Last week, Newsweek sported a cover story to do with “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” I wanted to like this story. As a libertarian, I am appalled that the State feels that one of its proper duties is to sanction and encourage one type of partnership among consenting adults while obstructing others strictly because of a moral objection. (“Gay marriage is icky!!”) And as a non-believer, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” does nothing to convince me that its utterers are capable of spelling, let alone, explaining their statement.
But anyone wanting to convince the unconvinced that the Bible does not frown on homosexuality will face a problem; the Bible DOES frown on homosexuality… in several difference passages. [http://www.carm.org/questions/homosexuality.htm] This tiny fact makes the read very awkward: like someone trying to convince me that the “Eat Whatever You Want” diet works, I want to agree with it, but my brain won’t let me.
The author’s case can be summed up like this: while the Bible may seem to condemn homosexual marriage, it should not be taken literally. It’s anti-homosexual message owes more towards the customs of the PEOPLE that wrote it, than any real truth. To use the author’s own words: “A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it's impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours.”
To an atheist like myself, such a tact was predictable. In fact, I remember thinking to myself before reading the article that I hope the author would not pull the old, “The Bible doesn’t mean what it says,” line. Well, she did. What about the Apostle Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality as an “abomination?” it is “is really a critique of the worst kind of wickedness: self-delusion, violence, promiscuity and debauchery” and not homosexuality (as it says). What of the Book of Common Prayer’s mention of marriage as between “the man and the woman?” “Common practices change.”
The author "bolsters" her case by pointing out that in the Bible, "the concept of family is fundamental, but examples of what social conservatives would call "the traditional family" are scarcely to be found." True enough! Polygamy was all over the Old Testament. Jesus was (despite rough speculation to the contrary) willfully non-married. And beyond that, "[t]he Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric. It recommends the death penalty for adulterers (and in Leviticus, for men who have sex with men, for that matter). It provides conceptual shelter for anti-Semites. A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. " Thus, anyone who argues that scripture condems homosexuality are taking the Bible at its word, and (as evidenced by the above moral missteps in the Bible) doing that would be taking a human-produced document as Divine Law.
Now, I am not fan of the Biblical literalist Ken Ham, but I remember something he said once that might help us here. On the PBS series " Evolution, Ham was asked why he fights so hard to prove the Creation story of the Bible contra evolution and modern physics. His answer: if the Bible gets it wrong on the origin of the universe, species, and humans, then is there any reason to believe that it gets it right about morality? (Of course, Ham and I have VERY different answers to this rhetorical question!)
His point is my point in reverse: if we believe our Newseek author, the Bible got it wrong about slavery, punishment for adultery, and homosexuality. Is there ANY reason, then, to suppose that the Bible got it right about any other moral pronouncements, let alone metaphysical statements? (If so, it must be explained how we know what sections are correct when we know that other sections are wrong.)
So, if the author is correct and the Bible is a human-made document created by human minds to give voice to their version of how things should morally be, then why should I not just get my morals from Aesop's Fables? By telling us that the Bible's moral proclomations are made by humans, rather than God, then why do we have any reason to suppose that it is correct in any moral capacity?
All of this is deeply strange because we constantly hear people claiming that the Bible is a moral guide and/or authority. When pastors give sermons that wax about the teachings of Jesus, we are told that Jesus - the authority - is telling us how we should live (rather than that a guy who lived many thousands of years ago is offering his debatable opinions). The author herself suggests that, "We cannot look to the Bible as a marriage manual, but we can read it for universal truths as we struggle toward a more just future." Read: while we should realize that the Bible has gotten quite a few ethical proclomations dead-nuts wrong, we need to realize that the Bible has much to offer us in moral wisdom. But, how can we say that the Bible gets a lot wrong ethically while claiming that the Bible can lead us towards "univeral truths" in ethics? The author does not say.
I have an idea on that, though. I believe that the very fact that we can say, "The Bible got it wrong here," MEANS that our sense of morality is indepenent of what is said in the Bible. The author is correct in suggesting that "we struggle towards a more just future," but is wrong to suggst that we do, or should, read the Bible in our quest. Instead of reading the Bible to help us progress morally, what we more likely do is progress morally and then read the Bible and cherry-pick those quotes that can "justify" our new moral positions. (A great instance of this is that during the Civil War, both the abolitionists and the pro-slavery forces quoted the Bible and held that theirs was the Biblically-endorsed position. In reality, no one got their moral views on slavery from the Bible; rather, they only used the Bible to justify their already-held opinions.)
Lastly, the author points out that Jesus's overriding message was that of acceptance and inclusion. "The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage."
I think this is simplistic. While it is commonplace today to suggest that Jesus's love is unconditional, it does not take much to see through this. Jesus's love WAS conditional; conditional on acceptance of him as the son of God. And I have heard many a anti-homosexual Christian argue, Jesus may be accepting towards those who love him, but one could not be gay and love Jesus at the same time (as these folks believe that loving Jesus means repenting for sin, and repenting for sin means renouncing one's gayness). I disagree with these folks passionately, but it is hard to see the flaw in their logic.
To close, it seems to me that the Newsweek author is pushing the same "pick and choose" Christianity that most Christians today practice. (It would be awfully hard not to, considering the idiocy of the alternative of literalism). The problem is that she will not do much convincing with this,. Biblical literalists have heard the "Bible is a document written by fallible humans" before, and they don't seem to be buying it. The only people, then, who will be receptive to her arguments are those who are likely ALREADY non-literalists who do not need convincing.