Mars Hill Forum #120 at Brown Unuversity: “Religion and Queer Sexuality” – Original Blog

John C. Rankin (March 17, 2009)

There I was, November 15, 2006, in a forum at Brown University, where the other four panelists and the moderator were supportive of homosexuality. This five-to-one ratio is still far more modest than what the apostle Paul faced on Mars Hill in Acts 17. There, when by himself, he was called at a moment’s notice to address perhaps hundreds of Stoic, Epicurean and Cynic philosophers.

Like my panel discussion on evolution and intelligent design with three Darwinian evolutionists at Columbia University in February, 2006 it is always enjoyable to be outnumbered. I am able to learn from more perspectives simultaneously, and seek to speak with clarity the Good News of Jesus. There were 100 or more students in attendance.

The panel discussion was titled “Religion and Queer Sexuality,” and sponsored by The Queer Community Committee at Brown.

As I sat at the table, to my far right was the 1) moderator, the Rev. Janet Cooper-Nelson, the university chaplain. She led off the evening graciously with a question on how each of us would welcome “a stranger” who seeks us out as to “the likelihood of [our] tradition” sharing “their identity as a gay man/lesbian woman.” This question is consistent with what I have seen over the past twenty-five years in mainline Protestant churches that syncretize their faith, that is, to mix it with non-biblical beliefs and arguing that biblical belief is still being honored.

Instead of speaking about what the Bible says, the focus on experience is primarily in view, and strategically such a question puts the onus on someone like myself to show that I am not being unwelcoming to “queer persons.” Homosexual persons use the term “queer” to indicate how the rest of the world has traditionally treated them as “strange” or “strangers,” and now they have adopted the term in a sense of resistance.

Such a question is fine, for a biblical love of hard questions is glad to address any question as posed. In the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Christian faith, we put our trust in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience — in that order. The Bible is the revealed Word of God, and by it we judge what church tradition is faithful to it and what is not, then on a biblical basis we excel at the most rigorous of intellectual inquiry, and thus we embrace a robust experience of God’s love. In fact, as the Shorter Westminster Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” But in service to homosexuality, the Wesleyan quadrilateral is reversed, with experience being ultimately placed over the Bible, church tradition and reason.

Sitting next to her was the very affable 2) Swami Yogatmananda of the Vedanta Society in Providence, RI. He gave a classic Hindu presentation of dualism, where the goal is to freed of the body and its desires. This is in sharp contrast to the biblical worldview where the body is good and designed to live forever. He stated that the core Hindu scriptures say nothing about homosexuality, and that only that the secondary ones do. He did not specify what he meant here, but then he said that sexuality depends on circumstances, essentially giving a permissive view toward homosexual identity and actions, saying: “Each soul is potentially divine regardless of sexual orientation.”

Sitting next to him, and next to me, was a pleasant young woman 3) Emily Mathis, a Jewish “queer” rabbinical student. While alluding to the text of the Hebrew Scriptures, and while making mention of “limiting, exclusive texts” relative to “queer” people, she then moved on to say that modern Jewish midrash allows the addition of new stories which can be more inclusive of homosexual persons.

Then 3) I spoke of my evangelical identity, having been raised an agnostic Unitarian until my conversion to Christ in 1967. I started with how I and my own church welcome any person who seeks Jesus on his terms, for as Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). All persons struggling with any range of temptations, including homosexuality, are welcome as they do. But the question is whether we come to Jesus on his terms in these struggles, or whether we come to his church and seek to change its reliance on the Bible.

Jesus fulfills the biblical order of creation that defines human sexuality uniquely for man and woman in marriage, and he fulfills the Law of Moses that says no to homosexual acts. I then outlined how I seek to treat all people according to the six pillars of biblical power — the power to give, the power to live in the light, the power of informed choice, the power to love hard questions, the power to love enemies and the power to forgive. I was happily surprised by the robustness of applause when I was done.

To my left was a young man 4) Rusmir Music, a Bosnian “queer” Muslim. He started by calling my presentation “eloquent,” again a pleasant surprise. He was raised a secular Muslim, but says that in coming to terms with his homosexuality, he found comfort in Allah and the Qur’an, and looked to find whatever he could within the Islamic tradition that would welcome him. He said that the historic inhospitality of Islam toward homosexuals was a result of, or some sort of a reaction to Western Colonialism and its Victorian sexual morality.

Finally, to my far left was 5) the Rev. Lynne Phipps with the United Church of Christ (UCC). Rev. Phipps started by calling herself a liberal Christian who was also evangelical, and said that not all evangelicals are conservative — an allusion to me. But I never called myself “conservative,” and never have. “Liberal” and “conservative” are self-described terms in religion and politics, and they both have positive elements — let’s conserve what is good and be liberal, that is, generous to all people in our persons and with our resources. But these terms too easily get swallowed up since they are penultimate (“next to the ultimate” or temporal as opposed to eternal). Thus, I always speak of myself as being biblical, and if I am pressed to assign to myself a political identity, I will say that I am a “pro-life libertarian,” for I can defend that biblically.

Rev. Phipps argued for the acceptance of homosexuality in God’s sight, against the polarity of calling things “good and bad,” that the seeking of the good has nothing to do with sexuality, and that “some of us are uncomfortable because we are not queer.” This final statement was, in my view, an attempt to make homosexuality something that heterosexuals might consider for themselves, given their putative discomfit with not being “queer.”

Jesus calls us to be in the world but not of it (e.g., John 17:15-19). And there I was, with a professing “queer” Jewish rabbinic student to my right, and a professing “queer” Bosnian Muslim to my left. And it was a joy to respect them as image-bearers of God, and treat them accordingly with the positive presentation of the Good News.

During the brief question and answer period, an Egyptian Muslim asked why the panel was so imbalanced — in that only one panelist (me) reflected his view on the subject. Then a woman asked a question as to how some panelists face “the danger in new interpretations leading us away from God.” This is the reality. When the biblical text is reshaped in our own human and sinful image, this is known as “deconstructionism” (Foucault and Derrida), or a “hermeneutics [interpretation method] of suspicion” (Schussler-Fiorenza and Trible).

The danger is great. The same woman asked if there was a danger in the position (referring to me) that if we think truth is settled, there is the risk of losing new truth. Part of the love of hard questions and reliance on the Holy Spirit allows us the confidence to always listen to any ideas, but we also have a tested standard by which to discern the truth. Indeed, the very ethos of the Mars Hill Forum series is an antidote to such potential error, as we go out of our way to offer a level playing field for all ideas to be heard equally.

The Rev. Cooper-Nelson then concluded by asking each of us if we can look backward historically in our own tradition, and see where it needs change. Again, I have often seen similar questions posed in a “deconstructionist” manner — assuming that the past needs to be dissembled and rebuilt. Such questions are rooted in a “hermeneutics of suspicion” of the Bible on its own terms, believing it has to be rewritten in a pro-feminist and pro-homosexual sense. Now there is much in the church’s history that needs to be redeemed, for there has been much grave error. But I root myself in the biblical order of creation, which is entirely good, to then know the diagnosis of sin, and the original trajectory of goodness to which Jesus restores us who believe in him as Lord and Savior.

Thus, it was a most enjoyable evening, a great learning experience, and I was able to speak in depth with two bi-sexual men afterwards, and a good number of Christians in the Campus Hill for Christ fellowship. The goal as always is to let the light shine, to allow the proactive of the Good News be our identity, not the reactive fears of wounded souls.