According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Reviews - Theologies of Creation, edited by Thomas Jay Oord


Nightmare, Jessica Ball, Artprize 2014 entry

Introduction

A friend of mine, Nazarene and Wesleyan theologian Thomas Oord, has recently edited a book delving into the dark territories of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and its newest theological rivals. If one concedes that the creation story of Genesis is served neither by a literalistic interpretation nor a scientific one (Christian Intelligent Design or Young Earth creation theories) but must be read from within its ancient culture and mindset, then at the lowest level of argumentation is that of one's hermeneutic. Meaning, how does the biblical reader approach the bible to most appropriately interpret it pages within its contextual, grammatical, and linguistic vernaculars. And subsequently, having done the best one can do in these areas, how may the bible's ancient pages then be read for today's contemporary, post-modern societies.

How Do We Read the Bible?

When it comes to the creation story of the universe, earth, its life forms, and particular of Adam and Eve, the older "biblical" non-scientific theologies can no longer bear up under the burden of scientific discoveries as related to the formation of our cosmos, earth-and-biological sciences, and the time structures earlier ancients had once assumed. Evolutionary science has changed the theological landscape demanding that the classically trained theologian must elevate and better inform his or her's theology if the Bible is to remain relevant to today's more sceptical audiences. If not, the pages of Scripture will quickly slip into the realm of disbelief, myth, and magic.

As a result, what has more recently arisen within theological disciplines have been studies into (i) narrative theology drawing upon biblical theme and story development; (ii) a reappraisal of how biblical myths and parables are positioned within the general arguments for faith and belief of the Bible; (iii) a deep and pervasive questioning of the church's most basic doctrines and dogmas compared to contemporary history, event, and the social sciences; (iv) a reappraisal of human culture itself from the aspect of its religious drivers and existentially held beliefs and religious traditions; (v) a likewise reappraisal of even the cultural drivers of philosophy from its earlier Enlightenment traditions of proof v. counterproof, logical statements, and deduction, towards a greater realization that human interaction, language, and even thought forms are imperfect, metaphorical, symbolic, relational to time and things, and linguistically ambiquous; and lastly, that (vi) global events and technology itself has forced societies to relearn how to communicate with one another in a rapidity of exchange of ideas that are fluid, errantly premised, semi-permeable, a/temporal, and without commonality of background and experience.

Consequently, the biblical reader must contend with his or her own social and personal backgrounds, life experiences, knowledge, and training that certainly have questioned the most basic approaches to the Christian faith and its ground of belief in the God's Word. So then, does one defend the Bible? Does one contend for the Bible? Do we give up and consider it simply a fallible human document with lots of warts and wear to its hidebound spine over the past many centuries of the ernest church? Or do we perhaps question our own needs for the kind of Bible that we must insist upon reading when approaching God and His holy revelation to mankind? Perhaps the best answer is "all of the above."

As the reader can plainly see then, the questions, problems, and logicisms of religion can create a confused mass of words and ideas, thoughts and beliefs, that can break up the unity of the church and its assemblies of faith around the world and within nations themselves. Pitting denomination against denomination. Bible groups against traditional Protestant and Catholic grounps. Literalists against revisionists. Classicists against newer theologies and traditions. And all of a sudden what should have been a unified fellowship centered in Christ has become disenchanted, divested, and destroyed. What once was considered plain has become darkened causing many Christians to give up and created their own boundary-line rules for faith and life.

Which of course, is no answer at all, and is actually worse in many cases when falling back upon one's own desired outcomes that themselves require a deep re-righting of own "Christian faith." A faith that pretends to be real when in reality it has become unreal, unbiblical, mythical, and magical itself. And for those wishing to depart from a society for whatever reason into a form of Quakerism is to refuse God's presence and power in contemporary life. To refuse God's gift of life and persistence by moving backwards towards unloving judgments and actions, unjust behaviors, and unrighteous beliefs distrusting God's power to change our hearts and lives, heads and beliefs.

But this is hard work. And it is rightly the hard work of the Spirit upon our hard hearts. But the Scripture says again and again to not give up the faith in despair but to live unto our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in the redemption that He has brought into this life we now live. Not later but now. For God's Kingdom reigns now as later and we are encouraged to live within its reality all the days of our earth-bound, present-day lives.

So How Do We Read Genesis 1-2?

To approach Genesis 1 and 2 is to ask the most fundamental questions we may have... Is there a God and how can we hear/know Him? The Bible itself assures us that there is a God and that He has spoken. And that we must be a little more sophisticated as postmodern-day readers 2000 to 4000 years removed from the actuality of the events themselves.... (Say, from Genesis 12 forward beginning with Abraham if we discount the ancient (or mythic) re-telling of earth's primordial histories of earth and mankind.)

Which brings us back to today's subject... just how do we read Genesis 1 and 2?

For this author here, if I were to lead out with a desire to remain theologically orthodox then I might read Genesis 1-2 from the perspective of creatio Dei, meaning God my Creator. If I wish to lead out with a theology of fellowship and love towards my fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord then perhaps I read of God's creation in terms of creatio amore, or created in love, empahsizing the love of God for man, and man's responsibility to love each another (which may then help us with difficult subjects like enslaving, impoverishing, oppressing, or despising others).

And if one wishes to be more scientifically attuned to the quantum sciences of today that deal with chaos and disorder then creatio ex continua, or creation that continues, that is, one that re-orders chaos towards redemption and shalom, may be the way to go. This was the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg's position. (For the science behind this please refer to the article The Science Behind "Creatio Continua" versus "Creatio Ex Nihilo" (Process v. Classical Thought) as perhaps a beginning place).




So then, why are many Christians rethinking the old medieval arguments of creatio ex nihilo? A quick search of Wikipedia under the title of the same reveals the following:

Wikipedia

Opposition within modern Christian theology

Bruce K. Waltke wrote an extensive biblical study of creation theology that argues creation from chaos rather than nothing based on the Hebrew Torah and the New Testament texts. This work was published by the Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in 1974 and again in 1981. On a historical basis, many scholars agree that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was not the original intent of the Biblical authors, but instead a change in the interpretation of the texts which began to evolve in the mid-second century A.D. in the atmosphere of Hellenistic philosophy. The idea solidified around 200 A.D. in arguments and in response to the Gnostics, Stoics, and Middle Platonists.

Thomas Jay Oord (born 1965), a Christian philosopher and theologian, argues that Christians should abandon the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Oord points to the work of biblical scholars, such as Jon D. Levenson, who points out that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does not appear in Genesis. Oord speculates that God created our particular universe billions of years ago from primordial chaos. [Philosophically,] this chaos did not predate God, however, for God would have created the chaotic elements as well. Oord suggests that God can create all things without creating from absolute nothingness.

Oord offers nine objections to creatio ex nihilo:

Theoretical problem: One cannot conceive of absolute nothingness.

Biblical problem: Scripture – in Genesis, 2 Peter, and elsewhere – suggests creation from something (water, deep, chaos, etc.), not creation from absolutely nothing.

Historical problem: The Gnostics Basilides and Valentinus first proposed creatio ex nihilo on the basis of assuming the inherently evil nature of creation, and in the belief that God does not act in history. Early Christian theologians adopted the idea to affirm the kind of absolute divine power that many Christians now reject.

Empirical problem: We have no evidence that our universe originally came into being from absolutely nothing.

Creation-at-an-instant problem: We have no evidence in the history of the universe after the big bang that entities can emerge instantaneously from absolute nothingness. As the earliest philosophers noted, out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo, nihil fit) [not something].

Solitary power problem: Creatio ex nihilo assumes that a powerful God once acted alone. But power, as a social concept, only becomes meaningful in relation to others.

Errant revelation problem: The God with the capacity to create something from absolutely nothing would apparently have the power to guarantee an unambiguous and inerrant message of salvation (for example: inerrant Bible). An unambiguously clear and inerrant divine revelation does not exist.

Problem of Evil: If God once had the power to create from absolutely nothing, God essentially retains that power. But a God of love with this capacity appears culpable for failing to prevent evil.

Empire Problem: The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, based upon unilateral force and control of others. [as vs. free will theology]

Process theologians argue that humans have always related a God to some “world” or another. They also claim that rejecting creatio ex nihilo provides the opportunity to affirm that God has everlastingly created and related with some realm of non-divine actualities or another (compare continuous creation or steady state theory). According to this alternative God-world theory, no non-divine thing exists without the creative activity of God, and nothing can terminate God's necessary existence.

- Wikipedia

And with that let me introduce Tom's newest 2014 editorial work based upon the thoughts and pens of many different authors. I have also included his earlier 2009 work dealing with the same subject which lately has gone out of print.

Shalom.

R.E. Slater
September 29, 2014


How Time Began (Time Arrows)

Inflation Theory




* * * * * * * * *

Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals
http://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/archives/creatio_ex_nihilo_and_new_rivals/#.VCl5GvldUy4

by Thomas Jay Oord
September 26, 2014

Routledge sent copies yesterday of a new book I edited, Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals. It explores current thinking about creation out of nothing, and several essays propose alternative theories of creation.

Of course, humans have long wondered about the origin of the universe. And such questions are especially alive today as physicists offer metaphysical theories to account for the emergence of creation.

Those who believe in God have attributed the universe’s origin to divine activity. Many claim God created something from absolute nothingness: creatio ex nihilo. The venerable doctrine of creatio ex nihilo especially emphasizes God’s initial creating activity.

Some contributors to this book explore new reasons creatio ex nihilo should continue to be embraced today. But other contributors question the viability of creation from nothing and offer alternative initial creation options in its place. These new alternatives explore a variety of options in light of recent scientific work, new biblical scholarship, and both new and old theological traditions.

I especially want to thank those who contributed essays to the book, which include Philip Clayton, Catherine Keller, Michael Lodahl, Richard Rice, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Marit Trelstad, Eric Vail, Stephen Webb, Michael Zbaraschuk. I also contributed an essay to the book. Please consider getting a copy and wrestling with the issues of creation from nothing (or something)!


Amazon link

Amazon Book Description

Humans have long wondered about the origin of the universe. And such questions are especially alive today as physicists offer metaphysical theories to account for the emergence of creation. Theists have attributed the universe’s origin to divine activity, and many have said God created something from absolute nothingness. The venerable doctrine of creatio ex nihilo especially emphasizes God’s initial creating activity. Some contributors to this book explore new reasons creatio ex nihilo should continue to be embraced today. But other contributors question the viability of creation from nothing and offer alternative initial creation options in its place. These new alternatives explore a variety of options in light of recent scientific work, new biblical scholarship, and both new and old theological traditions.

Biography

Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is the author or editor of about twenty books, and he is professor at Northwest Nazarene University, in Nampa, Idaho. Oord is known for his contributions to research on love, altruism, open and relational theology, issues in science and religion, Wesleyan/Holiness/Church of the Nazarene thought, New Evangelical theology, and postmodernism. He is or has been president of several scholarly societies. Oord blogs frequently at his website: http://thomasjayoord.com


Amazon link

Amazon Book Description

For Christians, a strange dislocation often seems to exist between the ecological crisis and a heritage that includes a Creator God. This book turns to the prophetic tradition - a tradition generated in the dislocation of crises in the past. Drawing this tradition into engagement with the ecological humanities, and with ministry studies, the author discovers root memories that hold. Here is wisdom and that could unleash our passion and energy by challenging us to attend to Earth's cry.


Wipf and Stock Publishers Description
https://wipfandstock.com/store/Divine_Grace_and_Emerging_Creation_Wesleyan_Forays_in_Science_and_Theology_of_Creation

Wesleyans and Wesleyan theology have long been interested in the sciences. John Wesley kept abreast of scientific developments in his own day, and he engaged science in his theological construction. Divine Grace and Emerging Creation offers explorations by contemporary scholars into the themes and issues pertinent to contemporary science and Wesleyan Theology.

In addition to groundbreaking research by leading Wesleyan theologians, Jürgen Moltmann contributes an essay. Moltmann's work derives from his keynote address at the joint Wesleyan Theological Society and Society for Pentecostal Studies meeting on science and theology at Duke University.

Other contributions address key contemporary themes in theology and science, including evolution, ecology, neurology, emergence theory, intelligent design, scientific and theological method, and biblical cosmology. John Wesley's own approach to science, explored by many contributors, offers insights for how two of humanity's central concerns—science and theology—can now be understood in fruitful and complementary ways.


Rachel Held Evans - God and the Gay Christian, Part 2


'God and the Gay Christian' Discussion, Week 2
http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/god-gay-christian-celibacy

by Rachel Held Evans
September 24, 2014

Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book,

God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.
(Read Part 1.)
I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. And he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 
Today we look at what is perhaps the most controversial and intriguing chapter in the book—Chapter 3, in which Matthew argues that Scripture does not support mandatory celibacy for gay and lesbian Christians. (Note: As a complement to today’s discussion, look for “Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…” next week. I want to make sure our brothers and sisters coming from that perspective get a fair hearing as well.)
***

Definition of Terms 

Before we get into today’s discussion, I want to backtrack just a bit to the section in Chapter 2 where Matthew defines his terms, as this is particularly important to today’s discussion. Acknowledging that labels like conservative and liberal,evangelical and progressive, pro-gay and anti-gay all fall short in these conversations, he suggests that identifying Christians as either affirming(supportive of same-sex relationships) or non-affirming (not supportive of same-sex relationships) can be helpful.  So, both Matthew and I are affirming,in the sense that we do no consider monogamous same-sex relationships to be inherently sinful (though, as you will see, we have slightly different reasons for arriving at that belief!). However, someone like Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian, or Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics &Religious Liberty Commission believe any same-sex relationship is inherently sinful and are therefore considered non-affirming.  Obviously, no labeling system is perfect, but for the purposes of this particular discussion, these may be (at least momentarily) helpful. Make sense? 

Celibacy 

There seems to be an increasing consensus, even among non-affirming Christians, that some people simply experience fixed attraction to members of the same sex. And thankfully, efforts to “correct” this orientation through “reparative therapy” are falling out of vogue, as they have been shown to ineffective and damaging. 
The predominant view among non-affirming Christians regarding gay and lesbian Christians is that if they wish to remain faithful to Scripture, they must pursue celibacy.  “According to non-affirming Christians,” writes Matthew, “gay people’s sexuality is completely broken, so mandatory, lifelong celibacy is their only real option.”  (You see this position reflected in a recent Gospel Coalition post, where those with fixed, same-gender attraction are described as “having SSA”—same-sex attraction—and encouraged to pursue celibacy.) 
 “Celibacy has a long, honored history in the church,” writes Matthew. “We associated it with Jesus and Paul, with Mother Teresa, and with thousands of dedicated brothers and sisters serving Christ in far-flung corners of the world.But there’s a problem. Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon anyone. Yes, permanently forgoing marriage is a worthy choice for Christians who are gifted with celibacy. But it must be a choice. Jesus and Paul both taught this view, and the church has maintained it for nearly two thousand years.” 
Then Matthew unpacks this argument…

Creation

Non-affirming Christians generally argue that the creation of Adam and Eve reveals the limits of God’s blessing for sexual relationships: one man and one woman. As an opposite sex couple, Adam and Eve were best suited to fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” 
But Matthew argues that 1) the account of Eve’s creation does not emphasize Adam’s need to procreate; it emphasizes his need for relationship (“it is not good for the man to be alone”), 2) the concern for procreation with this particular couple is obvious, as they are the first couple and need to populate the planet! and 3)  the Genesis 2 text does not emphasize the gender differences between Adam and Eve but rather their similarity as human beings.
 (There will be more on the creation narrative in subsequent chapters.)

Jesus on Celibacy

In Matthew 19:11-12, when Jesus spoke about celibacy he said, “Not everyone can accept [the decision not to marry], but only those to whom it has been given. For there are  eunuchs who were born that way, and there were eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept this.” 
Writes Matthew: “Notice that none of the three categories Jesus mentions describes what we would call gay men. Instead he describes three types of men who do not marry: men who are sexually impotent, those who are castrated, and those who pursue a call to celibacy. In light of the stringent restrictions Jesus places on divorce, his disciples suggest they would prefer to be celibate. But Jesus says celibacy can only be accepted by ‘those to whom it has been given.’” 
Celibacy is a gift, Matthew argues, and those who do not have the gift should feel free to marry. 
Now, some will certainly notice that this teaching by Jesus is immediately followed by a reference to creation: “Haven’t you read,” Jesus said, “That at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?” 
But according to Matthew, this reference does not address, specifically, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians. “When we study biblical writings about marriage and celibacy the question is not whether Jesus, Paul, or anyone else endorses same-sex marriage,” he writes, “or whether they instead enjoin gay people to lifelong celibacy. They don’t directly do either one…Our understanding of same-sex orientation is uniquely modern, so the question we face is how to apply the basic principles of the Bible’s teaching to this new situation. And what we do see in Jesus’ teaching is a basic principle: celibacy is a gift that not all have.” 

Paul on Celibacy 

The apostle Paul was a big, big fan of celibacy. He even said he wished all men could be like him—celibate and happy about it (I Corinthians 7:6-7). BUT, he says, “each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” 
“It is better,” Paul writes, “to marry than to burn with passion.” 
(Boy was that verse a favorite one on my Christian college campus!) 
In his letter to Timothy, Paul (or whoever is writing as Paul…I know, I know) warns against false teachers who, among other things, mandate celibacy. “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods,” said Paul, “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth” (I Timothy 4:1-5). 
Once again, a New Testament writer speaks of celibacy in terms of a gift for those called to it, not a mandate. Even for a big fan of celibacy like Paul, celibacy does not appear to be mandated for any group. 

Church History

Matthew works in some solid research here, which suggests the tradition teaching on celibacy, for most of Christian history, is that it was a calling, not a mandate. 
Augustine wrote that “no one can be continent unless God give it,” Ambrose that “virginity cannot be commanded” but “is the gift of few only.” Calvin went so far as to say that Matthew 19 “plainly shows that [celibacy] was not given to all, so if anyone “has not the power of subduing his passion, let him understand that the Lord made it obligatory on him to marry.” Even Pope John Paul II in his landmark Theology of the Body argues that celibacy cannot legitimately be forced on anyone. In his view, even clerical celibacy is not forced, because Catholics who feel called to marriage are not obliged to pursue the priesthood. And Karl Barth, in the 20th century, wrote that “a suspicion of or discrimination against sexual life” is not a valid reason to avoid marriage. 

Sexuality is Good 

Here, drawing from the creation account, the incarnation and resurrection, and even church history and the rejection of Gnosticism, Matthew makes the case that— though broken and imperfect—“creation is good. The body is good. Sexuality, as a core part of the body, is also good.” Therefore, any doctrine that teaches Christians to detest their sexual desires is unorthodox, contrary to the most central teachings of the Church.*
(*Matthew has offered further clarification on this in the comment section.) 

The Meaning of Celibacy

Matthew concludes that “the purpose of celibacy is to affirm the basic goodness of sex and marriage by pointing to the relationship they prefigure: the union of Christ and the church. Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians does not fulfill that purpose. It undermines it, because it sends the message to gay Christians that their sexual selves are inherently shameful. It is not a fulfillment of sexuality for gay Christians, but a rejection of it.” 
Matthew will go on to address, in subsequent chapters,  the question of whether same-sex marriage can fulfill the meaning and purpose of Christian marriage, but his point in this chapter is rather straightforward: Throughout the New Testament and church history, celibacy is set apart as a special calling and never mandated for a specific group of people. 
Of course, let’s face it. There are also no examples in Scripture (or, to my knowledge church history) explicitly supporting same-sex relationships.  So it seems these are the two uncomfortable realities we hold simultaneously…at least for now. 
***
Note: Matthew sent me a message this morning pointing me to an article he recently wrote responding to a review that was critical of this particular chapter.   Writes Matthew:  “In short, the main misreading of my argument is that I'm saying that celibacy, for LGBT or straight people, necessarily involves a rejection and hatred of one's sexuality. As I explain in my blog post, I only think that celibacy requires a devaluing of one's sexuality when at least one of the reasons someone is celibate is because they believe all of their sexual attractions are temptations to sin. That's what non-affirming readings of Scripture require gay Christians to believe about their sexual orientation, but that's quite different from orthodox understandings of celibacy, and quite different from how celibate gay Christians can view their sexual orientation if they affirm at least some same-sex relationships.”  Read the whole posthere. 
***
Also, if you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.
***

Questions for Discussion: 

- I'd be interested to hear from those readers who, for whatever reason, have chosen a vocation that involves lifelong celibacy. How did you know that this was your calling? Why did you choose it? 
- I'd also welcome the stories of those gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians who have chosen to pursue relationships. Did you struggle at all to feel free to follow that path? 
- Finally, what do you think of Matthew's argument here. Do biblical and historical prohibitions against mandated celibacy apply to those gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians trying to decide what their sexuality means for their faith? 

Rachel Held Evans - God and the Gay Christian, Part 1


“God and the Gay Christian” Discussion, Week 1
http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/god-gay-christian-week-1


by Rachel Held Evans
September 17, 2014

Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships
I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. And he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 
Today we look at the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2.

“Reclaiming Our Light” 

Right from the start, Matthew shares with the reader two important elements of his identity: 1) that he is gay, and 2) that he is a theologically conservative Christian who holds a “high view” of the Bible. 

“That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life,” Matthew writes of the second. “While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is ‘useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’ (2 Timothy 3:16-16).” 
Now for some, this may seem like a conflict. I remember being told by pastors and church leaders that “gay Christian” (or "bisexual Christian" or "transgender Christian") is an oxymoron and that no one who holds a high view of Scripture can support same-sex relationships.  But Matthew’s aim with God and the Gay Christian is to show that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” 
It’s an ambitious goal, and it’s one that Matthew tackles by bringing his story and insights alongside the research of dozens of scholars whose work on the topic he studied meticulously for four years, dropping out of Harvard so that he could devote himself to learning what it meant for him to be gay and Christian. 
“My prayer,” he writes, “is that [the book] opens up a conversation in the Christian community that is truly in the spirit of Jesus. The fiercest objections to LGBT equality—those based on religious belief—can begin to fall away. The tremendous pain endured by LGBT youth in many Christian homes can become a relic of the past. Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound. Together, we can reclaim our light.” 

A Tree and Its Fruit 

Matthew speaks highly of his Christian upbringing, his loving parents, and the conservative Presbyterian church “filled with kindhearted, caring Christians” in which he was raised. Like a lot of us, he asked Jesus into his heart when he was very little—just three years old. And like a lot of us he, “recommitted” a few times before middle school….just to be safe. 
Matthew loved God, loved his family, loved Scripture, and loved the Church. And yet, for years, he held on to a secret that he knew might very well jeopardize his relationship with them all: he knew he was gay. 
This reality generated a lot of anxiety in Matthew’s life. He had observed what happened to a friend of his who also attended his church, a young man who often shared his musical talents with the congregation on Sunday morning and was celebrated as bright, committed, and kind—a beloved member of the community…until he came out as gay. Matthew’s friend encountered stigma and shame regarding his “decision” and eventually gave up on church, Scripture, and his faith.  
matthew.jpg
But Matthew didn’t want to give up on his faith. 
Even Matthew’s father once told his son that he assumed that if God was against homosexuality, then God wouldn’t make anyone gay, so those who “struggle with same sex attraction” could develop heterosexual attractions over time with enough effort and prayer. 
But Matthew couldn’t change his sexual orientation. 
Finally, Matthew worked up the courage to come out to his family.  When I saw that Matthew had titled this section of his book “My Dad’s Worst Day,” tears gathered in my eyes. It breaks my heart that we have created a culture in which a son or daughter bravely telling the truth about his or her sexuality can bring such devastation to a family.
You have to read the story for yourself to catch the full impact, but I’m happy to report that, after many months of struggling, questions, and tears, Matthew’s parents came around to supporting their son, fully. The testimony of their love for him shines through the pages of this book in a way that makes me both hopeful and sad because not every gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender child is this fortunate. For many, simply telling the truth is the beginning of a nightmare. 
Along with his parents, Matthew began carefully studying the Bible’s few references to same-sex behavior (which will be examined, at length, throughout the rest of the book), and rethinking his position on the matter. 
Though he had always been taught by his church that homosexuality was a chosen and sinful “lifestyle,” this teaching did not match up with Matthew’s lived experience. 
“As I became more aware of same-sex relationships,” he wrote, “I could not understand why they were supposed to be sinful, or why the Bible apparently condemned them. With most sins, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the damage they caused. Adultery violates a commitment to your spouse. Lust objectifies others. Gossip degrades people. But committed same-sex relationships did not easily fit this pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they seemed to be characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self sacrifice. What other sin looked like that?” 
This led some in Matthew’s church (he had come out to a small group) to accuse him of “elevating his experience over Scripture.” But as Matthew points out, he wasn’t asking his friends to revise the Bible based on his experience, he was asking them to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible. 
Christians have often had to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible in light of new information, he argued, just as many did when they concluded slavery was immoral in spite of biblical instructions that seem to support it.  Furthermore, while Scripture tells us not to rely solely on our experiences, it cautions Christians against ignoring experience altogether. The early Church decided to include Gentiles without requiring them to undergo circumcised or obey kosher, a controversial conclusion based largely on Peter’s testimony and experience. In Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus says that believers will recognize false teachers by the fruit in their lives. If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree. This assessment is typically made based on experience. 
“Neither Peter in his work to include Gentiles in the church nor the abolitionists in their campaign against slavery argued that their experience should take precedence over Scripture,” writes Matthew. “But they both made the case that their experience should cause Christians to reconsider long-held interpretations of Scripture. Today, we are just as responsible for testing our beliefs in light of their outcomes—a duty in line with Jesus’s teachings about trees and their fruit.” 
…Which raises a few questions. 
If same-sex relationships are really sinful, then why do they so often produce good fruit—loving families, open homes, self-sacrifice, commitment, faithfulness, joy? And if conservative Christians are really right in their response to same-sex relationships, then why does that response often produce bad fruit—secrets, shame, depression, loneliness, broken families, and fear? 
Eventually, after careful study and in light of new information, even Matthew’s father changed his mind.  Matthew writes: “Instead of taking the references to same-sex behavior as a sweeping statement about all same-sex relationships, my dad started to ask: is this verse about the kind of relationship Matthew wants, or is it about abusive or lustful behavior? Is this passage about the love and intimacy Matthew longs for, or does it refer to self-centered, fleeting desires instead? After much prayer, study, and contemplation, Dad changed his mind. Only six months before, he had never seriously questioned his views. But once he saw the fruit of his beliefs more clearly, he decided to dive deeper into the Bible. In that process, he came to what he now regards as a more accurate understanding…” 

Telescopes, Tradition, and Sexual Orientation 

Before getting into a more detailed analysis of the various biblical passages involved, Matthew takes Chapter 2 to argue that new information about sexuality ought to compel Christians to rethink their interpretation of Scripture. He reminds readers that Galileo was accused of heresy by the Church when he presented evidence that contradicted centuries of tradition and accepted biblical interpretation regarding the earth’s place in the universe. It would take Christians many years to change their minds, but eventually they did. 
“Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forbearers or for the authority of Scripture,”he writes. “They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered. The traditional interpretation of Psalm 93:1, Joshua 10:12-14, and other passages made sense when it was first formulated. But the invention of the telescope offered a new lens to use in interpreting those verses, opening the door to a more accurate interpretation.” 
Similarly, in recent generations, our understanding of sexuality has radically changed. 
For example, for most of human history, homosexuality was not seen as a different sexual orientation but rather as a manifestation of normal sexual desire pursued to excess—a behavior anyone might engage in if they let their passions get out of hand. Matthew highlights multiple examples from history and literature to show that this was simply the assumption for many centuries. 
“I’m not saying gay people did not exist in ancient societies,” Matthew writes “I’m simply pointing out that ancient societies did not think in terms of exclusive sexual orientations. Their experience of same-sex behavior led them to think of it as something anyone might do….No ancient languages even had words that mean ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’” 
Of course now we are beginning to understand that, while human sexuality is complex and is perhaps best understood as existing along a continuum, many people report having fixed same-sex orientations that do not change. (Others experience sexual attraction to both men and women. Still others lack sexual attraction altogether.)  “Reparative therapy,” which seeks to change sexual orientation, has been shown to be ineffective and potentially dangerous, discouraged most notably by many of the very Christian leaders who once promoted it within the Church. 
In addition, in the ancient cultures from which the Bible emerged strict, patriarchal gender roles were the norm and where procreation was a matter of survival.  Because women were presumed to be inferior to men, nothing was more degrading for a man than to be seen as womanly. (Guess some things never change, huh?) So in Rome, it was considered acceptable for an adult male citizen to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines regardless of gender, but only if he took the active role in the encounter. A same-sex encounter that placed a man in a passive (considered “womanly”) role would be considered humiliating. (This explains why same-sex rape was—and is— sometimes used to humiliate an enemy after defeat.) 
All of these ancient understandings of sexuality affect how same-sex behavior discussed in Scripture, and all of them should call into question the notion that people—and the Church—have a held just one single “traditional” view of same-sex behavior. 
In light of new information and experience, maybe it’s time to reexamine some of our assumptions and interpretations. 
...Next week, we'll look at just a single chapter from God and the Gay Christian, which addresses celibacy. 

Questions for Discussion: 

1.    How have your experiences—or those of friends and family—shaped how you are approaching this conversation?  
2.    What do you think of Matthew’s response to the challenge that he is “elevating his experience over Scripture.” 
3.    Is it helpful or fair to compare evolving understandings of human sexuality to evolving understandings of, say, the solar system or slavery? 
I will be monitoring the comment section closely over the next 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. Thanks for your participation! 

Exploring Evolution Series: Mammals Made by Viruses




Mammals Made By Viruses
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2012/02/14/mammals-made-by-viruses/#.VClpSvldUy6

February 14, 2012

If not for a virus, none of us would ever be born.

In 2000, a team of Boston scientists discovered a peculiar gene in the human genome. It encoded a protein made only by cells in the placenta. They called it syncytin.

The cells that made syncytin were located only where the placenta made contact with the uterus. They fuse together to create a single cellular layer, called the syncytiotrophoblast, which is essential to a fetus for drawing nutrients from its mother. The scientists discovered that in order to fuse together, the cells must first make syncytin.

What made syncytin peculiar was that it was not a human gene. It bore all the hallmarks of a gene from a virus.

Viruses have insinuated themselves into the genome of our ancestors for hundreds of millions of years. They typically have gotten there by infecting eggs or sperm, inserting their own DNA into ours. There are 100,000 known fragments of viruses in the human genome, making up over 8% of our DNA. Most of this virus DNA has been hit by so many mutations that it’s nothing but baggage our species carries along from one generation to the next. Yet there are some viral genes that still make proteins in our bodies. Syncytin appeared to be a hugely important one to our own biology. Originally, syncytin allowed viruses to fuse host cells together so they could spread from one cell to another. Now the protein allowed babies to fuse to their mothers.

It turned out that syncytin was not unique to humans. Chimpanzees had the same virus gene at the same spot in their genome. So did gorillas. So did monkeys. What’s more, the gene was strikingly similar from one species to the next. The best way to explain this pattern was that the virus that gave us syncytin infected a common ancestor of primates, and it carried out an important function that has been favored ever since by natural selection. Later, the French virologist Thierry Heidmann and his colleagues discovereda second version of syncytin in humans and other primates, and dubbed them syncytin 1 and syncytin 2. Both virus proteins seemed to be important to our well-being. In pre-eclampsia, which gives pregnant women dangerously high blood pressure, levels of both syncytin 1 and syncytin 2drop dramatically. Syncytin 2 also performs another viral trick to help its human master: it helps tamp down the mother’s immune system so she doesn’t attack her baby as a hunk of foreign tissue.

In 2005, Heidmann and his colleagues realized that syncytins were not just for primates. While surveying the mouse genome, they discovered two syncytin genes (these known as A and B), which were also produced in the same part of the placenta. This discovery allowed the scientists to test once and for all how important syncytin was to mammals. They shut down the syncytin A gene in mouse embryos and discovered they died after about 11 days because they couldn’t form their syncytiotrophoblast. So clearly this virus mattered enormously to its permanent host.

Despite their name, however, the primate and mouse syncytins didn’t have a common history. Syncytin 1 and 2 come from entirely different viruses than syncytin A and B. And the syncytin story got even more intricate in 2009, when Heidmann discovered yet another syncytin gene–from an entirely different virus–in rabbits. While they found this additional syncytin (known as syncytin-Ory1) in a couple different species of rabbits, they couldn’t find it in the close relative of rabbits, the pika. So their own placenta-helping virus must have infected the ancestors of rabbits less than 30 million years ago.


Now Heidmann has found yet another virus lurking in the ancient history of mammals.This one is in dogs and cats–along with pandas and hyenas and all the other mammals that belong to the so-called carnivoran branch of the mammal tree. In every carnivoran they’ve looked at, they find the same syncytin gene, which they named syncytin-Car1. In every species it is strikingly similar, suggesting that it’s experienced strong natural selection for an important function for millions of years. But it’s missing from the closest living relative of carnivorans, the pangolins. The diagram here, from the authors, shows how they see this evolution having unfolded. After the ancestors of carnivorans split from other mammals 85 million years ago, they got infected with a virus which eventually came to be essential for their placenta.

The big picture that’s now emerging is quite amazing. Viruses have rained down on mammals, and on at least six occasions, they’ve gotten snagged in their hosts and started carrying out the same function: building placentas. The complete story will have to wait until scientists have searched every placental mammal for syncytins from viruses. But in the meantime there is something interesting to consider. Some mammals that scientists have yet to investigate, such as pigs and horses, don’t have the open layer of cells in their placenta like we do. Scientists have come up with all sorts of explanations for why that may be, mainly by looking for differences in the biology of each kind of mammals. But the answer may be simpler: the ancestors of pigs and horses might never have gotten sick with the right virus.