UPDATE: The post has been updated for clarity and to reflect an evolving understanding of my LBGT brothers and sisters.
Recently, I was taken to task about the morality of
homosexuality gay individuals having intimate relations with their beloved and how the Bible “clearly” teaches such is a sin. Frankly, I never really believed that and having other priorities chose not to bother examining the issue other than cataloguing some verses. Other things are were important to me in my faith journey. But given all the proud bigotry I’m seeing, surrounding so-called “gay marriage” and the civil rights of LGBT persons, I decided to give it a look see.
What the Word Is Not: A Golden Calf
As a Catholic, I come from a faith tradition that recognizes human tradition (sometimes to a fault) in the organic relationship it has with reading the Word of God in the Bible. Proper interpretation is known by its adherence to apostolic tradition, that is the tradition of understanding God as Jesus’ apostles do. My Protestant brethren do not necessarily see this very well much less agree. I have heard them (mis)quote Jesus, as he quoted the prophet Isaiah in Matthew 15:9 or Mark 7:7, in criticism of my church: “In vain do they worship [God], teaching as doctrines human precepts.” (Of course, they neglect to read the previous two verses which speak of hypocrites who don’t love God and who only give lip service to him, but that’s another story.) For my Protestant brethren, it’s the Word and only the Word and the Word says so! 🙂
There isn’t a problem with Sola Scriptura per se. If that’s how you roll, so be it. Who am I to judge? But often in my experience I see my brothers and sisters conflating the Word with their interpretations of the Bible and then ignoring this fact, compounding that error. What you hear is, “I believe in the Bible” or equivalently “I believe in the Word.” At that point they have forged a golden calf, an idol. Belief becomes bibliolatry. Why? Because the simple act of reading the Bible is a human act subject to our imperfect, flawed, limited nature. Say what you will about the Bible. We can only understand what we read. Thus I am deeply skeptical of anyone who claims to speak with God’s voice with any certainty. I am not speaking here of confessing one’s faith only problematic utterances that omit implicitly or explicitly the important caveat: “This I believe.”
It takes discipline to give more than lip service to the notion that the Word is beyond our understanding. When using our eyes, we have but a dim view of God in the Bible. We see through a mirror darkly. It’s hard work to believe in something ardently and yet remain open to change. We instead want the quick fix, the emotional comfort provided by certainty through blind faith. I am not immune to this. No one is. For example, when we read the author of 2 Timothy writing in St. Paul’s name:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
we can get lazy (or worse through ignorance) and read into the verse that “scripture” is of course the Christian Bible. But historical context is important, else we make important mistakes. What is not often taught outside of seminary is that, at the time 2 Timothy was written, scripture consisted only of what Christian’s call the Old Testament, the Septuagint version as a matter of fact! The Gospels had not been written yet, but were little more than disjointed oral stories and traditions about Jesus. None of the non-Pauline epistles and certainly not the Book of Revelation were written. This verse is often used to make the classic appeal that the whole Bible, New Testament and Old, refers to itself as the Word of God with no realization that in context, that verse says no such thing. If you ask the average Christian about this, they probably have no idea. Theologians do. Catholic priests do. Seminarians do. But rarely do the folks in the pew know this. It’s problems like this that make talking about the Bible and its contents with my fellow Christians so difficult. And this is just one tradition that goes unnoticed, invisible.
If I bring stuff like this up, I’m often met with all kinds of resistance, anger, name calling, etc. My faith is questioned. My love of Jesus is called into doubt. My allegiance to Satan is implied. Yet, all I’ve done is read the Bible as it is, writings in the context in which they were written, to understand the author God inspired in his time and place. People are invested in their traditions, they are loathe to give them up. And that is a very human thing. Again, I am not immune to this. So I understand that it’s much easier to malign me or claim I’m in the thrall of all manner of delusions than to admit one’s cherished beliefs might be mistaken.
I say all this to say that things are not nearly as ironclad as is often asserted in the Bible. God and his Word always seem to elude being boxed in by us.
What the Word Is: God’s Biography
So what the hell is the Bible? The Bible is to quote my Church, “the Word of God written in the words of men.” It’s one of the central ways of getting to know God in the intimate, personal way Jesus said. A way that connoted the deep intimacy of sexual intercourse. So, I cherish my Bibles, all of them. They are sacred and holy. Not in some magical or superstitious way but in holiness, that is “set apart.”
And the Word is written in the words of men who were full human beings limited in time and space with personal beliefs, biases and understandings that are evident in the text. That’s why the sky is a dome and the earth flat in Genesis. This was the “scientific” understanding of its authors.
When I go to Bible study, I have these facts in mind. I’m looking for God to teach and correct but with the clear-eyed view that the Word of God is necessarily by their nature distorted by the words in the text and by me. Just as any biography can only scratch the surface of a person’s life, who they are/were, just as no words could ever fully describe my love for my wife and
son children, words are symbols that always fall short of reality. And most importantly, symbols are not the reality. This does not mean that symbols are unimportant. It could be just the opposite. Consider my Christian brothers and sisters: we are one with Christ and as his body/ We represent him in this world, yet we are not Christ. So too is the Bible and the Word. There is deep intimate connection, but not identity. So I am very, very careful to separate the timeless from the time bound, the transcendent from the mundane, and frankly, the good from bad. Anything else is magic, the very stuff of idolatry.
Homosexuality: “Clearly” a Sin
So let’s get back to “the gays.” I want to be illustrative rather than exhaustive here for the sake of brevity, however my main point can be easily applied to other parts of the Bible. And the point is this: when people claim that the Bible “clearly says” something, on further inspection it turns out to be not so clear. Room for interpretation, sometimes lots of room, abounds.
First let me quote from the Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 6:9 in New Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition:
Do you know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers–none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
and the official version, the New American Bible:
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
(I love the word choice “practicing homosexuals” vs. sodomites. My church is PC. LOL!) Sounds cut and dry doesn’t it? I mean a sodomite is a sodomite is a sodomite. God said it. I read it. That does it! Right? But remember context. This was a letter written in the Roman empire where man-on-man sex was deeply taboo because the patriarchal Romans couldn’t stomach a man penetrating another. Men should penetrate lesser forms of human being, i.e. women and boys, since the penetrator is considered dominant. Further, this fact is implicit in the footnotes for this verse in the New American Bible:
1Co 6:9(b) The Greek word translated as boy prostitutes may refer to catamites, i.e. boys or young men who were kept for purposes of prostitution, a practice not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world. In Greek mythology this was the function of Ganymede, the “cupbearer of the gods,” whose Latin name was Catamitus. The term translated sodomites [This was rendered “practicing homosexuals” in the updated text but apparently the footnote was missed in my edition.] refers to adult males who indulged in homosexual practices with such boys. See similar condemnations of such practices in Romans 1:26-27; 1 Tim 1:10. [emphasis mine]
So we have important qualifying information about the biblical text. Paul is literally saying that NAMBLA-esque pagan gay temple sex and those who engage in it are wrong and will not be part of God’s kingdom. It is we today who interpret and expand that to include two men in a domestic partnership raising a family and seeking the legal and civil rights of marriage.
The Bible Reports: You Decide
And that is why I stand up for my LBGT brothers and sisters. I believe such interpretation is wrong not because of bad exegesis (
frankly it’s not) but because of the bigotry and hatred it engenders and gives joy to. My Master teaches, “You shall know a tree by it’s fruit.” The fruit ain’t good. Because God is love and marriage is a public expression of love, to quote this or that verse to malign such love not merely sex between LGBT persons is proof enough for me that the interpretation is problematic at best, evil at worst. We are supplanting our bigotry for the Word. Not good. Not good at all.