read Paul talking about his sufferings, do we blunt God’s Word  to us by putting Paul in a different category?  He’s an apostle and we’re just regular Christians, after all.

Is there a de facto two-tiered witness among all Christians?  Is it OK that there is such, if there is?

August 5, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Living the New Creation Reality

The Thursday before Easter I presided at a funeral of a man I did not really know.  I had presided over his grandson’s funeral several years ago.  I then had his daughter’s funeral (the mother of the boy who had died).  Three years ago, he put me down as the pastor to do his funeral.

At the graveside, among the scripture readings that I used, I read these words from 1 Corinthians: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam] so we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

Christians believe a really weird claim.  Not only did Jesus rise from the dead to live in a completely new order, a new creation, but so will his followers.  “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound…and we will be changed.”  

In John 20:19ff., the text says that the disciples were gathered together in the room and the door was locked for fear of what the religious authorities might do to them and (poof?) Jesus appears among them and says “Peace be with you.”  How did Jesus get in if the door was locked?  He just appeared.  

But not as a ghost or something; not a mere apparition.  The text then says that he showed them his hands and side, as if to say, “Yep, it’s really me.”  

Christians believe some weird stuff and the resurrection is probably the weirdest.  Maybe this is why, after we have had our nice little Easter celebrations, we go back to living and acting like nothing is different.  

I do it.  I sometimes refer to myself, somewhat disparagingly, as a “professional  Christian.”  In other words, it’s my job to pray (especially publicly at ceremonial gatherings) and to help lead a religious community in various ways.  It’s my job to have some kind of answer when spiritual or religious questions arise.  It’s my job to oversee certain ceremonies at certain times in people’s lives and deaths.  And I get paid to do these things.  I’m a professional Christian.  It’s easy, after Easter, to settle back into “normal.”  

But if am I a true believer, I can’t settle back into “normal.”  Am I a true believer?  When I say those words over the grave, words about rersurrection to new life, do I believe them?  

I do.  Still, sometimes I wonder, because belief in the resurrection is weird.  Sometimes I ask myself, “Do I really believe it?”  I do.  And I know that it’s weird.  

Therefore, I (we) do not have the luxury to live as if there is no new creation.  If I (we) believe in the resurrection of Jesus and that his resurrection is the first fruits of the New Creation, then today, tomorrow, and every day – then right now – we live in the New Creation.

As my Dad used to say, “I don’t understand all I know about this matter.”  The resurrection hope is just weird.  But I believe it.  And I want to see it and live it, daily.  

May Paul’s words set the course for us: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord [in the New Creation reality] your labor is not in vain.”  May we followers of Jesus demonstrate by our lives the New Creation reality.

April 17, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Point of the Story?

A couple of times recently, I’ve listened to “what the Bible says” conversations that have left me scratching my head. Today’s Sunday School lesson (written by a well-known author/pastor) dealt with personal affliction and God’s glory and used an excerpt from John 9, the story of Jesus healing the man blind from birth.  The aim of the lesson: to teach about how God is glorified and how we can grow, even (and especially) through affliction.   

The author made particular reference to John 9:3, which gives Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question about whether this man was a sinner or his parents (since he had been blind from birth).  Jesus’ response: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Our author followed with his interpretation: “The point of the story, then, is how the blind man’s affliction revealed God’s glory.”

No.  That’s not the point of this story!  It’s really about spiritual blindness and faith.  As the story continues, after the man’s healing, he is interrogated by the Pharisees about whether Jesus was a sinner. Ultimately, they boot him from synagogue fellowship and the story ends with Jesus’ word: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  He aims directly at the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”  

You see why I’m bugged by using that verse to talk about affliction?  If I don’t read the rest of the story, I miss the whole point!  I’m worried, then, about how people read or hear the Bible, once they’ve “learned” some principle in this way.  It makes me think of how often we miss the point because we already “know” the point.

Preachers and teachers, we are most to blame.  Too much  “biblical preaching/teaching clouds biblical truth with “applications” that draw people away from the Bible’s own claims.

There is much in the scriptures that teaches about affliction without resorting to ripping off other parts.  Job is about affliction, especially undeserved.  A number of the Psalms speak about affliction.  James teaches about affliction.  Not John.  

Preachers and teachers work against spiritual growth when we treat the Bible this way.  I fully concede that I’m saying nothing new, but I don’t think we’re paying sufficient attention to the problem.  We who are responsible for guiding people spiritually mislead them by distraction, when we already have our topic and carelessly grab for proof texts for support.  It makes me think of another verse: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters…”  Have I gotten the point of this story right?

February 1, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality | 1 Comment

Are You a Literalist or a…?

When researchers are trying to explain the factions among Christians, they often use views on the Bible as a way of finding the faultlines. Some people take the Bible “literally,” others symbolically.

“Literalists” and (I don’t know of one word, so I’ll make one) “metaphorists” usually don’t travel in the same circles. In my experience, the literalists proudly tout their literalism (although, having heard sermons from preachers in this camp, I know that they often interpret the Bible quite symbolically) while the metaphorists vociferously insist that they are NOT like the literalists.

I refuse to issue a “pox on both your houses” because I think it is too easy – even cowardly – to run to the middle and say “I’m a moderate” just for the sake of position. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll position myself. I found help in Scot McKnight’s fascinating “Hermeneutical Personality Test” in the Winter 2008″Leadership” Magazine. I discovered that I’m on the conservative side of moderate. So now you know. I’m a moderate – sort of.

What are you? Does it matter? I think it does and I think we could stand for a little more literal interpretation, especially these days. I think so because the mood of our culture has swung far to the metaphorical side, with serious consequences. The trend in attitudes toward the Bible (especially among younger people) is not toward violent literalism, but toward empty symbolism. “The Bible can say pretty much whatever you want it to say,” is an increasingly prevalent attitude.

We need to quit talking so much about the dangers of a literalist interpretation of the Bible (forget the fracus over Genesis and evolution) and we ought to start considering the dangers of an overly symbolic, metaphorical reading. The pendulum is swinging the other way and we ought to pay attention.

March 3, 2008 Posted by | Bible | Leave a comment